A Personal Computer for Children of All Cultures

  • Ramsey Nasser
Keywords: programming, arabic, language, text, culture


The Arabic script presents something of a worst-case scenario to the pervasive assumption that, in computing, when we say "text" we really mean "American English". The Anglo-centric bias is most obvious in the world of computer programming. Every programming language in serious use today uses keywords, punctuation, and names taken from English, most often using the American spelling. This creates an unspoken requirement for entry into the field: familiarity with English is an absolute requirement for programmers everywhere in the world. Further, be a truly exceptional programmer, fluency in English is a must. As a confrontation, the قلب project presents a programming language derived entirely from Arabic and where Latin characters constitute a syntax error. Despite قلب's success in achieving a non-Latin programming experience, it fails in a revelatory way: its inability to handle English words means it cannot build on the last sixty years of tools, libraries, and protocols readily available to English-based programming languages, placing it at a permanent disadvantage. Software only ever builds on software that came before it, and that necessitates invoking named things using the exact names chosen by their original authors. At every level of computing, the names we've inherited are exclusively in English. Humans need to name things to manage complexity, but naming is a deeply cultural act whose implications project far into the future. This turns out to be the impassable barrier that doomed قلب – and indeed any similar project seeking to liberate programmers from western hegemony – to failure.

Author Biography

Ramsey Nasser
Ramsey Nasser is a computer scientist, game designer, and educator based in Brooklyn. He researches programming languages by building tools to make computing more expressive and makes work that questions the basic assumptions we make about code itself. His games playfully push people out of their comfort zones, and are often built using experimental tools of his design. Ramsey is a former Eyebeam fellow and a professor at schools around New York. When he is not reasoning about abstract unintuitive machines, he goes on long motorcycle trips.
How to Cite
Nasser, Ramsey. 2018. “A Personal Computer for Children of All Cultures”. In Decolonising the Digital: Technology As Cultural Practice, 21-36. Sydney: Tactical Space Lab. http://ojs.decolonising.digital/index.php/decolonising_digital/article/view/PersonalComputer.