In our line of work — well, one of them — we build websites. The website we’re building right now uses HTML, CSS, jQuery, AJAX, PHP, MySQL,
Oh, we’re sorry. Did we lose you?
Back in the old days, you could hack your Commodore 64 without too much trouble. But just try to get a sense of the millions of lines of code controlling a Windows computer, or the Google search engine, or your Android or iPhone. For starters, the user interface and legally enforced sanctity of the code will prevent you from even seeing it. And even if you managed to take a look, the code would be so complex you would struggle to understand it, let alone manipulate it.
For that reason, [a legendary programmer named] _why explained in the “Little Coder’s Predicament” — and over and over again at conferences and panels — too few people were learning to code. The learning curve was too steep. There needed to be a simple, fun, awesome way to draw people in.
That’s Slate’s Annie Lowrey, who decided to pull a George Plimpton and
get her head bashed in by a linebacker learn programming as a journalism project. She chose the Ruby language, because that’s what some of the Big Kids use (those who aren’t using Python), at least for websites — although if she really wanted to do Android or iPhone, she could have chosen Java or Objective-C instead, never mind that Objective-C gives us headaches so we’ve been cheating with Lua, and—
Oh, we’re sorry. Did we lose you again?
Well, to be fair, it helps if you have a four-decade running start.
Our first programming language was BASIC. We learned it in 1974, as part of our high school math class. It was a simple language, with a simple purpose: making the teletypewriter in the math-room closet do cool things. Like printing out naughty words on the punchtape that served as the TTY’s memory. Or automatically typing ersatz Monopoly cards on the yellow rolls of computer paper.
It was simple because that was all you could do. Unless you wanted to learn COBOL or FORTRAN. And trust us, you didn’t.
We were actually pretty good at it, but the older kids frightened the shit out of us — geeks were not cool in 1974 — so we bailed after a year. And, in fact, kept computers at a safe distance for fifteen years, until we got sucked in by a 286. It’s all been downhill since we earned some spare change setting up a dBase III system for a campus office.
First, the Web came along. But HTML was easy enough — it was just like old-school word processors that everybody used. Then people wanted to submit forms, so we had to learn Perl to process them. Then people wanted nice websites, so we had to learn CSS to augment the HTML. Then people wanted complicated websites, so we had to learn PHP and MySQL. Now people want nice, complicated fancy websites, and hello jQuery and AJAX.
We used to joke that our greatest competition was a client’s nephew. We haven’t used that joke in a dozen years. These days, the Forbidding Learning Curve is our friend.
The secret is that all computer languages are alike — they’re all just dialects of Geek. The syntax varies, but the concepts are the same. And if you happened to learn an incredibly simple language when you were fifteen, you have all the conceptual tools you need to learn another language thirty years later. One grok and you’re good for a lifetime.
But it also helps — a lot — if you’ve evolved with the medium. We didn’t have to learn everything at once — everything didn’t exist at once. When all you can do is print naughty words on a punchtape, printing naughty words on a punchtape is very satisfying. But when you’re awash in a world of nice, complicated, fancy websites, and you can barely get your Terminal app to spit out “Hello World”, the thought of playing Angry Birds is going to be much more appealing than programming it.
Professional preservation aside, we don’t know that it’s a bad thing. We lived through the hippie car-repair era, and quickly learned that we’re much happier just driving the damn thing, and let somebody else worry about fixing it. And just like with cars, anyone with a knack for Geek can learn the tools easily and early. Everyone else is free to sit back and enjoy the fruits of our labors.
Including journalists. Unless, like us, you’re a former journalist. But that’s another story.