Should everyone learn to code?

January 31, 2013 | 6 comments

I posted this the other day, blissfully unaware of how contentious it would be:

“Learning to code is non-optional in the 21st century.”

It’s a piece of hyperbole, of course; learning to code is perfectly optional. Nobody’s pointing a gun at your head and forcing you to do it. But here’s what many of my friends and contacts read into it:

  • People who can’t code are less valuable in the 21st century.
  • Coding is as important as, or more important than, learning to read, write, do math, or cook.

Of course, I didn’t say any of those things. It’s interesting that they were inferred, and that the idea that everyone should code was seen, generally, as being self-important and enthocentric from the perspective of the tech community.

Here’s why I said it:

  • Software technology is an integral part of all of our lives. It’s part of our environment, and will only become more so.
  • Coding gives us an increased level of control over our environment.
  • Without being able to make or alter software, you are relegated solely to being a consumer of it.
  • Learning to code is virtually free (if you already have a computer), and it’s not hard to get started.
  • The web in particular is a medium that has the potential of allowing anyone to contribute to it. I feel strongly, ideologically, that it should not be yet another medium where a few large companies dictate the form.

It’s also true that, in today’s economy, technology is one of the few growth industries, and having technology skills means you’re much more likely to be able to get a well-paying job. It’s also, generally speaking, not an elitist industry: most tech companies care much more about what you can do, rather than where you went to school (or even if you did). There are also no required professional qualifications to obtain. It’s a pretty good deal. All you need to do is know how to make things well, and you get to teach yourself. (Codeacademy and Mozilla Thimble: both fantastic.)

Far more importantly, technology isn’t going away. It’s not a fad; it’s ingrained in everything we do. There’s no reason at all why you should have to do it for a living – and obviously, there’s a universe of fulfilling career options out there – but understanding how technology works is empowering. It’s a 21st century literacy that will differentiate – as Douglas Rushkoff says – between the programmers and the programmed. And guess what: I do think that the people who understand how it works will ultimately be more valuable. They’ll make better technology decisions, which – as technology becomes more and more ingrained – will mean that they’ll make better decisions overall.

But hey, what do I know. What do you think? Was I out of line? Or is code as important a skill as I think it is?

Disrupt the mainstream

January 29, 2013 | 1 comment

Anonymous contre Acta à Rouen

“Mainstream culture,” as a concept, needs to die.

A little pre-history. The Diamond Sutra, a sacred Buddhist text and the world’s oldest surviving printed book, was produced in China in 868 AD. It took another couple of hundred years before moveable type was invented, and another four hundred years for the printing press to be invented. Almost six hundred years after the first printed book was created, it became possible to mass produce literature. Two hundred years after that, the first newspapers began to appear, but they didn’t reach large circulations for another two hundred years – a thousand years after the first book.

Because of the advances in the printing press that allowed for larger circulations, newspapers could be distributed over a much larger geographic area. Prior to that, they had mostly existed in communities, where the publishers were easily reached. An unintended side effect of wider distribution was that this feedback loop was eroded. Newspapers became a one-way medium; a trend that continued with the invention of newsreels, radio broadcasting, and the television. Almost simultaneously, manufacturing techniques improved to allow for mass-market products made out of new materials like plastics.

The separation wasn’t clean. Because of its capacity to reach large audiences quickly, both government and business had interests in the media that went well beyond (while embracing) traditional advertising. They underwrote content, leaned on the companies who produced it, censored both explicitly and implicitly, and created a media environment that sold not just products and ideas, but a way to live your life. More than ever before, there was a wrong way and a right way. There was a mainstream, and then there were niche interests. This had always been true to an extent, but the main route for lifestyle propaganda had previously been churches, who fearfully controlled the means of communication. In the modern age, the media itself began to take the place of religion. (Think about the semantics of the phrase “mass culture” for a second.) Business and government had a direct channel to get their messages to the people. At the time, this seemed like a liberation.

It wasn’t a liberation compared to what came next. The beginnings of the Internet showed up in 1969, not at all coincidentally during the peak of the counterculture movement in the sixties – the first cultural movement to challenge the mass-market status quo. Usenet showed up ten years later, allowing anyone to participate in semi-public discussions. Ten years after that, Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. Ten years after that, Napster was allowing anyone to trade music. A decade later, mass-market publishing was in free-fall.

For ordinary people, the utility of mass culture was coming to an end. Information was freely available without the involvement of businesses, governments or churches – both to consume and to produce. Anyone could publish, without anyone’s permission, no matter who or what they worshiped, where they had gone to school or how much money they had in their bank accounts. There were no corporate policies dictating who could be heard, and no slush piles where ideas that didn’t fit pre-defined marketing templates could languish. It was a free-for-all. Free as in speech.

In the middle ages, the church decried texts that defied its authority, often sentencing authors to death. In the 21st century we’re a little more laid back, but it’s nonetheless predictable that corners of the mass media, sensing that it’s under threat, have been arguing that Internet content is less reliable, or shady, even, contrary to the views held by the public. Meanwhile, proposed legislation like SOPA and PIPA and the Communications Decency Act were transparently aimed at neutering the new medium, and were often sponsored by the media companies themselves. (Wiser corners of both business and government have gone another way, and are simply buying these new media outlets.) Even now, opposition to SOPA is spun as a tech company triumph, while the truth is more subversive: the Internet is a grass-roots people connector, and it was the people who spoke in defense of their free speech.

Just as the media had fragmented from a few large organizations to something that every single person in the developed world could participate in, manufacturing is currently enduring the same kind of shock that publishing experienced. Sites like Kickstarter are flying in the face of traditional manufacturing processes, and allowing anyone to begin making products.

Mainstream culture was a construct. It was created partially by accident, because we were all consuming the same products and the same media, and partially on purpose, because people who conform to a set of ideals make better consumers from the manufacturers’ point of view and better citizens from government’s point of view. Once upon a time, it improved most of our lives through new manufacturing techniques and distribution models. In a world where this is no longer necessary, however, this imposed conformity is a kind of oppression. One need only look at the prevailing American ideals of strength over intellect, wealth over integrity, or the dismissal of “special interests”, to see a kind of fascism at work.

We’re all special interests. Humanity is beautiful because we’re all so different. We have dreams, ideals, values, goals and loves, and for each of us, down to a person, they’re all slightly different. That’s why democracy is so great – or at least, has the potential to be so great – and why freedom of speech is so important. We create a better society, and better lives for all of us, by embracing those differences and letting them form a patchwork, building something bigger together than the sum of all of us. Different ideas, cultural contexts, sexualities, abilities, preferences, characteristics, likes and dislikes; all of these are complementary as part of a bigger whole. The technology we build is there only to make our collective lives better; it doesn’t exist for itself, or so that we can make a profit. We’re building to progress. Technology is subversive, and always has been, because it empowers the previously unempowered. With the Internet, the time for enforced values has passed; we can all have a voice, and we can all have a media that serves us for who we really are. Ideas can and should be freely exchanged. People can and should be free to be themselves.

The concept of mainstream culture needs to become obsolete. That’s not to say that all the things in it can’t live on, enjoyed by audiences, or that the people who make their livings creating it can’t apply their skills to make new things for different kinds of people. That’s the point: it takes all sorts.

 
Photo: Anonymous contre Acta à Rouen by Frédéric Bisson, released under a Creative Commons license.

Which side are you on?

January 21, 2013 | 1 comment

Woodcraft FolkI grew up in a culture of counterculture politics. My parents met in Berkeley during the early seventies, which should tell you pretty much everything you need to know; they were, separately and together, involved in Vietnam protests, equal economic and political rights and liberties, tenants’ rights, and the environmental activities around Peoples’ Park. It’s partially in tribute to them that I, now, have settled in Berkeley myself, after a lifetime growing up in Britain. It still confounds me that it’s considered impolite to talk about politics in some circles, because growing up, it was impolite to not. Although I’m on a more capitalist trajectory, seeing the practical need to earn money as a form of self-protection and freedom, when push comes to shove I’m behind modern activist politics completely. These movements are not necessarily related, but I broadly support Occupy, WikiLeaks and Anonymous; I regularly donate (albeit relatively modest sums) to the EFF, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Planned Parenthood and the ACLU.

My politics often inform the projects I work on. Elgg was originally an angry response to the license fees and terms imposed by educational software, which siphons huge amounts of public money away from teaching. I became a part of latakoo because of its social mission to support journalism. I’m proud of both, but there’s no denying that both are commercial businesses, with investors and shareholders; a far cry from direct action.

In fact, publicly, to my shame, I’ve mostly been quiet. So have most of us.

On Friday, I attended an event for Internet Freedom Day, celebrating a year since SOPA was struck down, and also memorializing Aaron Swartz, who had a lot to do with that victory. One of the attendees was Peter Eckersley, the Technology Projects Director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who stood on a chair, gave a beautiful speech, and then called the Internet community to action: why are so many Americans, per capita, in prison? The problems of Aaron Swartz’s specific case are numerous, but isn’t this the larger problem? He suggested that this is the problem that Aaron would have preferred us to tackle.

And why can’t we, as a community, tackle this problem? Sure, it’s not specifically a technical problem. But the technology community can certainly help find a solution. We can use big data analysis to look at case reports, determine trends and potentially uncover problems. We can build systems to create better reporting of miscarriages of justice. And we can accept that the technology world is well-connected, wealthy and well-educated, and can make an enormous impact on any social issue if it chooses to. There are network effects to activism, and the tech community has strength in numbers.

This is exciting to me. I believe that activists like Aaron – and the thousands of likeminded people that we’ve never heard of – are extraordinarily brave, and prescient. I do think the tech sector is about to be more political, and I intend to lend my support, my skills and my momentum wherever it is needed. It’s an exciting time for all of us. It’s time for each of us to ask ourselves: do we want to change the world, really, on a societal level – or not?

Why 2012 was the best year ever – and how 2013 can be even better

December 26, 2012 | Leave a comment

Sunset silhouetteThe Spectator explains why 2012 was the best year in the history of the world:

It may not feel like it, but 2012 has been the greatest year in the history of the world. That sounds like an extravagant claim, but it is borne out by evidence. Never has there been less hunger, less disease or more prosperity. The West remains in the economic doldrums, but most developing countries are charging ahead, and people are being lifted out of poverty at the fastest rate ever recorded. The death toll inflicted by war and natural disasters is also mercifully low. We are living in a golden age.

This is a lovely piece of news to be greeted with at the end of the year. I disagree with the article in some ways – for example, it lauds fracking as delivering an era of energy abundance – but the message is one that’s easy to get behind. Our modern age is bringing about unprecedented human prosperity through connectedness and technology. One of the hallmarks of the Internet age is that national identity is being slowly replaced by an international identity – more and more, individuals are forming strong bonds with people in other nations, who they may never meet in person. It’s got a long way to go, but nationalism is slowly becoming extinct.

Wonderful! So, isn’t it time we dealt with the elephant in the room?

The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 54% higher than the 1990 baseline. That means it’s going to be almost impossible to limit global warming to the 2°C limit that was set just three years ago – which in itself wasn’t enough to prevent environmental disaster. That disaster isn’t abstract, and should worry you even if you don’t care about the environment itself: it translates directly to the death of at least 100 million people and severe economic troubles by 2030. Climate change touches everything, and again, even if you’re a money-orientated Randian who couldn’t give a jot about the rest of us, it will make you poorer. That should be enough to make even the staunchest conservatives sit up and take notice.

Of course, there are people who don’t believe in climate change at all, but the arguments against don’t hold water scientifically. (That last linked page is so good, so full of fact-filled resources, that I’ll link to it again. Go take a look.) There are fatuous religious arguments from the Christian right, which I’m not sure even adhere to their own internal logic. In general, the arguments against rip climate change into the realm of politics, when it stands pretty firmly in the realm of scientific fact.

So what can we do about it? Here, then, is how technologists like us can make 2013 even better than the year gone by, both for our own individual prosperity and for everyone’s. We can continue to make the world a more peaceful and prosperous place in the short term by doing all the things we already do – and additionally work towards making it a sustainable peace and prosperity, in all senses of that word. We should all be striving to minimize resource conflicts, and to make all of our communities sustainable in their own right without polluting anyone else’s – while ensuring that we don’t lose any of the wonderful things the last hundred years has brought human society. Global travel, the Internet, widely-accessible personal computing, medical advances – all of these things need to be here to stay (and should have the freedom to evolve and progress).

I strongly believe that while neither technology nor individual action can bring about this change by themselves, together they have a chance. I’m not alone: Google, for example, has invested nearly a billion dollars in clean energy, and green investors (when they have domain expertise) are thriving. VCs are warming up to energy efficiency platforms, and of course, Tesla Motors became cashflow positive this year, raising further interest in the space.

Customer interest in green technology is already increasing, due to high fuel prices and better general awareness. I think 2013 could be the year that investor interest in green technology takes off, and correspondingly, I think we’ll see a slew of new companies whose interests are aligned with their customers’, not just in the short term, but with a very long term view as well. That’s a great thing for the startup ecosystem, it’s a great thing for web customers, and it’s a great thing for every single person on the planet.

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