Daily Archives: May 2, 2011

In Defense of BASIC

If there’s a programming language that just don’t get no respect, it’s BASIC. One could make a pretty good little bathroom reader from all the snarky comments it’s attracted over the years. My favorite is this gem from Edsger W. Dijkstra: “It is practically impossible to teach good programming to students that have had a prior exposure to BASIC. As potential programmers they are mutilated beyond hope of regeneration.” (I think Dijkstra’s slightly stilted phraseology works better if you imagine it being said with a heavy Dutch accent.) That’s a bit hyperbolic, to be sure, but certainly BASIC has a lot to answer for. When I was a kid trading software on my trusty Commodore 64, saying a program was written in BASIC was as good as saying that it sucked. And things haven’t changed that much today. Has any development environment, ever, produced as much awful software as Visual BASIC? I must admit that learning that a program was written in Visual BASIC is still sufficient reason to make me not even try it.

But despite all that, BASIC’s importance in the history of computing is immense. Before it, there existed two principal computing cultures. First there was the mainframe culture. Centered around IBM and a few other big companies that tried to compete with it, it was marked by what Steven Levy so memorably called the “priesthood” model of computing common to government and big business: a few highly trained, lab-coated elites serving as minions of The Machine, doing everything by (IBM’s) book, with creativity and fun strictly Off Limits. The other culture was the hacker culture that sprung up at MIT and similar technical universities and perhaps the occasional smaller company: a group of generally young savants who were fascinated by the world inside the machine and lived to hack, who scoffed at the conservatism and groupthink of IBM and particularly embraced the smaller machines of the more freewheeling Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). Different as they were, neither of these cultures cared much about making computers accessible to the everyman. Neither culture had any time for or interest in anyone who did not think in bits and bytes and registers.

When John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz designed and implemented the Beginner’s All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code at Dartmouth University in 1964, they were not trying to please hackers or computer scientists. They were, rather, trying to make it possible for “ordinary” individuals to productively use computers. Today the idea of a programming language for the masses is almost oxymoronic; they simply load up their computers with the latest from Microsoft, Apple, or whomever, and leave the programming to the professionals. Back in 1964, however, and for quite a long time afterward, applications software in the way we know it today did not really exist. Using a computer for any but the most rote of tasks virtually required programming it; certainly, at any rate, using a computer creatively did. In attempting to bring computing to the masses, Kemeny and Kurtz’s goals were not so much technical as sociological, political, even ideological. A third computing culture, one I already began to discuss when mentioning HP Time-Shared BASIC and Creative Computing magazine in the context of The Oregon Trail, began with BASIC at Dartmouth in 1964 and remained associated with the language for many years.

While the priests in their climate-controlled data centers and the hackers sequestered away in their cubbyholes at MIT were oblivious to the changes that were wrenching society in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the BASIC culture was full of counterculture excitement. They were all about bringing these machines out of the banks and the ivory towers and putting them at the disposal of the street. That makes their work as important as that of the hackers who were inventing C and Unix and laying the foundation of the Internet at about the same time. Sometimes, more perhaps than either would first want to admit, the two cultures even intersected, as they did in the case of the game I want to talk about my next historical post, Hunt the Wumpus, which originated in HP Time-Shared BASIC but was novel and appealing enough to be attractive to the traditional hacker mindset as well — appealing enough to influence the first works of true IF.

As for BASIC, let’s remember to give it its historical due. If you’re excited by computers as artistic tools with relevance to the world and the people around them, you should recognize its place in forging those connections. The sniffing condescension of elitists like Dijkstra seems pretty unattractive indeed in this light.

So, yeah, respect is due. Now just don’t ask me to actually use the thing.


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