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Should Everyone Learn to Code?

April 30, 2012

Since the beginning of the Computer Age, there has been this persistent fear that one day, computers will become smarter than we are. In the most pessimistic scenarios this means nothing less than the complete annihilation of the human race. We fear an artificial intelligence that can think and feel like a human can. This fear may be misplaced; we are generations away from this type of computer intelligence. But perhaps we are asking all of the wrong questions. Instead of wondering if this could happen, we should ask ourselves why this possibility scares us.

Steve Jobs: Modern Prometheus.

As technology becomes more and more complex, the average user understands it less and less. This forms a knowledge chasm that appears impassable. It may also explain why Steve Jobs was idolized by so many; like Prometheus, Jobs delivered the fire of the gods (iPhone, iPad, iPod) to mere mortals. He bridged the impassable chasm by making products that appeared simple and intuitive enough to understand. Only, Jobs’s bridge was constructed of paper and glue. He hid the complexities of his products behind a veneer of simple design and total functionality. He made us believe that we, the average user, could understand and control our computers.

Of course, we can understand and control our computers. Computers are dumb, requiring the commands of a programmer in order to operate. Do you know the language of your computer? Is it irresponsible not to know?

The Importance of Code

Peel back a website to its source code and you will see a string of letters, numbers, and symbols, the architecture of the Internet. This is code. The Internet, smartphones, computers, video game consoles, this website – all governed by the digital languages we call code. Look at the image below. On the left is this website. On the right is the same page of the website broken down into the code that defines it.

Mirror image.

Code underwrites the “magic” of modern electronics. There is nothing special or remarkable about your smartphone or your laptop computer. Each requires an input from the user before producing the right output. A computer requires the user to tell it what to do. Programmers make this easy for us; they write the codes that tell our computers what to do. When we click a button and are taken to the right screen, we have the programmer to thank. The programmer writes elegant code that tells the computer what to do so that we don’t have to.

Should We All Learn Code?

Recently, company FreeCause asked all of its employees to learn how to code. CEO Michael Jaconi explained the decision this way: “[Coding] would arm our employees with a new skill set, bring our technical and non-technical teams closer together, and provide the entire company with a deeper understanding and appreciation of what we do.” To put it simply, learning code would mean that all FreeCause employees spoke the same language.

Separated by the knowledge chasm.

In our technologically reliant society, is it irresponsible to remain ignorant of code? I argue yes. We should not remain content to allow so-called experts set the parameters for our Internet use. While we need not become experts ourselves, we must understand the languages of the digital age in order to participate in this ongoing dialogue about privacy, use, and protection. To remain ignorant of code is to silence our voices in conversation that directly impacts our lives.

The language of programming is not inaccessible. Take a course online. Join Codecademy. Watch a video on YouTube. Take a book out from your local library. Your options are limitless, your excuses negligible. It’s more important than ever to have at least a basic understanding of code. Start now.

AXIOM #5: As technology becomes more and more complex, the average user understands it less and less.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Sissy permalink
    April 30, 2012 12:19 PM

    Even though I only have a rudimentary understanding of computers, I feel secure in the knowledge that, should an AI apocalypse occur, I own a hammer.

  2. April 30, 2012 8:44 PM

    A hammer’s a good start. You will probably also need a bucket. I always found that a pair of pliers was the most handy tool of all. Hey, now we’re ready!

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