Interesting Quote (anthropology and language)

Levi Pearson levi at
Sat Aug 13 18:00:25 MDT 2005

You apparently didn't read what I wrote very carefully.

On Aug 13, 2005, at 7:17 AM, Jonathan Ellis wrote:

> Wow.  That's totally the opposite of what I've seen.  Lisp guys  
> *loved*
> their Lisp Machines.  It's like the Amiga community.  "Back in the day
> we totally kicked everyone's butt, man."

Yeah, what I said was that Lisp Machines were EXPENSIVE, so they  
weren't available to hackers.   The cheap unix workstations took  
over.   ITS at the MIT AI Lab got replaced with a commercial OS that  
wasn't hackable.  That killed the Lisp hacker culture there.

If you re-read what I said, I also noted the grumbling that took  
place when Lisp hackers were forced to use Unix.  They most certainly  
loved their Lisp Machines, and having seen a screen dump video of the  
development process on them, I can see clearly why.  Development  
environments are starting to catch up with (and in some ways have  
surpassed) what was on the Lisp Machine, but back then, Unix wasn't  
even close.

> And how is Lisp Machines more commercial than your "cheap unix
> workstation" vendors like Sun?

They weren't necessarily more commercial, but they were definitely  
more proprietary, far more expensive, and available from far fewer  
vendors.  Here's a little bit of perspective on the timeframe we're  
talking about, and the way in which Lisp Machines and Unix spread.   
MIT ITS ran on the PDP-10.  The PDP-10 was created in 1967.  The MIT  
Lisp Machines were created in 1977.  The first commercial Lisp  
Machine was created in 1982.  The last Lisp Machines were created in  
1989.  Unix was created in 1970.  In 1976-77, Unix was given to  
Berkeley, and BSD was born.  At this point, people still had to buy  
licenses from Bell Labs to use it, but they could get the code from  
Berkeley.  Certainly the explosion of Unix varieties that happened  
around this time speaks to the open nature of Unix.  The Lisp  
Machines had almost full source available on them, but since their  
operating systems only ran on Lisp machines and couldn't be licensed  
to run elsewhere anyway, there was no similar explosion of Lisp  
Machine varieties.

> I think it's wishful thinking to blame Lisp's decline on
> proprietary-ness rather than the market saying, "yeah, we just  
> don't get
> lisp.  No thanks."

I think you're very naive to think that programmers 'getting' lisp  
had a great deal to do with its decline, and I think you've grossly  
misrepresented my argument.  Certainly the market did cause Lisp's  
decline, but it was more a matter of regular market things like  
price.  If Lisp had run well and could have been ported widely on low- 
cost general-purpose hardware, it would have continued to have  
success after the rise of Unix.  But had Java existed at the time, it  
would have required special-purpose hardware to perform well too, and  
it would have suffered the same fate as Lisp.

There are probably other reasons for the decline of Lisp as well,  
such as being painted as an 'AI' language when AI fell out of style,  
simply because AI is a hard problem and Lisp is good for working on  
hard problems.  But regardless of that, Open Source was not a factor  
in the success of languages when Lisp declined (because it did not  
exist yet), so it can be pinned primarily on business reasons rather  
than programmer preference reasons.

Anyway, this is largely irrelevant, because there are several  
different commercial Common Lisp vendors today, a few commercial  
Scheme vendors, many different free varieties of both, and active  
communities surrounding both.  Scheme is taught in many universities  
(including prestigious ones like MIT), and Common Lisp is taught in a  
few as well.  It just so happens that the Lisp and Scheme communities  
have better things to do than write stupid apps and post them to  
Sourceforge.  As long as I can continue to use the languages, I'm  
happy, regardless of how much FUD people who dislike them spread.


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