作者: 网络工程  发布:2019-09-06


Is software programming going to become a necessary skill for everyone in the future, like reading and writing? Will programming become mainstream?

图片 1Brian Kernighan

The human-computer symbiosis


We could still define computer as a tool, an extension of our body and mind, but it is a tool that makes its way into every aspect of our lives. We spent increasingly more waking hours interacting with them than with our peers. Imagine some aliens visiting earth, if they cannot comprehend the difference between life and machine, they may very well believe humans are slaves of computers, and for good reasons.

Programming complexity (or software complexity) is a term that encompasses numerous properties of a piece of software, all of which affect internal interactions. According to several commentators, there is a distinction between the terms complex and complicated. Complicated implies being difficult to understand but with time and effort, ultimately knowable. Complex, on the other hand, describes the interactions between a number of entities. As the number of entities increases, the number of interactions between them would increase exponentially, and it would get to a point where it would be impossible to know and understand all of them. Similarly, higher levels of complexity in software increase the risk of unintentionally interfering with interactions and so increases the chance of introducing defects when making changes.

So I would call it a human-computer symbiosis. To be an effective person in this society, you have to understand how to communicate with computers as well as other human beings. In this sense, the ability to use computers is as important as talking, reading and writing.


But right now, most of communication with computers is one-way: people get information from these devices. People do write, draw and make stuff on computers, but in these cases, the intended audience is other human beings. Most people just don't talk directly to their computers, other than simple mouse clicks and taps on a touchscreen.

The idea of linking software complexity to the maintainability of the software has been explored extensively by Professor Manny Lehman, who developed his Laws of Software Evolution from his research. He and his co-Author Les Belady explored numerous possible Software Metrics in their oft cited book,[1]that could be used to measure the state of the software, eventually reaching the conclusion that the only practical solution would be to use one that uses deterministic complexity models.

But there is a group of people who do just that for a living: programmers. They talk to computers every day, sending commands and directions to them, asking them to finish certain tasks. And they wrap these commands into packages called software and distribute them to others, so everyone could use these to effectively talk to computers. Programmers are like translators between human and computer.

软件复杂度最初是在Manny Lehman教授的软件演进法规中提议的,他还提议了过多沿用至今的衡量软件的指标。

To live comfortably in a foreign country, you cannot rely on a translator, you need to learn the local language. Similarly, if you can write programs, when you need computer to perform a specific task, and no single piece of available software can fulfill your need, you can write it yourself.


So, theoretically, everyone should learn how to write computer programs. But the real world is never that simple.

图片 2Lehman's Law

Citizen Programmer


There are schools of thoughts on whether we should consider programming as a necessary skill for average citizen. I believe it will become more of a necessity over time.

In his 1980 article,[1]Lehman qualified the application of such laws by distinguishing between three categories of software:An S-program is written according to an exact specification of what that program can doA P-program is written to implement certain procedures that completely determine what the program can do (the example mentioned is a program to play chess)An E-program is written to perform some real-world activity; how it should behave is strongly linked to the environment in which it runs, and such a program needs to adapt to varying requirements and circumstances in that environmentThe laws are said to apply only to the last category of systems.

Today most people don't have a problem using software written by other people (and for free). The exisitng software seems to give them everything they need, and some more. There are surely some pain points, but mostly people just accept the status quo, or expect professionals (programmers) to solve the problems for them. They don't have a strong urge to get involved in the mysterious business of programming. Software business works because the products capture this most common need of users [6]. But as computing seeps into every aspect of human lives, people start to have very customized requirements that exisitng software just fail to satisfy. In business world, requirements of customization for a particular company keep software consulting alive, but this will increasingly happen on a personal level as well. Yet it is hard to imagine people hiring programmers to write software just for her alone. Instead, the more logical prediction is that she will learn to write programs. Programming is currently a professional skill, but it doesn't have to stay that way. I think personalized software requirements (the long tail) will drive people to start writing code, especially when they find out programming is not that hard, and getting eaiser [7].


The storm is coming


And there is another driving force. Software is eating the world. More and more human endeavers are being replaced by software. Software, an invisible force, looks everywhere for jobs that can be defined with fixed rules and processes, and do those jobs more efficiently and cost-effectively with code. People's jobs will be replaced by computers. And once that happens on a large scale, people will realize that the best strategy is not to fight this force, but to cooperate with it. In other words, people will start writing code to automate their own jobs. I thinks this is already happening in U.S, codeacademy, a website teaching average people how to write programs, got 1 million users in


  1. It's a signal that people smells the storm coming and get prepared.


It’s no wonder so many people are buying into learn-to-code campaigns. The technology industry is where the jobs are.


Besides, there is just more data generated every second, thus more software is needed to make sense of those data. Up to now, most data we see are generated by human beings (text, numbers, images, etc). From the computers' perspective, human beings are very low-bandwidth input devices. But now computers are generating oceans of data from sensors on mobile and various embeded devices. There will be overwhelming amounts of data for us to process, and we cannot do it without the help of software.


Keep it simple, stupid


On the other hand, programming is getting easier. Writing programs used to be very hard, a skill that some high IQ folks take extensive training to master. It used to look more like rocket science than like writing essays. Now it's different. The evolution of programming languages, and the open source movement enable most people to get engaged in this game with very little effort.


If there is one rule of natural selection in software world, I think it is simplicity. If you look at the evolution of programming languages, you can see the pattern: In assembly, you have to understand the concept of registers; In C, registers are gone, but you have to manage memory and deal with pointers, which remind you that you are still operating a machine; then garbage collection comes around in Java, and pointers are abstracted away (objects, references); with scripting languages like python, programs are literally very close to natural languages [1]. There were some missteps where stuff get complicated, like classical inheritance, COM, C++ templates and design patterns [2]. But these complexities generally become irrelevant over time, because they add friction to coding. That's why Javascript wins in the end as a ubiquitous language. Not only because it is the de facto standard in web browsers, but also because it is very, very simple: it gets rid of the class hierachy/inheritance nonsense, which is constant headache for programmers. And I believe programming languages and tools will continue to evolve. It can become more tolerant of ambiguity; or may take diagrams instead of text as input; there are a lot of ways to make it easier to learn. IFTTT is taking a very promising direction here.


The other reason programming gets easier is, the human kind has amassed a lot of working code over the years [3]. Thanks to open source movement, these code are available for everyone. For a lot of projects today, programming is more about integration than about writing original code. Sometimes you just need to duct-tape and wire existing pieces together to make a new piece. Actually,duct-tape programmerstend to be great programmers, too.


LightTable [8] is a very promising IDE that makes coding much more visual and interactive. It strikes me that the developer of LightTable gets inspriation from Bret Victor's talk Inventing on Principle [9], which rocked my world when I first watched it, and prompted me to think in the same direction. Sometimes it feels strange that our programming tools look so primitive [10], while software created with them are so advanced. It's like making a space ship with hammers and axes. Now things are starting to look better, and LightTable is just going to be a start. Equipped with these tools, programmers don't need to maintain the mental model while coding [11], and this alone will probably be the tipping point where programming becomes mainstream.

Be there or be square

So we can say the computer is moving towards human beings by making itself more approachable - with a simpler programming interface. But I won't bet it can go all the way, namely, to understand natural languages, at least for now [4]. Instead of waiting for AI to happen miraculously some day, I think human kind will move towards computers by learning to write code, especially when they have a compelling urge to do so, and will meet the computer at some sweet spot where the best human-computer symbiosis can be achieved.

References [5]:








Just read a blog named 'to code or not to code':http://blog.alicialiu.net/post/23137460703/to-code-or-not-to-code

[1] - They even take away the curly braces just to make it resemble English.

[2] - I think the hackers invent these convoluted mechanisms for two reasons:

To challenge themselves, and feel intellectually superior. It does make one feel good about himself to make a simple thing complex; hackers keep re-inventing the wheels (NIH syndrome) for the same reason. They even celebrate writing the most obscure code:http://ioccc.org/. Mastering a cryptic language that few could understand is cool for some people.

To scare others away from entering this field. Complexity in programming may not be a bug, but rather a feature. Programmers may subconciously raise the entry barrier to their trade by making it complicated (or seemingly complicated), because they understand how powerful it is to be able to speak the computers' language, and at a gut level, hope to keep the privileges to themselves, and maybe even to guarantee a monoply (think Google - what would happen if a lot of people know how to index the web?) Theological education was once very complex, because it was a superpower to be God's proxy, and the Church had every intention to keep the bar high and dissuade most people from doing it. Maybe history is just repeating itself - Computer is the new God.

A few relevant links:http://www.quora.com/Design-Patterns/Why-do-programmers-talk-less-about-design-patterns-now

[3] - Very valuable treature for human kind. In some sence, Github is like Federal reserve bank.

[4] - Siri is still just a moron, with less intelligence than any 5-year old.

[5] - The first 2 interviews are about Github and Codeacademy. They both claim programming will become more mainstream. You can say they have ulterior motives in preaching this idea, because they can profit if more people start to write programs. But I don't see any bias in their arguments:

When human beings acquired language, we learned not just how to listen but how to speak. When we gained literacy, we learned not just how to read but how to write. And as we move into an increasingly digital reality, we must learn not just how to use programs but how to make them. In the emerging, highly programmed landscape ahead, you will either create the software or you will be the software. It's really that simple: Program, or be programmed.

[6] - Y Combinator's motto is "make something people want". I would go further to say "make something that captures a large common subset of what people want." People want different things, but there is a largest common denominator: Facebook - socialize, Google - find stuff. If you target everyone, the LCD is small, and competition is fiece; but you could target a certain group of people (niche market, vertical fields) where the LCD is large, and go deeper, as long as the market is large enough to justify your effort.

[7] - Treehouse CEO said CS degree is just a rip off. I believe he said that just to demystify programming, and formal CS training does have its value. On the other hand, people don't need to be a top hacker to write useful software, just like you don't need to be Ernest Hemingway to write some emails. Programming has so many levels, and the democratization of programming means more people will be happy writing code close to the surface.

[8] -http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/ibdknox/light-table

[9] -http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XMzUyOTI4MDI4.html

[10] - Basically, it is just a dumb text editor waiting for your input. When you are typing in code, it does very little (auto complete, etc), when it can do much more meaningful things, like running code that has been written in real time and show you intermediate result, or visualize the control flow and data structures.