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To Speak Machine, Or To Not Speak Machine...

An essay on my thoughts around learning to code and our collective responsibility to understand our digital world.

Jonas Achouri Sihlén
Jonas Achouri Sihlén
3 min read
To Speak Machine, Or To Not Speak Machine...
Photo by Jantine Doornbos / Unsplash

Should everyone and their mother learn how to code?

No, probably not.

On the other hand; just like learning Spanish can make life easier if you live and work in South America, learning a "light-weight" programming language can be useful if you are working with anything related to the web.

I would even be bold enough to say that learning more about technology is not reserved for professional practitioners, but a human right for the modern human.

Some people may question the need for the average human to learn the art of programming. I mean, why would you spend time and attention on something so complex as data structures, syntaxes, classes and methods etc.?

Let's explore further.

Learning how other humans think doesn't necessarily mean you have to speak their native language. It for sure helps, but there are many ways a human being communicates with the world. A human can use body language, act in a certain way or simply use the power of silence to make a statement to his/her surroundings. The more we observe and interact the more we learn. And the more we learn from each other, the more we can help one another.

Diving into the digital domain and the art of programming we are immediately entering a hybrid domain of the human-computer interface. We cannot claim that we can be successful ignoring the human aspects of communication and learning. There are humans behind the other screen, reading your code. Maintaining it and developing it further to serve a higher purpose. The more time we spend building, tinkering and solving problems, the better we become in solving future challenges. Pretty obvious, right?

John Maeda elaborates on the importance of knowing how computers think in his book How To Speak Machine. As the title indicate, this book is about learning how our digital world works. Not necessarily enforcing everyone to start learning to code, but rather knowing how computers think.

I know it is not completely fair to compare humans and computers but it doesn't hurt with an enhanced technical literacy enabling you to get around in the digital space more smoothly.

Computers are obviously different than humans, but they are still programmed. Just like we are programmed through culture, habits and genes. But if we consider computers, systems and applications as part of an eco-system the image of growing complexities on our way of communicating in the modern world arise. I mean, who on Earth is going through a normal day without interacting through a screen to get things done today? As much as we all need the human interactions through emotions, senses and through the spoken language we are also increasingly dependent on interacting with the machines we once created.

So why are we not encouraging technical curiosity more today? Are we happy using them as tools and assuming the tablets, computers and smartphones of tomorrow will just function without any human developing them to better support our day to day businesses? Yeah, I know there are always people that "take care of them". People hired to develop new computers, processors, screens and data models to better fit our needs. But what if more people were involved in the creation and development process of our future digital space. Imagine the diversity of solutions, ideas and products that would emerge.

The tech space is an extremely gate-kept domain. Many practitioners are trying to put up fences, rules and methods on who you should be and how you should behave if you ever consider learning more about computers and programming or any other discipline in tech.

My point is that we cannot simply rely on one homogenous group of people and entrust them to develop tools for the average human without the average human knowing how they are being developed and why? Look where we ended up in our Social Dilemma for instance. The continuous development of technology is just what it is, an evolution of emerging solutions, mistakes, pitfalls and successes. Based on experiments we hopefully learn what works and what doesn't. Through time we develop more humane technologies that serve us, rather than disable us.

We are all integrated as human beings. In fact, we were already deeply integrated long time back. With that I mean long before the first iPhone was released. We just didn't have the effective tools to communicate and share our thoughts as efficiently as we do today. Modern technology have disrupted that integrated way of communication, exponentially through decades. And we are just living through the initial phase of this digital evolution. The humans who learn how these emerging technologies are applied in everyday life will have an advantage. There is already a technical elite capitalizing on the data, knowledge and insights gained.

But if we would redefine future technological success and not stare ourselves blind on the few tech bro's who tricked an immature system (hey Zuckerberg), we could create a world where people thrive on collective knowledge and wealth gained from our human need to still our technical curiosity.

As humans we have a huge responsibility to follow our curiosity. Given the power you get through technology, we should make it more available for learning, rather than consuming.

So the question is, how curious are we to know how our connected world works?