In professional terms, it’s easy to see why knowing how to put together a program is a valuable skill: more and more jobs require some technical know-how, and the most skilled students have glittering prospects ahead of them. But with only a fraction of those signing up for free lessons ever likely to reach even a semi-professional level of skill, are movements like Code Academy able to offer more than good intentions?
The answer, I believe, is a resounding yes. Because learning about coding doesn’t just mean being able to make or fix a particular program; it also means learning how to think about the world in a certain way – as a series of problems ripe for reasoned, systematic solution. And while expertise and fluency may be hard-won commodities, simply learning to think like someone coding a solution to a problem can mean realising how the reasoned, systematic approaches someone else took might not be perfect – or, perhaps, neither reasonable nor systematic at all.
'No magical safeguards'
Like Neo’s moment of revelation in the first Matrix movie, learning to picture the code behind the digital services you are using means realising that what you are looking at is not an immutable part of the universe; it is simply a conditional, contingent something cooked up by other human coders. And this is the divide that matters more than any other between coding insiders and outsiders: realising that the system you are using is only a system; that it can be changed and criticised; and that, even if you do not personally have the skills to rip it apart and report on the results, someone else probably does and already has done.
This last point – the ability to benefit from others’ expertise, and to know how to begin searching it out – is an especially important one. From cynical corporations to shadowy spam-mailers, there are plenty of people who would like nothing more than a digital citizenship ill-equipped to ask what lies beneath the surface. Thinking differently does not demand coding mastery. It simply requires recognition that even the most elegant digital service has its limitations and encoded human biases – and that it is possible for more troubling cargoes to be encoded, too.
In 2010, for example, an FBI investigation revealed that one suburban Philadelphia school district had included malicious software on laptops given out to pupils that allowed the computers to be used for covert surveillance via their cameras and network connections. The software in question would have been undetectable to all but the most devotedly expert of investigators. Since the case emerged, however, the widespread documentation and discussion it provoked has left those alert to such possibilities far better prepared to defend against them in future.
Code Academy and its ilk have no magical safeguards to offer or instant paths to understanding. For many people, though, signing up will be a first step towards asking a better class of question about their online world – and searching a little longer and harder for better answers within it.
And in case you are still wondering – 10 is the binary for two.