Language, and the Limits of the Web and Thought

Paul Ford of Ftrain has produced 4,500 words (Processing Processing via wood s lot) on a topic that has fascinated me since I argued about whether language or thought came first in Mr. Borgerding’s high school English class. How, in particular, do the languages we use to program computers affect the way we think?

I took a class in Scheme two years ago, when I was toying with the idea of going back to school to get a computer science degree, and was blown away by the elegant recursive structures you could create. Since the early 1990s I’ve thought that looping and recursion are an essential part of what we find aesthetically attractive. I’m still trying to find a way to express this but the demons of procrastination continue to plague me, part of my work on creativity through the MLS program at the University of Minnesota has touched on this, but the idea seems too big to easily understand.

An important part of the dynamic between the different languages Paul Ford describes is a matter of scope. He wants to find a language that is as elegant as Processing (which manipulates visual images) for the web. There may eventually be such a language but there will always be a tradeoff between complexity, elegance and abstraction. The web isn’t even a full decade old yet so the current confusion of inelegant methods for handling content are to be expected. So far there aren’t enough abstractions big enough to be manipulated by an elegant language. Instead everyone adds various pieces, new specifications, new programming languges. More accurately I should probably say that the abstractions of the current web are not easily amenable to the projects he wants to accomplish.

Todd Suomela
Associate Director for Digital Pedagogy & Scholarship Department

My interests include digital scholarship, citizen science, leadership, and communications.