We Should All Learn How to Code

As I noted in my last post, most of us “regular folk” are computer code illiterate. We have no idea how a string of alphanumeric characters come together to result in software, websites, and mobile apps. We understand that binary is the idea that everything can be reduced to ones and zeros, but we wouldn’t be able to actually generate a conversion. We have no frame of reference by which to evaluate whether shows like Mr. Robot or Halt and Catch Fire resemble any form of reality. 

Rami Malek as Elliot in Mr. Robot

Yet we are living in the Digital Age. The Information Age. The age in which so much of our lives is dictated by code. Gradually every nook and cranny of our everyday spaces are becoming connected to the Internet. This is the so-called Internet of Things, which is making inanimate objects “smart”.
And behind every iteration of this digital revolution are lines and lines of code.

Only a small percentage of (usually highly educated) individuals are fluent in this language of code. While on the surface our digital lives may seem easily customizable, the reality is that “systems, protocols, algorithms, and ‘codes’ of the technology usually remain locked” (20). This quote is from a book by Ramesh Srinivasan entitled Whose Global Village? Rethinking How Technology Shapes Our World. In the book, Srinivasan, as both a software engineer and a scholar, brings attention to the invisible forms of ordering in the world that are brought into existence through code, visible only to those, like Srinivasan, who have the necessary literacy to comprehend them.

Srinivasan’s work speaks loudly to the necessity of making visible these digital and invisible lines of power. Code cannot remain the language of the Silicon Valley privileged male. Code must be recognized as a global language as important as English—a language that shapes and frames the ways in which power flows, in which social and economic transactions take place, in which new societal structures and systems are formed. I would argue that in today’s digital age, true democracy is not possible without such digital and programming literacy afforded to the public.

Ian Bogost begins to argue this with his concept of “procedural rhetoric.” He suggests that procedural rhetoric is a form of rhetoric that is embedded in the logic of most digital objects but that it tends to be overlooked in an educational system focused on verbal and visual rhetoric. (For more on procedural rhetoric, see this earlier post.) But I don’t think procedural literacy is enough; I sincerely believe until the ability to read, write, and re-write programming is made mainstream, we will live in an oligarchical society organized and guided by the software elite.

If this opinion sounds overwrought, one only has to consider the recent U.S. elections as evidence of the power that the digital holds over the public. Evidence has now emerged that explicitly links both Russian use of digital spaces and the involvement of Silicon Valley corporations such as Facebook with the surprising outcome of the election. Congress can interrogate and threaten Silicon Valley as much as it likes, but the power such technological centers hold over information will remain until that power is dispersed among the people. Srinivasan refers to this power over information as the new oil of the digital economy, and he too argues that Silicon Valley is redefining democracy.

So what type of tangible change am I suggesting? 

Well, to begin, I would recommend that our schools begin teaching programming languages from the elementary level. There are languages like Alice and Scratch that use drag and drop visual interfaces to introduce users to the fundamentals of programming. Other extracurricular activities, such as the FIRST LEGO Robotics League, provide fun, competitive and hands-on environments for students to learn about programming and programming logic. If our youth encounter programming at a young age, by the time they reach middle and high school, they will be ready to pick up more complex text-based languages like Python.

By scratch.mit.edu, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35453328

The second thing I would like to suggest is that we dissociate the act of learning a programming language from an outcome of attaining a software-oriented career. Currently, much of the rhetoric around learning how to code is about diversifying Silicon Valley or about empowering the next generation to procure well-paying jobs. Both of these objectives are valuable; however, it is imperative that we begin to see code as a language that affects all of us, regardless of our societal roles. It is our right and responsibility to be well-versed in the language(s) that are shaping the world.

Of course, the first step is to begin with ourselves. Both my parents and both my brothers are programmers, but I had only briefly dabbled in a little BASIC (because my mom made me in high school) and of course some HTML (to customize my high school Xanga page). Last semester, however, I became increasingly convicted that if I was to write about the digital realm, I needed to up my game and become at least proficient in a popular programming language. So beginning this past winter break, I have begun to teach myself Python using my mother’s online course for high schoolers. It’s been quite the adventure, sometimes exhilarating and oftentimes extremely frustrating. You can follow my progress on Twitter:

Although I’m only in module 5 of the course, I am already developing a basic understanding of how code works and the kind of decisions and logic that go into designing any piece of software. I have no illusions of pursuing a career in programming, but as my literacy grows, I am seeing how my perception of the digital realm is also changing.

If you’d like to join me on this journey, you can either check out my mom’s course, or you can look into a free site like Codecademy. I’ll be sharing some of my revelations here and on Twitter. If you decide to start learning to code too, please reach out and tell me about your experience! 

(Please note that some of this post was adapted from a response paper written for my Global Media and Society course from fall 2017.)

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