Does not compute

We desperately need to improve our computer literacy

Today, the ability to program computers is the single most important general skill you can learn, but who will take responsibility for the social proliferation of computer literacy?

First of all, I must admit: I am not a good programmer. I couldn’t  write good computer code if my life depended on it. However, I was exposed to programming early enough in life to have a good understanding of how code and computers work.

I was seven when my family bought an Amiga 500. I mostly played games on it, but at one point my brother sat me down and taught me how to program tick-tack-toe in BASIC. This also taught me that there is no way to actually win the game – you can only tie – a point elaborated years earlier in the seminal 1983 hacker film WarGames.

Programming computers was never my calling, but knowing how they work has been an indispensable asset for me. Without this knowledge, computers of all kinds would seem magical to me, and the people controlling them would seem wizards. But code is not magic, and programmers are just people, albeit with important skills.

Democratic computing
In principle, nothing can be taken for granted when it comes to programming. There are decisions made at every line of code, and the final program is the result of this decision-making process. In a certain sense, this makes programming itself a political endeavour, since programmers mostly make their decisions on behalf of end users, both empowering them and limiting what they can do with the program.

But without an understanding of how computers work, how will the potential end users be able to have a well-informed say in what they can and cannot do with the programs running on their own computers?

The argument that programming computers is a political act, while not particularly new, was fairly academic until we started putting computers into everything. Your phone is a computer, your television is a computer, cars are computers with wheels, and aircraft are computers with wings. We even put computers into ourselves. A hearing aid is a computer placed in your ear, and a pacemaker is a computer attached to your heart.

Perhaps one day, computer implants will not be merely prosthetic. Science fiction and cyberpunk literature has long toyed with the idea of computerised implants as enhancement. Case in point: many agree that Google Glass makes you look like an idiot, so why not get it invisibly implanted into your skull?

Before we put even more computers into our things –and possibly ourselves – we need to ask if we understand what they make us capable of and in what ways they limit us. And there is no way to do that without some degree of computer literacy.

Who is responsible?
It’s fruitful to compare computer programming to reading and writing when attempting a broad societal view. After the invention of the printing press, alphabetical literacy became widely democratised, radically changing the way societies functioned. Today alphabetical literacy is well over 95 percent in the Western world, with most places closer to 100 percent.

Since the advent of the personal computer, basic computer literacy has naturally increased, but actual computer programming skills seem to be falling behind. As programs became more and more user-friendly, and computers more and more opaque, the understanding of how they work stagnated, even as their usage increased.

This is where programming differs from reading and writing. While being able to read and write are each other’s prerequisites, being able to use a computer today does not require being able to program one.

Not everyone has to be a programmer, one might object. But not everyone has to be a writer either, and we still value literacy as one of the most important skills one can have.

Similarly, in the future, computer literacy – that is, knowing how to program computers – will increasingly be an invaluable skill. Not having it will limit one’s possibilities for participating in public affairs, getting decent work, and even just having rudimentary control over one’s personal life.

But who will be responsible for increasing the rate of computer literacy?

If  we leave it to private companies, we will see a huge social imbalance between those who can afford to learn and those who cannot. If we leave it to the state to implement nationwide computer-literacy policies, who knows when they will actually take effect?

I’m sure both scenarios will play out simultaneously, but if we want to actually do something to both negate the social imbalances (not to mention gender ditto!) in the availability of programming skills, and to speed up the process of their proliferation, it will be the responsibility of civil society. That means you. M

Tech, Commentary

By Henrik Chulu

Writer, speaker and activist, Henrik is partner in Solobeta, a qualitative research consultancy, and co-founder of Bitbureauet, an internet policy think tank.

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