The Right to Code

Equality and participation are essential conditions of democracy. In order for inclusion to work, individuals must naturally be empowered to get involved. What holds true for early modern history when the printing press turned many passive consumers into publishers, points to a general lesson about the competence to shape the development of media, rather than only using it.

This revolution that emerged almost six centuries ago from Mainz recurred in a contemporary shape, argues the article Trendspotter: the learn to code movement – but this time coming from the San Francisco Bay Area. The goal of this movement is to spread the ability to code (or more generally: to understand and produce software), because:

Inability to code is the new illiteracy.

New initiatives like the Code Academy, therefore, try to tackle this problem by offering free self-taught courses on the Web. Jeff Atwood, on the other extreme, writes that coding is not only useless as general skill, it would even keep many people from doing their actual job.

OK. It sounds convincing that the capacity to code “Hello World” has not the same relevance as the capacity to fill in your name in a form. It worries me, however, that between the lines Atwood’s piece assumes a world that is now more or less in balance. People who want to code and need to code have the possibility to do so and we therefore have our share of coders as we have the needed plumbers.

In May I went to Delhi to teach some basic IT skills to refugees. Most of them have already come across the usual office software but they never have had a chance to learn systematically how to use it. Then, at some point, somebody asked me to teach them the basics of a scripting language. Unfortunately, time was running out and I was unprepared for that task, so I had to decline.

These refugees come from Burma (aka Myanmar), which is a country blatantly underdeveloped in IT and where you can get any education only if you have the necessary financial background. That, naturally, does not apply to the refugees who left for India.

If we now accept that coding is not a skill as fundamental as reading or writing, I am still very excited about the Code Academy and similar initiatives since they help to overcome the Digital Divide. This is not about a 100%-coverage of people in coding skills, including plumbers and town mayors. It is about giving the same opportunities to potential coders in all parts of the world.

Results of the present inequality could not be more tangible: Give it a try and search for “Burmese” aka “Myanmar” on Windows platforms, or try to set your interface language to Burmese on Facebook. Even the development of Burmese Unicode fonts has been a mess for years and has not led to any solution that would be broadly accepted and functional on all platforms. And Burmese is still the largest of well over 130 languages of Burma.

Where there is no market, there are no investments. Unless you empower the people. Only then, investments will follow the needs.

Who would ever do the coding to satisfy the specific needs of Burmese refugees, if not they themselves? This is what the issue about the “New Illiteracy” really is about.