Total Recall

I learned programming computers before I had the internet. While technically I am a Millennial, unlike most younger Millennial programmers I had a completely different experience than they did learning how to program computers. Programming became an obsession for me as a child when I accidentally pressed the wrong button on my keyboard playing Gorilla.BAS and seeing screens of hieroglyphs cross my eyes. It was written in QBasic and I didn’t know that Bill Gates wrote it with Neil Konzen. I didn’t even know who Bill Gates was.

I asked my best friend Dave what it was. He went to a computer summer camp that year and I thought he might have some idea. He said “oh, that’s code”. We spent some time together and he showed me what an variable was, what an “if” statement was, and how to get input and print text. My first program was a choose-your-own adventure book. I was hooked!

My only resource during this time was the library. My mother would take me and I would get stacks of books. My software development process looked like this.

  1. Make a guess about how something worked.
  2. Write some code.
  3. Run the code.
  4. It failed, look up what the function does in the reference.
  5. Repeat.

The process of looking up how things worked in a reference was so tedious that I was forced to guess before I expended the serious effort. Eventually I remembered how things worked and would rarely have to search a reference to get something done.

This process of trying to remember and guessing is called Active Recall. It is an incredibly efficient way of developing long-term memory. This is why I felt as time went on I would rarely have to consult a reference. This was especially fortunate for me since my references were library books and I would have to return them! Not only did it improve long term memory, but I had to be endlessly curious to solve my problems.

This is a completely different experience than what younger programmers have. With google at your finger tips, there seems to be no reason to try and guess. With StackOverflow the distance between you having a problem and there being an answer is very short. Looking things up is not tedious anymore.

Their development process looks like this.

  1. Open up a browser tab and type in some text related to what you are doing.
  2. Click on the StackOverflow link and read if someone else is trying to accomplish the same thing.
  3. Look at the answers.
  4. Copy and paste the solution and change it so that your code compiles.
  5. Repeat.

This new way is called Passive Review. Which as you can guess is not very efficient in cultivating long term memory. There is little reason left to guess and develop that muscle. There is also very little reason to be creative and come up with a solution, when you can simply search for one very quickly.

The June 2017 volume of the Communications of the ACM has a brilliant article called The Debugging Mind-Set which links Active Recall with the cultivation of the Incremental Theory of intelligence and Passive Review with the Entity Theory.

People with the Entity Theory mindset believe intelligence and ability is fixed at birth and you either got it or you don’t. People with the The Incremental Theory mindset believe intelligence and ability are not fixed and can improve with effort.

I squarely have the Incremental Theory mindset and I believe this mindset promotes growth and creativity and above all what I like to call “The Fighting Spirit”, which I believe is central to the hacker mindset. I also believe the way I learned how to program had a huge influence over me having this style to begin with. I had to constantly guess and be curious, trying things before looking up solutions in tedious references and manuals.

The question I would love to ask you dear reader is this, is this new era of software development, where you don’t have to remember things anymore but use a different set of skills to find, instead of develop, solutions to problems. Is this new era promoting a generation of Entity Theorists? And has the hacker spirit died with it?


One thought on “Total Recall

  1. let me create a metaphor and assure you that my argument is not based on it– i am using it to illustrate my argument.

    imagine theres a doorway about 6 inches above the ground. and when you first found it, you stepped onto it instead of stumbling over it. other people look at it and immediately say “what a ridiculous door, why is it designed so poorly i think i will avoid that.” thats the world you and i grew up in with programming.

    now theres a step or a ramp up to the door, called the web. and as a result, people dont know as much about scaling the 6 inch height. and just to keep the metaphor honest– scaling it would make people better problem-solvers! they might invent the ramp instead of just using one.

    however! todays programming comes with its own challenges, i assure you. like instead of learning basic like we did, people are learning javascript as a first scripting language. wow, because id been coding for 20 years before i took javascript on, and it was a bit of a challenge for me.

    the solution here is to tell people the ramp wasnt there, what was cool about that, and get them to invent the ramp (or a better ramp.) then this generation will be alright. p.s.: if you havent written a small programming language yet (even 100 ploc would do) i highly recommend you apply your oldschool problem solving to it, you will absolutely love it:

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