Programming or Be Programmed: A New Medium Requires A New Literacy

October 2, 2010 at 5:25 pm 9 comments

A new book is out by Douglas Rushkoff, Programming or Be Programmed, that makes a new, intriguing argument for learning to program: because “all systems have embedded purposes.”  If you don’t know about programming, you don’t know how to ask what that embedded purpose is.  I’m not sure that that’s true.  Don’t you wonder “Who is paying for this website?” for just about anyplace you visit, whether or not you program?

He argues that, “Amazingly, America — the birthplace of the Internet — is the only developed nation that does not teach programming in its public schools.”  Is that really true?  If so, that’s a stunning claim.

As we come to experience more of our world and one another through our digital interfaces, programming amounts to basic literacy. Even if we can’t truly program ourselves, recognizing how the programs we do use really work is revolutionary in itself. For once people come to see the way their technologies are programmed, they start to recognize the programs at play everywhere else – from the economy and education to politics and government.

All systems have embedded purposes. The less we recognize them, more we mistake them for given circumstances. We start to treat the map as the territory.

At the very least we must come to recognize the biases – the tendencies- of the technologies we are using, and encourage our young people to do the same. If we don’t participate in building our digital future together, it will be done by someone – or something – else.

via Douglas Rushkoff: Why Johnny Can’t Program: A New Medium Requires A New Literacy.

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9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alan Kay  |  October 2, 2010 at 7:16 pm

    Has this guy ever checked to see how savvy (not!) most programmers are?

    This is a “Zen and the Art of Archery” problem. Learning to shoot arrows isn’t necessarily enlightening, but as Herrigl pointed out, it can be a path to enlightenment. (But guidance and perspective other than the field itself is needed.)

    This seems even more so wrt programming!

    Cheers,

    Alan

    Reply
  • 2. Beat Döbeli Honegger  |  October 3, 2010 at 4:28 pm

    No, America isn’t the only developed nation that does not teach programming in its public schools. Switzerland is another example where programming courses are only facultative if they are available at all.

    Reply
  • 3. Jens Mönig  |  October 3, 2010 at 7:22 pm

    wrt Germany I’m curious if the majority of university CS faculty even believe programming to be a central component of studying CS at all.

    Reply
  • 4. Alfred Thompson  |  October 5, 2010 at 9:19 am

    A co-worker of mine wrote a response to Rushkoff’s article which I posted as a guest post on my blog – http://blogs.msdn.com/b/alfredth/archive/2010/10/05/should-johnny-learn-to-program.aspx I’d be interested in what you and anyone else thinks of it. I’m still confused in my own mind about the issue right now.

    Reply
    • 5. Alan Kay  |  October 5, 2010 at 9:59 am

      Hi Alfred

      I haven’t read Rushkoff’s book yet, so can only say that the excerpts (possibly out of context) are not encouraging.

      But I did read your friend Philip’s comments on this, which I think are quite beside the point because the main issue to me is not getting a job but acquiring perspective and understanding.

      So we should ask your friend to try to use mathematics or science or philosophy to wonder about what their place might be in K-12.

      For example, most K-12 efforts in mathematics do just what he advocates — to teach students to *apply* math tools rather than try to help them learn to understand and do it.

      Similarly for science, engineering, and computing. This limited pragmatic vocational approach misses many of the main aims of education, including the enlarging of one’s world, the gaining of very different perspectives to view the world, learning to actually think rather than just pattern match against catechisms, etc.

      To me, the real issues of “Computing in K-12” have to do with to what extent can really good introductions and fluencies in computing help learners think much better about some of the hard to think about complexities in our world (for example, the systems nature and problems of the environment and world wide social systems). These are tied in with science, mathematics, engineering, technology, systems, and philosophy, and I think all need to be taught and learned in a much more integrated fashion.

      This is essentially “Papert and Minsky 101”, and it bears bringing up over and over again.

      Best wishes,

      Alan

      Reply
    • 6. Mark Guzdial  |  October 5, 2010 at 10:35 am

      I don’t buy DesAutel’s argument, either. I look at his argument from a McLuhan-esque perspective. Rakes and automobiles extend our physical body — they are tools that allow us to do more than our arms and legs allow us to do, but in the same kind of capacity as our arms and legs. Computers extend our minds. They give us the ability to perceive differently, to categorize and conceptualize differently, to analyze in new ways. To not understand how your mind is being extended is to be staring at the wall in Plato’s cave — you’re being manipulated, and don’t know how. I’m not saying that if you know how to program, you can’t be fooled, which is what I think Rushkoff is saying. I’m saying that understanding the computing is a necessary (but not sufficient) mental tool for thinking outside the cave.

      Cheers,
      Mark

      Reply
      • 7. Alan Kay  |  October 5, 2010 at 10:41 am

        Hi Mark

        You expressed the essence better than I did, and added the important McLuhan perspective. And you are so right that it is not programming per se, but “computing in powerful perspective” that will give rise to the Papert/Minsky powerful ideas and insights.

        Cheers,

        Alan

        Reply
    • 8. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  October 5, 2010 at 11:34 am

      I tried responding on your blog, but the MSDN blog software had comment boxes that clipped text and did not seem to respond to the post button. (Maybe because I’m using Firefox, and Microsoft has a history of making things deliberately non-standard to “work” only with their own tools.)

      Here is what I tried to post:
      It is not possible for everyone to program, just as it is not possible for everyone to write coherent paragraphs worth reading. The question is what fraction of the population needs to learn to program and whether attempting to teach others to program will benefit them even if they don’t become programmers.

      Many programmers regard the mental skills needed to design programs and debug them as generally useful skills that are particularly easy to train in the context of learning programming.

      Other programmers would argue that restoration carpentry is not (yet) the right analogy, as the numbers of competent programmers needed is still much larger than the supply. The problem is that we don’t know how to teach people to program, so we need to teach thousands to find the dozens of competent ones that we need.

      Reply
  • 9. Alfred Thompson  |  October 5, 2010 at 11:58 am

    Sorry that you had problems with the site. The hosting platform is actually a third party tool and a frighnening amout of my visitors and comenters there do use Firefox so I don’t know what the problem was. I will look into it though.

    I appreciate the comment. Thanks.

    Reply

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