March 25, 2003
The Polish software miracle

At the Libertarian Conference in Krakov which I have recently returned from, I had the chance to talk with some of Poland's brightest and best young people. In yesterday's posting immediately after I got back home, I sketched out the story of the upper reaches of Polish education, and told of a generation of seriously wasted not-quite rocket scientists.

It so happens that I have a tiny moment of experience of these people, because I visited Warsaw in 1986, where I was supposed to collect information about the computer hardware needs of the Polish political underground. I was as completely out of my depth as I have ever been in my life. Talk about level of incompetence. These guys knew more then about computers than I will ever know.

I don't believe it mattered, because the message I took back to London was very simple. Just send us anything you can, they said. Whatever you send, we'll get it working, they said.

So I learned then of the nascent Polish computer software miracle, and I also learned the reason for it. At that time, computer hardware in places like London was rocketing forward, leaping ahead in power, plunging in price, much as it has been doing ever since. Not so in Poland. Hardware there was called "hardware" because it was so hard to come by, and once you got your hands on a computer, you made it do things scarcely dreamed of outside Silicon Valley. If you were Polish in 1986, for example, you made a laser printer print out the Polish alphabet. Only God and the Poles knew how you made that happen, then, if the thing wouldn't do it already. Thus the Eastern European software miracle. These guys were and still are largely self-taught.

Then, following the collapse of communism, along comes the internet.

Now as in 1986 I got hopelessly lost when confronted with technical detail, but one of these software wizzes sat next to me at the final supper we all had after our Conference had ended, and he told me of how the "open source" software movement, or world, or tendency or whatever it is, provides the first rung on the ladder from smart Polish kid to highly paid computer wizz. So is the Internet a case of "you ain't seen nothing yet"? Then as now, they knew the story far better than I did. You bet, they said. Cue a long exposition of, approximately speaking, the convergence of portable phone and computer technology.

And these guys told me something else that I found a little easier to understand. I've already written here about how the Japanese have a tough time learning all the Japanese that the Japanese have to learn in order to become fully functioning Japanese persons. Well, something similar apparently applies to the Polish language. This too is, compared to English, a very elaborate and unwieldy language, with none of the colloquial short cuts and variations that we have to enable us to say what we want. Translating from Polish to English can apparently shorten things by as much as thirty per cent, because in English you can say more with less.

I had given a talk at the end of the Conference in my usual under-prepared, but I trust reasonably thoughtful, witty and provocative way, which made up in rapport and entertainment value what it lacked in ready-scripted coherence. I wanted to provoke thought, not merely to elicit respectful admiration. I hope they enjoyed it. They said they did. But they said something else. They said: "You couldn't do that in Polish." Polish can't be juggled with the way English can. You can't, they said, think about it while you're doing it. Your brain couldn't cope with the complications of Polish, and thinking, at the same time.

So does that mean, I asked, that once you've learned Polish, other languages are a relative doddle? Correct, they said.

And computer software likewise. Once you've mastered the unforgiving complexities that must be got right in Polish if your Polish is to be right, you are ready to do software, where logic and consistency and elaboration are also the rules, rather than slap-dash say-it-how-you-feel-it expressiveness.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:56 PM
Category: Technology