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Thursday, May 21, 2015

How Software Can Change the Way We Think

Toolkits for the Mind

James Somers | April 2, 2015

When the Japanese computer scientist Yukihiro Matsumoto decided to create Ruby, a programming language that has helped build Twitter, Hulu, and much of the modern Web, he was chasing an idea from a 1966 science fiction novel called Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany. At the book’s heart is an invented language of the same name that upgrades the minds of all those who speak it. “Babel-17 is such an exact analytical language, it almost assures you technical mastery of any situation you look at,” the protagonist says at one point. With Ruby, Matsumoto wanted the same thing: to reprogram and improve the way programmers think.
It sounds grandiose, but Matsumoto’s isn’t a fringe view. Software developers as a species tend to be convinced that programming languages have a grip on the mind strong enough to change the way you approach problems—even to change which problems you think to solve. It’s how they size up companies, products, their peers: “What language do you use?”
That can help outsiders understand the software companies that have become so powerful and valuable, and the products and services that infuse our lives. A decision that seems like the most inside kind of inside baseball—whether someone builds a new thing using, say, Ruby or PHP or C—can suddenly affect us all. If you want to know why Facebook looks and works the way it does and what kinds of things it can do for and to us next, you need to know something about PHP, the programming language Mark Zuckerberg built it with.

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