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Caring About Programming Languages
by Michele Simionato
June 1, 2009
Summary
Some thoughts about programming-language communities, inspired by the Lisp conference I attended last week.

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I do not care much about programming languages.

I mean, I do care about programming as a general activity of the mind and as a mean of self-expression, but I do not care much about a specific programming language.

I began to program professionally with Python, and I like the language, but now I am writing a book about Scheme, and tomorrow I will probably be looking at a language with static typing and type inference. I do have any kind of fidelity to a specific language. To me languages are tools which I use for my job and for my personal entertainment, but I do not feel any particular obligation to keep using the same language forever. I think my position about programming languages is quite common amongst programmers and that I am in the majority.

However, who cares about the majority?

The majority counts nothing when it comes to programming languages. Programming languages are designed and libraries are written by a very small minority. This is actually the norm: all science and arts are produced and evolve in consequence of the work of a small minority. The majority matters when it comes to the question of the success of language; one may argue that one language is more successful than another due to a set of specific boundary conditions: in that time and place, in that historic/economic situation, a language may have more or less success for all sort of technical and non-technical reasons.

When a language becomes successful the majority become relevant mostly in a negative sense, as a force resisting change, since backward compatibility concerns becomes essential. However, here I am not concerned with the question of success: I am concerned with the creative aspects of a language, and the creative parts are always done by a small minority. It is that minority which matters. In such a minority you will find a lot of people that really care about their chosen language. This is especially visible in non-mainstream languages, and particularly in the Common Lisp community.

I am writing these notes the day after the European Lisp Symposium, which was my first Lisp conference. I did attend the Italian Python conference three weeks before that, and while there are a lot of really passionated Pythonistas there, the passion is much more visible in the Lisp community, particularly in the etymological sense of the term. At the conference I saw with my own eyes many people caring and suffering for their language, and that sight prompted me to write these notes.

On a superficial level, the level of the user base, you could just dismiss such people as language geeks that should get a life and care more about other things. However, while not all language geeks are part of the active community (a lot of geeks are just whiners not producing any code relevant to the community and not having any effect on the evolution of a language and its libraries) I think it is fair to say that within the active community you can find a number of geeks which actually do care (and possibly care too much) about their language. I would also argue that the number of passionated people is much higher in the active community than in the passive community.

I put myself in the active community, since I have written a few open source modules, some of them with many thousands of downloads, and I have written papers documenting obscure features of at least one language, which have become the standard reference on the topic. On top of that I have being very active on newsgroups and mailing lists, I have a blog about programming and I am a participant and even an organizer of language conferences.

Still, I am not sold to any particular language, and I do not suffer/enjoy particularly if the language I am using right now is doing badly (in some sense) or is doing well. The reason is that I am a programmer by accident, not by design, and that programming is a secondary interest to me (I studied Physics not Computer Science!). However, I do realize that there is a sizable portion of people in the active community which care a lot for their chosen language and I take them very seriously.

The Lisp community is a special case, since the language is the second oldest language in the world and it has such a long and glorious history - for instance at the conference we had multiple references to the legendary Lisp machines the people of my generation never saw. My perception was that a lot of people at the conference felt very sad when comparing that times (the mid eighties) with the current situation. Common Lisp look is perceived to be in a bad shape with respect to the past, at least if we measure the success of language in terms of user base and of money being put in it - which is a measure of success I do not particularly like, BTW.

In the Common Lisp community you feel the suffering (and the pride too) much more than in other communities. Also, the people which used Lisp in the past but did not feel bound to it have already fled to other languages. As a consequence, now the community is somewhat self-selected and the percentage of people really caring about the language is much higher than in other communities. I did know about the Common Lisp community from comp.lang.lisp, which I read sometimes (rarely actually) but I did not really believe the newsgroup to be representative of the community. On the other hand, the language conference not only confirmed the feeling you get from the newsgroup, but actually I had an even stronger impression of suffering.

Is the language conference representative of the Common Lisp community at large? I do not know, probably not, since there were only forty or so people there, but I will assume here - as a working hypothesis - that the people at the conference were indeed representative of the active community (the passive community does not count).

I am more involved with the Scheme community, and I was quite surprised at the conference seeing how much different the communities are. Scheme is a research language, it has always had a small community and little money: people do not feel they have lost much during the last twenty years. Most Schemers know that they will never conquer the world and they are content with that.

On the other hand many lispers think that they have lost the mind-share they had in the past and they suffer for that: I remember particularly Scott McKay, who cited Ruby on Rails multiple times and made pretty clear that he was disturbed by the fact that Ruby was having much more success than Common Lisp, and that many great hackers very choosing Ruby, whereas twenty years ago they would have chosen Common Lisp. For comparison, I never heard in the Scheme community anybody complaining about the success of Ruby, they just do not care.

Of course, you should take with a grain of salt anything I am saying, since those are mostly subjective impressions I have got from a single conference. Certainly at the conference there were people happy with Common Lisp as it is (for instance Pascal Costanza did not look sad at all!). I may well be completely wrong about how the Common Lisp community feels, but it does not matter: what matters is the external perception of the community, nor the community in itself. So my perceptions from the outside, even if wrong, are significant. Actually, I am sure that a lot of people out there - people that could be potential new members of the Common Lisp community - do share my perception and stay away from the language because of that perception.

People - and I mean people that care - chose a language not only because of its features, but also because of its community. There are people taking pride in being part of a large "successful" community (they will not choose Common Lisp) and others taking pride in being part of a small "oppressed" community (they might choose Common Lisp).

I do not feel particularly either way. I am an organizer of the Italian Python conference, and this year we had Guido as guest of honor and more than 380 participants and I am happy of the success we got; nevertheless now I spend most of my spare time hacking Scheme and posting on the Ikarus mailing list, which has less than 10 active posters. I am not particularly proud of being part of a large community or of a small community, but many people care about these things.

I care about the philosophy of a language, which is the philosophy of its community: and when I had to choose between Ruby or Python I chose Python because of (the perception I had) of its community; similarly, when I had to choose between Common Lisp and Scheme I chose Scheme because of the community. Therefore, it is obvious to me that the problem of Common Lisp is not the language but the community: if the community is failing to attract new users, because it feels like a frozen community full of nostalgia and no clear vision about the future, there is no point in changing the language.

I have a lot of respect for the lisp community and for what they have accomplished in the latest 50 years: I want to absorb what they have to teach us youngsters so that their experience is not lost. It is important for that knowledge to be passed into new communities and new languages, since I perceive the Common Lisp community to be at a dead end. Of course Common Lisp will continue forever, just as FORTRAN will continue forever and COBOL will continue forever, but the language has stopped to innovate decades ago (note to the reader: at this point you should read Paul Graham's essay about why Microsoft is dead).

I am more optimistic about Scheme: it will never become mainstream, the standardization process will always suck, but there will always be young implementations and new blood coming in. This is clearly a personal impression: I talked with SBCL hackers at the conference, with CLisp hackers, as well as with people using Lisp professionally: there is still a lot of work being done in concrete implementations, and new projects. It is just a perception of mine that things are more fun in the Scheme community and that there is more going on, especially in the newest R6RS implementations.

I could just be ignorant; nevertheless, my impression after the conference if that I have been wise in choosing the Scheme camp. No offense to anybody is intended of course, and actually I am very happy they invited me, since it was a very nice conference and an extremely interesting experience. I have also seen a couple of cool projects that Pythonistas should copy, and perhaps I will have to write another post or two about ideas that came to me from the conference. All that is a measure of success to me ;-)

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About the Blogger

Michele Simionato started his career as a Theoretical Physicist, working in Italy, France and the U.S. He turned to programming in 2003; since then he has been working professionally as a Python developer and now he lives in Milan, Italy. Michele is well known in the Python community for his posts in the newsgroup(s), his articles and his Open Source libraries and recipes. His interests include object oriented programming, functional programming, and in general programming metodologies that enable us to manage the complexity of modern software developement.

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2009 Michele Simionato. All rights reserved.

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