Radical Novelties

Slashdot is featuring the twentieth anniversary of renowned UT computer science professor Edsger Dijkstra’s essay “On the cruelty of really teaching computer science”. It happens I believe Dijkstra’s central point in the essay is bit ill-conceived (he misses the connection between testing and proof) but that needn’t concern us here. The first six pages of his painstakingly handwritten essay (quotations painstakingly typed in by me) are of interest to sustainability questions as well:

The usual way in which we plan today for tomorrow is in yesterday’s vocabulary. We do so, because we try to get away with the concepts that we are familiar with and that have acquired their meaning in our past experience. … It is the most common way of trying to cope with novelty: by means of metaphors and analogies we try to link the new to the old, the novel to the familiar. Under sufficiently slow and gradual change it works reasonably well; in the case of a sharp discontinuity, however, the method breaks down: though we try to glorify it with the name “common sense”, our past experience is no longer relevant… One must consider one’s own past, the experiences collected, and the habits formed in it as an unfortunate accident of history, and one has to approach the radical novelty with a blank mind, consciously refusing to try to link it with the familiar, because the familiar is hopelessly inadequate. … Coming to grips with a radical novelty amounts to creating and learning a new foreign language that cannot be translated into one’s mother tongue.

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