There’s No Such Thing as a “Pure” Programmer

Question: Ruby on Rails lowers the technical expertise necessary to create a web application; is expertise becoming less critical?

David Heinemeier Hansson: 
I think Ruby on Rails absolutely lowers the bar in terms of what it takes to get a web application going.  Some people see that as a negative thing.  Like, “Oh, the barbarians are at the gate”  or “We've got all of these unwashed masses flowing into our beautiful, pristine programming communities.”  I've heard things a lot of times before.  Visual Basic before that was chastised for bringing in sort of "unpure" programmers.  I think it's bullshit.  There is no such thing as the "pure" programmer, and I think that what's magic about the Ruby in Rails community is exactly that it attracts people from all different camps, that it attracts people who are not primarily programmers.  I find that often the best ideas come from people who are not programmers, people who bring just an entirely different perspective on things.

In fact, being a newbie is such an important stage because that's where you question everything.  When I first came to Ruby, I questioned everything.  I was like, “Why doesn't this thing exist?  Why is this hard?  That's stupid.  We should change that.”  You have this sort of initial naïve approach to things that makes it impossible for you just to see what should be impossible.  You just do.

If I had known in the beginning how much work it would have been to actually create Rails, I probably would never have started.  I started because I just found one little thing that to my naive newbie sense seemed easy to do.  I think it's really important that we keep this flow of new people, new blood, fresh blood coming into the community, and I also think it's wonderful that we're creating a larger group of people who can create applications.  Trying to have protectionism is never a good idea.  Trying to sort of set up, like there should only be these carefully trained programmers who are able to make programs... Bah.  That's not how it should be.  We should absolutely have programmers of all kinds.  Some of these programmers will be new, and they won't know everything, and they'll create shitty programs.  But you know what?  Most of the time, a shitty program solves the problem.  You don't need perfect programs all the time.  There are so many problems in the world that the tiny group of pristine, white knight programmers just can't solve.  They can't solve all of them; there's just not enough of them.  So we need programmers of all levels to solve the programming problems of the world.

Question: How simple can things get in terms of programming?

David Heinemeier Hansson:  So, for me it's really there's two angles to this.  There is we can absolutely make things simpler.  I think I made a lot of web development a lot simpler with Rails.  But there is a natural physical limit where at the end programming is just choices.  How should the program work?  What should happen when you click this button?  Those choices are ultimately what's the key to programming, and you can't get out of that, which is also why I think that sometimes it's a little bit of a pipe dream to think that there's going to be these magical new environments where somebody who knows nothing about programming will just be able to drag and drop a few things into a box, and then, voila!, you will have the most amazing program in the world.  No.  It's really not gonna happen like that because to have the most amazing program in the world, you need to care about a thousand decisions, and recording those thousand decisions takes a programming language.

So, there is a lower limit to how simple it can get, and that lower limit is, “Do you care about these decisions?”  Once you...  All the decisions you care about have to be codified somehow, and I don't know of any more effective way of doing that than with a great program language.  So I'm not a big believer that at some point we're all going to create these wonderful applications.  There will be a class of applications where you design a niche and say: okay, if I have to just slightly tailor some accounting software—yeah, there can be something simple for that.  But if you want the freedom of expression to create any type of web applications today, you need a tool that's expressive enough to enable that, and that is a programming language.  It doesn't get any simpler than that.

Recorded on July 22, 2010

Interviewed by Peter Hopkins

With applications like Ruby on Rails lowering the bar for creating web applications, some programmers may complain about "the unwashed masses" overrunning their "beautiful, pristine programming communities." Hansson thinks that attitude is "bullshit."

Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.

LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.

JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW

There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

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Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
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