We seem to be passing through a period of heavy stupidity with respect to “coding”. To wit:
- On Wednesday our Minister of Innovation, Navdeep Bains, took the stage at the Public Policy Forum’s Growth Summit and mused about the importance of coding, why it should be taught in schools, and how it is “as important as reading and writing”.
- On Thursday , Melissa Sariffodeen, the co-founder and CEO of something called “Ladies Learning Code” managed to get an op-ed published in the Globe, saying as how “in the coming years, it will be difficult to find a single professional field or vocation untouched by increasingly sophisticated technology”, Canada needs to teach 10 million people (that is, slightly more than half the labour force) to code or “our ability to prosper socially and economically will undoubtedly be compromised”.
This is all as dumb as a bag of hammers. We need to stop this nonsense right now.
The ubiquity of a given technology does not mean that everyone needs to be experts in its nuts and bolts. Pretty much no job is untouched by, say, electricity, or indoor plumbing. Yet the economy works fine without 10 million people knowing how to do preventive maintenance on electrical wiring or install a toilet. Nearly all office jobs involve coming into contact with a ballpoint pen at some point, yet we all remain blissfully unaware of what kinds of tungsten carbide alloys make ink flow more smoothly. We all use refrigerators, but almost none of us understand the vapor-compression cycle. And that’s a good thing. Ever since the stone age, we make have made economic progress through specialization. New technologies become ubiquitous precisely BECAUSE they become so simple you don’t need to think about them a lot.
Coding is a valuable skill – for maybe 2% of the labour force. What the rest of us need is digital literacy and proficiency. Being able to write software is not the issue: rather, it is the ability to apply and use software productively that is the issue. Ten million people who understand how to input data into software correctly, 10 million who can use and analyze the data software provides us: *that* is something we should shoot for. It would have enormous effects on productivity and health (if you doubt the latter, spend some time talking to hospital administrators and their frustration with newly-trained medical staff who can work smart phone perfectly well but can’t use fill in Microsoft Access forms). But ten million coders? Mostly, that just pushes down wages in the tech sector.
Now, the Globe op-ed by a tech-sector entrepreneur probably looking for some government grants to expand her tech training business I can deal with. Sariffodeen, as someone who teaches coding, is mostly talking her own book. But Minister Bains? That’s much more serious. OK, we can all be thankful that as a federal minister he has no actual say over anything involving an actual education system. Saying coding is “as important as reading and writing” is fatuous nonsense. It’s the kind of thing you say when your fondest wish in life is to be admired by tech executives. Reading and writing are foundational skills for literally anything in life. Coding is a way for specialized experts to make software so the rest of us don’t have to.
Should we have more opportunities to learn how to code? Sure. Should we aim for much deeper knowledge ability to manipulate and use data/information? Golly, yes. Teach 10M people to code? Treat coding as equivalent to reading and writing? Get a grip. No serious person should utter those words.