Only a few hundred years ago, the ability to read and write was considered a special skill reserved only for an elite few. Over time, however, literacy went from being elite to expected, to the point now that anyone who can’t read or write is considered at a huge disadvantage.
Now, the explosion of new technology has provided a litany of new ways for people to communicate. Entire new interactions are being integrated into our lives so fast that we can hardly keep up; simply watch some videos of babies using iPads if you want your mind blown.
With these new methods of communication come new languages to match.
Programming languages, historically speaking, are still extremely new. Spoken and written languages have existed since the dawn of mankind, though they have evolved and diversified drastically along the way. Alternative languages, such as mathematics, emerged later on, each giving us new ways to share information and ideas with each other.
Now, however, our new computer-based languages already drive so much of what we do every single day. HTML, PHP, MySQL, C, Assembly, TCP/IP and countless other languages and protocols, for example, make it possible for you to read this right now.
In my own experience as a project manager for a web development firm, I specialized in being someone who could translate between clients and programmers who were not particularly good at talking to one another. From the perspective of the clients, the programmers spoke a complicated language that they couldn’t purport to understand. They needed someone else (me) to even be able to communicate properly what it is they wanted built. Some didn’t respect the value of such literacy, but most revered these people for their much-envied proficiency.
As the pervasiveness of this technology continues to rise, the value of being able to understand and speak these new languages rises accordingly. People who can program went from being derided as “geeks” and “nerds” in the 90′s to being revered and sought after today. People who understand these mystical new programming languages, in many ways, enjoy a new elite designation.
The difference between the literate elites and programmers, however, is that technical literacy is available to anyone with access to a computer.
In the world of employment in the US, there is a fascinating contrast at play. Despite millions of unemployed, underemployed, and suckemployed workers, there remain tons of lucrative technical positions that employers that exasperated employers can’t seem to fill no matter how hard they try.
For the people who have been unemployed for months or even years, even a little technical expertise could go a very long way in helping them get work that they couldn’t have otherwise.
Awareness of this fact is just now starting to become more widely known. It’s why new programs like one I helped to start and run, Girl Develop It, have been such a huge hit. When we surveyed our students, I was surprised to see just how many women are taking programming classes not because they intend to pursue technical careers, but because they want to be able to better understand and communicate with their more tech-savvy coworkers. In other words, they seek a basic technical literacy.
In his book Program or Be Programmed, Doug Rushkoff goes so far as to suggest that technical literacy is rising to a level of importance comparable with conventional literacy in reading and writing itself. While it may seem like an extreme comparison on the surface, the similarities are striking.
If reading and writing were once reserved for the elite but then eventually became common knowledge, who’s to say the same won’t be true of proficiency in the ability to communicate using new technical languages?
At the very least, learning even just a little about these new technologies could go a long way. I would love one day to read a story of someone who was unemployed for 2+ years, decided to teach themselves how to code, and landed an amazing job not long thereafter. I’m sure the stories are already out there, but I believe there are many more yet to be told.
The four R’s: Reading, (w)riting, ‘rithmetic, and (p)’rogramming
Hey, the original 3 R’s was pretty ugly already.