A message from the tech elite: you should all be like us

Here are two things that people think:

(a) I am better than that person over there.

(b) That person over there is better than me.

The first is an instance of superiority, and the second, inferiority. Neither are particularly desirable emotions. Superiority connotes feelings of smugness and arrogance, whereas inferiority connotes low self-esteem.

While we might subscribe to views that emphasise the equality of humankind, something always drags us back to these two feelings. Sometimes, groups of people decide that they are superior to other groups of people. Specifically, I’m interested in the formation of elites, when the superior group is small in relation to the inferior group.

Elites are not new, and they are not going away soon. Is it too simplistic to say that they derive their superior status from power? Money and knowledge help; but these are just good ways to increase power. Hence we see elites forming among the powerful, the rich, and the knowledgeable. From within the elite, there is often a feeling that they know best.

So let’s look at one of the new elites: the technology elite. The tech world runs on specialised knowledge, brings in money and increasingly exercises power. Our dependence on technology is a joke, but it is a serious joke. It is this dependence which lends technology companies their power. With the power comes the formation of an elite, and with that, the feeling grows within the elite that other people should be more like them.

Here’s writer Jaron Lanier, interviewed in the Spectator last week:

“There are a lot of very positive things about the tech world. It’s remarkably unprejudiced and I’ve never encountered racism in it. There are a lot of good qualities, so I don’t want to criticize it too much. I remain in it, and I enjoy it. However, there is a smugness, or a kind of religious aspect to it. There is a sensibility that says: we have skills that other people don’t, therefore we are supermen and we deserve more. You run into this attitude, that if ordinary people cannot set their Facebook privacy settings, then they deserve what is coming to them. There is a hacker superiority complex to this.”

When elites form, their members may be inclined towards excluding new members. This is logical, because just like a luxury brand keeping their prices high, it preserves the status of those within the elite. Unfortunately, it puts the good of the individual above the common good, and therefore strikes me as selfish and morally reprehensible. A more positive line to take would seem to be an inclusive attitude. I made it into the elite, so you can too. As the Tarvuists say, “It’s so easy to join.”

When I read Lanier’s comments about a “hacker superiority complex”, I immediately thought of the (fairly recent) drive to teach everyone to code. On the face of it, the desire to make coding available to all has benign, inclusive motivations. Coding is a modern form of literacy that enables people to participate in the technology they use. (See Douglas Rushkoff arguing that this computer literacy is an alternative to being enslaved by tech). Coding is an employable skill (fair enough). It teaches you to think (um… really?). We can see some of these motivations for the coding movement listed on Code.org, a website with a staggering amount of testimonials from a bizarre range of sources.

It’s hard to disagree with the mission statement at the top of the site, “Everyone should have the opportunity to code”. The weird thing is, one look at the rest of that page makes me want to turn against it. Maybe it’s because the testimonials remind me of junk mail.

So for the sake of balance, I tracked down some dissenting voices. Most of them don’t challenge the opportunity claim, instead dealing with the stronger claim that everyone should learn to code. Here’s Jeff Atwood, in a piece entitled “Please don’t learn to code”:

“Look, I love programming. I also believe programming is important … in the right context, for some people. But so are a lot of skills. I would no more urge everyone to learn programming than I would urge everyone to learn plumbing. That’d be ridiculous, right?”

And here’s Evgeny Morozov, author of To Save Everything, Click Here:

“I think the craziest idea I have heard in the last few years is that everyone should learn to code. That is the most bizarre and regressive idea. There are good reasons why we don’t want everyone to learn nuclear physics, medicine or how financial markets work. Our entire modern project has been about delegating power over us to skilled people who want to do the work and be rewarded accordingly. I’m all for making us aware of how various technological infrastructures work. But the idea everyone should learn how to code is as plausible as saying that everyone should learn how to plumb. To me it just makes no sense.”

Interesting that they both chose plumbing to reduce a coding movement to absurdity. But let’s not get distracted by that.

The point they are making is that coding is a specialised skill rather than a foundational one. English and Maths are core subjects precisely because they provide the foundations for other disciplines and a wide range of “real world” scenarios. More specialised subjects such as Music become more optional as you go through school. This makes sense, because Music does not provide a foundation for other school subjects. The real question is whether coding is a specialised subject or one which should be part of the core. Morozov and Atwood are arguing against having it as a core subject. Code.org sidesteps that challenge by merely saying that everyone should have the option.

Or do they? Read the testimonials carefully and we can see a number of quotes which endorse the stronger position:

“I think everybody in this country should learn how to program a computer because it teaches you how to think.” – Steve Jobs

“Let’s get the whole world coding!” – Eric Schmidt

“To help prepare our children for a successful future, no matter what career they pursue, they need to learn basic computer programming skills.” – John Hickenlooper

“It’s important for these kids, right now, starting at 8 years old, to read and write code.” – will.i.am

Oh dear. There is definitely some equivocation between the two positions I have identified. Is this an undercover move of doublethink and deception? Or is it merely a case of diversity within a united group? I don’t know. I do think that the stronger claim is incorrect, and I think the temptation to make this claim comes from the elite status now achieved by the tech industry.

Conclusions

Coding is a modern form of magic. You can teach yourself how to do it, provided you have a computer, the internet, the mental ability, and you are prepared / able to put in the hours. Achieving success through these means is therefore meritocratic. But coding is not for everyone, and most jobs would not be improved by employees being able to code.

For my part, I learned a bit of BASIC as a child and later picked up some HTML. I never studied programming at school and would have probably enjoyed it if I had. The new movement towards teaching programming is young, but has already achieved results: the new English Baccalaureate replaces the ICT GCSE with one in Computer Science. The latter contains far more programming – take a look at the exam specs for Computer Science here, and compare them with the specs for ICT here. I am fully behind providing this GCSE… as an option.

So I’m going to conclude with a fairly unexciting view. Yes, students should have the opportunity to code. No, this doesn’t mean everyone should learn to code. </rant>

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5 thoughts on “A message from the tech elite: you should all be like us

  1. Hey bird,

    Your blogs are cool, i’d follow them if I didn’t know you.

    I agree with pretty much all your social and linguistic analysis, but didn’t think the subject fitted.

    … hackers.coders etc, were always an elitist group before computers and programing become more mainstream, i think its more an inherent part of their hobby rather than a social construct like you have put forward (did you? i think you did)

    Also perhaps part of the underlying reason for this new drive for coding is that as technology goes more mainstream it has more and more applications, say I invented a robot that could plumb, I probably now need a plumber/coder that can programme the plumbing robot. Another point here is that although you might not need coding, understanding it on a basic level would help everyone who works on the plumber robot product. – a little like Mr Hickenloopers point. a core skill.

  2. Here is the problem: we can say that in the future coding will be more important than it is now. That’s a prediction, and it might be right or wrong. For the moment, I’d be more interested in real, concrete examples from the present day, e.g. a case where a plumber / lawyer / nurse etc. is better at their job because they know how to program. I believe there are cases, but I don’t know of them.

    My personal experience is limited. Like I said, I have a rudimentary understanding of HTML. As a teacher, I do find a slight benefit from this when I’m putting stuff on the college VLE, because I can make a page look a bit nicer than it would otherwise. But in the context of the actual job I have to do (teaching people things), nice web design makes very little difference to anything. It’s certainly not a necessary skill for being a teacher.

    Maybe I’m being short-sighted, with all my focus on the present. I do agree that coding will probably be more important in the future than it is now. Just not so important that everyone should be able to do it. I don’t think it’s going to achieve the status of English and Maths any time soon.

  3. Could the checking out who is better than us and who is inferior be a result of genetic evolutionary programming? Animals, including monkeys are very conscious who is higher or lower status to them, and maybe we have the same innate tendency.

  4. Hi Nick,

    My instinct is to say that coding *should* become a core subject because I would hazard a guess that if it remains optional, coding class will consist of roughly 90% boys. And while I’m at it, I think plumbing would be a pretty helpful core subject too – for the same reason!

    The suggestion that we should ensure our kids all learn to code feels more like a symptom of our feelings of insecurity regarding our future rather than a tech elite forcing us to join their gang.

    Happy to have this suggestion shot down though : )

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