When controversies arise, there will be no more necessity of disputation between two philosophers than between two accountants. Nothing will be needed but that they should take pen in hand, sit down with their counting tables and (having summoned a friend, if they like) say to one another: Let us calculate.
That final exhortation, “Let us calculate,” is a single word in Leibniz’s Latin text, lending me a title for my column: Calculemus! I might have expressed the same thought more forcefully, quoting somebody or other, as: “Shut up and calculate!”
The column is a manifesto in support of computer programming as a tool for exploring, experimenting and problem-solving—what I like to call inquisitive computing. This is an activity that shouldn’t need defending or promoting, and yet I feel it is becoming a neglected art. These days, computer programming is often viewed mainly as an aspect of software development—but that’s not the kind of programming I have in mind. In software development, the program is the product; it’s what you hand over to the end user. Inquisitive computing is different: The program is just a device for getting an answer. The ultimate goal is not the program itself but the result of running the program. Indeed, once the answer is in hand, the program is often of no further use or interest and can be thrown away.
My gripe is that tools for inquisitive computing are not getting as much attention as they once did. The world of software development offers luxurious, richly appointed programming environments, systems such as Xcode on the Macintosh, or the Eclipse editor favored by many Java programmers. But these systems are not well-adapted to the needs of inquisitive computing, where the emphasis is on low overhead and incremental, trial-and-error methods.
Am I alone in feeling aggrieved about this situation? I’d be interested in knowing what others think. Do you do the kind of programming that I’m describing as inquisitive computing? What tools do you use? Are you happy with them? (Let me hasten to add that I don’t see this as another food fight over the virtues of various programming languages. I’d welcome well-made environments for inquisitive computing based on any language whatever.)
In any case, I don’t want to sound too grumpy about this. The new column is also supposed to be an anniversary celebration: I’ve been writing these essays for 25 years. To mark the occasion I am trying to make some of my earlier work available online. There are no machine-readable copies of the early columns, so my only recourse is to run paper pages through the scanner. The result is a bloated PDF of marginal quality; sorry, it’s the best I can manage. So far I have scanned about a dozen of the columns I wrote for Scientific American and Computer Language in the 80s and for The Sciences in the 90s. I’ll be adding more over the next few weeks. There are links in my publications list.