Code is the poetry of a better world

Code is the next universal language. In the 1970s punk rock drove a whole generation. In the 1980s it was probably money. For my generation, the interface to our imagination and to our world is software. This is why we need to get a more diverse set of people to see computers not as boring, mechanical and lonely things, but as something they can poke, tinker with and turn around.

Here’s what I think: little girls don’t know yet that they’re not supposed to like computers. Little girls are precise, they can concentrate, they are really awesome at telling stories, at expressing themselves and asking the right questions. And they don’t know that they’re not supposed to like computers.

But their parents know. They think programming is an esoteric, scientific discipline, full of mystery, almost like nuclear physics as far as relevance to day-to-day life goes. And they are right: there’s an awful lot to know about syntax, control flow, data structures, algorithms, protocols, paradigms and practices.

So when I was studying in school, instead of learning to use computers, I got excited about creating make believe worlds, conjugating French irregular verbs, knitting socks and the philosophy of Bertrand Russell. And I started to feel that maybe this world of technology was indeed lonely, boring and mechanical.

We’ve made computers smaller and smaller, built layer upon layer of abstraction between the human being and the machine. We teach kids about human biology, how combustion engines work or how to be an astronaut, but when they ask me, “Linda, is Internet a place?” or “What is a bubble sort algorithm?” or “How does the computer know what to do when I press ‘play’ on YouTube?”, we fall silent.

“It must be magic!” say some.  

“It’s too complicated!” say others.

But it’s not magic and it’s not complicated. It all just happened really fast. Computer scientists built these amazing, beautiful machines for us, but also made them foreign.

And that’s why the language we use is foreign. No one told me that French irregular verbs teach you pattern recognition skills, that knitting socks is all about following a sequence of symbolic commands with loops inside them and that Russell’s quest for an exact language linking English and mathematics found its home inside the computer. I thought like a programmer; I just didn’t know it.  

The kids of today pinch, tap and swipe their way through the world, but unless they are taught to build with computers they’ll be consumers instead of creators. If JavaScript is the new lingua franca of the next generation, instead of grammar classes we should be teaching them poetry. If we change a kid’s perception of what’s possible, we can change the entire world.

The more approachable we feel technology is, the more we play with it, take it apart, tweak and tinker with it, the more we get a better sense of what’s possible. Remember, “disruption” doesn’t start with technology. It starts with people with a vision.

Imagine a world where the stories we tell about the way things are built don’t include only Silicon Valley 20-somethings, but Kenyan schoolgirls and Norwegian librarians.

Imagine little Ada Lovelaces who grow up in a world of permanent ones and zeroes, but feel confident about the powers, the limitations and the possibilities of technology.

Imagine a world of technology that is whimsical, wonderful and a tiny bit weird. A world that allows me to live my childhood dream: to wake up in the morning in Moomin Valley, to roam with the Tattooines in the afternoon and to fall asleep in Narnia.

You see, for someone who loved make-believe worlds and storytelling, computer programming is the perfect career. Instead of stories, I create worlds with code. With code I have the ability to create my own little world with its own rules, paradigms and practices, woven from nothing but the pure power of logic. I am still a poet, after all.

Adapted for the OECD by the author from “Poetry of programming”, a TEDxCERN talk, October 2015. To watch it, see www.helloruby.com/press

Innovation and the digital economy at the OECD Forum 2016

The future of work at the OECD Forum 2016

The future of education at the OECD Forum 2016

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