Hal Abelson on complexity and computing

Abelson: Yeah, well, that’s it. We’re making all this hairy stuff. One of the things that I’ve started to understand in these languages is the incredible importance of the development environment. I couldn’t even begin to program in Java without Eclipse. I mean, it’s just such an enormously complex thing, and you are using imports and libraries and interfaces so much. I wouldn’t know how to manage it without an IDE. That’s the thing that I didn’t appreciate enough before coming to a place like Google.
I don’t quite know what to say. Everyone wants to do something greater, and greater, and greater, but we’re making this stuff that seems to work. It might be that all we’re doing is getting closer to the edge of the cliff and making the risk of failure more as we build on these things.
Seibel: Do you have any predictions or hopes for the future of our field?
Abelson: I’m really hung up on this convergence of computing and information science. I think you really need people who understand what kinds of programs are worthwhile making. Cornell has this nice phrase where they talk about programming inside the box and programming outside the box. And inside the box is where you focus on how compilers work and everything—how the stuff is put together—the classical stuff. And programming outside the box is, how do you make this stuff, and what’s its impact on the people using it, and what’s its impact on the world. My own hope for computer science is that we pay attention to what’s going on outside the box. I think that’s what needs to be really part of the education of people doing just any kind of computing.

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