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,
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
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
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.