NYR iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
GET UPDATES FROM Douglas Rushkoff
 

Why Johnny Can't Program: A New Medium Requires A New Literacy

Posted: 09/30/10 02:16 PM ET

Ask any kid what Facebook is for and he'll tell you it's there to help him make friends. What else could he think? It's how he *does* make friends. He has no idea the real purpose of the software, and the people coding it, is to monetize his relationships. He isn't even aware of those people, the program, or their purpose.

The kids I celebrated in my early books as "digital natives" capable of seeing through all efforts of big media and marketing have actually proven *less* capable of discerning the integrity of the sources they read and the intentions of the programs they use. If they don't know what the programs they are using are even for, they don't stand a chance to use them effectively. They are less likely to become power users than the used.

Amazingly, America - the birthplace of the Internet - is the only developed nation that does not teach programming in its public schools. Sure, some of our schools have elected to offer "computer" classes, but instead of teaching programming, these classes almost invariably teach programs: how to use Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, or any of the other commercial software packages used in the average workplace. We teach our kids how to get jobs in today's marketplace rather than how to innovate for tomorrow's.

Just last year, while researching a book on America's digital illiteracy, I met with the Air Force General then in charge of America's cybercommand. He said he had plenty of new recruits ready and able to operate drones or other virtual fighting machines - but no one capable of programming them, or even interested in learning how. He wasn't even getting recruits who were ready to begin basic programming classes. Meanwhile, he explained to me, colleges in Russia, China, and even Iran were churning out an order of magnitude more programmers than universities in the US. It is only a matter of time, he said - a generation at most - until our military loses its digital superiority.

As we continue to look at programming as a menial skill to be outsourced to developing nations, we will lose our innovative superiority as well. While this may not hurt American corporations capable of sourcing its code from anywhere, it would certainly hurt Americans looking for a skill set to replace our manufacturing jobs.

For me, however, our inability and refusal to contend with the underlying biases of the programs and networks we all use is less a threat to our military or economic superiority than to our experience and autonomy as people. I can't think of a time when we seemed so ready to accept such a passive relationship to a medium or technology.

When human beings acquired language, we learned not just how to listen but how to speak. When we gained literacy, we learned not just how to read but how to write. And as we move into an increasingly digital reality, we must learn not just how to use programs but how to make them.

Digital tools are not like rakes, steam engines, or even automobiles that we can drive with little understanding of how they work. Digital technology doesn't merely convey our bodies, but ourselves. Our screens are the windows through which we are experiencing, organizing, and interpreting the world in which we live. We are doing more than extending human agency through a new linguistic or communications system. We are replicating the very function of cognition with external, extra-human mechanisms. These tools are not mere extensions of the will of some individual or group, but entities that have the ability to think and operate other components in the neural network--namely, us.

And while machines once replaced and usurped the value of human labor, computers and networks do more than usurp the value of human thought. They not only copy our intellectual processes--our repeatable programs--but they often discourage our more complex processes--our higher order cognition, contemplation, innovation, and meaning making that should be the reward of "outsourcing" our arithmetic to silicon chips in the first place. The more humans become involved in their design, the more humanely inspired these tools will end up behaving.

I've been a computer enthusiast since the late 70's, and I still do believe that this is the moment we have been waiting for. We are gaining the ability to consciously participate in our evolution as a species. We are networking ourselves together into something perhaps greater than the sum of our many parts. But we must not relinquish our participation in this project, entrusting our future to the few who learn to program or the companies paying them to do so.

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.

Douglas Rushkoff's new book "Program or Be Programmed," was released this week and is only available through http://orbooks.com.