“A Coder Considers the Waning Days of the Craft,” in the New Yorker

Monday 4th March, 2024 - Bruce Sterling

*I would recommend reading that, because the secondary and tertiary effects of this are just beginning.

*Also, archiving today’s digital crafts that will be swiftly forgotten, that will be quite an interesting challenge, much like preserving silent film.



In a 1978 essay titled “On the Foolishness of ‘Natural Language Programming,’ ” the computer scientist Edsger W. Dijkstra argued that if you were to instruct computers not in a specialized language like C++ or Python but in your native tongue you’d be rejecting the very precision that made computers useful. Formal programming languages, he wrote, are “an amazingly effective tool for ruling out all sorts of nonsense that, when we use our native tongues, are almost impossible to avoid.” Dijkstra’s argument became a truism in programming circles. When the essay made the rounds on Reddit in 2014, a top commenter wrote, “I’m not sure which of the following is scariest. Just how trivially obvious this idea is” or the fact that “many still do not know it.”

When I first used GPT-4, I could see what Dijkstra was talking about. You can’t just say to the A.I., “Solve my problem.” That day may come, but for now it is more like an instrument you must learn to play. You have to specify what you want carefully, as though talking to a beginner. In the search-highlighting problem, I found myself asking GPT-4 to do too much at once, watching it fail, and then starting over. Each time, my prompts became less ambitious. By the end of the conversation, I wasn’t talking about search or highlighting; I had broken the problem into specific, abstract, unambiguous sub-problems that, together, would give me what I wanted.

Having found the A.I.’s level, I felt almost instantly that my working life had been transformed. Everywhere I looked I could see GPT-4-size holes; I understood, finally, why the screens around the office were always filled with chat sessions—and how Ben had become so productive. I opened myself up to trying it more often….