Tuesday, September 07, 2004

How did people communicate before language? They pointed at things and made various grunting sounds. We’re much better off with language. We can talk about things not only as they are but as they might be. We can talk about past, present, and future. We can talk about relationships like containment. We can talk about patterns like numbers and repetition.

Working with Windows reduces me to the level of “point and grunt”. It’s very hard for me to say things like, “repeat this every Tuesday afternoon” or “keep trying to download from here until you have four files.” With Unix I have language: I can write simple commands (phrases) and combine them into larger commands (compound sentences, paragraphs, etc.).

It’s a lot of work to learn language. It takes many years for babies to learn how to talk and then later how to read and write. But you can express so much more with language than without. With computers it’s the same way. It takes a lot of investment to learn something like Unix, but it pays off when you can start expressing complex thoughts.

Yes, Windows has nice graphics. Graphics are pretty. They say that “a picture is a thousand words”, but there’s a lot that is hard to express with pictures. How do you express in a picture complex thoughts like “next week I expect three llamas to meditate in my back yard?” You might try using a whole series of pictures for this, but then you start approaching “a word is a thousand pictures.”

What I see at work is a lot of people using computers in a very primitive way. Computers are good at automating things. The people using Windows tend to perform more mindless repetitive tasks. The people using Unix tend to automate their tasks, so they can work on more interesting things. Windows makes things look easy. And they are, at first, because you’re only doing simple things at first. But complex things are harder. For people who spend a lot of time on the computer, it’s usually worth learning to automate the tedious and boring tasks. And that means you need language.