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The depth of everything that’s involved

JBQ’s writings on Dennis Ritchie’s death find me in total agreement and are worthy of a citation. dmr was a legend and his contribution, concise as meaningful, simple yet immensely powerful, has — and still does — shaped computing (and much of modern life) as we know it. C may not be ‘modern’ anymore, it may have been relegated to systems programming, high performance libraries and embedded computing for the most part, but it is still an immensely powerful tool, a foundation upon which countless other technologies have sprung since the late 70s. UNIX, once considered a dying breed still powers, in the form of Mac OS X and Linux, the vast majority of smartphones, most servers connected to the internet and numerous other devices, from printers, to desktops, to routers.

It is hard for a non-technologist to comprehend dmr’s contribution as it is for a technologist to overstate it.

Once you start to understand how our modern devices work and how they’re created, it’s impossible to not be dizzy about the depth of everything that’s involved, and to not be in awe about the fact that they work at all, when Murphy’s law says that they simply shouldn’t possibly work.

For non-technologists, this is all a black box. That is a great success of technology: all those layers of complexity are entirely hidden and people can use them without even knowing that they exist at all.

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That is why the mainstream press and the general population has talked so much about Steve Jobs’ death and comparatively so little about Dennis Ritchie’s: Steve’s influence was at a layer that most people could see, while Dennis’ was much deeper. On the one hand, I can imagine where the computing world would be without the work that Jobs did and the people he inspired: probably a bit less shiny, a bit more beige, a bit more square. Deep inside, though, our devices would still work the same way and do the same things. On the other hand, I literally can’t imagine where the computing world would be without the work that Ritchie did and the people he inspired. By the mid 80s, Ritchie’s influence had taken over, and even back then very little remained of the pre-Ritchie world.

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