pozorvlak (pozorvlak) wrote,
pozorvlak
pozorvlak

Why we should teach our kids to code

There's a petition up on the British Government's e-petitions website, called "teach our kids to code". Despite being plugged by geek luminaries like Ben Goldacre, it's received barely a thousand signatures at the time of writing. I think this issue is much more important than that.

Goldacre says "heaven knows where our successive governments think the next generation of nerds is going to come from". But that's not the point. Call us nerds, geeks, hackers or Morlocks, the technological priesthood of humanity isn't going anywhere: this stuff is so goddamn fascinating that enough people will teach it to themselves for the wheels to keep turning. I don't know any programmers who weren't at least partly self-taught. Today's proto-hackers don't have the easily-programmable 8-bit micros that programmers of my generation cut their teeth on, but they've got something much better: a full open-source software stack whose source they can read, resources like Project Euler and Hackety Hack to help them take their first steps, and a huge community of open-source hackers to learn from. The petition talks about narrowing the appalling gender gap in IT, and that's a genuinely important issue, but it's not the main reason we should be teaching coding in schools.

John Graham-Cumming very nearly nails it:
I fully support that idea because I think that 'programming thinking' is an important skill that needs to be taught. Children first need to learn to be literate, then they need to learn to be numerate and finally they need to learn to be 'algorithmate' (yes, I just made that word up)... It's obvious to most people that illiteracy and innumeracy are problems to be tackled at school, but it's not obvious that we are now living in a world where logical and algorithmic thinking are very, very important.
Yes, we need some people who know how to instruct the machines if we want to have a viable economy. But the real point is that we currently live in a pre-algorate society¹. People who object that "Kids no more need to know how to code than they need to know car maintenance or how to build a table - useful for some, pointless for the majority" (a quote from one of JGC's commenters) are missing this point entirely. Computers are not like cars. Cars have a well-defined purpose, for which they have been ruthlessly optimised. Computers are more like writing. Writing is a means for expressing and conveying ideas (and here's the key bit: any ideas); computers are machines for executing instructions (and here's the key bit: any instructions). Saying that only a few people need to code today is like saying that only a few people needed to read and write in the 1500s². Their whole society was set up with the assumption that very few people could read: pub signs were carved representations of the pub's name, for instance. Everyone got by, but our society is incomparably richer since the advent of mass literacy. We're in the same situation with regards to algorithms today: a technological priesthood tries to do the algorithmic thinking for everyone, but the shiny toys they produce for non-algorists are often more hindrance than help. And unsurprisingly they miss a lot of opportunities for algorithmic assistance: ever see someone repetitively copying-and-pasting something over and over in Word? Do you feel the same almost physical pain that I get when I see someone doing drudge-work on a computer? In a mass-algorate society, that Word user would realise immediately that they were doing work that the computer could be doing for them, and the software would be set up to make it easy for them to automate their drudgework.


A very, very old description of an algorithm for calculating volumes. From the British Museum's Babylonian collection.


I want to live in a mass-algorate society. I want to use the software that a mass-algorate society would develop: sane and hackable, because everyone would know what computers fundamentally do and how to make them do what they want. I also expect that a mass-algorate society's software would have discoverable, predictable APIs, because 99% of coders would not be specialist programmers and would have better things to do than read endless documentation. But again, that's not really the point; the point is that I expect mass algoracy to have knock-on effects at least as dramatic as those of mass literacy.

Where do you want to go today?

Edit: followup post; Reddit discussion.




¹ "Algorithmate" strikes me as rather a mouthful. I propose "algorate", because it's shorter, easier to say, and a backhanded compliment to the man who, after all, was the first political leader to recognize the importance of the Internet and to promote and support its development. Poor Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwārizmī al-Majousi al-Katarbali has already lost 14 of his name's 18 syllables by the time we've got to "algorithmate", two more seems like a relatively minor loss.

"Algorist", by the way, isn't a neologism: it's a long-established term meaning "one who invents algorithms".

² Car maintenance isn't analogous to coding; car maintenance is analogous to system administration, which I agree most users shouldn't have to bother with.
Tags: computers, programming, rants
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