Citation Needed

Mike Hoye digs deep to attempt to get to the bottom of the 0 or 1 based indexing question. However, the most interesting part of the article is a rant about the relationship between computer programmers and the history of our field:

There are a few points I want to make here.

The first thing is that as far as I can tell nobody has ever actually looked this up.

Whatever programmers think about themselves and these towering logic-engines we’ve erected, we’re a lot more superstitious than we realize. We tell and retell this collection of unsourced, inaccurate stories about the nature of the world without ever doing the research ourselves, and there’s no other word for that but “mythology”. Worse, by obscuring the technical and social conditions that led humans to make these technical and social decisions, by talking about the nature of computing as we find it today as though it’s an inevitable consequence of an immutable set of physical laws, we’re effectively denying any responsibility for how we got here. And worse than that, by refusing to dig into our history and understand the social and technical motivations for those choices, by steadfastly refusing to investigate the difference between a motive and a justification, we’re disavowing any agency we might have over the shape of the future. We just keep mouthing platitudes and pretending the way things are is nobody’s fault, and the more history you learn and the more you look at the sad state of modern computing the the more pathetic and irresponsible that sounds.

Part of the problem is access to the historical record, of course. I was in favor of Open Access publication before, but writing this up has cemented it: if you’re on the outside edge of academia, $20/paper for any research that doesn’t have a business case and a deep-pocketed backer is completely untenable, and speculative or historic research that might require reading dozens of papers to shed some light on longstanding questions is basically impossible. There might have been a time when this was OK and everyone who had access to or cared about computers was already an IEEE/ACM member, but right now the IEEE – both as a knowledge repository and a social network – is a single point of a lot of silent failure. “$20 for a forty-year-old research paper” is functionally indistinguishable from “gone”, and I’m reduced to emailing retirees to ask them what they remember from a lifetime ago because I can’t afford to read the source material.

The second thing is how profoundly resistant to change or growth this field is, and apparently has always been. If you haven’t seen Bret Victor’s talk about The Future Of Programming as seen from 1975 you should, because it’s exactly on point. Over and over again as I’ve dredged through this stuff, I kept finding programming constructs, ideas and approaches we call part of “modern” programming if we attempt them at all, sitting abandoned in 45-year-old demo code for dead languages. And to be clear: that was always a choice. Over and over again tools meant to make it easier for humans to approach big problems are discarded in favor of tools that are easier to teach to computers, and that decision is described as an inevitability.

This isn’t just Worse Is Better, this is “Worse Is All You Get Forever”. How many off-by-one disasters could we have avoided if the “foreach” construct that existed in BCPL had made it into C? How much more insight would all of us have into our code if we’d put the time into making Miguel Chastain’s nearly-omniscient debugging framework – PTRACE_SINGLESTEP_BACKWARDS! – work in 1995? When I found this article by John Backus wondering if we can get away from Von Neumann architecture completely, I wonder where that ambition to rethink our underpinnings went. But the fact of it is that it didn’t go anywhere. Changing how you think is hard and the payoff is uncertain, so by and large we decided not to. Nobody wanted to learn how to play, much less build, Engelbart’s Violin, and instead everyone gets a box of broken kazoos.

In truth maybe somebody tried – maybe even succeeded! – but it would cost me hundreds of dollars to even start looking for an informed guess, so that’s the end of that.

It’s hard for me to believe that the IEEE’s membership isn’t going off a demographic cliff these days as their membership ages, and it must be awful knowing they’ve got decades of delicious, piping-hot research cooked up that nobody is ordering while the world’s coders are lining up to slurp watery gruel out of a Stack-Overflow-shaped trough and pretend they’re well-fed. You might not be surprised to hear that I’ve got a proposal to address both those problems; I’ll let you work out what it might be.