Program writing on the wall?

For most of the past 4 millennia, writing (inscribing linguistic and related signs on a visible, semi-durable surface) has been an elite skill. Mass literacy only emerged in the 19th century in Europe, and is still on the global agenda of development organizations. You have to learn to write, and that takes time and resources. And ceteris paribus, some writing systems must be cognitively “easier/quicker” to learn than others.

In the past, scholars, monks and writing masters jealously preserved their magical writing skills, especially in cultures such as Sumer and Egypt, where the writing system was highly complex and required a lengthy education. You still find a specialist caste of public writers armed with typewriters lined up outside post offices in countries where illiteracy is common.

Writing computer programs is also an elite skill, and we depend largely on a caste of trained operators who jealously protect their magical ability to translate complex tasks into software for us. Question is: will programming, like writing, evolve into mass computeracy over the next decade/century/millennium? Will we eventually be able to write our own routines and use the inherent power of the machines themselves to transform task concepts expressed in natural language into executable software routines?

For the beginnings of an affirmative answer, check out this story about researchers at MIT who are experimenting with a program called

Metafor that provides a visualization framework for people to program “stories” using English. The idea is to leverage the expressive power of natural language syntax and a semantics as a programming language. Put crudely, you need a translator that transforms natural language to code. Where we might need help from the global developer community in the long term is in making sure that all natural languages, not just English, can be used to program code. There’s no point in attenuating the hold of one “closed shop” over our practices if all we do is replace it with another – this time linguistic – elite.

Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.

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