Tower of Babel

Mainframe destruction: the Tower of Babel crumbles under the weight of linguistic confusion.

by Robert de Marrais

Robert de Marrais is a free-lance high-tech writer with a background in the history of science. His hobbies include mathematical topology, metaphysics and the Plough & Stars Bar in Cambridge.

Prior to the emergence of FORTRAN in the 1950s, programmers were forced to converse in either of two equally simple-minded argots: the hodgepodge of 0s and 1s known as machine code or the only slightly friendlier vocabulary of assembly language. Now human/machine discourse has evolved apace with hardware in richness and complexity, and not since the Tower of Babel have we been subjected to so many new tongues in so short a time.

Created in the ancient punch card days for the purpose of FORmula TRANslation, this pioneer language performed much the same service for the lab-coated sliderule toters that Latin provided to the cassockshrouded acolytes. Also like Latin, it is used only by a vanishing few. Nonetheless, FORTRAN has left us a rich classical heritage, including what many feel is the greatest epic ever committed to keypunch: the mainframe folk game Adventure. Serious scholars are urged to pursue its study, the better to read the great works of space age science in the original.

Like most languages of commerce, this one arose as a sort of pidgin dialect and does not make for scintillating prose; the standard version, in fact, was created by committee (a government committee, at that), which explains the notorious verbosity of its source code. Its bureaucrats' knack for rapidly filling up all storage space allotted to it makes this an exceedingly difficult language to implement on a small system, although Radio Shack did in fact achieve this thankless task in 1982. According to one internationally renowned expert, Edsgar Dijkstra, "Teaching COBOL ought to be regarded as a criminal act." COBOL is still the most widely used programming language in the world.

The preeminent "vulgar" language in both senses, BASIC is ideally suited to quick, easy expression, lends itself readily to projects requiring only short attention spans and can be spoken in wildly illogical sequence with no risk of altering its sense. Highly interactive and structure-poor, it is appropriate for microcomputer streetcorner jive but is no good at all for large jobs that must be tackled piecemeal with a managerial overview.

In 1983 the College Boards directors dubbed Pascal the language for Advanced Placement testing in Computer Literacy-a decision comparable, in its significance for the future of computing, to the effect on religious history of Emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity. By giving thumbs down to BASIC, schools across the nation were forced to reprogram their curricula to accommodate its highly structured, logically satisfying elegance. Tomorrow's commentators will doubtless celebrate this act as a much needed antidote to the anti-intellectualism, myopia and aimlessness rampant since the advent of FORTRAN.

First implemented by stargazers at a secluded observatory, FORTH was brought down from the mountain in 1971. Its cult declared itself radically opposed to the idolatry of machine-specific programming, offering a highly portable code facilitating an unprecedented "speaking in tongues" among otherwise incompatible devices. Early apostles of the faith would put a FORTH disk and minicomputer in a suitcase and preach directly from machine to machine in their wandering ministry, to frequently miraculous effect. Composed from a small set of glyphs possessed of universal machine-language-based significance, FORTH's runes are combined into words within bigger words, cascading their way upwards into one great All-Knowing Ur Utterance, whose conjuring unleashes the program's full potency.

Written in boxcar-like prose (composed of multiply nested [parenthetical (and inherently self-referential)] chains of inference), LISt-Processing dialects are the preferred speech of robot makers, designers of socalled "expert systems," and creators of other modes of software that compare favorably with the "wet-ware" of the human brain pan. Though perceived to be a verbally oriented language, it was used to produce the dazzling graphics mindscapes of Tron. Profoundly logical and prone to "blue-skying," it has all the pretentions, pomp and promise of Hegelian dialectics-and is about as economical and easy to scan.

Arising in the early 1970s as a reaction to the overspecialized "high-level" language bias that stressed mechanical efficiency at the expense of programmer sanity, C was liberated from developer Bell Labs' protectionism by Berkeley University programmers who petitioned for the right to free "assembly language"-the coding least alienated from the electronic "body consciousness" of machine code itself. Explicitly tailored for communal time sharing, its increasingly popular UNIX operating system encourages unlimited networking as well as the bartering of ready-made program components. Since the early 1980s, its administrationless, volunteer-maintenanced Usenet support group has shared conceptual experiences with an ever broadening collective of information anarchists.

Originating among members of the artificial intelligence community sympathetic to the mental development theories of Jean Piaget, Logo is a language framed with children in mind and thus emphasizes the graphic, gestural and self-referential. In its earliest implementation, an electromechanical turtle that danced on tabletops let toddlers visualize the results of their programming. Later variants put the turtle on-screen. Since all versions of the language encourage toddlers to interact with imaginary insects whenever they "make a mess," one might say that Logo is the "debugging" language par excellence.

Return to Table of Contents | Previous Article | Next Article