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March 10 2013

On everyone being a programmer

Johl, one of the smartest people I know, once said during a public discussion:

Maybe programming is the Latin of our present?

Today in German High Schools you are still offered Latin as a choice for a second foreign language (everybody learns English first). The idea is that Latin allows you to learn other romance languages more quickly and while studying Latin texts of great thinkers and oratorsh you pick up many smart ideas and rhetorical devices along the way. Now I don’t really want to discuss the merits of Latin here (which would just lead to me cursing and ranting about the 5 years I had to spend with that dead language), but would it make sense to teach SPLWINJ (some programming language which is not Java) in schools?

The idea seems smart because in our algorithm– and data-driven world a basic understanding of how those things work conceptually could be considered to be integral for making rational decisions about how to deal with certain technologies.

On the other hand the idea of getting everyone to learn to code has become sort of a straw man: How would everybody find the time? Do we not have a society based on the division of labor? Why should everyone learn that one specific skill that many will never be able to use productively?

Since the Internet-Philosopher of the conservatives, Evgeny Morozov, has started his media campaign supporting the launch of his new book we can see that straw man daily: He tells the story of him realizing that the call to programming that he did support was bonkers and stupid and that nowadays he is way smarter.

Learning how to program is one way to understand how algorithms work, how data can be processed. But it is not the only way. In fact, a big part of the math students learn in school is just teaching algorithms. Hell, many of the things we do each day in our average lives are based on algorithms we never really made explicit, but use internally all the time: We don’t just pick a route to our target by random walk, we have different factors we aggregate to come to a conclusion what the best way would be.

Asking for programming lessons in schools opens the argument up for cheap shot, it effectively kills it. But we should not let the real argument which is that we need to give people the tools to understand what algorithms and data are if we want to develop our democracy further using technology.

The last part being the key part obviously. Mr. Morozov has spend the last years arguing against the use of technology and supporting a society of paternalistic experts instead of a society of equals — equals not in every specific skill but equals in participation. But I still believe that technology as a manifestation of our hopes and dreams as human beings can improve our political and social discourse, can remove gatekeepers and allow more people to have a meaningful part in our collective decision making.

So let’s just stop opening our flank to this cheap and dishonest sort of argument. We do not need new classes in schools, we do not need to force even more workload down our kids throats. Just as we integrate technology and the Internet in every course in school we also need to embed an understanding of how those technologies work into it by not just taking some result the magical black box we call computer returns but by reflecting those results, understanding their internal structure. Which is nothing new but something we have been teaching people to do with statistics and other pieces of data for years now. And we don’t need programming lessons for that.

P.S.: The desire to learn how to program will come for some by just realizing that it is neither so complex that you need to be a genius to do it and by wanting to do more, learn more or save time. It’s really nothing you can force.

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