FEEDmag's hacker interview series: Larry Wall

Rohit Khare (rohit@uci.edu)
Fri, 12 Feb 1999 19:42:41 -0800

Divine Invention
Author Erik Davis talks to Perl creator Larry Wall

He has quoted scripture before crowds of hackers. He glides from
notions of devotion and divinity to the nuts and bolts of
evolutionary programming. And his progeny is just about everywhere on
the Web.

Larry Wall, a linguist and self-effacing polymath, is the creator of
the popular and ubiquitous Perl programming language. (Perl stands
for "Practical Extraction and Report Language" or, if Wall is in the
mood, "Pathologically Eclectic Rubbish Lister.") Created over ten
years ago with contributions and critiques of volunteer hackers, Perl
is widely considered the "duct-tape" that holds the Internet
together. It's used for a gigantic array of tasks -- at Yahoo!, a
"grim reaper" written in Perl crawls through links to see if they're
still active. It's used to create HTML pages on the fly, even to
build bulletin boards like here in FEED's own Loop.
Perl isn't Wall's only passion. Wall is also a serious evangelical
Christian, a member (and webmaster) of the New Life Church's
Cupertino Church of the Nazarene. He's one of the few overtly
religious figures in the pantheon of programmers, For him, language,
code, and faith are -- in a Perl-like mix -- glued together.
Wall is the son and grandson of preachers, which means his
Christianity is bred to the bone. Like other denominations that
descend from John Wesley, the 18th-century founder of Methodism,
Wall's church embraces the idea of entire sanctification: an act of
God can cleanse the human heart from original sin and fill the person
with the desire to serve God and humankind -- as Jesus proclaimed,
"He who wishes to be greatest among you must become servant of all."
Wall is driven to build bridges between seemingly contrary
worldviews, and his curious speeches-- which reference everything
from Richard Feynman to Bilbo Baggins -- are the work of a man who
thinks like he hacks (or vice versa). Wall's talks also demonstrate
his love of goofy noise. During the following phone interview, the
conversation was occasionally interrupted by various prerecorded
bells, whistles, and hallelujah choruses that someone or something
had triggered inside Wall's thoroughly wired home in Mountain View,
--Erik Davis Author of Techgnosis: Myth, Magic + Mysticism in the Age
of Information

Divine Invention
Author Erik Davis talks to Perl creator Larry Wall
FEED: Let's say I am an alien anthropologist, studying computer
languages, and I came across Perl. What's going to grab me?
WALL: One of the things that's going to grab you as an anthropologist
is the fact that there really is an anthropological story here. Most
other computer languages are pretty sterile. They're about
technology. The difference with Perl is that I decided to create the
culture at the same time as I was creating the language. My
background is in both computers and linguistics... I put more ideas
from linguistics into Perl than is typical in computer science.
FEED: What are some of those ideas?
WALL: The first and foremost is that natural [spoken] languages are
not minimalistic. They are optimized for expressiveness rather than
for simplicity. Right off the bat, that's something that's anathema
to the typical computer scientist.
FEED: 'Natural language' implies a kind of messiness that allows for
different users to arise, depending on different needs and
WALL: ...Especially by virtue of the fact that many people have bent
it to their own task. Since it was not designed by a single person,
nobody enforces a single design philosophy on it. But by the same
token, it's rich enough that you can bend it to optimize for many
different things. You can write poetry, you can write manuals, you
can write recipes, you can write love letters. You can call plays in
a football huddle, and you can babble.
FEED: Where does 'anthropology' come in?
WALL: Anthropology came from missionary training that my wife and I
went through. It was with an outfit called the Summer Institute of
Linguistics, which is affiliated with the Wycliffe Bible Translators.
Their job is to go out and learn languages that have not been written
down before, do a linguistic analysis of the language, come up with a
writing system and then translate various things, including the
The biggest job they do during these summer training sessions is to
break people out of their preconceptions. In all cultures, people
identify their culture with universal truth in a way that confuses
issues. Particularly Americans. The goal of a missionary is not to go
out and build a little white church with a steeple out in the middle
of nowhere. That's a cultural thing, not a universal truth...
[With Perl], I was trying to encourage what I call diagonal thinking.
Traditionally computer languages try to be as orthogonal as possible,
meaning their features are at all at right angles to each other,
metaphorically speaking. The problem with that is that people don't
solve problems that way. If I'm in one corner of a park and the
restrooms are in the opposite corner of the park, I don't walk due
east and then due north. I go northeast -- unless there's a pond in
the way or something.
I am told that when they built the University of California at
Irvine, they did not put in any sidewalks the first year. Next year
they came back and looked at where all the cow trails were in the
grass and put the sidewalks there. Perl is designed the same way.
It's not just a random collection of features. It's a bunch of
features that look like a decent way to get from here to there. If
you look at the diagram of an airline, it's a network. Perl is a
network of features... It's more like glue than it is like Legos.
FEED: And that's reflected in the culture that has developed around Perl?
WALL: I not only want Perl to be a good 'glue' language, I want Perl
people to be good 'glue' people.
FEED: What makes a good 'glue' person?
WALL: Let me distinguish two different kinds of joiners. You have
people who will join a movement and be totally gung-ho about it.
That's great. We need the cheerleaders.
But that's merely a form of tribalism. What we also try to encourage
are the kind of joiners who join many things. These people are like
the intersection in a Venn diagram, who like to be at the
intersection of two different tribes. In an actual tribal situation,
these are the merchants, who go back and forth between tribes and
actually produce an economy. In theological terms we call them
In terms of Perl language, these are the people who will not just sit
there and write everything in Perl, but the people who will say: Perl
is good for this part of the problem, and this other tool is good for
that part of the problem, so let's hook 'em together. They see Perl
both from the inside and from the outside, just like a missionary.
That takes a kind of humility, not only on the part of the person,
but on the language. Perl does not want to make more of itself than
it is. It's willing to be the servant of other things.
FEED: In one of your keynote speeches to the Perl community, you note
that you've tried to model the Perl movement on another movement that
you're a member of: Christianity. How so?
WALL: That's more difficult to talk about, not because it's
embarrassing but because it works at a lower level in my psyche. I
was born and bred to it at that level. I've always been on the church
scene, and I've seen healthy churches and I've seen sick churches. I
have a low-down feel for when things are being healthy and when
they're not, particularly in terms of the relationships between
A great deal of my theological thinking has been driven by the notion
of trying to see truth from God's viewpoint... I consider the theory
of evolution to be by and large proven. And if that's the case, then
from God's viewpoint, that has to be desirable. Why would God want to
do it that way? Why would God want to use a seemingly random process
to come up with more complex organisms?
Well, it's a way of being creative. If you look at almost any game
that people play, they are sitting there throwing dice. It's also how
artists work, particularly fiction writers. A good artist blends
random-seeming factors with intentional factors into a pleasing
pattern. To me that's the mark of a better artist than somebody who
can simply crank out a perfect picture of something you can see.
Cameras can do that. But that's still the view people have of how God
has to operate. They still think there's only one right way to make
the universe, so this has to be it. Essentially that's depriving God
of free will -- not to mention us!
FEED: A lot of people who consider God and evolution fall on one side
or the other, or just ignore the contradiction. You seem to be
building bridges between them.
WALL: It would be easy to compartmentalize, and many people have.
Being a synthesist, that option was not open to me. I always have to
consider everything. There are people who throw out various parts of
their input in order to try to simplify, but I just don't feel like I
can do that. Beyond that, I feel like in a very particular way, God
put me here to be an example of how you integrate seemingly
contradictory things.
FEED: Why did you not become a missionary?
WALL: It turns out that I am allergic to a lot of things: seafood,
wheat, eggs, tomatoes. People who are working out in the field can't
afford to be picky about what they are eating. But the training that
I got was invaluable for what I was going to do later. I just didn't
know it at the time. A couple of years back I got email from somebody
who was working at Wycliffe and didn't know that I had been
affiliated with them. He said, "By the way, we use Perl for all sorts
of things here." I wrote back to him and said, "You really made my
day. No, you made my life."
But in a sense I am still a missionary. I kind of consider myself an
apostle to the hackers.
FEED: The hacker community is full of very cantankerous and
opinionated individuals. Have you gotten much grief for being so open
about your Christian beliefs?
WALL: I've had no difficulty with it. It's been amazing. I think
people recognize that I like them. I see God looking down on all
these weird, cantankerous people, and kinda liking them, in an
artistic fashion. And so I can't help but sort of like them either,
for all their foibles. There are certainly a bunch of what I would
clearly label sinners out there. But they are real people, and they
have real problems, and they just need real help...
The only thing that can be condemned is failure to improve. It's a
very simple thing, to...decide, it's going to be different now. You
only have to have faith the size of a mustard seed. Jesus is doing
the heavy work.
FEED: How did your theological and programming philosophies come to overlap?
WALL: I don't tend to modularize my thinking. When I was growing up,
I had to stop reading science fiction for a number of years, because
I couldn't deal with it. I was growing up in a fundamentalist church,
and I had a particular worldview, and typical science fiction is a
fairly atheistic worldview. I really couldn't deal with that at that
age. What I recognized is that I was compartmentalizing, and rejected
it. It shows that I was already thinking about those things then,
trying to make it all work together.
FEED: You have said that, "We need God, the ultimate in control, and
we need evolution, the ultimate in chaos." A lot of people are
content with the evolution. What is missing from the universe of the
selfish gene?
WALL: Any notion of purpose. Any notion of morality. Any notion of obligation.
FEED: Many hackers think in strictly evolutionary terms, which tends
to hedge against or even deny the kind of "morality" and "purpose"
you describe. Has the pervasiveness of that worldview resulted in
some of the less seemly aspects of the software scene?
WALL: The chief proponents of atheism in the 20th century were
perhaps the communists. They produced a culture that was very
coercive at some level. There are aspects of software culture that
are very coercive. Certainly on the commercial end, there's a great
deal of coercion that everyone recognizes. But also on the opposite
extreme. For the folks who believe that information should be free,
or shared among all, it's a communal thing. I view them as the people
who want to gather all the farmers onto a collective. My take on
giving away software is that this sort of thing should not be
coerced. I much prefer the U.S. model, where if I want to help
somebody out I can donate to them of my own free will, not at the
point of a gun.
FEED: You want to find a middle way between these very different
collectivist extremes.
WALL: Yes, I'm not into a hive mentality. What the extremists sort of
want is this notion that we are all workers in this hive, and we all
contribute, but we don't have any individual rights -- except the
right to everything, whatever that means. The theological notion that
we are each individually valuable in the sight of God puts a
different viewpoint on what humans really want and how they should
treat each other.
To me, the whole core of the Christian message is that God, who is
this cosmic author, wrote himself into his own story, and proved
himself to be more humble, and a better man than any of the rest of
us. Anyone who aspires to be a cosmic artist, or a not so cosmic
artist, really ought to be looking into the same system of doing
FEED: Your role as the artist-honcho of the Perl movement involves
both control and loss of control. What guides your hand?
WALL: I definitely try to exercise as little control as possible. I
am reminded of Tolkien in his preface to the Lord of the Rings, where
he writes that he prefers manufactured history to allegory, because
allegory is the purposeful domination of the author. Any good leader
who is actually trying to encourage good sub-leadership will try to
exercise as little power as possible. If I were a domineering sort of
person, then people would not feel comfortable taking positions of
leadership within the Perl community. The fact that I don't abuse my
power is what lets me keep my power.

FEED: In one of your speeches you quote Jesus: "He who wishes to be
greatest among you must become the servant of all." You
link that idea to the "onion" of the Perl community, where you are at
the center but the real action is along the periphery...

WALL: I can be up here in front of the Perl community and kind of be
their demigod, and I can make jokes about getting a swelled head, and
I don't have to not be that kind of leader merely because I think
that I have to be humble. That's not what humility is. I think God
put me here for a reason. I remember walking down the halls in my
high school and getting this tremendous sense of destiny. Like I was
supposed to do something really great. It was a really weird feeling.
I feel like if I have an accurate view of myself, it frees me to be
both humble and a megalomaniac at the same time.