Recently Jon Udell ran some video clips from BloggerCon in which three different people, among them Amy Wohl, complained powerfully that online publishing is too hard, and that worst of all, it requires programming, which ordinary people can’t be expected to do. Since then, Dylan Evans argued more or less the opposite position in The Guardian: that being unafraid of code is increasingly going to be essential to anyone who wants to be considered part of the intelligentsia. So who’s right?
First of all, I thought Evans went way, way, over the top. Different people have different-shaped minds; I know really smart people who simply can’t at all see the structures in software that are painfully obvious to me. It cuts both ways; my Dad was a geneticist and was bitterly disappointed that I took the bare minimum on that in University, what I didn’t tell him is that I worked like a dog and barely scraped through, because I basically Just Didn’t Get It no matter how hard I tried.
But that doesn’t mean Ms Wohl’s entirely right and Mr Evans is entirely wrong: I’ve pointed to Mark Bernstein’s thoughts on this before; let me juxtapose Amy’s and Mark’s words directly on the page (Amy’s are my own transcription from the video and will contain errors):
Amy: I don't want to do programming for a living or for my own assistance; that’s not what I do for my job, thank you very much; and it wouldn’t be an efficient use of my time because I’m not very good at it, or very current at it either. On the other hand, I don’t want to have to hire a programmer every time I want to add this much functionality [makes a small gap between finger and thumb] to a tool that I happen to be using. I’ve worked designing or refining or critiquing hundreds of products that are designed to be used by end-users in the main stream marketplace; all of those products have as hallmarks that they are designed to be used without the need for the user to do any programming. They are designed to be used through visual interfaces, they are designed to be used by pointing at something and saying “I want to do that.” If in order to use the tool successfully, the user has to either not do something they think they need to do, or they have to learn another whole skill that they didn’t think of as part of the bargain, the user’s usual inclination is to say “Goodbye, I’m not doing this any more.”
Mark: Any tool for creating computer mediated work will either be a programming tool, or it will be a crippled toy. This isn't an opinion or a prejudice; it's a fact. You can wish it weren't so. I used to wish that I could play second base for the White Sox. I used to wish that I could be a chemist without having to study partial differential equations. I wish water weren't quite so wet. Programming is choosing what the computer shall do; if you want to create a computer mediated work, you have to choose what the computer is to do.
Analogize This · I tried to build some arguments by analogy here: when there’s a tool you use to do your job, presumably the more accomplished you are at using it, the better job you’re going to do. But I cast my mind across a dozen professions, trying to find examples where a deep understanding of the tools confers a real advantage, and came up pretty well empty. I don’t think Barry Bonds needs a deep understanding of the fine carpentry that goes into the construction of his bats, nor does an A340 pilot really need to grasp the finer points of the shaping of the combustion chambers in the jet’s engines, nor have fine writers been distinguished by fine penmanship.
Computers are qualitatively different in that by definition they are general-purpose tools. That makes their position uniquely central in a discipline like online publishing, where we’re still making up the rules as we go along, and necessarily adjusting the programming as a side-effect.
The Bottom Line · So, as an online author I guess I have an advantage over those like Amy Wohl for whom programming is not an option. But it doesn’t matter that much: check out the Technorati Top 100, a list that ongoing doesn’t appear on, despite the fact that I program and many of the people on that list don’t.
So yeah, we geeks have what you might call a home-field advantage in the online publishing contest: but it turns out not to be decisive.