Saturday, March 3, 2012

Code Versus Composition

In recent months voices in the media that have been encouraging lay people to learn to code.  First, Douglas Rushkoff published a piece on CNN title "Learn to Code" which is many ways just a coda to Program or be Programmed.  And second, CodeAcademy was launched which presents itself as a quick and easy way to learn to code online. 

Given how ubiquitous code is becoming in life (to wit: as I write this, code is processing my typing and is also providing the medium through which you read this) it seems plausible to think of code as a possible new basic literacy that gives definition to the ideal of an educated person.  Since I'm about to begin teaching code in the fall I welcome this interest: it adds to the marketability of my teaching as well as that of my colleagues.  And it's nice to see it portrayed for what it is: an activity that in addition to being intrinsically fun also leads to exciting rumunerative careers.  But is it really a basic literacy?

I'm of two minds about it.  On the one hand, it is plausible to think of it as a literacy which everyone should have:

For one thing, code, like the printed word, is everywhere.  In a culture that doesn't read or write composition doesn't have much use.  It isn't a basic literacy.  But once reading and writing become entrenched in everyday activities it does become a basic literacy.  Given how widely code has spread, it would seem like the same logic would apply here too.  Code is everywhere so everyone needs to understand code. 

For another thing, like the activity of writing, the activity of coding trains our minds to think in ways that give order to a world that  probably could use a little more ordering (pace Max Weber fears of the world as an over-rationalized iron cage).  Composition illuminates.  Coding also illuminates.  Ergo, code and composition are (or at least have become) basic literacies.

Finally, code increasingly has become the way we interface with tools.  Why is this important?  More so than any other species, we are our tools. As Winston Churchill once said, "We shape our buildings, and then they shape us."  Similarly, we shape our tools and then they shape us.  But to keep that reshaping a two-way street, and to make sure we don't just devolve into whatever machines want us to become, we have to shape our tools.  And if you want to be directly part of the shaping, these days you have to know how to code.

On the other hand, in spite of the above rationales, I'm not quite ready to accept coding as a literacy that is as basic as composition:

For one thing, while code is everywhere, it's embedded and hidden in our machines.  It doesn't pop up unmediated on a street sign, or on a Hallmark card or in an email or in a newspaper editorial.  Even programmers don't ordinarily use code to navigate through a new town, to write a valentine, or to refine a political position. 

For another thing, code is primarily used to communicate with machines.  You don't use it (without ancillary devices) to connect and bond and lead an initiative with other people.  The CNN piece reports that Mayor Bloomberg has taken up the challenge to code.  Who knows, maybe he actually went through with it.  But I doubt his coding skills have brought much more civic order to New York.  Code ( to follow an Aristotelian paradigm )  is a language which gives order to our material lives.  But, (at least until the programmers take over our spiritual and political lives) it isn't the language we use to sermonize or legislate about political matters. 

For a final thing it may be true that our tools shape our humanity and that in turn, our code shapes our tools.  But that doesn't mean we can't shape the programmers who code our tools.  In effect, we're not fated to have our destiny controlled by machines just because we don't personally code.  We can control out destiny and shape our tools by hiring a programmer.

Ok.  So where does that leave us?  If you are  Mayor Bloomberg, or  Audrey Watters (a technology commentator who has dived into CodeAcademy) or Miriam Posner or the legion of other people who've taken up Rushkoff or CodeAcademy's call to code:  Take heart! It's fun! And yes, coders are changing the world and our definition of what it means to be human.  But that task isn't the province of coders alone.  Nor, despite their best efforts, is it ever likely to be.    

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