A remark from Lamport

I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to attend the Twelfth Summer School on Formal Techniques organized by SRI (SSFT'23). Now, if you are a recovering "prestige zealot"[1] like myself, you probably haven't heard of SRI. It may then shock you to learn that SRI played an instrumental role in inventing multiple ubiquitious (and often taken for granted) technologies like the LCD, computer mouse, ARPANET (which became the Internet), and Siri. And for the typesetting geeks out there, Leslie Lamport created LaTeX while at SRI.

At the summer school, Lamport took part in a QnA on Paxos. For the most part, the QnA was rather standard, with Lamport recounting the history behind the development of Paxos. Every now and then, however, Lamport would sprinkle in a comment or two expressing his pessimism at the current trends in computer technology. You could see his discontent taking concrete shape as questions surrounding AI trickled in, with his responses possessing an acerbic undertone. One student (rather disrespectfully, in my opinion) decided to ask a ChatGPT-generated question to the Turing Award winner, to which he responded (more or less) "I would like to not answer questions generated by a machine". The QnA culminated with an animated plea by Lamport. He remarked:

Coding is to programming what typing is to writing.[2]

Too many people associate programming with the act of mindlessly hammering away at a keyboard. Rightfully so, the media has tainted our notion of programming. But Lamport, here, is trying to make a subtle point, which he later voiced: think before you do.

How many times have you used a piece of software and wondered "Geez, what were they thinking[3]?". Supposedly, as Lamport recounted, when right-clicking on his mail client, the first option that shows up in the dropdown menu is "Quick print". Now, I don't know about you, rarely do I "Quick print" an email. But do you know what I do to almost every email? Delete/Archive it. In Lamport's mail client, the option to "Delete" is towards the bottom of the dropdown. There are several examples transcending the world of software where you see people engaging in some activity without ever thinking about it. And frankly speaking, I think this is an issue that we should strive towards fixing. Owing to our human nature, there will always be times in which we fail to think before we do. Nonetheless, we should keep striving to being thoughtful.

Hopefully, I don't need to convince you of the perils inevitable that manifest when we do before we think. Let's think before we do. 'Nuff said.

  1. I made up this term. A prestige zealot is one who chases after affiliations with prestigious institutions regardless of the nature of work the affiliation entails. Such an individual makes extensive use of prestige for comparison in the positional economy. ↩︎

  2. One student witfully remarked: "And checking the correctness of both programs and essays is called proof-reading". ↩︎

  3. Spoiler alert, they probably weren't :) I am guilty of this cardinal sin too. ↩︎