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Everything Old Is New Again

I’ve been doing some retooling of my blog (while I’ve been on furlough from my day job because of COVID-19). I’m now using cryogen, a Clojure-based static site generator, rather than the Python-based Pelican(site generator that previously powered it.

I’ll be honest – the switch was more motivated by my desire to learn Clojure than by any limitation or dislike of Pelican. And, predictably (because, after all, it’s me we’re talking about), I’ve spent the past couple of days hacking on the cryogen code to make it work the way I want to. I can now run the command lein new-post in my blog tree to make a new post (and be prompted for some parameters), for example. Like I said, my hacking was about 3% motivated by workflow and 97% by the desire to learn some Clojure.

But along the way, I started thinking about how the pendulum swings in technology, and how everything old is new again. It’s a fascinating pattern, and I’ve been in the tech world long enough to see it play out over and over again. Some examples:

  1. The Cloud. When I first started having access to “real computers” in college, the holy grail were big mainframes that we accessed using PCs or relatively “dumb” terminals. I remember the thrill of having accounts on my university’s big server systems, such as an IBM 3090, a VAX and a big Sun Microsystems SPARCCenter 2000. Then we spent a couple of decades on the whole client/server model of putting all the computing power in PCs. And now the pendulum is swinging, back toward big servers in “the cloud” – really, just a fancy word for “other people’s computers” – accessed from our less powerful and less scalable local systems. I’m actually writing this post from my iPad, connected to my cloud (Linux) server through an ssh/mosh connection.

  2. Object-Oriented Programming. Back in the old days, programming languages were “procedural”. You wrote routines and strung them together to make programs. Languages like COBOL, FORTRAN, and C dominated. Then we discovered the idea of object-oriented programming — modeling the real world in our programs, creating virtual “objects” that had properties and actions associated with them. This was good in many ways, and we soon had new languages such as Ruby and Python, and variants of old ones, like C++ and Objective-C and even Object Cobol. And while it was true that these new ways of thinking about programming enabled us to do all sorts of new and wonderful things, they were also not without their downsides. Now functional programming is a hot topic again, with new languages like Erlang and OCaml joining old standards again. (Clojure is a dialect of Lisp, which has been around since 1958!)

  3. Artificial Intelligence. Broadly, this term has swept up a lot of stuff involving making computers “smarter”. AIhas undergone waves of popularity followed by disappointment since the discipline was first started in the 1950s. Neural networks, which attempted to simulate the behavior of the brain’s individual neurons, were at the heart of one such wave. Rule-based expert systems were another. Now we have machine learning as the wave of the future, with all sorts of tech lumped in under that umbrella.

In thinking about these cycles, and in making this (non-exhaustive) list, I think there are a few common threads that drive the pendulum swings:

  • Technologist and computer people think about problems in need of solutions. Procedural programming had challenges, so we came up with new paradigms and ways of architecting technology. But of course, those will have challenges too, because they were designed by humans. So we try to solve this problems, and along the way create yet more new problems (or sometimes re-create older ones).

  • Technology people tend to be susceptible to the “ooh, shiny!” phenomenon. We discover the cool, trendy, hip new thing and everyone jumps on the bandwagon. And then, a few years later, the next new shiny thing comes along, and the older stuff gets abandoned. I think Classic ASP and PHP are good examples here.

  • We tech people sometimes seek to solve “problems” without fully understanding why the thing creating the problem works the way it does. The proliferation of NoSQL databases is a good example. There are good reasons why a document-oriented database like MongoDB or a key-value database such as Riak can and should be used. But if you try to build an e-commerce application solely on MongoDB, you’ll quickly discover that order processing in a database environment with the property of eventual consistency can get you into trouble if you’re not careful.

That’s not to say we should stop innovating, of course. We do tend to come up with new solutions to problems, and in a lot of ways that’s brought about a wonderful world of more and more powerful, capable, and usable technology. Consider the Cray-2 supercomputer of the mid-1980s. It took up a large room, cost millions of dollars to buy and operate, and required special liquid coolant to run without melting into slag. It was also less powerful than my iPhone XS, which cost less than $1,000 and fits in my pocket. Decades of innovation allowed us to miniaturize that amount of computing power, and we can do amazing and positive things because of it.

What we should do, then, is simple: Create the new tools, but don’t forget about the old ones either. And when we’re building something, pick the right tool for the job. You can drive a nail with the side of a chainsaw, and if you hit a tree with a hammer enough times you might be able to make it fall over. But are those really the right tools for the job? Just because you have a shiny new hammer, that doesn’t make every problem a nail.

The other thing, which I alluded to in a previous post, is simply this: Don’t make the mistake of getting religious about your tools. Right now I’m learning and using Clojure, and I’m finding it works well for the kinds of programs I like to write and the way I work. Does that mean everyone should drop C# and Python and Ruby and switch to it? For that matter, does that mean I will stop using other languages and tools? Of course not. Right now, I’m doing a lot of my programming in Emacs, especially since it has good tools for Clojure programming. Does that mean I’m uninstalling VSCode and PyCharm? Nope. It’s an and, not an or.

Pick the tools that make you productive, but don’t assume everyone else should pick the same tools as you. Horses for courses and all that.

The pendulum swings back and forth on a lot of these issues, but one thing is certain. Each swing of the pendulum brings new tools, new capabilities, new solutions, new possibilities. A large part of why I enjoy the new tech so much is because I appreciate the foundation it’s built on. So really, the pendulum doesn’t arc back and forth so much as it traces an ever-rising spiral. And that’s what makes technology so exciting!

This post is licensed under CC BY 4.0 by the author.

Of Emacs and Tools

Literate Emacs Configuration in org-mode

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