Sapir Whorf Hypothesis and Computer Programing

There's this idea in linguistic/cognitive anthropology that the limitations of linguistic possibility limit what the bounds of what we're able to think about. If we lack words for a given thing or a concept, it's really hard to even conceive what it is. I'll get to the strengths and limits of the hypothesis in a bit, but lets just say the reception of these ideas (i.e. "linguistic relativism") is somewhat mixed. Nevertheless it's had a great impact on me and the kinds of ideas I deal in.

For instance, though I'm not an active programmer, I talk to programmers a bunch I tweak code from time to time, and I've tried to learn programming enough times that I sort of get the basics of enough stuff to know what's going on, and if there's one theme to my interests in open source and software development, it's looking at the software and tools that developers us, in part for issues related to linguistic relativism. Basically, if the people who develop programming languages, and software itself don't provide for possibilities, developers and users won't be able to think about things downstream. Or at least that's the theory.*

The problem with linguistic relativism in general, is that it's really hard to test, and we get into causality issues. "Describe this thing that you don't know about!" is a bad interview tactic and we run into the questions like: Is it really language that limits knowability or is some other combination of typical experiences that limits both knowability and language? I've read far too many a number of papers from a couple of different scholars, and I almost always end up in the "relativist camp," but that might be a personality feature.

In computer science, I suppose it is also not quite so cut and dry. Questions like "Does the advancement of things like hardware limit technical possibility more than programing languages and tools?" come up, but I think for the most part it is more cut and dry: Erlang's concurrency model makes thins possible, and makes programmers think in ways that they're not prone to thinking about them otherwise. Git's method promoting collaboration requires people to think differently about authorship and collaboration. Maybe. I mean it makes sense to me.

These low-level tools shape what's possible on the higher level not simply in that a programing language implements features that are then used to build higher level applications, but if you teach someone to program in emacs-lisp (say) they'll think about building software in a very different way from the folks who learn how to program Java. Or Perl. Or PHP.

And those differences work down the software food chain: what programmers are able to code, limits the software that people like you and me use on a day to day basis. That's terribly important.

I think the impulse when talking about open source and free software is to talk about subjects that are (more) digestible to non-technical users, and provide examples of software projects that are more easily understood (e.g. firefox and open office rather than gcc and the Linux kernel, say.) This strikes me as the wrong impulse, when we could focus on talking about more technical projects and then use abstractions and metaphors to get to a more general audience if needed. I'm not saying I've mastered this, but I'm trying, and I think we'll ultimately learn a lot more this way. Or so I hope. There is always much to learn.

Onward and Upward!

* In a previous era/maturity state I would have been somewhat guarded about that subject which I think is going to be a major theme in oh the rest of my life. But, this is open source and knowledge wants to be free and all that. Actually, less altruistically, I'm much more worried that it's a lackluster research question than I am that someone is going to "snipe it from me," and suggestions and challenges I think would be really productive.

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