Future of Work: Why Teaching Everyone to Code Is Delusional

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Since 2005, I’ve been grappling with the issue of what to teach young people. I’ve written curricula for junior high students in the US, for a UNICEF program reaching students in a dozen countries, and now, for East African young people as they become financially literate and business savvy.

Through the years, I’ve watched program directors demand young people focus on foolish content because it lined up with something trending in the public discourse—units on climate change; modules about using social media to share stories; lessons on agricultural policy; and so forth.

What have I learned? The attention of a young person is tremendously valuable. We should stop teaching them whatever makes us feel good and get honest about the next fifteen years.

Robots and AI are rapidly proving capable of doing more jobs once the sole domain of humans.

Robots and AI are rapidly proving capable of doing more jobs once the sole domain of humans.

You may have noticed almost weekly stories in major media outlets about technological unemployment, robots taking our jobs, and the disruptive power of machine learning and artificial intelligence. This is raising public awareness about the transformational decay of the human work-for-pay economy—and it underpins the prevailing enthusiasm for training young people in science and technology.

Globally, much attention has focused on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) over the last decade or so, with computer science and code receiving ever greater emphasis.

But talks and articles cheerleading the strategy of teaching young people how to create this new technology are a kind of anodyne reaction: a facile solution that supposes that everybody can just build and make and code their way out of the coming joblessness and social restructuring.

A recent TED talk by one of the Code.org team is called “Computer Science Is for Everybody,” and it’s wrong.

Hadi Partovi learned how to code at exactly the right time and rode his abilities to the American Dream. That trajectory is available to a smaller and smaller percentage of Earth’s population. He mentions that robots will be flipping burgers and driving trucks; but he misses the point that algorithms are on the way to writing better algorithms too. (See Jeremy Howard’s “The Wonderful and Terrifying Implications of What Computers Can Learn.”)

Recently in Senegal, a young man who I worked with told me he was enthusiastic about learning to code. He didn’t know what programming language to learn, and his math and logic skills aren’t strong; but he’s got the message: young people should code their way to prosperity.

The reality, however, is that he’ll have a hard time competing.

Programming and writing code is an increasingly competitive profession.

Programming and writing code is an increasingly competitive profession.

I routinely work with freelance programmers through sites like Freelancer and oDesk. The technicians on these sites often work in large teams, and with no means of unionizing, they drive each other’s prices through the floor. That Senegalese man has very little chance of out-bidding or out-performing any of the large and numerous tech houses throughout Asia. Nor does he have a good chance of picking the right language and mastering it before it is replaced by something else.

Most people who don't have a particular aptitude or passion for formal logic and this sort of hyper-structural planning are unlikely to find themselves a livelihood trying to catch up with the bleeding edge of technologies that are developing at ever faster rates.

While Hadi Partovi does clarify that he supports computer science because of the logic, problem solving and creativity that it imparts—it’s still not the optimal way to introduce these concepts, especially in many of the world’s poorer and least well-equipped classrooms.

Because we think the world’s population is going to grow by nearly 3 billion people on the African continent within the next 35 years (see Hans Rosling’s excellent talks on the demography of 2050), we can’t brush off the challenge to our teaching and learning priorities that this context presents.

It brings us to the question that I’ve been wrestling with for a decade: If I have the attention of a classroom of young, poorly educated, low-income citizens of the world for three hours a week over the next six months, what is the absolute most important thing that I can teach them?

blank-chalkboard-classroomI’m a pragmatist, so I might rephrase that question: Is there anything I could teach this class of students that will actually confer an advantage upon them, which helps them to become more secure and better able to meet their needs and those of their families?

I think there is. But it isn’t trying to anticipate what professional skills will be in demand four years later.

Darlene Damm recently wrote about the social entrepreneur network Ashoka’s decision to prioritize the teaching of empathy—a well-reasoned priority. Expanding empathy is an unbeatable way to increase the likelihood of peaceful behavior and the strengthening of communities. I would certainly place it ahead of coding or any other STEM-related pursuit.

But what can we pair with this empathy education to make sure that we are still imparting practical skills and not just avoiding future discord—how can we plan for flexibility in the face of change?

When we don’t know what course of studies will lead to the highest salary in a few years, we can pivot and ask: What dependencies and expenses can I reduce and eliminate so that these humans are more free to seek out and capitalize on the opportunities unique to their environment.

It’s easier to anticipate the needs of people than the needs of industry and any educator who really wants to make broad statements about what is good for “everybody” needs to keep that in mind.

The trend of urbanization has made many people (most of them young) ever more dependent on supply chains that are out of their control. They look to others for their water, food and energy, spending what little money they make on goods and services that they could produce for themselves (in community) with minimal commitments of time and capital.

small-garden-foodThere are agro-ecological design strategies for every climate that help bring people (quickly and affordably) to a position of food, water and even energy self-sufficiency. These design strategies are specifically optimized to take as little time and require as little maintenance as possible, and they radically increase community resilience in the process.

Indeed, a recent study by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) essentially determined that widespread adoption of small scale organic farming is the only way for the continent of Africa to pull itself out of poverty. The type of food production being emphasized here is intensive, localized and highly productive; it increases biodiversity and makes careful use of water, whether rainfall or waste product. A few eye-opening success stories can be found here.

A nation full of coders would have no advantage over a population that has met its own basic needs in this fashion, and as educators and theorists of the future, we should look at ways of increasing personal and communal resilience as fast as possible.

Image Credit: Shutterstock.com

Nathaniel Calhoun

Nathaniel Calhoun

Nathaniel Calhoun focuses on the intersection of last mile development work challenges, mobile education for poverty alleviation and ecological design. Follow Nathaniel on Twitter: @codeinnovation.
Nathaniel Calhoun

Discussion — 77 Responses

  • DSM December 28, 2014 on 12:30 pm

    Spare us your false dichotomies please, coding is a thinking tool that empowers us to manipulate our environment in a manner we fell best meets our needs and culture, and it should be seen as supporting the scientific method. It is not a skill that we can only acquire at the expense of anything else. The language/s you learn in IT are not the point, it is the methodical problem solving skills that matter, further more if you don’t give everyone the chance to learn these skills early, so they can become generalised, how can you be sure you will also uncover those with natural talent who can go on to specialise in it?

    The idea that you can just fix a people in place on their little plots of land and that that is all they need is the true delusion. The likes of Lawson only ever offer hyperbole and gloss over inconvenient truths regarding the capacity of the land most of the people on earth have to work with. Do the maths on his claims, you can’t because before you do that he needs to give you hard data, that he doesn’t have. Even for the lucky 1% on the “eden” plots there will be drives to explore the world that will take them away to every corner of the globe, humanity is becoming nomadic on a huge scale, those living for generations in the same place will be the idealistic exceptions and not the reality that education strategist need to consider.

    You need to teach people to know themselves and how to maintain the integrity of themselves on all levels, you need to teach them how to think about thinking, how to collect, filter, collate, process and utilise the massive knowledge resources that they will have given to them via the web and how to customise media to produce variants that are culturally relevant to them. You need to teach them how to recognise and avoid the deadly pitfalls of the modern world, dangers that are becoming ever more complex and subtle, and to do this without feeling constrained by fear of change while retaining a rational sense of caution.

    I have worked as a volunteer in the third world and I have seen classic examples of where families made the transition to modernity very rapidly and successfully, but I have also seen other families fail to see what to keep of their traditions and what to take from the modern world, consequently they ate themselves to death from type 2 diabetes. That is one of many examples of how dangerous rapid change can be for people who do not have the skills to observe and adapt to the impacts that modernity is having on them when they can no longer rely on the security and stability of traditions.

    • DSM DSM December 28, 2014 on 2:29 pm

      For proof that one solution can never apply to all, in Africa or anywhere else, consider the data for Arable land (hectares per person) from the World Bank, http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/AG.LND.ARBL.HA.PC/countries?display=map

      Look how patchy Africa is! Look at Australia in contrast, but keep this in mind, only a tiny part of Australia (where Lawson lives!) is always able to support the idealistic lifestyle he promotes, the rest of the country will kill you off every ten years or so if you have not got a food transport network to acquire food from other regions when you are hit by the cyclic droughts and floods that are a natural part of that landscape. So not only does the available data show that available land per person is highly variable across the continents, none of the available data clearly shows the stability (food security) offered by that land, in isolation. The reason this data is not recorded is that it is not considered relevant when we can just move food around the globe at will, and yes I do think it is a dangerous assumption that we will be able to continue doing that, but for now that is how things work and why we do not have studies that tell the truth about what long term population number each region can sustain without interaction with other regions, i.e. large scale agricultural trade.

  • Randall W. Jordan December 28, 2014 on 12:31 pm

    Your right, but that’s just the beginning, You shouldn’t teach them to read either, as they will never be good writers.

    Why not tie their hands as they will never create anything with them.

    Who cares if they compete with the ‘big’ houses, the big houses don’t create new tech, they only capitalize current ones.

    Teaching Coding does more than add a new tool to a proletariat’s belt. It teaches logic, and puzzle solving. Makes a new mind independent of someone else’s programming point of view.

  • Jemma Redmond December 28, 2014 on 2:06 pm

    Most people are not cut out to be coders… Even if they have the aptitude they may not have the interest.

    It’s a bit like teaching people maths and expecting them to be mathematicians…

    • DSM Jemma Redmond December 28, 2014 on 2:12 pm

      “It’s a bit like teaching people maths and expecting them to be mathematicians…”

      No!

      Teaching logic to people is like teaching people to think and expecting them to be more self reliant as a consequence. Programming is maths and maths is a form of literacy that is empowering. Without maths and the skills built on top of it you are nothing more than the modern version of a hunter gatherer living off a technological landscape created and controlled by other people with more knowledge/power than you.

      • Pranab Ghosh DSM December 31, 2014 on 9:04 pm

        Programming is not just math. It’s not even all science. it’s part science and part art. It can be taught to some extent. To really excel, you have to be very passionate about it. So, it is delusional trying to make everyone a good programmer, just like it is delusional trying to make everyone a good musician.

        • DSM Pranab Ghosh January 1, 2015 on 1:48 am

          LOL, so now we are not just teaching them to code, but that they must be good at it in the end or there was no point doing it at all? This discussion has become seriously illogical if you need to move the gaol posts to make a point.

    • Randall W. Jordan Jemma Redmond December 29, 2014 on 3:10 am

      Still, they will DO math for the rest of their lives.

  • Andre Odendaal December 28, 2014 on 2:19 pm

    I totally agree with this article, the world does not need a population of mediocre coders, creating mediocre systems.

    What education should focus on is teaching people to think and question, improve social interaction, build structures and societies that allow us to develop our individual talents and use them to contribute to society.

    If you are looking at “developing” countries, the biggest problem is corruption and despotism. Having everyone code isn’t going to overcome this. Training everyone to be a bricklayer isn’t going to rebuild a city.

    • DSM Andre Odendaal December 28, 2014 on 2:35 pm

      Wow, an entire field of straw men! Your arguments are suggesting two things that are false, one that coding is not a generally applicable thinking skill and two that one cannot acquire it without sacrificing the ability to acquire another skill. A false dichotomy. This is what I pointed out in my other (yet to be approved) comment.

      • Andre Odendaal DSM December 28, 2014 on 2:57 pm

        My arguments are not false. I know many smart people who have tried to learn to code, and cannot. There are may smart people who cannot do math. Coding is not a generally applicable thinking skill, neither is math. Not everyone can code, not everyone can do math. Everyone can think.

        Everyone can know about or be familiar with coding, yes.

        Coding does not teach people to question, or to seek broad understanding. I deal with this daily. People who can code, very well, still allow themselves to build bad systems because they don’t understand the real requirement.

        • DSM Andre Odendaal December 28, 2014 on 3:12 pm

          “My arguments are not false”

          Sadly they are not even logical, as I have pointed out.

          All your arguments take the same flawed form, “Coding is not X therefore coding is not valuable to everyone.” Not only is that illogical in itself, you don’t actually demonstrate why “Coding is not X”, you just make unsubstantiated claims in support of a fallacy.

          I can code, therefore I can argue a point rigorously without calls to emotion or reliance on unsubstantiated beliefs. Coding is generally applicable and everyone would be better of if they were more empowered by having such thinking skills.

          • Andre Odendaal DSM December 28, 2014 on 3:33 pm

            Your arguments are very enlightening, and without realizing you are actually supporting the premise of the article.

            • DSM Andre Odendaal December 28, 2014 on 3:38 pm

              That is a claim and not an argument, do you even know the difference? If so support your claim with logic and or fact.

              • Matthew DSM January 8, 2015 on 5:58 am

                here is some logic and fact about your proving the article right–your immature name calling, paraphrasing mockery, and condescending attitude. you have proven what the article says, we need to teach empathy. fact is, programming languages become obsolete. I get what you’re saying, it has been a great tool to teach self reliance and pragmatism. but as programming languages increase exponentially while they obsolesce almost as fast and pay less than ever it’s becoming more of a losing battle. people always told me I couldn’t become an animator without coding. as an artist, I always contended that it’s more about design than designing the tools. and I made it through one of the best art schools in the country and got a bachelor’s in fine arts in animation. glad I took this route instead of pulling my hair out and wishing I had made it doing what I really wanted to do while I slaved away on something that would be obsolete in 2 years.

                • DSM Matthew January 8, 2015 on 12:17 pm

                  You don’t actually have a clue what empathy is, empathy is not agreeing with people, or even liking them, empathy is the ability to see and feel things from their perspective, while retaining your own. For example, I can relate to your ignorance of this subject because I remember how ignorant I was as a boy and so I can see myself as you at another time. In fact my empathy allows me to see the flaws in other people’s arguments because one has to start out wrong and ignorant before one progresses to knowledge and wisdom.

    • Bjørn Remseth Andre Odendaal December 30, 2014 on 7:27 am

      Ok, I’ll bite: The world -does- need a population of mediocre coders. In fact, it needs a -large- population of mediocre coders. The reason is much the same as for the world’s need for mediocre photographers, writers, musicians, scientists, …. They actually do a lot of useful work, and at least as importantly, they are able to appreciate the work of the professionals even more and are able to put it to work in ways the truly clueless will never be.

      But that’s only a small part of it. Perhaps not even the most important part. I’m a above average coder myself. A really important part of the aptitude necessary to become that is…. patience, and willingness to sustain concentration and motivation through hours, weeks and months of more or less intense boredom (what other people would call mind-crushingly boredom if they would ever attempt to experience it themselves). I obviously have that aptitude, and it’s useful, but it’s not something I’m particularly proud of. Also, it’s something that is necessary to sustain working through -large- projects. For fixing small problems, it’s simply not necessary. And, let’s face it, a huge fraction of the problems in this world are small and immediate. An army of mediocre coders that -solve-their-own-small-problems- can add a -lot- of real value to the world, and that value is every bit as real as the value we “above average” coders create. It’s just created elsewhere.

      So bring the mediocre hordes on. I for one will welcome them 🙂

      • Herb Coleman Bjørn Remseth December 30, 2014 on 3:18 pm

        I agree here. The point is not necessarily to teach coding (or anything) to meet a specific job or industry need. We teach people skills and ways of thinking that they can then apply to their lives in whatever way they wish. Back in the day (1984), I thought I had missed the computer revolution. One of my professors said that programming was too difficult for the average user and that computers would spread to the masses when computers became easier to use…if you didn’t catch it, that was the year the Macintosh computer came out. Two years later I had one put on my desk and was told to learn how to use it and train the rest of the staff. Needless to say, that was a breeze. I also did learn something about programming (to be fair, I had learned basic in high school and had played around with a Timex Sinclair writing the programs that came in the documentation). With the Mac, however, shortly came Hypercard. I created tons of stacks including one that helped my 4-year old son how to read. Later, when I go my first PC in another job, it came with almost no software. I wrote a program in basic to process time sheets and manage my payroll. While, I don’t consider myself a programmer, I have simple programming skills enough to write scripts for Filemaker Pro and the programming I learned made it easier to learn HTML. I’m looking to learning how to write IOS apps (when I get spare time) and who knows where it will take me. I have to say the little bit of “coding” that I have learned has helped me and if nothing else, I enjoyed it. The idea that everyone should learn some coding helps to demystify computers and gives them the opportunity go further, if they wish.

        So I’ll quote another instructor who said, “I’ll never tell you that you don’t need to to know this. I’ll just let you know what I plan to focus on.” You can decide for yourself if you need to know it.

  • Bourjoi December 28, 2014 on 2:45 pm

    Did you read Jeremy Rifkin book? The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism.

    I’m a teacher myself and do teach some code while thinking as you do that « It’s easier to anticipate the needs of people than the needs of industry» In a maker, DIY aspects of curriculum.

    For them to have more intellectual tools. I also teach them that no system will answer precisely in any event to their needs.
    They are the only one to know their own and their family survival needs.

    Industry and economy don’t cover all the possibilities, far from it.

    It’s only human made.

    They can find their own.

    That’s what freedom his for.

    Félicitations! Vous deviez le dire.

    • DSM Bourjoi December 28, 2014 on 3:03 pm

      “It’s easier to anticipate the needs of people than the needs of industry”

      But that is yet another false dichotomy of his! It is the same as saying that coding is just for feeding worker into industry and industry is unpredictable therefore we should not teach coding because it is’t a sure bet.

      This is in denial of the more general applicability of the cognitive skills acquired when coding is taught correctly!

      All you can justify from the claim regarding the fickle nature of industrial human resource demands is that coding needs to focus on the more general aspects of that form of cognition and not on the specifics of a given language, product or solution.

  • Jim Gravelyn December 28, 2014 on 2:54 pm

    I think teaching the basics is the best way to prepare people for the future, and it is those basics that we are abandoning. Reading skills are plummeting – you find college graduates with almost zero reading comprehension skills. Culture: in other words, history and the basics of political philosophy, so the young can tell the difference between a working state system and communism. Ethics: so we stop raising an entire generation of amoral thugs who think the Knockout Game is fun. Logic: so they learn that wanting a certain outcome doesn’t make it so. I am appalled at the education my grandchildren are getting. Even the smartest ones are years behind where I was at the same age, but they can kill zombies in a video game like superstars.

    • DSM Jim Gravelyn December 28, 2014 on 3:30 pm

      I have similar concerns to you Jim, that is why I have taken it on myself to educate my children. My family is not at all traditional in how we do things but as you would like a return to the time tested common sense of tradition I seek to rediscover it in a structure that suits my wife and I, but under the surface we are both seeking to give to our descendants the same sort of empowerment and independence of thought.

      As for computer games, I get around that issue by teaching the kids how to make games and to see how under all that eye candy it is always that same small set of rat mazes that fools cannot see. As a consequence the oldest is only interested in the more complex games of strategy and even then in moderation. However I suspect we also have the advantage here of not having offspring who are dopamine junkies, because the large numbers of people with that disability always find some pointless distraction to destroy themselves with in the end.

    • Matthew Jim Gravelyn January 8, 2015 on 6:06 am

      literacy rates are increasing globally. people are more highly educated than ever, the problem is automation which this article nails. all those factory jobs you enjoyed in the late 60s when wages were $23 an hour (in today’s dollars) are GONE. and even though our bootstraps are better than ever no amount of pulling them will bring those jobs back. fact is, we need jobs of the future. and we need to focus more on sustainability and diplomacy in this new era of 7 billion people and mass manufacturing everything (to the detriment of 52% of wildlife destroyed in the past 40 years).

  • philiphorvath December 28, 2014 on 3:20 pm

    You make a good point given the scarcity of time and attention we have to teach kids in underdeveloped countries. And yes, teaching them to have their basics covered by teaching them basic design strategies for self-reliance is probably a better and more realistic use of the precious little time we have to educate them than to assume we can get them computer labs and create a continent of cheap labor coders.
    That said, coding is a means to learn how to think. When I was in first grade, we learned Set Theory before we learned numbers. By the time I was ten I got access to a computer and taught myself programming (a bit more challenging in 1984 than it is today). Those two skills (in combination with Latin) have done me way more good than memorizing multiplication tables. They taught me the basics of logic and semantics. Something I would wish for every child.
    By the time I was a teenager I realized that other people were much better at coding and there would be generations of kids growing up with computers who would quickly put me out of a job if coding was all I could offer (unless I was really good at it, which I wasn’t).
    Today, we have the opportunity to completely revisit our education system. The idea of a teacher in front and a class of kids listening is painfully outdated. Instead, all schooling could be built around pragmatic design challenges.
    In the process, we can teach them the skills necessary to take a project from conception to completion – including coding -, and then foster individual propensities and aptitudes further. That, and learning empathy and how to work in a team of people with different skill sets, would be much more helpful for the coming century than to have to choose between one skill or another taught in a classroom setting.

  • Andrew Atkin December 28, 2014 on 3:23 pm

    Some thoughts:

    Important insight on the ‘supply and demand’ factor with technology.

    People think it’s the future, for personal prosperity. But it’s capable of supply-saturation like any other industry, and with China and India coming online in ever-greater numbers, with their massive technician-workforces, those prices could be indeed be driven to the ground and lower.

    My prediction is highly innovative technological industries will tend to go the way of Hollywood: Some big winners, some really big winners, and many losers….with averages finally being no better than any other industry.

    First there is growth, then excitement leads to heavy investment, with the final result being market-saturation. Then technology, like anything else, becomes just another game in town.

    Where, really is the future? Go for ‘exoitc’ property debelopment. The new product will be people wanting a really, really nice place to live. Not much else for people to buy that’s going to have a qualitative impact on real living standards.

  • Curt Welch December 28, 2014 on 3:30 pm

    The author here is spot on. Teaching everyone to code is not the solution. I’ve been a software engineer for 40 years and I know that most people don’t have what it takes to be good coders or good engineers. To be a good coder, you need to have a high IQ as well as a passion for the work. I’ve seen countless people with “average” IQ trying to compete in the field and their work for the most part is pitiful. Half the people are below average in IQ and they have no hope making it in software. Trying to teach everyone to code because coders make “good money” is as silly as trying to teach everyone to play basketball because professional players make great money. You don’t take a 5’6″ tall fat guy, and teach him to play basketball in hope he will be able to support himself in a world where 7′ strong athletic motivated players are making millions. All bodies are not the same, and only a few special ones have what it takes to succeed in the MBA, and likewise, not all brains are the same, and only a special few have what it takes, to succeed as software engineers. We need to wake up and realize that we are all different in our abilities and that schools can’t change this fact.

    The problem we face in society is the fact that our innate differences, are becoming a growing factor in our ability to make a living in a capitalistic society. As machines displace the easy and boring work, the work that remains is becoming increasingly specialised and complex — creating a growing superstar effect in the job markets where only the cream of the crop in each area is able to reap the large rewards — creating growing job and economic and social inequalty across society.

    This problem can not be fixed in our schools. The inequalty is not being created by a lack of education, it’s being created by the technology we create. Technology, for all the wonders it creates, is destabilizing our “work for living” society and creating a society where the few have endless wealth and and power, while the masses struggle to hold onto one small piece of the pie.

    The solution lies in better sharing of the technology, and the wealth it creates, and less selfish hoarding. If there is something we need to teach in our schools, it’s that social responsibility and sharing is more important than selfish, individual success — we need to teach social empathy — as the author points out, to get the next generation ready for the transformation that is coming.

    We need to teach our kids to work together to create success, instead of having them compete against each other for success. We need to teach them that the success of the class should not be measured by the highest grades in the class, but by the lowest. If the class is not working together to lift the grades of every student in the room, then the class is failing. We should teach a dedication to each other, not a dedication to ourselves.

    If we teach that, and raise a generation of children dedicated to each other, they will succeed no matter what comes along.

    • DSM Curt Welch December 28, 2014 on 4:11 pm

      Actually only the top 5% have an IQ high enough to be really good at coding, however the problem with your argument is that it is like saying only 5% of people are smart enough to do medicine therefore we should not teach people to do first aid or the basking skills needed to understand and care for their body.

      Nobody should suggest that coding (or anything else) is a panacea for the world’s ills, it is only a stepping stone toward a more rational population which should lead to people being better able to find solutions to the future’s currently undefined problems.

      Teaching coding is in no way delusional, it is wise, if done well.

      • DSM DSM December 28, 2014 on 4:43 pm

        Correction: “basic skills”, LOL basking skills, I think most people are already good at laying around doing nothing. 🙂

      • Matthew DSM January 8, 2015 on 6:16 am

        currently undefined future problems??? what planet do you live on? for such an overzealous proponent of LOGIC (I guess the rest of us are just idiots) that’s a pretty gaping flaw in yours. 52% of wildlife has been destroyed in the past 40 years. 76% of ocean life is gone (which factors into that average). we are draining continental aquifers of water for drinking further exacerbating already existing desertification from global climate change, AND polluting what remains of those aquifers with fracking waste. mercury levels on the surface of the ocean are 3 times higher than ever. sea level has ALREADY risen 15 centimeters and increasing. despite the fact that we’re more highly educated than ever employment is lower than ever because of automation. similarly, despite the fact that we are safer than ever extremist mass murders are increasing (even if they are on the margins and we are in fact safer healthier wealthier and wiser than ever per capita.

        we know pretty well what our future problems are. you have stated that we need to stress the basics. well nothing is more basic than treating each other peacefully and farming for ourselves. we require a BIG emphasis on empathy and personal sustainability it is crucial at this time so that we have a future, as the article begins to articulate.

        • DSM Matthew January 8, 2015 on 12:25 pm

          Actually the sea has risen about 100 meters, it just depends on when you start measuring.

          A word of friendly advice, because I do have enough empathy for you to tell you something that you will not like, but need to hear. You may wish to pay more attention to how you structure and punctuate your comments lest you risk coming across as a tad schizoid and have people be dismissive of your opinions for that reason alone. I hope this helps you grow.

  • William Hostman December 28, 2014 on 4:09 pm

    One of the common core standards is organizational skills. Another is logic skills. Both of these have far more to do with the use of computer coding than work preparation in general.

    The individuals who are telling these kids they can make a good living at it are liars, or worse… a scant few will make any money at all coding…

    … but the value of coding in the curriculum is the requirements for {1} organizing a project (organizing code, resource files, and workspace management), {2} applying logic skills to problem solving, {3} learning the methodology of computer operation (nothing teaches this better than coding), and {4} immediately useful to the student reinforcement of applies algebraic mathematics.

  • Hadi Partovi December 28, 2014 on 7:51 pm

    Mr Calhoun,

    From reading your article it appears you didn’t even watch my talk or do even basic research before lobbing insults. I don’t mind being called a cheerleader, or my ideas being called delusional. I do mind when the person writing these words doesn’t do even the most basic research before writing their comments.

    Obviously you read the title of my TEDx talk (which was chosen by the TEDx folks, after the talk ended, and not by me. I would have called it “Computer science is foundational.”) Literally in the talk I specifically say that we do NOT believe that everybody should be learning to code, and that it ISN’T vocational. And yet you reference my words suggesting that I have delusional ideas that everybody should learn to code in order to get a better job. Really? LOL

    Obviously you know the name of my organization is “Code.org.” If you want to judge an organization by its name, then maybe you should also disclose that you also run a lesser-known organization called Code, whose mission also shouldn’t be judged or summarized only by its name.

    • NathanielCalhoun Hadi Partovi December 29, 2014 on 8:15 pm

      Sorry! See my response to your second comment further below. No insult intended to you. Titles-for-clicks aren’t the most elegant summaries of anyone’s thinking and, given your comment below, I suspect we agree more frequently than not.

      My company, Code Innovation, is no secret (though it’s not common knowledge that it’s name derives from an ungainly acronym that we outgrew: Consultants for Online Development and Education). I’m not mentioning it in articles or advertising because we’re busy and not seeking growth.

  • NathanielCalhoun December 28, 2014 on 7:52 pm

    Thanks for all the discussion. It’s worth noting that there’s a good deal of common ground beneath some of the method-based disagreements. We want to see critical thinking, logic, organizational skills and problem solving at the heart of our education system or educational interventions.

    The debate then hinges on whether or not computer science, or coding in particular, is the best and most effective way to achieve that goal. I’m prepared to believe that it’s a valuable tool for a significant portion of the population within advanced economies where access to technology is widespread, affordable and somewhat equitably distributed. Though an equally significant percentage of that same population will probably benefit little and retain less.

    I began the article with my professional experience to highlight that these are not the economies or the potential students who most concern me when I hear the word “everyone.” And this helps to shed light on another contention that a commenter repeated: the idea that there is scarcity of time for educational pursuits has been challenged and the possibility of just including computer science alongside other priorities put forward as a solution. This again is fine and appropriate for some nations, especially those with a reasonably modern curricula, ubiquitous functioning computer labs and students who remain within learning systems year after year.

    I framed my struggle very particularly: there are hundreds of millions of people (arguably billions) who are too busy, poor, geographically isolated or vulnerable to enter a learning environment as professional students (even if they can access a “free” learning environment). It is these young people, in rural Madagascar, in Monrovia, In Kampala, Gambia or Addis who I am thinking about. You don’t get to support them with a buckshot approach to education and stand back to hope something useful has stuck. If you fail in your first value propositions, by promising rewards and advantages that do not transpire, your students will not return.

    I’m thinking of these learners specifically within the context of educational interventions funded by governments, NGOs, charity or businesses. This is a common and super important use case: brief moments of “professional development” or “capacity building” squeezed into the full and challenging circumstances of someone scraping by on less than $2 a day.

    In that specific (but quite widely distributed and indeed growing) demographic, I’m asking, “How can we provide as much value as possible?” And my experience shows me that the answer is neither computer science nor code.

    • DSM NathanielCalhoun December 28, 2014 on 8:39 pm

      So it boils down to this, you want money and are prepared to put forward completely false arguments and make derogatory comments about the value of other people’s work in order to get a bigger share of the pie?

      Look at your argument, entirely framed by the idea that you must attack and destroy other ideas in order to justify your own educational philosophy. What on earth made you feel that was even necessary?

      Why would people trust the future of children to such a destructive mind?

  • Jonathan Bombard December 28, 2014 on 9:13 pm

    Nate,

    You know my thoughts about education. I am willing to concede the basic point that your 3rd world population samples don’t need the tool that is code in a buckshot mentality. I also think Darlene is onto something with her empathy teaching method. It’s difficult to be a scholar when basic needs are not being met on a daily basis.

    The question I have that was not answered here is.. how can we custom tailor a more practical education with a logic strengthening byproduct that is pertinent impact full and rekevant?

    I know and respect your ability to see through to the core of a problem that you are intimate with to dismiss the negatives presented by some of the commentors, now how do we fix it?

    • NathanielCalhoun Jonathan Bombard December 29, 2014 on 8:19 pm

      Hey Jon,

      Thanks for writing! I’m still a big fan of leaning on exponential technologies (mobile as a platform along with the potential of AI-driven applications) for the “custom tailor” stuff. Even in the context of proposing agro-ecological interventions, I’m exploring how to weave together sensors, AI and a huge database of knowledge into open source application designed along side the most likely users. It’s early days for that project, however, and I’ll have to keep you posted.

      It’s also not the same as a pure engine for strengthening the logical mind–that’s probably going to move more towards your neck of the woods with puzzles and gaming. Cheers!

  • dobermanmacleod December 28, 2014 on 9:33 pm

    Yeah, there are people here who have the egalitarian hallucination, that everyone can do anything. Instead, coming from a chess background (I’m a National Master), take my word for it, most people have a feeble attention span and critical thinking skills. Don’t get me wrong, there are always bigger fish in the sea, but generally, half of all Americans are functionally illiterate (i.e. they can’t read and comprehend the front page of a newspaper).

    To go furthermore, finding a person that can code well is very rare. Yeah, there are a lot of people that can code (it isn’t a rare skill), but to find someone that can go into a program, read and comprehend it, then make changes that don’t cause even more bugs, is not as common as you might think. Basically, every time you make a change it isn’t linearly more difficult, it is exponentially more difficult (I know this is unintuitive – it is nature of complexity, and even some managers in charge of programmers fail to comprehend this). By the way, most coders employed are working with existing software and making changes to it, not writing new software unencumbered by old already functioning code.

    • DSM dobermanmacleod December 28, 2014 on 9:56 pm

      Where did your skills come from, born smart or well trained? A bit of both? Either way consider this, as far as the influence of nature is concerned there is more human genetic diversity in Africa than in the rest of humanity combined, and if you look at the nurture side of things wouldn’t you need to start early and have solid training in the appropriate cognitive skills to be able to develop them fully? Isn’t the only way to maximise the rational thinking potential of a population to teach it to them in the form the sort of logic and structured thinking that is at the heart of the mathematical literacy that underpins computer science, and or philosophy? Even if they only ever code a spreadsheet for the family budget or to run a little shop in the front of their house they will still be significantly better off than those with no idea how to do such things.

  • cedric December 29, 2014 on 5:50 am

    Opinion here are led by a lack of scientifical knowledge.

    I think that first of all, even before talking about whether Coding should be taught to all or not, we need to draw some background on how’s brain working.

    Every human got a brain (Einstein once said that for some of them, a spinal cord would have been sufficient…)
    Some brains are better working that the other ones (for instance Einstein brain had more astrocytes than the average brain which implies that his neurons had a better oxygenation).

    This settle the fact that we don’t come to life with equal chances…

    BUT

    we also know that brain has a huge adaptative capacity (plasticity) and may lead us to be better in any task.

    With those facts in mind, and knowing that (this is very very important) “””” IQ IS NOT A CONSTANT AND EVOLVUE WITH TIME “””” > No matter who learn about coding seriously and give it enough time, will know how to code, and talking here about good and bad code has no meaning if you do not define what kind of software that person would be coding, doing a basic “hello world” is coding and won’t be performed the same as using mutex to multithread functions…

    What DSM is trying to say is that, when you learn Structural conditions if / then / while,

    when you learn that an array start at index 0, and therefore that in your “for” loop you must be very cautious of the starting value of your variable, you’re not only coding, but most important, you are teaching your brain logic in it’s purest form.

    Forgetting ; at the end of your line teach you how to be cautious and more accurate since after hours spent seeking what’s going wrong in your code, the next time you’ll pay way more attention about what you’re typing.

    Asking ourselves if coding is the better way of teaching logic is worth it, but AFAIC it made me understand maths (cos, sin, tan, % etc…) in a more pragmatical and understandable way that what classes could offer me at the time.

    (from france 🙂

    • cedric cedric December 29, 2014 on 6:14 am

      The author’s question about ressources in poor countries does not prevent those population from coding. ( Ada Lovelace did it quite good on paper )

      However, i think that it could be interesting to split the questioning in 2 parts : short and long term.

      At short term, as mr Calhoun is stating, we need to find solutions in education which can be used to help them on their basics need on a daily basis.

      At long term, the world is evolving faster and faster, and those young people must acquire skills and the knowledge to face what will drastically change the world in the next 2 or 3 decades.

      We cannot think of it in only one perspective. We must solve the educational problem by approaching it in a systemic way.

  • Hadi Partovi December 29, 2014 on 5:32 pm

    For what it’s worth, as the guy running one of the largest efforts to get schools to teach computer science, I *don’t* believe that computer science or coding are worth teaching in communities that won’t have computers, smartphones for decades. (it’s also of limited value to teach how electricity works in a community of children that will never ever experience the use of it)

    I do believe that computer science is as foundational as biology or chemistry in any society that has computing devices – because children deserve a chance to go to a school that helps them learn how the world around them works, and if the world around them is being run by software, they should at least learn the basics about how it works, just like they learn the basics of water = H2O, or what photosynthesis is, etc.

    I also believe computer science helps build critical thinking and logic skills. There are not yet formal studies of this, but as the founder of Code.org I have heard dozens of anecdotal analogies from teachers or even entire school districts that introduced computer science to all students and saw a school-wide or district-wide jump in math scores that year. I’m not sure why pure math is the only chosen approach to teaching problem-solving (instead of say, computational thinking), but either way, I hope that within a few years the research we’re funding will show a causal relationship between studying computer science and improvement in math scores. (there is already hard data of a correlation, just not a causal relationship).

    • NathanielCalhoun Hadi Partovi December 29, 2014 on 6:20 pm

      Great comment, Hadi! Thanks for weighing in and for the educational experience that you and your organization have been working to make available.

      I wouldn’t challenge the idea that computer science imparts logic and reasoning skills–I’m sure that studies will confirm that hunch over and again. A good study to see how it did in comparison with mathematics, or formal logic (that would be my candidate) would be illuminating.

      The idea that computer science has become as foundational as biology or chemistry (at least within technological societies) is an interesting one. Do you think that claim will remain true, say, 15 years from now, *if* much of our technology is being produced by algorithms and if creating our own technological experiments has been made easy with voice controlled, drag and drop type user interfaces (projections, immersions, and so forth)?

      I suspect that humans in 10-15 years will be much more able to produce digital goods, designs, games and virtual worlds; but that the technical skill required for these undertakings will be negligible. At the same time, I see fewer opportunities in the back end of whatever coding languages (or equivalent) we evolve.

      So my second question would be: what portion of your commitment to teaching code (and computer science) comes from a belief that teaching these skills will lead to gainful employment and how far forward in time does that belief extend for you?

      • Hadi Partovi NathanielCalhoun December 29, 2014 on 9:48 pm

        Yes, I believe in 15 years for sure C.S. will be as foundational as biology or chemistry, in fact even more so.

        Also, for me personally, 100% of the reason to run Code.org is because of the value to the children who *don’t* become software engineers. Free markets and capitalism will drive enough to make it their job, but free markets won’t teach it to those who don’t consider it a profession. I believe in teaching the most basic aspects of computer science to the future doctors, lawyers, accountants, investors, and politicians, all of whom will benefit from algorithmic design and computational thinking, and all of whom would benefit from understanding how all the technology around them works even if they don’t need to build it themselves.

        Why? For the same reason we teach kids to dissect a frog. Consider, EVERY student in the developed world dissects an animal during their high school career. Less than 1% become surgeons. But in the process they learn about scientific inquiry, and also about the anatomy. And modern day surgery is often done completely differently, with injecting a robot in your body that does the surgery, and soon it may be a swarm of nanobots. But we’ll still teach dissection using a scalpel and not explain anything about how the robots work?

        Yes, every generation of programming languages has made the previous version obsolete by offering higher-level commands. Nobody speaks in 1s and 0s anymore. But it’s useful to understand what the 1s and 0s are about, because they are building blocks. The most fundamental learning from CS is how small building blocks can be used to build larger more complex systems, and there is no other course in the K-12 curriculum that teaches this powerful concept. Some day all computer languages will be obsolete and we’ll just speak in plain English with the computers, and heck one day we’ll probably just *think* the commands and they will be executed. But until the day that computers completely replace human intelligence or merge with it, those humans who understand how computers actually work will have advantages over the “dumb users.”

        And for as long as human intelligence is relevant in this world (which I personally peg at 100 years at the very least, although other singularity fans may say less so), I believe the problem-solving skills that come with functional abstraction, algorithmic design, and computational thinking are complementary to the lessons you learn proving a theorem in geometry or solving an equation in physics, and in many ways have greater real-world applicability.

        • NathanielCalhoun Hadi Partovi December 30, 2014 on 4:24 am

          Right on. It’s funny, if I’m not mistaken, grammar is no longer widely taught as a structural art with diagrammed sentences and so forth, neither is rhetoric with its corresponding breakdown of argumentative strategies. Those subjects lost out, in large part, because we don’t think so formally about our use of language anymore–perhaps because of how widespread and “common” it has become. Something similar is under way with computer code: a trajectory towards an intuitive, informal (less overtly structured) way of programming machines. You’re probably familiar with the Baxter robot that can simply be manipulated, manually into performing and remembering its function. Or the service that uses algorithms to enable technological simpletons to create their own websites: https://thegrid.io/

          As an educator, influenced by the “Singularity fans,” and focused on the world’s least fortunate students, I see basic knowledge of a computer programming language as having past its peak usefulness for your average human. Learning a skill of this variety at a basic level seems likely to confer diminishing real-world advantage—especially in countries where the presence of technology is less widely felt. (Though, I should have mentioned with regards to your earlier comment: I don’t think there are any countries that are decades away from widespread technological adaptation.)

          The first big question becomes: if the purpose and motivation of well-motivated educators (code.org included) is to improve the critical, logical, structural thinking of learners, what is the best sort of content for delivering these skills? And this may be where our thinking diverges: because of the huge sacrifices that many people make when they seek education and because of the staggering rejection being dealt to the US education system by its clients, I’m driven to pack as much real world opportunity into every lesson as possible. Now, I believe there are still classrooms around the US and other relatively affluent nations, where a decent percentage of learners may gain an economic advantage from their new found computer science abilities.

          But outside that context, in the fast growing, informal, irregular, practical, perhaps even community-based learning centers of tomorrow (which are certainly going to be tech-enabled), the second big question becomes: is there a different vehicle for teaching planning, structure and project thinking; something with immediate real world benefits to the learners that they can use to strengthen their communities or even their ecosystem and physical environment? Asking the question in this way brought me to the recommendations of the article.

          (And it was really helpful for me to understand that you see your primary beneficiaries as those who do not go on to use the skills to earn income. The educational purity of that is legitimate and part of the scholastic tradition that still teaches chemistry and geometry to all of us.)

          If you’re keen to continue, the two things that I’d be curious to know are: if in 15 (or #) years, you saw the interface between technology and humans to be overwhelmingly fluid (gestural, intuitive or even telepathic)—if the harsh logical requirements of coding have effectively been surpassed—and you were still guiding the strategy of code.org, what would be the backup plan or the second priority while remaining on mission? And, if some donor were to give you a staggering sum on the condition that you go and bring critical thinking to an area today where technology is still quite niche and poorly distributed, what might your strategies be in that scenario?

    • DSM Hadi Partovi December 29, 2014 on 6:32 pm

      Back in the early 90’s while assisting academics making the transition to producing teaching materials using multimedia software noticed that even they had their existing skills enhanced by exposure to computer based tools and the thinking modalities embodied in their designs by the information technologist that coded them. So it is not just kids that benefit, it is everyone who has not been exposed to those ways of thinking. That is what software is isn’t it, knowledge captured in a parametric way, also with many tools having scripting APIs just being a well trained software user leads to being a coder of sorts.

      As for the no-point teaching IT to people with no computers, well duh, but what about the efforts of Google to bring cheap, powerful computing and communications to every corner of the globe, project loon, http://www.google.com/loon/ etc?

      How long before most of Africa is connected, surely not decades?

    • cedric Hadi Partovi December 30, 2014 on 3:17 am

      “For what it’s worth, as the guy running one of the largest efforts to get schools to teach computer science, I *don’t* believe that computer science or coding are worth teaching in communities that won’t have computers, smartphones for decades. (it’s also of limited value to teach how electricity works in a community of children that will never ever experience the use of it)”

      You are making a comparison beetwen Coding Which Is building a thought after Having gathered knowledge and electricity Which Is pure knowledge ?

      As DSM and thé ôther stated, teaching Coding Is not setting programming as a finality, but trying to teach How to build a thinking process in a practical Way.

      Could you develop on why you dont think it could be useful?

  • Dan Darnell December 30, 2014 on 7:21 am

    Like other labor, coding is the modern version of grunt work that supports the work of leaders and visionaries.

    We need armies of these people and I hope trade schools and other institutions will expand their curricula accordingly.

    • Curt Welch Dan Darnell December 30, 2014 on 11:32 am

      Except it’s not “grunt” work in the fact that most people are totally incompetent at it, and don’t have the mental skills needed to be good at it no matter how much time they spend in class trying to learn it. Coding is engineering. It’s not clerical work. It’s pure high level abstract thinking and most of our population are very poor at high level abstract thinking compared to the few that excel at it. We don’t need “coders”. All the “coding” work has been automated and is now done by the computers. That’s what the compilers and code building systems do for us. The instant any aspect of software engineering becomes “grunt work”, it gets automated with more advanced software tools. We need engineers that can translate human problems into software solutions and just like trying to find good CEOs in the population is hard, finding good software engineers is also very hard — which is why we always have a constant shortage of them. We are in a machine economy where we need 90% of the workers to be high level engineers, entrepreneurs, creative workers, and 10% to be “grunts” because the machines are doing most the grunt work now. But what we have, is a population where only 10% are high level creative leaders and 90% are grunts. This is a genetic mis-match between what the population as a whole is able to do, and what sort of workers the economy needs. The result is rising wealth and income for the few that have the innate abilities the economy needs, and falling wages and income for everyone else that can’t compete with the elite humans and who are now being forced to compete with the machines created by the elite. As the cost of the machines fall, the wages for the bulk of the work force stagnates and falls.

      Teaching people to code does not address in any fashion, the genetic mis-match between what our population of workers are able to do, and what our economy needs them to be able to do.

      I totally agree that exposing everyone to coding and engineering is a very important aspect of education. People need to understand the fundamentals of what these machines are and how they work. So I do support the idea that students need to be exposed to coding.

      But I don’t support the idea that this is the solution to growing problems of inequality and the lack of good paying jobs that is becoming an epidemic across society. The population is working longer hours, and harder, with less job security, than in the recent past, but taking home a smaller percentage of the GDP for their increased efforts and ending up with less wealth, and more debt than the previous generation. Teaching kids to code won’t change this trend. It won’t have any effect on it at all because most the kids that have the inherent ability to be good abstract thinkers and good coders, already are, or will be, engineers and coders, and makers and the ones that don’t have what it takes, won’t be no matter how much you expose them to it.

      To fix the growing inequalty, “work” is not the solution. Jobs are not the solution. Better education so the kids can get better jobs, is not the solution. Our machines are making humans obsolete in the workforce and in time, the idea of having a job and working for a living will be an idea lost to history. It’s going away, and it’s going away now. Over half of the work force in the US is being forced to exist on shrinking wages — wages that aren’t growing and keeping up with GDP growth, and aren’t even keeping up with inflation. Each year, more than half our population, is being forced to live with less, while all the huge gains in productivity that drives GDP higher every year, all accrue to a small elite. The 10% of society are not only capturing all the new growth, they are using their wealth and their technology to take opportunity and income away from the rest of society as well. The rich of society are growing richer faster, than our economy is expanding. They are doing it by taking wealth away from the rest of society — and it’s all this “wonderful” software driven technology that is the tool they are using to do it.

      The rich aren’t trying to be evil (at least most of them). They are just doing what society has told them to do — try to be “successful” in this game of capitalism we play. The game is simply working against most of society because of all the great technology we have created.

      There is only one solution to this growing problem. We must learn to share more of the wealth being produced by all our technology instead of letting the few hoard it all. And one of the best ways to do this, is by a Basic Income Guarantee where we tax the economy, and distribute unconditional cash to every member of society.

      If you want to make the future better for the kids, the last thing you should worry about, is teaching kids to code. It won’t make life better for anyone. In fact, if you make them believe they must learn to code, in order to get a fair share of the wealth, you will create nothing but anger and frustration and fear in the 80% of the population that find out they suck at codings.

      If you want to make life better for the kids, teach them, and the adults (most don’t understand what I’m saying), that our problems are economic in nature, not “work” related. A capitalistic economy alone DOES NOT WORK, to create a strong and healthy and happy society once you force humans to compete against machines for jobs.

      This problem has been growing since the well known revolte of the luddites 200 years ago. But in those days, the machines only stole the income of a minority of society, so the majority just told them to fuck off and deal. But now, the problem has spread to the majority of society. Most people today, are seeing falling incomes becuase they are losing the race against the machines. But most people, seem unable to grasp they are in race, and that they are losing, and that there is no way possible for them to win.

      So they suggest ABSURD IDEAS, like teaching everyone to code — that will “fix it”! But it won’t fix it. As the economy swings up and down, it can look at times like things are getting better. But they are not because the underlying issue of technology driving wages down for the many and profits up for the few, is a trend that will never end.

      THE ONLY SOLUTION, is to take some of the profits from the few, and give them to the many. There are many ways to structure such sharing of the technology created wealth, but this is only one solution — don’t let the few hoard all the profits created by the technology. Trying to fix the “jobs” problem, or the “education” problem is pointless because these things are not the cause of the problem.

      What we need to fix, is the problem of people thinking jobs and “working harder” or “working smarter” is the solution. Educate our kids to understand this error, and you will have fixed the world. Teach them to code under the false banner of “you need to learn this to do well in society”, will only cause society to fail faster.

      • cedric Curt Welch December 31, 2014 on 2:14 am

        “Teach them to code under the false banner of “you need to learn this to do well in society”, will only cause society to fail faster.”

        Thats absolutely not the point. Mr Calhoun Had the wrong idea about what mr Partovi think about that.

        The question hère Is : Is code teaching a good Way to enhance cognitive Skills of population. Not thinking that teaching code Will mate tons of engineering Which Will solve starvation in africa.

  • Ben Goertzel December 30, 2014 on 8:38 am

    I have written an article on H+ Magazine, refuting the bizarre and incoherent of this article, which strikes me as itself delusional and quite unworthy of Singularity Hub, http://hplusmagazine.com/2014/12/30/africans-learn-code/

    If this is to be the hub of the Singularity, it shouldn’t be in the business of trying to relegate a continent of human beings to subsistence farm on the sidelines while the Singularity awakens. Egads!!!

    • Bill Russell Ben Goertzel December 30, 2014 on 1:27 pm

      Most of the critical posters seem to have overlooked the primary caveat that frames Nathaniel Calhoun’s article:

      “If I have the attention of a classroom of young, poorly educated, low-income citizens of the world for three hours a week over the next six months, what is the absolute most important thing that I can teach them?”

      Teaching the technologies involved in small scale organic farming seems perfectly appropriate in order to enable such a population to progress upward on Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. However, more important than teaching this specifically (or computer coding for that matter) is to impart the skill and maintain the enthusiasm necessary for acquiring knowledge. In my day that skill was effective use of a library. Today it is effective use of the internet to access information and collaborate with others. The work of Dr. Sugata Mitra is profoundly relevant to this issue. http://www.ted.com/talks/sugata_mitra_the_child_driven_education?language=en

      Public education systems have always determined what is taught to students in order to make them valuable to employers. An educational process that encourages the enthusiastic pursuit of individual interests and collaboration with others may better serve a future where labor-for-money no longer functions as it once did.

      • Ben Goertzel Bill Russell December 30, 2014 on 11:56 pm

        if computers and internet connections were available, what I would teach that class would be: How to gain information over the Internet, and make useful connections with people around the world over the Internet…. I.e. teach modern learning and social-networking strategies, rather than any particular skill…

    • NathanielCalhoun Ben Goertzel December 31, 2014 on 12:27 am

      Hi Ben,

      Thanks for the thoughtful reply over at H+. I’ll keep my response here so as to avoid creating a new login. Just below, you’ll see Bill Russel make the most important response on my behalf, which is to re-emphasize the framework within which I am asking this question.

      In your article you offer three underlined priorities of a good education for the future, which shows me that you are still thinking of, simultaneously, a bigger picture and a smaller demographic. I’m not proposing a complete curriculum for everybody in the future. And I’m not proposing anything to the people of the future who can afford to indulge in a comprehensive and extended learning experience that might include the worthy priorities that you mention.

      As you probably know, most of us don’t have the leverage or the access to fundamentally reform a national curriculum or a ministry of education. Old texts and content loyalties (to say nothing about faculty or admin) are often political and sometimes corrupt. This is why more nimble development interventions and many educational innovations are pitched around the margins: after school, out of school, community centers, and so forth.

      Because I’ve spent not “some” or “a little” time in Africa, but most of my adult life, full time, running programs in more than a dozen different countries; because I’m running a tablet-based educational program in East Africa (including Ethiopia) right now (be there in five days), I’m trying to figure out how I can level up my super broadly distributed beneficiaries.

      I have modules on some basic foundational stuff, like safe communication guidelines (empathy), solid methods for dividing up labor and working in teams, engaging with the surrounding community and so forth; but then I often have extra time–some lessons to create in the format that I described: an hour or two every week for maybe half a year.

      I think trying to push any bookish and only theoretically applicable content during that window of access would be delusional. I also know that my learners are going to be pretty good at spotting the opportunities around them (better than me, considering how many locations and cultures we’re talking about). So that’s why I think it makes sense to focus on limiting the vulnerabilities that these learners have, the ways that they are most likely to be exploited or the factors in their lives that are likely to drive them further into poverty.

      And I believe that exponential technologies have a huge role to play in some of the humble educational interventions that I’m proposing. The notion that because the “Singularity” is aglitter with marvelous technology we should dismiss solutions that remind us of farming or basic, dirty work is another notion that I have a huge problem with.

      The solutions that I propose absolutely belong at Singularity University, because our mission is to impact billions of people inside of a decade. Doing that requires realism and knowledge of initiatives in the field–a willingness to accept when the reality of the billions we want to help is fundamentally different from the reality we’re used to. The UNEP report that I quote might seem to an outsider like the work of a conservative bureaucrat; but the finding runs in the face of decades of Green Revolution type extractive programs and is actually quite radical. It can’t succeed at all without massive and thoughtful assistance from the technological community, especially those skilled at creating decentralized, customized, privacy-respecting networks.

      It’s not just UNEP either, Oxfam, FAO and a number of others–including Ashoka–are coming out with carefully researched papers urging us to move away from industrial agriculture when we’re meddling in low income countries. Are we technologists going to ignore the advice of well-situated field workers because it sounds like it will get in the way of our vision of vertical farms or efficient lettuce-planting robots? Let’s get rid of the unhelpful prejudice about what good (or modern) ideas should look like, let’s consider our evidence and bring our best technologies to bear using the most inclusive design practices we know.

      (More on our failure to imagine the future of agriculture, here: http://codeinnovation.com/2014/12/heres-the-science-that-interstellar-really-gets-wrong/)

      • Ben Goertzel NathanielCalhoun December 31, 2014 on 6:12 pm

        Nathaniel, thanks for the thorough and insightful reply.

        It’s clear from you reply that you know a lot about African education and the needs of the people there. I don’t want to diminish the excellence or value of the work you’re doing at all. I don’t know if it’s awesome or not, but I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt for the moment, and assume it is.

        However, my opinion remains that this is a very problematic article you’ve written.

        Teaching everyone to code is NOT delusional, because coding builds valuable thinking skills, which are useful to various people in various different ways. As an example, you’re well aware that even rural, lower-class Africans often have mobile phones now — and many of these people will have smartphones soon. There seems little doubt to me that the logical-thinking and analytical abilities that come along with learning to code, will be helpful to people in making use of various opportunities that low-cost smartphones will open up. (The fact that my mom can’t code, and the fact that she needs me to fix random problems with her Windows machines whenever I visit her house, are certainly correlated. The way of thinking that coding puts in your mind, is generically very helpful for dealing with technology…. This is very similar to the argument why studying history, algebra, and other subjects not of immediate direct use in daily life is still quite valuable. This kind of argument is at the basis of essentially every education system in the world….)

        To say “Given N hours to teach some rural Africans something, I think it’s better to teach them better farming techniques, than to teach them logical thinking and coding” — OK, that’s one thing. It’s an arguable point, but it’s not a stupid point. It’s probably right in some contexts and not in others, depending on a lot of different variables.

        To say “Teaching everyone to code is delusional” is, to me, similar to saying “Teaching everyone to read is delusional” or “Teaching everyone arithmetic is delusional.” …. Sure, as a farmer you can get through life without reading or adding fractions; and these things are arguably less critical than feeding yourself and getting clean water. But still, the world offers people an unpredictable array of opportunities — more and more so as tech advances, esp. with smartphones about to spread widely throughout Africa, along with higher-bandwidth Internet…. Having foundational knowledge in reading, math and coding among other areas will help people take advantage of these opportunities…

        In short your reply gives me more respect for you and your experience and the work you’re doing. But I still think this particular article is a poor summary of your experience and your insights. The title grabs attention, but in a bad way. Your message comes across as borderline racist, although I’m quite sure that your attitude is not…. I would seriously suggest you put more thought into how you communicate your ideas to a broad audience — it’s clear you have a lot of insights to share, that could have a positive impact if you shared them more clearly and judiciously…

        • NathanielCalhoun Ben Goertzel January 1, 2015 on 1:11 am

          Hi Ben (and Happy New Year),

          Thanks for the comments and for zeroing in on a scenario that helps draw our difference of opinion into greater clarity.

          You reference the trend of mobile phones (and increasingly smart ones) reaching even remote and rural populations and you rightly point out that these phones bring with them new opportunities. Some of the best examples of this, specifically for rural farmers, so far involve keeping them up-to-date with market prices in a variety of locations so that they profit as much as possible from their labor. And the public health applications have also shown great promise.

          If I understand you correctly, you see this trend and think: Great, we can use the proliferation of these devices and the interest that they generate to teach people logic and reasoning skills by immersing them in the exacting behind-the-scenes world of computer code (or related computer science sub-category).

          And then you see me standing around with poor (or inflammatory) communication skills labeling your ideas “delusional.”

          Here’s an interesting bit of experience that I had running a desktop-based, internet-supported bit of educational programming for a few years in, mostly, Sub-Saharan Africa: the computer labs were in a state of perpetual disrepair, so the facilitators (and whichever teachers or students were willing to make the effort) learned how to install an operating system from a disc, download a series of programs from the internet (including anti-virus packages), and how to save everything they wrote or photographed on well organized USBs. (Also the full set of skills necessary to use digital cameras, resize/edit images and so forth). After overcoming all of these hurdles, they still had to produce their content for the program in a WYSIWYG content editor (basic html style). Eventually, they might find and download content modules, but undeniably their educational experience involved troubleshooting technology at a semi-structural level. Enthusiasm for this process was low, on average, though we certainly raised technological literacy amongst some unlikely populations.

          As our implementation circumstances changed such that we gained the ability to present a relatively seamless user experience through mobile applications, we lost all of the benefits of that hands-on struggle with technology. Interest and engagement rose dramatically and we’re able to focus on impactful interventions (in the most recent case, imparting some basic knowledge of business skills and micro finance).

          When people didn’t have to get super-involved in how the technology functioned, they were better able (and more excited) to leverage that technology for an immediate personal good.

          For many people, getting back into the structural guts of hardware or software is unpleasant and undesirable; for many more people it will not offer an immediate, tangible benefit. That’s why I don’t think it should be taught to “everybody.” It is not the new reading or numeracy. It is also not the only or best way to teach structural thinking, logic and so forth. It’s having a moment and people are losing perspective, pushing their own priorities on vulnerable demographics at the same time.

          As I pointed out elsewhere, it’s really industry that wins when we screen as many people as possible for coding abilities (especially where wages are low). And this seems like one of those times when industry is dressing up a self-motivated prescription with overstated humanitarian claims. I’d agree with “We should teach code to everybody *who asks us to*” but not the more general proclamation.

          Future shocks are coming down the pipeline for vulnerable populations around the world: whether in the form of weather events, economic fluctuations, political or resource-based conflict and so forth. My educational initiatives have been shelved and disrupted by enough floods, epidemics and food shortages for me to see a different tier of priority emerging. Resilient people can learn to code if they’re interested. Vulnerable people are unlikely to have the focus and time. Our educational priorities must be to increase the resilience and self-sufficiency of vulnerable populations.

          Thanks again for your thoughts and for developing this discussion. Your suggestions are well received.

          • DSM NathanielCalhoun January 1, 2015 on 2:08 am

            “Our educational priorities must be to increase the resilience and self-sufficiency of vulnerable populations.”

            And are you self-sufficient? It is a serious question, could you survive without your wealth, that you use to pay countless the skilled people to make your life function for you? All those goods and services you consume.

            Probably not. Look around your location, is there anything that you can see that you know for sure how to make or even exactly what materials it was made from?

            So while the funds last are you resilient? Probably yes, because you are mobile and what you can’t pay to have sent to you you can afford to travel to get.

            Move people toward what you already have, or even share what you already have, and you have helped them.

            The first world works because it is one huge big mesh of interactions, it gains strength and diversity from large numbers of participants. If you really want to help people you need to give them the tools, knowledge and the opportunities to become an integrated part of such a system. How is understanding information technology not going to be a key part of that?

            You either completely open the door for them, to the first world, or leave them alone in the reality they created from themselves, anything else is an arrogant imposition of an artificial system from somebody who does not even live it themselves.

          • Ben Goertzel NathanielCalhoun January 1, 2015 on 6:57 pm

            Nathaniel, sure, your story hits home — but what it means to me is that this stuff has to be done right….

            I taught programming to 7-12 year old kids in the US (in the late 1990s), using Logo turtle graphics. And I’ve seen what happens when you give an iPod Touch with various video games to kindergarten aged kids in rural Ethiopia with no electricity, running water etc. in their homes — they figure the games out immediately and play them well, in spite of having little to no experience with such games…

            Would it make sense to supply Logo programming as a function on a teaching tablet for rural African kids? Absolutely. Would this teach valuable logical reasoning and technology-manipulation skills? Absolutely.

            This of course is different than asking those same kids to troubleshoot defective Windows systems etc.

            Obviously if I had 2 hours to teach someone stranded on a desert island something, I would teach them to fish or light fires; I wouldn’t teach them math or programming. There’s also no point to teach programming to a 95 year old person with terminal cancer who hates math and technology. Advanced tech and science are not the best answer to EVERY possible situation, just as reading and arithmetic are not.

            But I do think that basic coding and hardware engineering should be considered as extremely important for everybody’s education, ranked perhaps immediately below reading and arithmetic.

            — Ben Goertzel

  • Richard Gautney December 30, 2014 on 1:07 pm

    “Coding is useless because of automation and competition, therefore people should switch to farming (which is already automated/competitive, becoming increasingly more so at a rate much higher than creative endeavors, and requires fairly large properties to be self-sufficient which are increasing scarce)”

    Seriously? Was any thought put into this article?

  • cochranl December 30, 2014 on 1:53 pm

    A lot of diverse opinions on this subject, a lot of deep thinkin’ going on. Which is a good thing. After 45 years of systems and software engineering and working all over this planet and most of that time working with young adults, I have come to depend on a few basic principles, most of which I learned from my dad at an early age.

    1. You can shear a sheep many times and he will thank you for it. However, you can only skin him once.
    2. It is a good man or woman who can do the work of 10 (men or women), but it is a much better person who can get 10 others to work together.
    3. A good top-down architecture enables bottom up innovation because it provides the framework for people to work together, honestly, openly and with mutual respect.
    4. We have to learn to dance (adapt).

    If there is anything I wish for my kids and grandkids it is that a) they learn to make good decisions and b) they learn to respect and care for others. In my opinion, if we can teach them that, then they will find their own way and develop an awareness of what is going on around them. Regardless of whether they become physicians, physilists, carpenters, musicians or artists, we will always need people who are passionate about what they do and get good at it. We can pass on to our kids technologies (the things we now no how to do), but it is a real challenge to pass on wisdom, which, in my view, is in critically short supply.

    The situation in Africa and the Middle East is a good case for examination. They have no lack of technology; they have shortage of knowledge and tools (weapons) when it comes to destroying themselves to the point they can’t establish the basic infrastructures for food, hygiene and education. And the UN seems to be absolutely useless since it was founded in 1945. Mass displacement seems to be the preferred solution for dealing with tyranny and terror. So somehow the affected people have to find a way to pull themselves out this terrible scenario, and maybe it starts at the community level, doing the basic things they need to do together, like small scale farming to feed themselves and then go from there. Somehow I don’t think a sky filled with parachutes bringing MRE’s is going to get it done.

    All the best to all of you in the new year!

    • DSM cochranl December 30, 2014 on 2:53 pm

      “small scale farming” is a nice ideal, I have grown a lot of vegetables over the years, but if you are not part of a larger supply network you can’t share your surplus and you can’t cover your needs in the bad years. The climate in most areas is at times very harsh, also if army of psychopaths comes along you are stuck tending your plot, or you find it dead when you return if you run to a safe area. Small farmers are not resilient in the face of large scale forces that cause hardship, only large networks can adapt well enough to protect most of their members.

      I have even seen the following phenomena in my own first world country. The climate, economy and pretty much everything in life is cyclical, this means that you can only be sustainable in isolation at the level permitted at the least fertile part of the cycle. But this never works because populations grow in all but the most service oriented societies in the first world. So what happens if you do give people a plot of land and the knowledge to tend it? Over time a few fail each time things get hard and their more successful neighbours buy that plot of land, you have a process of aggregation until eventually all the farms are so large that only corporations can afford to own and run them over the long term.

      I am a big supporter of the idea of people being self-sufficient, but I am also a realist about about what it takes to do it, probably because for me it isn’t entirely theoretical.

  • Annabelle Blanchet December 30, 2014 on 3:01 pm

    I’m not sure whether all the students should learn how to code. I think that should be taught good essay writing. Students of all academic levels are asked to compose essays and this skill will be very useful in the future. After graduating you will definitely have to write something and will have to convince someone that you know what you are talking about, show that you can string together ideas with some semblance of logic and coherency. Read this useful post about writing an essay at school and college and how to make smooth transition from paper writing in high school to college writing.

    • DSM Annabelle Blanchet December 30, 2014 on 3:11 pm

      Good written and spoken communication skills are already a key part of systems and software development, just as they are of most business activities. A good coder needs to be able to write good documentation. These skill sets are not mutually exclusive at all.

    • Socialtinker Annabelle Blanchet January 4, 2015 on 1:41 am

      AI will be writing News stories and blogs soon. I wouldn’t put all my eggs in any basket. Education in the future will be for understanding, mental discipline, social cohesion, etc. Careers will disappear along with concept of labor and demeaning work.

  • LC January 1, 2015 on 6:50 pm

    Reading this comment thread, I see that the great and most important thing is that the right thinking is being done and the right questions are being asked. It’s going to lead to the solutions we need, even if no single person here is completely right. For example, Nathaniel Calhoun may not be right in all respects, but he’s clearly a smart, well-motivated thinker who is trying to ask the right questions. I feel like I can see valid/true aspects (pieces, glimpses, parts of the whole truth) both in Calhoun’s thinking as well as that of his detractors here. For example, regarding what the goal of teaching coding is, it’s not to turn everyone into a software developer (not realistic) but it may be to get everyone to think cogently (which will always be needed). The question is how do you unify all of the pieces of truth/validity from this discussion into a coherent whole.

    The comment by Curt Welch that begins “Except it’s not “grunt” work” contains some really important valid pieces of the puzzle. One thing important to add to them is the following. Many smart people are afraid to try to implement the basic income guarantee idea because it’s going to involve taxing smart and productive people and having the government distribute that revenue to less smart and less productive people, which just seems like this inevitable slippery slope into a bigger welfare state. The specter of that slippery slide just halts many people from thinking any further about it. But in contrast to that specter (which is justifiably feared), it may be possible to achieve the recirculation of value in an economy (what Martin Ford’s “lights in the tunnel” analogy gets at) without mechanisms that smack of a welfare state; it may be possible to do it in the private sector, if we alter a few parameters (while preserving incentivization).

    “[Thinkers including Ford] advocate pursuing some permutation of basic income or guaranteed minimum income, simply to keep the recirculation of value throughout the economy from stalling due to low employment. Although the earliest variants of these ideas involve direct support from the government, which could tax highly automated companies and use the revenue for both basic income and select reemployment, they have also evolved to include market-based mechanisms, comparable to minimum wage laws, requiring the private sector to employ humans but leaving the job descriptions to private innovation.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technological_unemployment)

    In other words, you require companies to employ humans, but you let them decide what the jobs entail (the details of which will keep repeatedly changing over the decades, as technology advances) and whether they need to fire one person and hire another. In this way, there’s a limit to how much companies can use the slashing of headcount as a competitive throat-cutter (it’s not that they can’t fire, it’s just that they can’t slash headcount so much that half the population is unemployed). Thus humans end up using machines as tools in business competition against other humans, instead of machines competing against humans for payroll (a contest that machines will win). This is more or less the idea that the book “Race Against the Machine” identifies as the goal. But besides identifying the goal you have to figure out a mechanism of how to reach it. This may be the right direction toward how it may be done. The jobs may be “made up” in some real and essential sense, but they will still be something positive and they will keep people employed. For example, pay people to go to nursing school and then to be nurses for elderly retirees. We may not have the whole answer yet, but thinking about it is the way to move toward the answer.

    • DSM LC January 1, 2015 on 7:08 pm

      That is rather tangential to the question of what to teach people and if some topics are a delusional choice.

      As for your proposal, it is a bit naive because similar failed experiments have shown it does not always work, certainly not in state run enterprises and in the free market if such constrains get in the way of business change there is always the option to bleed the operation to death then start again.

      With the rise of AI driven on-line education I also see the best option to be to fund people’s minimal living needs, so long as they are actively completing on-line courses and acquiring useful knowledge because if nothing else they will eventually learn to look after themselves better and be less of a burden on others. i.e. Pay people to learn things that you know will make them and society better off. Learning applied philosophy AKA IT and coding skills is just one of many useful things they can learn, and let them decide what to learn first, because we can afford the diversity that will create. We don’t need everyone to be a top coder or a top micro-farmer, what we need is them to be happy, healthy, benign and have a sense of purpose, and not much more.

  • NathanielCalhoun January 2, 2015 on 1:36 am

    The discussion of a basic income is becoming a dependable second chapter to discussions about technological unemployment. I’ve seen rooms full of executives arrive at this idea just as fast as a bunch of black block anarchists. There’s something desirably stabilizing about providing for everyone’s basic needs during difficult times and there have been some remarkable success stories for the basic income in the recent years (notably in India).

    But this turn of the conversation is also illustrative of my central contention, just as it exposes the most common blindspot of the people who continue to lean towards prioritizing a digital/technical education for vulnerable populations.

    In the wake of the Green Revolution, a considerable number of countries are no longer self-sufficient when it comes to food production. All around West and Central Africa, for example, a huge cultural preference for imported white rice (and breads made from imported, bleached wheat flours) has taken root, depressing the market for locally grown staples that have more nutritional value. People work difficult jobs to pay for these “premium” foodstuffs.

    Why is this bad? Let’s take the experience of Liberia during the Ebola epidemic: as container ships and merchants grew uncomfortable with the idea of docking in Monrovia, food prices spiked throughout the country and food shipments to rural areas were blocked by quarantines. Suddenly a country that is so fertile that you can literally plant sticks and watch them grow finds itself hungry, sees infants at risk of stunting.

    Countries like Mali or Pakistan which suffer from political instability and violence also have insecure supply chains and whole populations who suddenly find themselves with no leverage in the face of merchants who capitalize on scarcity and instability. Climate-related weather events also expose these dependencies. Even with a basic income to depend upon, a population that comes face-to-face with the weak points of the global supply chain because of disasters or other shocks is going to be disadvantaged, vulnerable, easy to exploit and likely to suffer.

    DSM spoke about integrating the poor into this big, international “mesh” of successful economies. It’s the beginning of that process that so compromised the resilience of many poor countries. They found that their resources and earnings were given swift access to the international system; but not their populations. And so a few years of bumper GMO corn crops or palm oil exports line some pockets and create a smug bit of back-slapping; but along comes a shock to the system and the population cannot deal with it. The system was around to sell chemicals to farmers; but it wasn’t around to bail them out when the unsustainable practices they were encouraged to undertake forced them into debt.

    For all its promise, the globalized economy is still pretty bad at getting basic supplies to people who are isolated by poor infrastructure (or to people who can’t pay for them). Our refugee camps show little of the innovation and modernity that one would hope for in 2015. And while Silicon Valley fantasizes about replacing investment in public infrastructure with privatized drone supply chains, people continue to be sold a story of security that is not backed up by the actual commitment (or ability) of the globalized economy to deliver essential services to the poor. That’s why we still have 21 children dying every minute from preventable causes (with malnutrition at the root of nearly half of them—UNICEF).

    When Russia and the Ukraine were transitioning out of communism, life expectancy plunged for Russian men from 64 to 58, while it remained steady in Ukraine. The driving factor? Before the breakup of the USSR, the Ukrainian authorities arranged for all urban residents to have a garden plot for growing vegetables (Guy Standing, “A Precariat Charter” p. 353 – great book). This was in modern times. It sounds quaint; but it matters more than coding.

    Teaching people how to be food secure when you have reason to doubt that their nation or the international community has the motivation (or ability) to provide for them is a life-saving priority more important than anything with general claims to foster strong thinking.

    • LC NathanielCalhoun January 2, 2015 on 10:25 am

      I agree that home gardens and other local food production are an essential component to where we are headed as a planet. I look at basic incomes as another component to add to that, not as a replacement for it.

      DSM mentions tangentiality, but all of these pieces of the system interrelate at some macro level, so tangentiality is not at all irrelevance. Figuring out what to teach in schools and figuring out the basic income thing both clearly relate to the question of “what do you do once what-industry-demands-from-employees does not correlate well to what-average-humans-can-supply?” DSM cites “similar failed experiments”, but there have never yet been any experiments that were similar. Neither Soviet “companies” nor mid-20th-century-G7 surly/overassured unionism is what is being proposed. The closest analogy is minimum wage laws. No matter how much laissez-faire-leaning business people may hate minimum wage laws, there is no credible evidence that they fail in the sense of wrecking economies. But the analogy is not exact anyway. You can run a capitalist economy (regulated-market economy) that has no minimum wage laws. (And globalized commerce, with offshoring for factories and massive independent contracting for freelance-able work, with individuals competing each other’s prices into the ground, has been functionally doing a partial version of that in the past 15 years.) But it does not seem credible that we can continue running a (non-failing) economy without either basic income or some private-sector-administered equivalent of it.

      I myself don’t much care which one of the two we get; my key point is that we have to get people thinking about how to do it in a way that doesn’t fail. For those who think the classical basic income idea is “government-run wealth redistribution” and “welfare state dystopia”, well, OK, but then you need to propose what can take its place. In any permutation, “bleed the operation to death” is exactly the failure you have to prevent, and it is a huge challenge. There are smart people who fear that “government-run wealth redistribution” and “welfare state dystopia” are ways to “bleed the operation to death” where the operation = the entire free society, and the Soviet experience bears them out. So OK, then what will you do instead? Mid-20th-century-G7 surly/overassured unionism certainly threatens to “bleed the operation to death” where the operation = individual corporations. The General Motors experience bears that out. So OK, then what will you do instead? If doing nothing is not an option (for the reasons Curt Welch touched on)? We need to explore that.

    • DSM NathanielCalhoun January 2, 2015 on 1:44 pm

      I have built a food garden in a third world country so I can confidently claim that it isn’t about knowing how to grow food, the problem is that the third world is a state of mind and the real problem with people failing to make the transition out of it well has been that they don’t know what a successful first world mindset is. They subscribe to the delusion that some foods (and drugs) are better, just because they previously could not afford them. So it has nothing to do with knowing how to grow food, the wise ones appreciate the benefits of that anyway, the problem is with those who do not even know the basics about how their bodies work and how to nurture them.

      Here is the thing, it isn’t a transitional third world problem either, this ignorance of how to maintain the integrity of one’s mind and body is just as bad in the first world, the difference being that we see the impact of excessive amounts of empty calories and excessive stimulation. I did already mention this, the bit about people eating themselves to death from type 2 diabetes.

      The apparent problem with the Calhoun type world view is it is constrained to a particular political mindset that cannot bring itself to look beyond for fear of being seen as going against the group think of that herd. It is a psychological vested interest whereas I do not have that burden, but I do have some insights based on actual experience on the ground, the sort of experience you gain when people do not think that you are important and there is less pretence about their dealing with you.

      This whole idea that the state or some other group of self appointed do gooders can just step in and tell people what to think and how to live their lives is obnoxious and based on claims that are dubious. Take the issue with life expectancy differences in former soviet countries. One could argue that it was not the food gardens that matter but the alcohol plus the psychological and genetic factors that lead to it’s abuse because an alcoholic is not going to be interested in fruit and vegetables even if they are free, because their metabolism is altered. I know that from actual experience of living with people who were drinking themselves to death. You can offer them a range of healthy food but you will notice an unhealthy bias in what they take and what they reject. The same goes for most forms of drug addiction, medical science has shown how dopamine works in the addicted brain so there is no need to debate it further.

      All that aside, it is still an insane nonsense to adamantly declare that learning IT skills and other essential knowledge areas are mutually exclusive activities, they are not, in fact the same infrastructure that can teach IT skills can be used to teach the theoretical aspects of every other skill set. Even looking at them as distinct skill sets is idiotic. IT skills support many other areas as they are a form of “applied philosophy”, what else is coding if it isn’t that? Take a real world problem that can be defined mathematically and solve it, enCODE the algorithmic solution into a program, and then share that code with everyone who needs that work done for them. How is it not useful for people to be trained to realise that is what IT is, taking your solutions to problems in your field and automating them using a machine? Computers are mind amplifiers. Just getting a person’s head around that is empowering as it shifts their frame of reference to a position where they start to believe that they can achieve more than what a single person could do without technology and the knowledge of how to leverage it.

      Give people access to all knowledge areas, show them how different people have used different skills successfully to solve different problems and then let them get on with using the knowledge resources to empower themselves as they deem appropriate. Just leave off the neo-colonialist “We know better even though we can’t look after our own people.” type nonsense because eventually most people will see though it anyway and they deserve the right to decide what matters to them once they have been shown all the options. They even deserve the right to get it wrong and fail, or even die, deny them that freedom and you are carrying on like some form of dictatorial socialist helicopter mother.

  • xenog January 3, 2015 on 7:41 am

    Sorry,

    What?

    So, in order for Africans to be empowered, they need to learn how to farm properly, not code. Coding is only for us Westeners, because we have superior math and logic skills. Africans should be happy to do subsistence farming, that’s the only thing they are good for.

    Right.

    You know why this type of article is very good? Because it is so stupid that I needed to register in order to comment.

  • Socialtinker January 3, 2015 on 12:12 pm

    I can only judge the truthiness (Steven Colbert) of the Article on my own experience. I was introduced to music and being able to read sheet music with the trombone. It taught me the difference between Jazz and Classical playing. I think it also helped me in my math classes and ultimately in understanding systems design and being able to program. Accuracy is important in all these endeavors and practice seems to modify the way the brain functions to succeed with these skills. The Movement stresses Open Source technologies for a good reason, which is to prevent a few from controlling the many. If we are to have a balance ecosystem with us included, we need everyone to understand the concepts involved. Don’t make some people into sheeple, by telling them that they need not be concerned how a system actually functions. A well rounded education is important no matter what you think well-being is.

  • NathanielCalhoun January 4, 2015 on 12:07 am

    Ok, for the record, I have not generalized about Africa or Africans at any point; though many commenters have. I am generalizing about vulnerable populations and sometimes also about rural and remote populations. I also mention that much of my experience comes from living and working in a number of African countries–where the presence of a technologically literate and standard global elite is entirely obvious to me. My recommendations apply to vulnerable communities in South East Asia, the Americas, Appalachia or anywhere else. They are then, by definition, not as relevant to people who are actually affluent because affluence radically diminishes vulnerability.

    The prejudice that many commentators are showing is a disdain for agricultural work. This is an industrial age prejudice based on the idea that work of this variety has been relegated to the past because of gains in productivity achieved by industrial agriculture. As we start to look more honestly at industrial agriculture and reckon its true cost on people and planet, we’re learning that its awesomeness was wildly overrated. We are already seeing plenty of signs that today’s generation don’t share this prejudice against agricultural work and are redignifying it as a pursuit. A representative story from NPR today: http://www.npr.org/2015/01/03/374629580/a-young-generation-sees-greener-pastures-in-agriculture?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=npr&utm_term=nprnews&utm_content=20150104

    The second prejudice is in favor of anything technological; it’s an internet-age assumption that owes much of its appeal to the boom in STEM jobs and programming jobs over the last two decades and the hugely risen prominence of tech companies. Now that an average human’s ability of landing employment with these companies is shrinking, we may question exactly where computer science belongs in the curricula of school systems on a country by country basis. But if you’ve been paying attention, I’m not talking about school systems or regular students or, in general, about areas that have already been fortunate enough to start teaching computer science, I’m discussing vulnerable populations with sporadic and irregular access to educational opportunities and I’m discussing how best to insulate these vulnerable populations against any of the predictable shocks coming their way.

    If anyone’s still interested in engaging with this narrowly-defined, specific and globally relevant use case for technology, I’m happy to keep up the chatter. For the rest of the month, I won’t have time to get in to the misreadings of my argument however as I’ll have unpredictable access to the internet over the next several weeks that I’ll be actually doing this work in Tanzania and Ethiopia. Thanks again to all the polite commenters and happy new year to all of you.

    • DSM NathanielCalhoun January 4, 2015 on 1:13 pm

      “The prejudice that many commentators are showing is a disdain for agricultural work. ”

      Mate if you have to resort to desperate lies to support your beliefs your ideas are worthless.

      And for the record I maintain a seed-bank of heirloom varieties, that’s right freezers full of seeds. You’d be surprised how many IT people are into agriculture in one form or another. Sure it may be aquaponics and automated, but that is because that is what is appropriate for the urban environment they live in.

      Oh and that point about your bogus claims regarding the early deaths in Russia, the fact that it is the vodka killing them is old news, http://www.bbc.com/news/health-25961063

  • Cristi Vlad January 4, 2015 on 5:10 am

    The obstacle is usually the way. We shouldnt focus on trying to get all the continents to a common denominator. While the U.S. would be good on business, China on fast manufacture of technology, Africa could be the oasis for good agriculture because many of it’s lands are still virgin of the pollution that lands from other continents are…

  • LC January 4, 2015 on 12:49 pm

    Happy new year, Nathaniel. Best of luck in 2015.

    If anyone worthwhile is still reading, I’ll just explicitly state what most of us have already figured out in this discussion: Some of the commenting here simply reflects the human weaknesses of a self-selected commenting audience and isn’t useful enough to spend time engaging (just like a lot of internet commenting), such as (1) poor reading comprehension or misapprehensions (“you’re obviously a racist!”) or (2) (sub/)clinical personality disorders (“I build my fragile ego on tearing down others’ thoughtful contributions as if they contained no portion or kernel of truth!”). Alas, as they say, what are you gonna do.

    Also for anyone worthwhile who may still be reading: there are certainly important and unavoidable realities that are being explored bit by bit as we all grapple with these “Future of Work” and “Future of Education” themes (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blind_men_and_an_elephant), so we should continue sharing our thoughts when we can (even if we have to limit our engagement with some of the poorer-quality comments). I offer the following as interesting bits for the mind to turn over:

    The future of education relates to the future of work, because education is related to employability.

    But what is the nature of the relationship between education and employability?

    Until the 2000s, it was always an assumption, and it was generally true, that better or more education (or both) is invariably a path to better employability.

    Although it will continue to be true that the working world will require smart and well-educated people at various nodes within economic networks, it may become increasingly less true that “anyone who works really hard in school and isn’t intellectually disabled is assured of sufficient employability.” It is already true for some of us (depending on where we are born, what wars we get caught in the crossfire of, and other factors we don’t control). It is increasingly true even for those who got lucky in the birth lottery.

    As machines gain ever more aspects of people’s abilities and also increasingly combine with people who have the disposable income to augment themselves, maybe the working world in its current configuration can no longer absorb 95% of all human adults (including, by definition, those with average and below-average abilities) into those nodes within economic networks (which are “positions” in the human-resources sense), given the mismatch between the nature of what those positions will demand and the nature of what most humans can supply in any given position. The latter faces limits, and it’s possible to talk about those limits without invoking racist theories to explain them. People of every ancestry and continent are going to have to deal with these realities.

    Perhaps the era is coming in which employability will be partially decoupled from talent and education. Which is not to say completely decoupled. We will still need geniuses in each field. And we will still need to educate all people as much as we possibly can, so that every bit of potential that lies in each person, on every continent, can be drawn out. After all, you need farm teams from which to pick your major-league superstars. But because we cannot all be geniuses, we have to prepare for an era when employability can be defined in ways other than being the best of the best. By definition, not everyone can be the best of the best in their chosen field. As business increasingly becomes an endeavor where nothing less than the best of the best can succeed, can anything be done to ensure that there is some place for the rest of us to go, besides the garbage can? But without deincentivizing people, without rewarding laziness, without punishing effort or talent or initiative?

    Yes, and although it is challenging to engineer, we are on our way to figuring out what it is, one trunk, ear, leg, and tail of the elephant at a time.

    • DSM LC January 4, 2015 on 2:42 pm

      May I ask your opinion on a relevant topic that you did not touch on, creativity?

      This IT vs Agriculture false dichotomy is a big distraction that should have been acknowledged and dropped very early on, however even with it in place both sides of that artificial divide can find an important position within their areas for the contribution of creativity.

      There is a current debate in my country over the importance of creativity in education, people are asking is it as important as literacy and numeracy if our children are to find relevance in the future. Certainly it fosters adaptability and emphasises those most human of abilities and therefore those lest likely to become redundant in the face of ubiquitous automation. Perhaps some people feel there is a racist tone to any dialogue that overlooks the potential of a third world child to leap forward into the first world? Perhaps a deeper sense of empathy for those individuals is why some feel that certain assumptions about their potential are in denial of their creative potential?

      My father in law was born in a mud hut and yet gained a degree in engineering. I see no gap between him as a young boy and by own boys now with their first world opportunities. Creative problem solving and knowledge engineering skills will allow them to succeed as much as their current circumstances allow.

  • Praveenjothi January 31, 2015 on 4:07 am

    I’ve been battling with this question. While the future warrants every one to be tech literate, we’re going to be using tech, robots, and algorithms, programming itself is going to be relegated to the background. Most of the programs would be coded by fewer humans and more by algorithms themselves (welcome AI). So learning coding in itself is not necessarily for every one and modular approach could be the next thing before we see computers coding computers. For the modular approach, a brief period in time, we are going to be able to having some fun in assembling LEGO type blocks using our creativity and creating interesting stuff. Well, yea, not long it would take for computers to arrive in full-force. Singularity matters. Its no good news for humans being humans when that happens. Coming from a developing country, my heart pains to know that some people would never have a chance to live a normal human life with 24X7 running water and electricity before the machines dominate. In other words, I think machines would takeover before we alleviate poverty. Amen.