Tech cult No. 5: The Order of the Lisp
Gathering of the tribes: International Lisp Conference
Major deity: John McCarthy
Minor deities: Paul Graham, Peter Norvig
Holy Scripture: "Paradigms in Artificial Intelligence Programming"
Like warrior monks driven into hiding, the Order of the Lisp was once a powerful force that lived at the heart of next-generation computing. Closely allied with artificial intelligence and expert systems, the Lisp (or List Processing) language fell into disrepute as those concepts became allied with the dark side in the late 1970s.
A backlash against overhyped rule-based expert systems led to the so-called "AI winter," notes Dan Weinreb, chairman of the International Lisp Conference (ILC). "The phrase 'artificial intelligence' became almost a dirty word, and the Lisp language was dragged down with it."
The language splintered into dozens of dialects as its practitioners dispersed across the Net. But it remained a potent force in academic circles and on message boards. Slava Akhmechet, a doctoral student in computer science at Stony Brook University, encountered Lisp on a programming bulletin board at the age of 16; he's been a devoted practitioner ever since.
He describes his conversion from skeptic to Skywalker in his Defmacro blog: "It was a journey on an endless lake of frustration. I turned my mind inside out, rinsed it, and put it back in place. I went through seven rings of hell and came back. And then I got it. The enlightenment came instantaneously. One moment I understood nothing, and the next moment everything clicked into place. ... I've achieved an almost divine state of mind, an instantaneous enlightenment experience that turned my view of computer science on its head in less than a single second."
Despite its being more than 50 years old, interest in Lisp is on the rise, says Weinreb. The International Lisp conference at MIT last March drew more than 200 attendees -- nearly twice as many as ILC 2007. The language is still in commercial use, though Weinreb says "there are companies using Lisp now who keep that fact a secret, feeling that they would be discredited to some extent if their use of Lisp were known, which is pretty silly."
Akhmechet says you can identify true believers by their contrarian nature and their love for things of great beauty, regardless of age.
"Remember the part of 'Star Wars' where Luke is introduced to the light-saber?" he says. "Obi Wan says, 'It's an elegant weapon, from a more civilized age.' That's how we feel about Lisp. It was designed in the 1960s by people who truly loved their craft and is an improvement not only on its predecessors, but also on most of its successors. It has certain elegance and beauty to it that mathematicians recognize in some of their formulas, poets in their poems, and physicists in their theories."