Tuesday 24 March 2015

Coding Kids, it is about Democracy

Dear Junior

These days it seems like a lot of people think it is important to teach kids to code. I would like to chip in my idea about why this is important. To me, it boils down to a question about democracy, but let us not start there.

Code as a Profession

The first argument is about job market. There is no doubt that today we are already short on good system developers, and all predictions and forecasts say that this is going to get worse. So, going for a career in system development seems like a good hedge. This is the argument seen from the perspective of the individual kid. On a side note, I'd like to add that I personally think that system development is an interesting mix of creativity, intellectual stringency and cooperation; so apart from being a job that will probably be in demand it is also a job that is quite fun, when done right.

This argument also have the macro-economic side: companies need system developers to be able to continue their development. With a lack of skilled developers, the companies innovation pace might come to a halt, which would harm society at scale.

So, learning to code is obviously a good way to take the first steps towards a job in systems development.

A historical parallell is that there was a time when reading and writing was only relevant for a small 

were jobs where reading and writing were essential skills: handling written text where in those days mainly done by priests and medieval administrators where in those days that where handling written text. Written text was irrelevant to the rest of society.

This as definitely been true for code. Code was essential for the coding professions - a limited number of engineers and researchers - but not outside those circles. Code was irrelevant to the rest of society. 

However, I think that has changed. Code is no longer important only for those that work as programmers. Today the ability to code to some degree is fruitful to other professions.

Code in more Professions

Thus, second argument is that more jobs will involve code. If we look outside the profession of system developers, there are already places where coding helps people do their job better. Imagine Susan in HR, who is working on gender equality issues and is curious about how the salary level compares across different department, different ages with respect to gender. 

Susan has all the data at hand, perhaps in a few spread-sheets, perhaps in some simple database. Now, she could ask the analysis department to do some statistics which she could analyse to see if there is something to her hypothesis. That would probably take a day or two before they come back. But, if Susan herself can put together some SQL-queries or some scripts, she can get the result the same afternoon. The difference in how well she can do her job - analyse if there are salary differences that should not be there - is significant.

Knowledge in coding is not just a profession in and of itself. It is also already a helpful tool in other professions, and I think it will soon be essential.

A historical parallell could be at the beginning of the industrial revolution. At this point written text was not something that was relevant for the text-professions priests and adminstrators. Suddenly the factory workers where supposed to be able read, reading written instructions or work orders. To start with only the foremen needed this, but soon enough literacy was expected from all workers.

I think this is where code and society is today.

Code in Society

Looking forward, I think it will not stop here. I think understanding of code will become even more important.

Let me start with the historical parallell. After industrial revolution society evolved together with the usage of text. Text weaved into the fabric of society. People who could read were able to follow the news in the spreading news-papers. People who could write were able to participate, write letters to the editors. In parallell civil associations arouse such as workers unions or the anti-drinking movements. These were all possible because their member were able to read and write, to document their meetings in protocols, to create pampflettes to spread their ideas etc. The raise of modern democracy was fuelled by people knowing text.

People who could not read or write were soon standing at the side watching society evolve, more or less unable to participate.

I personally had a revolving experience. An a journey in China in the mid-90s I found myself standing at a cross road in the middle of Beijing. Everywhere I looked I could see text, massive amounts of text. Every shop I could see had signs promoting their wares, there were banners and posters, there were road signs, there were advertisements for papers. Texts everywhere, massive amount of information, a world that everyone around me navigated trough without effort. And I did not understand a single thing. 

Here and there I could see a sign I could recognise, the sign for "north", the sign for "water" etc. But I was feeling totally alienated. Watching people around me naturally navigating on this ocean of information, it felt like being surrounded by magic.

It was not hard to relate to what it must have felt like being an illiterate while society quickly evolved, suddenly just assuming that people in general would understand text and could participate.

I think this is where code is going. 

A World of Automated Processes

Already today we are surrounded by automated processes - powered by code. Most of them are pretty trivial, for example paying a parking using your credit card by checking in and checking out. Some of them are a little bit more complicated, e g when you order goods online and you can track the goods until it arrives at your post office, coupled with status-notification to your mail or phone. Some are pretty complicated. In Sweden the taxation rules for partnership incorporated companies are somewhat complicated - there are several set of rules to chose from and they give different results. However, when declaring taxes on-line on the tax authority web site - then the system helps you chose the set of rules that are most beneficial to you. Even though I know it is just code, it feels a little bit like magic.

We are probably only in the beginning of this evolution. Within a few decades, automated processes will be in much more places, they will be much more complex, and they will probably be interlinked. They will be part of the fabric that constitute society.

Those people that know code, they will be able to understand, to participate, to protest, to support. The people who do not understand code will be standing at the side, watching society evolve, more or less unable to participate.

I realise this might seem like jumping to conclusions. But think back. When industrialisation was new and reading was mostly used by foremen to read work orders and instructions - did it seem probable that reading and writing would transform society, making those skills essential to participate in and effect society at large? 

I think that understanding code will be the literacy of tomorrow.


Teaching kids to code is not just about opening the door to the programming professions; it is not just about giving them a better chance to do their non-programming jobs well; at stake are giving them the foundations they need to participate in society; it is about democracy.

That seems pretty important to me.