Lord of Lisp

While digital culture around the world was mourning the untimely death of Steve Jobs this month, another  towering innovator slipped away unnoticed. John McCarthy’s, who deserved the “genius” designation at least as much as Jobs did, was a professor at MIT  in the 1950s when he invented the now obscure LISt Processing programming language (LISP), which laid the conceptual basis for the representational power of computation as we know it today. 

McCarthy’s obituaries celebrate him  as the father of artificial intelligence, but  his earlier and more radical contribution was in opening up computer programming to a wider range of cultural representation by moving it beyond mathematical notation (as in FORTRAN, the Formula Translation programming language) to his list-based structures. In inventing LISP McCarthy provided the world’s first framework for object oriented programming, the powerful abstraction system that now underlies almost everything that is built out of bits.

The first computer character, Joseph Weizenbaum’s Eliza (1966) was written in LISP, and the first adventure game, Zork (1977) was written in MDL, a dialect of LISP, so McCarthy could be called the grandfather of interactive narrative.  The world-changing Xerox PARC prototypes of the 1970s were based on Alan Kay’s Smalltalk language, which was based on LISP, as was the Scheme programming language that was the basis of the groundbreaking Sussman and Abelson computer science textbook  Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs, which, along with Seymour Papert’s educational Logo language (nicknamed “LISP without the parentheses”), introduced concepts like encapsulation and instantiation to the generation of programmers coming of age in the 1980 and early 1990s — the people who coded the digital universe of websites and videogames and  mobile apps we now take for granted.  Object-oriented architecture was the basis of Ivan Sutherland’s original CAD machine, Bill Atkinson’s HyperCard system (the first mass market hypertext system), and the systems architecture for Steve Jobs’ NeXt machine, on which Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web.  So John McCarthy is arguably the grandfather of everything digital.

His achievement reminds us that new means of inscription and transmission (the bits and the computer network) are only part of what makes a medium: it is the systems of representation that we invent that allow us to turn mere transmitted signals into artifacts expressive of human meaning.

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