Home » The Poetry of Programming: Linda Liukas at TEDxCERN (Full Transcript)

The Poetry of Programming: Linda Liukas at TEDxCERN (Full Transcript)

Linda Liukas – TRANSCRIPT

Code is the next universal language. In the seventies, it was punk music that drove the whole generation. In the eighties, it was probably money. But for my generation of people, software is the interface to our imagination and our world. And that means that we need a radically, radically more diverse set of people to build those products, to not see computers as mechanical and lonely and boring and magic, to see them as things that they can tinker and turn around and twist, and so forth.

My personal journey into the world of programming and technology started at the tender age of 14. I had this mad teenage crush on an older man, and the older man in question just happened to be the then Vice President of the United States, Mr. Al Gore. And I did what every single teenage girl would want to do. I wanted to somehow express all of this love, so I built him a website, it’s over here.

And in 2001, there was no Tumblr, there was no Facebook, there was no Pinterest. So I needed to learn to code in order to express all of this longing and loving. And that is how programming started for me.

It started as a means of self-expression. Just like when I was smaller, I would use crayons and legos. And when I was older, I would use guitar lessons and theater plays. But then, there were other things to get excited about, like poetry and knitting socks and conjugating French irregular verbs and coming up with make-believe worlds and Bertrand Russell and his philosophy.

And I started to be one of those people who felt that computers are boring and technical and lonely. Here’s what I think today.

Little girls don’t know that they are not supposed to like computers. Little girls are amazing. They are really, really good at concentrating on things and being exact and they ask amazing questions like, “What?” and “Why?” and “How?” and “What if?” And they don’t know that they are not supposed to like computers. It’s the parents who do. It’s us parents who feel like computer science is this esoteric, weird science discipline that only belongs to the mystery makers. That it’s almost as far removed from everyday life as, say, nuclear physics.

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And they are partly right about that. There’s a lot of syntax and controls and data structures and algorithms and practices, protocols and paradigms in programming. And we as a community, we’ve made computers smaller and smaller. We’ve built layers and layers of abstraction on top of each other between the man and the machine to the point that we no longer have any idea how computers work or how to talk to them. And we do teach our kids how the human body works, we teach them how the combustion engine functions and we even tell them that if you want to really be an astronaut you can become one.

But when the kid comes to us and asks, “So, what is a bubble sort algorithm?” Or, “How does the computer know what happens when I press ‘play,’ how does it know which video to show?” Or, “Linda, is Internet a place?” We adults, we grow oddly silent. “It’s magic,” some of us say. “It’s too complicated,” the others say. Well, it’s neither. It’s not magic and it’s not complicated. It all just happened really, really, really fast.

Computer scientists built these amazing, beautiful machines, but they made them very, very foreign to us, and also the language we speak to the computers so that we don’t know how to speak to the computers anymore without our fancy user interfaces. And that’s why no one recognized that when I was conjugating French irregular verbs, I was actually practicing my pattern recognition skills.

And when I was excited about knitting, I actually was following a sequence of symbolic commands that included loops inside of them. And that Bertrand Russell’s lifelong quest to find an exact language between English and mathematics found its home inside of a computer. I was a programmer, but no one knew it.

The kids of today, they tap, swipe and pinch their way through the world. But unless we give them tools to build with computers, we are raising only consumers instead of creators. This whole quest led me to this little girl.

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Her name is Ruby, she is six years old. She is completely fearless, imaginative and a little bit bossy. And every time I would run into a problem in trying to teach myself programming like, “What is object-oriented design or what is garbage collection?”, I would try to imagine how a six-year-old little girl would explain the problem. And I wrote a book about her and I illustrated it and the things Ruby taught me go like this.

Ruby taught me that you’re not supposed to be afraid of the bugs under your bed. And even the biggest of the problems are a group of tiny problems stuck together. And Ruby also introduced me to her friends, the colorful side of the Internet culture. She has friends like the Snow Leopard, who is beautiful but doesn’t want to play with the other kids. And she has friends like the green robots that are really friendly but super messy.

And she has friends like Linux the penguin who’s really ruthlessly efficient, but somewhat hard to understand. And idealistic foxes, and so on.

In Ruby’s world, you learn technology through play. And, for instance, computers are really good at repeating stuff, so the way Ruby would teach loops goes like this. This is Ruby’s favorite dance move, it goes, “Clap, clap, stomp, stomp clap, clap and jump.” And you learn counter loops by repeating that four times. And you learn while loops by repeating that sequence while I’m standing on one leg. And you learn until loops by repeating that sequence until mom gets really mad.

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