September 18, 2020

Kling: The Fallacy of the Almost-General-Purpose Language

In a previous posting, “The Fallacy of the Almost-General-Purpose Computer,” I asked readers for help in finding a way to explain to non-techies why non-general-purpose computers are so vastly inferior to general-purpose ones.

Many readers responded with good suggestions. But Arnold Kling’s explanation is by far the best:

Trying to design a limited-purpose computer is like trying to design a limited-purpose spoken language. Imagine trying to design a language that can express only some thoughts but not others.

This seems to be a nearly perfect analogy. It’s technically sound, in the sense that the instruction set of a computer is really a language. And it conveys accurately the computer scientists’ intuition for why general-purpose computers are so valuable.