If Everyone Spoke Code

“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?

Self-Medicating Societies

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.

Bastard Over-Specialists

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.



posted March 12th, 2013



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Elliott Ruga said...

I don’t speak a word of Japanese but that does not interfere with my utter enjoyment of Miyazaki films. I never have been, nor do I aspire to become a coder. But I understand the logic foundation that our machines and devices operate under. I have become the de facto IT expert in my office, piloting my mates’ machines back into service after crashes, viruses, failures, not because I know any better than having faith that determining why a document won’t print is no different than troubleshooting why my automobile won’t turn over–whether a ’65 beetle or a late model hybrid. It isn’t necessary to pursue an MBA to demystify finance, or an MD to understand medicine, or to study coding to change a background color of a webpage by changing html parameters. Perhaps it’s a matter of confidence, which demystifies practically anything. Perhaps it’s a lack of confidence–closely related to laziness– and not a lack of expertise, that allows for unchecked malfeasance and greed in the banking world and any other seat of power.


Brendan said...

Morozov misses an important point which is that coding is more like playing football than it is like nuclear physics, especially in the relationship between effort and benefit.

You can spend a bit of time learning how to play football and extract some enjoyment from playing it with friends. You are nowhere near being a professional player but it doesn’t matter – you’re already extracting benefit from your limited football skills.

It’s the same with coding. A rudimentary understanding of coding can help you deal with the day-to-day confusion that computers still cause for the uninitiated. A bit more coding knowledge and you can set up your own website or help friends & family do the same. Compared to machine code programmers you’re a rank amateur, but you’re still extracting benefit from what you’ve learnt.

With nuclear physics or medicine it’s more of an all-or-nothing proposition. If you spend a month, or even six months, reading books about nuclear physics it’s not going to help you in any practical sense. You need to spend many many years and by the time you come out the other end it will define you; you’re a nuclear physicist. In the same way, people don’t learn brain surgery as a hobby – they learn it to become brain surgeons.

Before the advent of the home computer you could have put coding in the same bucket as nuclear physics or medicine, but not any more.




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