Programming power? Getting critical about learning to code

By Ben Williamson

The idea that young people should learn to code has become a global educational aspiration in the last few years. What kinds of questions should researchers ask about these developments? I want to suggest three approaches: first, to take a historical look at learning to code; second, to consider it in political and economic context; and third, to understand its cultural dimensions. A key question in all these areas is about power–when code and education are brought together, how is power exercised? This critical approach to questioning code is at the centre of the Code Acts in Education seminar series.

The importance of learning to code is expressed in catchy slogans and ideas like Douglas Rushkoff’s “program or be programmed,” and the view that if you are not working on code then you are being worked by code. Matthew Kirschenbaum has similarly written about learning to code in order to understand computers as “engines for creating powerful and persuasive models of the world around us.”

The key point is that software has become an increasingly powerful influence in all aspects of everyday life. As a result, if we want people to understand the powers influencing their everyday lives, they need to understand what programming does. Initiatives like Codecademy in the US and Code Club in the UK force us to take seriously computer code and its programmers as important social actors in our worlds—people and things with the power to shape our everyday lives.

Arguments and initiatives advocating for learning to code have become almost taken for granted as a good thing in this context. Learning to code provides young people the technical skills and intellectual tools to understand how software, its algorithms, and its programmers are subtly shaping what we do. But what if we suspended our taken for granted assumptions for a few moments, and considered the historical, political-economic and cultural aspects of learning to code?

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1 Response to Programming power? Getting critical about learning to code

  1. chrisbigum says:

    For me, at the core of this is the delegation of work to a machine, or in more ANTish terms, the redistribution of competencies between human and machine (Latour’s ‘groom is on strike’ story/analysis).Weizenbaum wrote eloquently about this interesting question. It’s not that humans have just begun to delegate work to non-language bearing actors, homo faber etc. but that the current machines (shorthand for software and crystallised software aka hardware) ‘seem’ to be different. A very long time ago in a field far far away I used to make regular use of a piece of Fortran code to produce simulated traces of something I was measuring experimentally (long story – in the end they gave me a PhD for it – years later, machines were doing what I did manually but they did not give the machines an award to my knowledge. At the time of my use of the software, my supervisor said I could not use it unless I unpacked every line of code, which I dutifully did. It was really just a matrix inversion. We even got a publication out of it. So my sensibility about this goes back a long way. Given the lack of access to some code, unpacking becomes tinkering with code as black box (how many ridiculous words can you get Word to suggest for a typo?). I’m not posing any solutions here just a nagging hunch that the association of humans and their machines (toys) might usefully be re-examined. There is a huge literature around this stuff but I do think the ANT take opens up more interesting avenues for much better questions than I am asking.

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