Self-Discovery Before the Internet

2017-05-16

Mike Gerwitz

This is an autobiographical opinion piece prompted by a HackerNews post discussing what it was like to learn programming before Stack Overflow (and other parts of the Internet).

I’m not old. I was born in 1989. I started programming around 1999. The Internet sure did exist back then, but I was 10, and my parents weren’t keen on having me just go exploring. Besides, it was dial-up—you couldn’t go search real quick; especially if someone was on the phone. Using the Internet was an event, and an exciting one at that, listening to those dial tones, logging in using that old Prodigy dialog. Back then you had Dogpile and Ask Jeeves. Most sites I’d visit by name; usually that was GameFAQs or CNET download.com, because those are the sites my friend told me about when he introduced me to the Internet.

I’m entirely self-taught. I didn’t know any programmers. I didn’t have contact with any. I told my parents that I wanted to learn how to program and they skeptically brought me to Barnes and Noble where we picked out Learn to Program with Visual Basic 6 by John Smiley (gasp yes I started as a Windows programmer). It came with a VB6 CD that for a while I was convinced could only run the book examples, because I had no idea what I was doing. I struggled. I tinkered. Hacker culture was on the complete opposite end of where I was, but by the time I discovered it years later, I felt like I finally found myself—I finally discovered who I was. The struggle made me a hacker.

It’s easy to half-ass it today. It’s easy to simply say “eh I can Google it” and forego committing knowledge. But it also makes it easy to gain knowledge, for those who do care to do so. It makes trivia easy. It makes discovery easy. It also exposes people to subcultures quickly and demands conformance to stereotypes and norms before one can discover themselves. Who would I be today without having to struggle for myself rather than someone else telling me who I am, and what I do?

This is more than just technical knowledge. This is the difference between dropping a child off in the wild or dropping them off at the local scouts. And at least scouts will discover themselves together. With the Internet, you absorb a body of existing knowledge; you rediscover others, not yourself. You often read blogs containing opinions of others, not books or manuals.

That’s not to say that you can’t learn on your own. Many still do. Many focus on manuals and books and source code rather than social media. It’s sure hard, though, when everything is integrated as such. Social media can be beneficial—you do want communication and collaboration. I sure as hell want to communicate with others. Opinions of others are deeply important too. Some of the best things I’ve read are on blogs, not in books. But I’ve already found my niche. I’ve found myself. I wasn’t tainted or manipulated—I learned in a world of proprietary software where developing license systems was fun and emerged a free software activist. Because I was forced to look inward, not post on Stack Overflow or HN or Reddit expecting a hand-guided tour or dd of thoughts (okay, you’re not getting that on HN).

Not everyone needs to be a passionate hacker or developer. Really, the world needs both. And based on what I’ve seen being pumped out of schools and universities, the self-taught are generally better off either way. The vast resources available to modern programmers make many tasks easier and cheaper, though it also increases maintenance costs if all the programmer is doing is using code snippets or concepts without actually grokking them. But this is what most of the world runs off of.

Let yourself struggle. Go offline. Sit down with a print book and get out a pen and take notes in the margin, write out your ideas. Getting syntax errors in your editor or REPL? Figure it out! Or maybe consult the manual, or the book you’re reading. Don’t search for the solution. When I learned Algebra in middle school, I had little interest, and forgot all of it. Years later, I needed it as a foundation for other things. I discovered the rules for myself on pen and paper. Not only do I remember it now (or can rediscover on a whim), but I understand why it works the way it does. I’ve had those epiphanies. It’s easy to miss the forest for the trees when you don’t gain that essential intuition to help yourself out. And the forest is vast and beautiful.