Built to Last

Mar Hicks. Built to Last. Logic. Issue 11, "Care".

It was this austerity-driven lack of investment in people—rather than the handy fiction, peddled by state governments, that programmers with obsolete skills retired—that removed COBOL programmers years before this recent crisis. The reality is that there are plenty of new COBOL programmers out there who could do the job. In fact, the majority of people in the COBOL programmers’ Facebook group are twenty-five to thirty-five-years-old, and the number of people being trained to program and maintain COBOL systems globally is only growing. Many people who work with COBOL graduated in the 1990s or 2000s and have spent most of their twenty-first century careers maintaining and programming COBOL systems...

In this sense, COBOL and its scapegoating show us an important aspect of high tech that few in Silicon Valley, or in government, seem to understand. Older systems have value, and constantly building new technological systems for short-term profit at the expense of existing infrastructure is not progress. In fact, it is among the most regressive paths a society can take.

Recently, work on the history of technology has been becoming increasingly more sophisticated and moved beyond telling the story of impressive technology to trying to unravel the social, political, and economic forces that affected the development, deployment, and use of a wide range of technologies and technological systems. Luckily, this trend is beginning to manifest itself in studies of the history of programming languages. While not replacing the need for careful, deeply informed, studies of the internal intellectual forces affecting the development of programming languages, these studies add a sorely needed aspect to the stories we tell.