While struggling to write a paper about how technology entrepreneurs came up as celebrities in our data, I’ve become fascinated by coding. Coding, or computer programming, is currently being pushed by a range of national and transnational bodies and corporations. The UK has declared 2014 The Year of Code and introduced coding into the primary and secondary school curriculum. In 2013, The European Commission set up an annual Europe Code Week with events across the continent. US-based code.org presents itself as a global campaign with its website proclaiming that it has led to over 1.5 billion lines of coding by students. Within these campaigns coding is presented as a vital skill both for individual and national competitiveness. However, while many, if not most, of the early programmers were female, computing has since become a male-dominated field. Indeed as research shows, media representations of technological workers, like those who work with science and mathematics, predominantly feature white, middle-class, geeky men. This raises questions about who has access to these powerful coding knowledges and who can identify with the technological futures invoked by these campaigns and initiatives. In this blogpost I begin the task of addressing these questions by identifying a key tension in the calls to coding: coding as a challenging and elite skill vs coding as easy and accessible to all.
Coding: a superpower that anybody can learn?
The Code Week, Year of Code and code.org websites all assure us how easy coding is. For example the tag-line of the UK campaign is “it’s easier than you think”, while the US site offers the encouraging “anybody can learn”. However, the repetition of such phrases suggests the position they are defending against: that coding is not easy and is the province of a select few. That this view predominates is not surprising – images of genius hackers and geeky-but-brilliant programmers are common. However, what’s interesting is that these new campaigns reproduce this clichéd image of programmers as a special breed, even as they aggressively assert the opposite.
This video on the home page of the UK website features two male programmers.
Jermaine Hagan the young Black British entrepreneur who presents the video tells us that he taught himself to code aged eight and created the app which became his business at university. Nick D’Aloisio an Australian-born White British teenager, tells us to camera: “At age 12 I taught myself to code, and at 15 I created a news app called Summly, which I then sold to Yahoo at 17, and is where I work today. Coding inspired me and created a lot of opportunities and I’m sure it’ll do the same for you”. These stories resemble those of child prodigies/geniuses. They are self-taught, yet coding lessons in schools are presented as the way for you to follow in their footsteps. This tension between elitism and accessibility is one that has long dominated how we think about mathematics, creating problems for teachers and learners, and it is disturbing to see it replicated as coding moves into the curriculum. It is perhaps most striking in the US campaign.
The most viewed video from code.org is “What most schools don’t teach”:
The video mixes talking heads of technological celebrities such as Bill Gates with technological convert celebrities such as rapper Will.i.am. Towards the end of the video, we get the following dialogue:
Makinde: A lot of the coding that people do is actually fairly simple. It’s more about the process of breaking down problems than you know sort of coming up with complicated algorithms as people traditionally think about it.
Vanessa Hurst: You don’t have to be a genius to know how to code, you need to be determined.
Bill Gates: Addition, subtraction, that’s about it.
Tony Hsieh: Should probably know your multiplication tables.
Bronwen Grimes: You don’t have to be a genius to code, do you have to be a genius to read?
Gabe Newell: The programmers of tomorrow are the wizards of the future. You know you are going to look you have magic powers compared to everybody else.
Drew Houston: I think it’s amazing, I think it’s the closest thing we have to superpower.
Will.i.am: Great coders are today’s rockstars. That’s it.
Again we can feel the urgent need to tell us that coding is “actually fairly simple” and “you don’t have to be a genius”. In tension with this democratic view of coding, we have the story that coding will set you apart, being akin to “magic powers”, “the closest thing we have to superpower” and that coders are special, the “wizards of the future” and “great coders are today’s rockstars” (a claim also made by Neelie Kroes who launched the European campaign).
The spectre of unequal access…
This tension between coding-for-all and coding-as-elite means that these campaigns struggle to deal with the impact of the structural inequalities of gender and ethnicity on who can take up computing. Unequal access haunts these campaigns, rarely mentioned directly, but ever present.
Gender, or more accurately women, are implicitly constructed as a problem, through their recurring mention. Neelie Kroes of European Code Week assures us that coding is “for men and women”, and the young woman fronting the campaign in 2013, Alija Isaković, states that a key motivation for her was all the young women she knew who had great business ideas but lacked technological know-how, and tells us about initiatives aimed at “kids, women, adults”. Barack Obama, speaking for code.org, tells us that coding is for you “whether you’re a young man or a young woman, whether you live in a city or a rural area”.
The videos produced by the UK and US-based campaigns, are keen to present a “united colours of Benetton” image featuring people from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds. The video below, which regularly features on the code.org homepage, even includes a tokenistic sequence in which a Black girl in a village and a middle-Eastern girl in a headscarf tell us in their own languages how many lines of code they’ve written.
However, it is more often the white men who speak from coding experience and the women and people of colour who stand in as amateurs and who are learning to code as we are being invoked to do. For example, we have Will.i.am in the extract quoted above and Black British youth television presenter June Sarpong who turns up in the Year of Code promo saying that the introduction of coding into schools is “one of the best pieces of educational legislation we’ve had in a long time … this is gonna mean so much for our future and jobs for the next generation of talent”. When women and people of colour do feature as coders they are far less famous than their white male counterparts such as Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey. Men who we know from our data resonate with young people.
These campaigns are attempts to re-brand computing from an activity for a brilliant but geeky group of (mostly) white, middle-class men to something we can all do. Yet they are haunted by geek clichés.
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