The Promise of the Future Was That You Wouldn't Have to Code

Illustration for article titled The Promise of the Future Was That You iWouldnt/i Have to Code

When I was in middle school there was nothing I wanted more in the entire world than to learn how to program my own computer games. So, armed with Foundations of Mac Programming, I spent weeks chugging along sporadically, doing my best to understand the concepts. Ultimately, I gave up. And I don't regret it one bit.

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Coding was too hard for me, and I wasn't nearly patient enough to focus on the thick text. But I'm not alone in thinking that the everyone needs to learn how to code movement is an absolute sham. In fact, computer geeks have known this hard truth since back when computers were often bigger than sofas, and not knowing how to code meant that you pretty much didn't know how to use one at all.

In 1965 a computer scientist at the RAND Corporation by the name of Willis H. Ware wrote a paper titled, "Future Computer Technology and Its Impact." It's a fascinating document that covers a wide range of predictions for what computers would be capable of in the 1970s and '80s. But what stuck out to me in the paper was that not needing to learn how to program was the promise of the future.

We all know, however, that the computer is more than a piece of hardware; it has to be programmed. Historically computer programming has been expensive and time consuming, but we expect the future to be different. Cheap hardware will enable us to consume vast amounts of computational power to make a machine convenient and attractive to a user. Furthermore, with the current or near future state of computing knowledge, we can frame languages including appropriate symbols and syntax which are completely natural to a novice user and to a user trained in any professional specialty. We can design a tool for a given individual from the ground up; a tool to match his normal training and way of thinking.

For example, most automobile drivers don't bother to understand the details of the engine under the hood, or even how the automatic transmission works — such knowledge wouldn't help them to drive better. Similarly, the computer user of the future will not be able to perceive the inner details of the machine, nor would it help him if he could. Communication with a machine is becoming that easy. The new class of users will no more have to be programmers of the traditional kind than an auto driver has to be a mechanic to handle his car.

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My aversion to coding is not a defense of ignorance. No one should be proud that they don't know a particular skill. People who want to learn how to code should be encouraged (and given the resources) to do so! It just seems to me that this modern tech-world obsession with coding—above any other skill that the modern computer enables—seems to miss the point of modern computing in the first place.

Learning to make butter might be of value to me if that's really what I'd like to do with my life. But I don't need to learn how to churn butter to bake a delicious cake, or to decorate it, or to know how to sell it. Same applies to code.

There are many promises of the future that we're still waiting on, but I'm pretty glad that the human-friendly personal computer was one that panned out.

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Image: 1965 supercomputer from Getty Images, "English Electric's super computer Leo III. This computer is used by the Board of Trade to calculate trade figures, wages and accounts."

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DISCUSSION

I grew up with computers; the first one I programmed had vacuum tubes in it. I slogged through machine language (1st generation language), assembler (2nd generation) and finally into COBOL and FORTRAN (3rd generation). Remember all that Y2K fuss about two-digit dates? Yeah, that was me. We were all waiting for the promised 4th generation languages, where we would just define inputs and outputs, draw a flowchart and done! It didn't happen. Instead, these guys showed up:

Arch nerds who loved the command line the way I loved Heather Locklear. So instead of 4th gen, we got this:

A step backward, kind of 2.5 gen: C, C++, Unix, Linux, the ponytail/beard command line languages; they were the ultimate logic puzzle, and these savants bonded with it. Yes, yes, I know it's powerful and gives you a lot of control over the hardware; it's also incomprehensible. I think another reason C took off was that the compilers came free with Unix so you didn't have to ask your boss for money. And, none of the bosses could understand it, so you never had to explain it. By now we could have been in the 5th generation, where we just tell the computer what we want and it figures out how to do it. There's no hope now; coding should be obsolete — instead it's impossible.