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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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November 12 2010

Program or be Programmed

On my way home from some meeting I finally had the time to finish “Program or be Programmed” by Douglas Rushkoff. It’s a rather short book, you can finish it easily in one evening/sitting and it oulines 10 important rules for living in our digital age. The rules (and also the chapters of the book) are:

  1. TIME
    Do Not Be Always On
  2. PLACE
    Live in Person
    You May Always Choose None of the Above
    You Are Never Completely Right
  5. SCALE
    One Size Does Not Fit All
    Be Yourself
    Do Not Sell Your Friends
  8. FACT
    Tell the Truth
    Share, Don’t Steal
    Program or Be Programmed

I looked at some of the clippings I had from the book and thought I’d share a few to help you get an impression of the book:

On the new connected cybernetic organism:

But the cybernetic organism, so far, is more like a cybernetic mob than new collective human brain.

Some examples on disruptive technologies that were supposed to change the way people interact and express themselves:

The Axial Age invention of the twenty-two-letter alphabet did not lead to a society of literate Israelite readers, but a society of hearers, who would gather in the town square to listen to the Torah scroll read to them by a rabbi. Yes, it was better than being ignorant slaves, but it was a result far short of the medium’s real potential.

the invention of the printing press in the Renaissance led not to a society of writers but one of readers; except for a few cases, access to the presses was reserved, by force, for the use of those already in power.

On technology bias (every technology has one):

It may be true that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”; but guns are a technology more biased to killing than, say, clock radios.

On a paradigm shift in reasearching on the Internet:

Instead, net research is more about engaging with data in order to dismiss it and move on—like a magazine one flips through not to read, but to make sure there’s nothing that has to be read. Reading becomes a process of elimination rather than deep engagement. Life becomes about knowing how not to know what one doesn’t have to know.

On abstraction and economy:

The existing bias of business toward abstraction combined with the net’s new emphasis on success through scale yielded a digital economy with almost no basis in actual commerce, the laws of supply and demand, or the creation of value.

On “user friendlyness” and why that is not a smart idea:

The idea was to turn the highly transparent medium of computing into a more opaque one, like television. Interfaces got thicker and more supposedly “user friendly” while the real workings of the machine got buried further in the background. The easy command-line interface (where you just type a word telling the machine what you want it to do) was replaced with clicking and dragging and pointing and watching. It’s no coincidence that installing a program in Windows required us to summon “The Wizard”—not the helper, the puppy, or even that “Paper Clip Man.” No, we needed the Wizard to re-mystify the simple task of dragging an application into the applications folder, and maybe a database file somewhere else.

I recommend that book to everybody who is interested in the Internet and who considers him or herself as “living online”.

UPDATE: Kevin Mark suggested this video of Douglas Rushkoff presenting his ideas at the Courant Institute NYU

Douglas Rushkoff – Program or Be Programmed

There’s also an interview covering some of the topics in the book here:

Douglas Rushkoff: Program or Be Programmed from DANGEROUS MINDS on Vimeo.

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