Alright, I’m ready to call it. If the 90s was the decade of the brain, and the 2000s, the decade of impossible to categorize millennial upheaval, this decade is going to be the decade of digital literacy. Or at least that’s what it should be.
When I say digital literacy I don’t mean this is the decade when everyone finally figured out how to use Twitter. I mean during the next ten years society is going to accept that computer science can no longer remain a field reserved only for specialists. It needs to become a core subject in schools, as important as math or english. And it needs to be something that all citizens are learning at whatever pace is realistic for them.
There are so many reasons for this, but the most important, every day we’re uploading more and more of our personal, professional and financial data into a cloud. If we don’t understand at least the fundamentals of how that cloud works, we’re leaving ourselves and our children vulnerable to all kinds of manipulation, surveillance and violation that we’re not even conscious of.
Some people will choose to gate themselves off with strict parental controls. But the Internet has the potential to be one of the greatest incubators of creativity, knowledge and social connection in the history of human civilization. Who wants to gate their kids off from that? Or more realistically, how long will you even be able to?
The best way to turn kids into good digital citizens, able to protect themselves and each other, is to direct them towards the knowledge and skills they need to make informed decisions consistent with good values.
Learning to program is no longer about learning how to make robots. More and more it’s going to be about learning how to stay human. As Douglas Rushkoff started pointing out last year, we are increasingly being faced with the choice of being the programmer or the programmed.
So how to start? We can call for massive educational reform, like they’re doing in the U.K. In January the Ministry of Education announced a huge overhaul of the teaching of information technology in schools. Last month The Observer ran a week-long series called “Why All Our Kids Should Be Taught To Code” It covered all the best reasons why computer science needs to become a core subject, and why information technology needs to be less about teaching kids how to use software and more about understanding how it is made (there’s an especially great article on why girls need to start learning it early, before puberty when they start to become more vulnerable to peer pressure.)
Enough with the stale back to basics testing. Incorporating computer programming into core courses will bring education alive. Fooling around with the functions that make a computer do your bidding, for example, calculating every multiple of three up to 10,000 in under 10 seconds, is empowering and makes math fun. Bringing some HTML or CSS into a research project is like mixing a magic graphics potion from twigs. These are challenging skills, but they’re skills with big, immediate payoffs. Most kids are smart enough to figure that out.
But do we have the time to wait for this educational reform? If you’re a parent there are great reasons to simply start learning to code on your own. There are few professions left in which knowledge of code won’t help your career dramatically. Do you really think you can’t learn something that can be taught to eleven year olds? If you’ve cut back from work to raise children, or your college degree is going to be gathering dust for a few years before you head into the work force, learning to code will keep you brain sharp and your skills fresh. And you can use these skills now to build games and projects with your kids. Literacy begins at home, whether it be analog or digital.
Nobody needs to learn enough to become a senior developer. But just spend an hour dipping your feet into one of the free coding education programs that have popped up in the last year. One of the first things you’ll learn is how to create a confirmation box.
>confirm (“Do you like my awesome confirmation box?”);
Run that in a browser console. Spend an afternoon hacking that box with a kid. Make up some nonsense choices. Another hour and you can learn to prompt some default choices. For fun try to force each other to make decisions that lead to embarrassing results. That confirmation box will never again have quite the same unquestioned authority for either of you.
If you do just that, you’re already one giant baby step ahead.