What Happened to Fun and Educational Programming?

    Back in the seventies I became addicted to computer magazines. In the early sevenities I had studied computers, working with keypunch machines, greenbar paper and mainframes like the IBM 360, but then the microcomputer revolution burst on the scene and I fell in love Atari, Apple, Commodore, TI, Sinclair, Radio Shack and all the other little computers. I haunted the newsstands for issues of Byte, Compute! (in all it’s various incarnations), Dr. Dobbs, InfoWorld, On Computing, A+, A.N.A.L.O.G., Popular Computing, ST-Log and my favorite Creative Computing. I was so addicted to computer magazines I’d read magazines devoted to computers I didn’t even own. A common feature to all of them was the type-in program, which encouraged readers to learn to program. At the start of this revolution it was assumed that everyone would eventually have to learn to program and most secondary schools and colleges started introducing computer literacy classes. Then the revolution was networked.

    So what happened? I think most people learned that they hated to program. It’s a tedious activity that I took to. I made a career of programming. I’ve heard that interest in programming has fallen off so much that Bill Gates has to beg Congress to be allowed to hire foreign programming students. The big brouhaha is the claim that American kids aren’t smart enough, don’t know math and science, and would rather play video games than write them. That may be true, but I’m guessing there might be other reasons.

    First, there is little incentive to custom program when there are so many free programs around. How fun can a 200 line type-in game be compared to some million line monster that was produced like a Hollywood movie? The open source crowd has made a virtue out of volunteer programming, so that tends to remove the greed incentive. It’s a strange era we live in where the richest man in the world is a geek who climbed to the top of his pile of money by programming and the young people of today revolt against Gate’s model of success by advocating a commie paradigm of programming. That’s like refusing to join a gold rush and taking up alchemy. When I was young I foolishly protested the draft and the Vietnam War, but who’d have imagined later generations would grow up to protest against making money.

    There are other reasons why programming isn’t as popular as beer-can collecting or poetry writing. Home computers used to come with a programming interpreter built in, but now-a-days you have to have an IDE that takes the dedication of a Ph.D. student to learn, and to give away your masterpiece you have to convince your friends to install some massive runtime. Programming is no longer little. If kids put as much work into learning to play the guitar or singing as it would take to program they could be rock stars – that’s why there’s American Idol and not American Hacker on TV.

    The real reason why kids don’t want to program, study math or science, or become engineers is because those careers have no sex appeal. Even lowly desk jockies in The Office, appear to lead more exciting lives than someone who sits in front of a screen all day typing in keywoods. When hot women are interviewed on reality shows about the men they’d like to meet you seldom hear one wishing to hook up with a programmer. Not only is programming a male profession, but it appears to be for omega males. It’s lucky I snagged a wife before I discovered microcomputers.

    With the video game industry becoming bigger than the movie industry it’s a wonder that video game programmers aren’t as glamorous as movie directors or screenwriters.  (Even I can’t picture them being compared to actors.)  Since programs are now written by teams, why aren’t there programming cards like baseball cards, so kids could collect the Microsoft players, or the Apple players or the Linux players – hell the kids on Slashdot certainly argue over their favorite teams as much as any kid ever argued over football teams.  Unfortunately, programming is about as exciting as plumbing so its doubtful we can ever make it into a skill that kids dream of making it big in.  Sure there are millions of us who love to program and we can make more money than plumbers but the profession is just not going make kids want to study in school.  I wonder how many kids would want to be rock stars or movie actors if it required calculus?