March 27th, 2013
Last month I received, with great excitement, five author copies of the new Japanese edition of my book, Generative Art. The translation was by the hugely talented Keisuke Oki, and it was completely redesigned by BNN (who also do a Japanese edition of Reas/Chandler’s Form+Code). My only contribution was a new forward and cover image.
It’s a beautiful edition, waaaay sexier than the US version. You can get it from amazon japan.
March 12th, 2013
“I think the craziest idea I have heard in the last few years is that everyone should learn to code. That is the most bizarre and regressive idea. There are good reasons why we don’t want everyone to learn nuclear physics, medicine or how financial markets work. Our entire modern project has been about delegating power over us to skilled people who want to do the work and be rewarded accordingly.”
- Evgeny Morozov, The Observer Sun 9th March 2013
Is it wrong to nurture a future where everyone can code? Is this really the craziest idea you’ve heard recently Mr Morozov? Yes, a workforce consisting of nothing but expert coders would be an unhelpful distribution of talent in a complex society, but is it really “bizarre and regressive” to argue for every citizen being given a rudimentary understanding of the 21st Century’s defining skill?
There is a grain of sense in Morozov’s position, a society doesn’t need everyone to study nuclear physics, medicine or finance. Nor gardening, burger-flipping or governance. But there are very good reasons for educating our children to a certain standard in all the above.
Take one of Morozov’s parallels, medicine: could a society function if it’s masses knew nothing of the workings of their own bodies. If they were blissfully oblivious to how sugar and carbohydrate consumption might effect their long-term health, or how smoking could potentially reduce their lifespan. If they all thought they were dying the day they experienced their first nosebleed.
This is not too far from how a digital society might behave with a mass citizenship of code-illiterates. A world where everything is touched by code, from algorithmically-generated shopping recommendations to the timer on their cooker, but it’s people don’t understand the underlying logic. This is not a future scenario, it is the present. It is the past. It is the world which panicked over the Y2K bug, to the hilarity of the techno-literate, as they invoiced their equally hilarious consultancy fees. You want bizarre and regressive, look no further.
Rudimentary biology, unlike coding, is taught in both schools and the home, so every citizen has at least an entry-level knowledge of the field of medicine. This means that if you suffer a headache, you have the confidence to risk self-medication. You do not need to hire a specialist to make the diagnosis. And you do not need to spend your recovery contemplating why the cost of those specialists is so extortionate.
This is how we coders make a living. We have an un-general knowledge. We don’t panic when an automated system misbehaves. We understand the problems, because we understand the language. It is a language too few speak, but on which too much depends. Which is why our day-rates are so high. We do very well out of it, but even coders don’t argue that this is a good model for the future.
If you think medicine might be a slightly extreme analogy, lets try another of Morozov’s three comparisons: the financial market. We are currently suffering the fallout of a banking crisis. Every western working-class man, woman and child is feeling the consequences of the misuse and exploitation of a financial system few fully understand. This is a perfect example of what can happen when the complexity of a subject evolves too far beyond what the averagely-educated can digest. The main reason the bankers have been able to act with such an unhealthy self-interest for so long is because there aren’t enough non-bankers to review their actions. A nation of armchair-financial-analysts may be a fantasy, but such a scenario would have created pressure for regulation much more effectively than any of our world governments have.
No, we don’t need everyone to be a financial expert, doctor or programmer. But we also should not promote a future where we over-specialise these skills. The coders need to be kept in check just as much as the bankers, the doctors and the nuclear physicists.
Fortunately the coders, with their adorable geeky iconoclasm, tend to be better self-regulators than most. Coders open-source. They teach, and they share. The good ones do anyway. By these self-initiated peer(and non-peer)-review mechanisms they are subconsciously ensuring they do not go unchecked. They aren’t cocaine-fueled city-boys. They don’t want to become an all-powerful über-class. They’re they ones who read all those distopian sci-fi novels remember.
But are we going to rely on their beatitude forever? It’s still breakfast-time in the long summers day of our logic-based future. And the world is full of bastards. Who’s to say if the open-source philosophy will survive?
How The 21st Century Works
Ultimately, your feelings on this matter will depend upon your politics. If you have utter faith in top-down hierarchies, where “better” men (usually men), however they earned their positions, are trusted to make the decisions that effect your life, then you are probably more sympathetic to Morozov’s position than I am. A super-class of hyper-skilled über-nerds taking care of all that math stuff you don’t want to think about sounds fine to you. And if our society became perverted by the coders being more self-interested than intended, that is an acceptable side effect.
But if you believe society is better governed by and for the people, you will see the appeal in an evenly distributed future. The irony is that having an understanding of coding may make it easier to grasp concepts like emergence; this grass-roots, self-organised, “wisdom of crowds” type stuff; as it can be beautifully demonstrated in code.
Yes – learning to code may change your politics. I could see the conspiracy theorists seizing upon this as a reason for the patriarchy’s lack of enthusiasm for curriculum coding, for fear of undermining their archaic power structures. I wouldn’t go that far, but I wholeheartedly disagree with Morozov’s opinion that the modern project is reliant on “delegating power over us to skilled people who want to do the work and be rewarded accordingly”. To progress we need to move forward together, en-masse. It’s neither prudent, practical, nor morally acceptable, to leave stragglers trailing behind while strivers push hard at the forefront. Try walking your human-centipede that way and see how far you get.
As William Gibson, one of the patron saints of hackers, famously said, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed”. It is the distribution of these skills that is the essential next stage in our stumble toward an enlightened, democratic, technological future. Everyone should learn to code. Just as everyone should learn mathematics. Or their native tongue. Not to become mathematicians, or novelists, but in order to understand how the 21st Century works.
December 14th, 2012
Post-fatherhood he’d found himself settling. Literally. His centre of gravity had crept downwards in the last five and half years, since the boy was born. His mass sucked back to earth, gathering in a buttress around the middle, casting his now neglected groin into shadow. Five years ago his skinny-fit shirts looked good, and had him frequently mistaken for gay (a sure acknowledgement that one’s personal grooming was working). Now he had the kind of belly toddlers liked to bounce on.
His face too had suffered, remodelled to accommodate his diminished pride. Concentrations of hair had shifted around his skull like continental drift. The retreating coastline of scalp, the new uneven brush of stubble. His forehead was an eroded cliff face, his chin a prothesis of neglect. The features between huddled awkwardly, as if his nose were the only bus shelter in a storm.
His swagger was the one thing behind the curve, still playing catchup. He walked with the confidence of a much hotter man, one with bigger, more virile, balls. Not these shrivelled, receded lumps; twin mushrooms in the fungal darkness of his Marks & Spencer creased acrylic trousers. The boldness of his stride, preceding the stomach-led shopping trolley of his frame, made him a perpetual disappointment to everyone who met him.
But luckily this was 2013, a time that was kind to his ilk. Interaction was rarely something which needed a physical presence, so he devoted his attention to grooming his social media presence instead. In this more dignified virtual reality he maintained an illusion of grandeur. He spoke wisely on the subject of web standards. His CSS templates were very popular. He didn’t need friends. He had followers.
November 2nd, 2012
Audio reactive solids. Work in progress (with futuredeluxe).
November 1st, 2012
Found, rattling around the bottom of my life box:
Many options = hard choices. Few options = easy choices. Reduce options, increase happiness.
Mon Aug 24 15:20:42 +0000 2009
… if increasing options reduces happiness, then freedom/capitalism/democracy are our biggest sources of misery.
Mon Aug 24 16:03:19 +0000 2009
It’s logically sound, but am I arguing in favour of Totalitarianism here? Would the happiness we’d gain from simpler choices be negated if we knew someone or something was limiting those choices? Do we overrate freedom of choice, or is the right to have more options than are good for us more valuable than happiness?
May need more thought.