Should you learn to program?

“The difference between a computer programmer and a user is much less like that between a mechanic and a driver than it is like the difference between a driver and a passenger. If you choose to be a passenger, then you must trust that your driver is taking you where you want to go. Or that he’s even telling you the truth about what’s out there. You’re like Miss Daisy, getting driven from place to place. Only the car has no windows and if the driver tells you there’s only one supermarket in the county, you have to believe him. The more you live like that, the more dependent on the driver you become, and the more tempting it is for the driver to exploit his advantage”

– Douglas Rushkoff

Rushkoff may appear to be making an argument commonly made by those who see the world through the prism of their own particular expertise. The mathematician will argue we should all learn to think more mathematically. The scientist, we should be more scientific in our world view. The artist, philosopher, psychologist, and so on, in turn might argue that in order to make sense of things, you need to be able to understand the world through the tools of their particular craft. But does Rushkoff’s claim have more to it in this particular technological age? Is there a special need to learn programming, in the same way we accept everyone should learn some maths; how to read and write? To answer this question, I consider the core difference in learning to program versus other technical endeavours, examining one way in which this might change our way of comprehending the world.

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Who are the world-makers?

“World makers, social network makers, ask one question first: How can I do it? Zuckerberg solved that one in about three weeks. The other question, the ethical question, he came to later: Why? Why Facebook? Why this format? Why do it like that? Why not do it another way? The striking thing about the real Zuckerberg, in video and in print, is the relative banality of his ideas concerning the “Why” of Facebook. He uses the word “connect” as believers use the word “Jesus,” as if it were sacred in and of itself: “So the idea is really that, um, the site helps everyone connect with people and share information with the people they want to stay connected with….” Connection is the goal. The quality of that connection, the quality of the information that passes through it, the quality of the relationship that connection permits—none of this is important. That a lot of social networking software explicitly encourages people to make weak, superficial connections with each other (as Malcolm Gladwell has recently argued1), and that this might not be an entirely positive thing, seem to never have occurred to him.”

– Zadie Smith

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