Should everyone learn programming?

People in tech have been arguing whether programming is something that everyone should know at least a bit (pun not intended), or whether it should remain a highly specialized and exclusive (i.e. expensive) skill. There are two camps:

1) The reasonable people who agree with me that the world will grow only more dependant on computers, and being at least a little capable of working with the basic infrastructure of the future on a deeper-than-passive-user level is useful by definition.

2) The inexplicable luddites who fear the plebeians will ruin everything (especially their sense of self-importance).

We can call these views “Canvas in the hands of the masses” vs. “Dangerous democratisation”.

That the latter attitudes are shaped by a repulsive elitism motivated ultimately by a fear of competition is a psychological truism.

It immediately makes me think: “This must be how the priests felt when the peasants started learning how to read.”

You only need to substitute the words “reading and writing” for “programming”, and imagine the argument taking place a few hundred years earlier, and you immediately know what’s happening.

I suspect it boils down to a subset of the nerds being terrified of losing exclusivity on the one thing they could claim as their own, and the one thing they can imagine leading to decent incomes and perhaps even sex. It feels like girls playing with their Spock dolls.

“Nooo this is our stuff!”

Well, tough cookie.

In 100 years, there will be few jobs that don’t involve machines (assuming most jobs by then don’t consist of hunting and gathering, but despite the wishful apocalyptic ideation popular among our youth and hippies, that seems unlikely), and as a rule, the better you understand and can operate them, the better for you (and humanity at large).

Imagine a world where computers never left the paradigm of room-sized government projects to get into the hands of the Wozniaks of the world, or where literacy never left monasteries, and you’ll understand why democratization of technology is important.

The opposition is a misguided elitism, or digital feudalism. It fails to appreciate that it takes one hit in a billion to change the world, and that humanity should invite everybody to the table as a matter of principle precisely for this reason – morality aside, it’s actually profitable. You only need one or two hits per generation to reap orders of magnitude of returns – just like paying for the education of the entire “third world” will pay back even in cash terms (nonwithstanding the humanitarian and security dimensions) with just one good physicist or inventor coming unexpectedly from a remote village in Kashmir – meanwhile we will have, almost by accident, lifted billions of people out of poverty and ignorance – not a bad deal however you look at it.

Education and literacy, including literacy in the crucial technology of the emerging age (duh), is a weird sort of “lottery” where the jackpot is more than the cost of buying all tickets. Why the fuck wouldn’t you?

And people oppose it even when it’s free (as programming courses are), because they’re either too shortsighted or “zoomed in” to appreciate the growing importance of technology, or worse, worried about plebeians intruding on their perceived home turf and “ruining everything” with their secondrate hodgepodge. The resemblance of such rhetoric to the historical aloof dismissals of a broader dissemination of literacy or, for that matter, art, is amazing – especially as it soon turned out in all instances that the privilege-protecting guilds were worried for good reasons, namely their own rightly suspected inferiority and powerlessness against the disruptive power of random bumpkins appearing out of nowhere to turn their worlds upside down. Incumbency always dreads unknown raw talent, and ever tries to shut it down or tame and absorb it before finally surrendering, yielding and being trampled by it. Perhaps learning from history would avail the monastic exclusivists of our time, so that they spare themselves the humiliation of trying to laugh in the face of a steamroller headed their way.

It’s taxis vs. Uber again, except this time some of the “techies” are on the regressive protectionist side, showing that human ethical and intellectual consistency is circumscribed by self interest.

I’m against closed-door guildism, and for inviting everybody to the table and letting merit decide.

On every historical occassion when it was said entrusting the unwashed plebes with this or that was dangerous, or they wouldn’t be able to understand or do it properly anyway, it turned out there was a gigantic pool of hidden talent, frequently outshining the established “priesthood” by a margin of rank.

The profusion of new product catalyzed by broad adoption of new creative technology has always led to the sort of wild, spontaneous evolutionary processes that lead to vastly superior outcomes than could ever have resulted from a controlled process by a closed community defined by worries about reputation and relative status. The most interesting innovations always come from the margins, not the ivory towers – the misfits, not the established authorities. An implicit understanding of this principle fortunately seems to be shaping a lot of the open cultural attitudes of “hackers”.

Now, let me be clear: I don’t think everybody in the future is going to be a programmer. But more and more jobs will involve computers in some way to a bigger and bigger degree. More people understanding and learning to work with them can only be a great thing.

“The spread of computers and the internet will put jobs in two categories: people who tell computers what to do, and people who are told by computers what to do.”

 -Marc Andreessen

In fact, programming is one of the two universal complements to any skillset, the two secret ingredients that make anything better, the tabasco and nutella of the resumé. The other one is persuasion.

Both boil down to effective communication – one with machines, the other with people.

Make excellent use of modern technology, buy me a coffee.

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