Why the Farmers won

I’ve been thinking about Lisp lately. A powerful language, with many excellent features, but not hugely successful. And I thought of one reason why:

The excellent book Guns, Germs and Steel hypothesizes that agriculture displaced hunting and gathering because people who practiced agriculture stayed in one place, and were able to have one child per year, as opposed to the hunter- gatherers, who had to wait until their children were old enough to walk before having another child. This reproductive rate difference was amplified by the ability for a given unit of land to support more farmers than hunters. As a result, agriculture displaced hunting even though individual hunters were far healthier (as seen by their skeleton height) than the farmers that displaced them.

So it is possible for a poorer technology to displace a better one, if it has compensating advantages. And I think that’s what’s hit Lisp. C and Java, which are each less powerful and more wordy than Lisp, are more successful for reasons other than power and brevity. Perhaps because both languages allow lots of reusable code to be written by ordinary programmers. Maybe Lispers are like healthy hunters, being displaced by hordes of sickly farmers.

Well, no doubt the Lispers will take some comfort in the Java and C programmers being displaced in turn by whatever language next becomes even more successful, just as hunter-gatherers may take pleasure in the trend that farmers are gradually being displaced by urban dwellers. (Come to think of it, Lispers have already seen their original competitor Fortran displaced by C/C++, and in turn much of C++ has been displaced by Java and C#.)

I think something similar is happening in productivity applications, as a generation of not-very-good-but-web-based productivity applications is displacing the Microsoft Office suite. (For example, I am typing this blog entry into a simple and ugly HTML-based web form rather than a beautiful Word document.)