Programming as Controlling Mindless Zombies
The question that bothers many developers and, maybe, even people in related topics is "What is Programming?"
Indeed, many of us do it every day (more seasoned ones taking a break on weekends), but who really bothered himself with a philosophy of what he's doing? Since I'm fond of making up my own philosophy, I'll try to pore upon the subject in several blog posts. In this one I'd address one side of it, and you, having read the title, already know which.
Computer programming is indeed controlling a horde of mindless zombies. Let's check definition of a zombie on wikipedia:
A zombie is a creature that appears in books and popular culture typically as a reanimated dead or a mindless human being. Stories of zombies originated in the Afro-Caribbean spiritual belief system of Vodou, which told of the people being controlled as laborers by a powerful wizard
First of all, computers are dumb. They really are. Just compare the time you need to devise an idea, to think it out with the time you have to spend to explain it to a computer. To a machine that understands only ugly, primitive texts that do not make sense to any human, unless he's a programmer. How many times did you scold your computer for being not as smart as you? For not understanding that here he shouldn't do this, because it's obvious that he should do that instead?
Recently I had been writing an OCaml program. OCaml is a very smart language that can infer the types of identifiers by looking at operations applied to them. That's right, he's smart--as long as things go the way he used to perceiving. But as soon as you write "separate the list to a list concatenated with an element" instead of "separate the list to an element concatenated with a list", he becomes unbelievably dumb. If it was a russian bureaucrat, I would even think he's doing it on purpose to extort a bribe...
So, the computers are totally incapable of doing anything not told to them explicitly. That's quite a good definition of being mindless.
But these mindless machines happen to do some useful work. And the complexity of this work, usually inhandleable by any human, sometimes gives a false sense that these machines possesses intellect. But that's not intellect of their own. The intellect within a binary is that of the programmer who coded it, of the tester who checked that the dumb machine doesn't crush all around, of the manager who gathered them, and of millions of people who invested their mindpower into compilers and interpreters--the things that make one mindless machine teach another. I can't help quoting the famous Conway's law:
organizations which design systems ... are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations
(quoting via Wikipedia). This law is a direct consequence of the fact that computers are dumb, and it's we, the humans, the organizations, that inculcate our own properties to them.
So the result of computer programming is a horde of creatures that carry the will of their masters. Well, sometimes not exactly what the masters meant, thus you see strange error messages here and there, where you really don't expect them. That's because the creatures are so dumb, that a separate programming engineering discipline is devoted to "talking to zombies" (it's also known as "coding"), and the discipline is not practiced well enough by some developers.
And the last thing that concludes the post. While it's always hard to instruct a zombie, it's sometimes also hard to make an already instructed zombie to fulfill your needs as user's. Therefore, users are sometimes required to posses the thing these creatures do not have: brains...
Mindless creatures that look for brains? That just can't sound more zomby! And it's precisely what we deal with while programming.
Author Paul Shved
Modified November 30, 2009
License CC BY-SA 3.0