Toolkits for the Mind

In 1975 the computer scientist Edsger Dijkstra wrote “The tools we use have a profound (and devious!) influence on our thinking habits, and, therefore, on our thinking abilities.” Dijkstra was writing in relation to programming languages but the same might equally apply to the software products coded in those languages. In this, he recalls Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum: “We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us” (although the pedant in me insists that this was actually by John Culkin).

The title for this post is shamelessly borrowed from an article by James Somers (2015) in which he seeks to argue that programming languages shape the way their users think:

“Software developers as a species tend to be convinced that programming languages have a grip on the mind strong enough to change the way you approach problems—even to change which problems you think to solve.”

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