Home of code: Old Street roundabout in London, AKA Silicon Roundabout. Photo: Getty
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Learn a foreign language - code

The governent's Year of Code campaign has caused come confusion, but they could be missing a trick.

“Yeah, but it doesn’t mean anything,” sneered Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight on 5 February, gesturing at the studio backdrop: a stock image of bright green lines of computer code.

The guest, Lottie Dexter – director of the government’s “Year of Code” PR campaign – was trying to argue in favour of changing the National Curriculum so all pupils would leave school with knowledge of at least two programming languages. “It doesn’t mean anything to you, or indeed to me yet,” she retorted, “because I don’t know how to code.”

The kids on Newsnight seemed just as confused – as one said when prodded, coding might be good “when you’re older . . . like say if you were a banker [and] you needed coding to do the banks”.

The impetus for a new computing curriculum is meant to be straightforwardly economic. Michael Gove and David Cameron have both said that coding is essential for kids to “compete in the global race”, in the explicit hope that the next Google or Facebook will come from the UK.

Yet this kind of focus on coding as just another practical skill, like wiring a plug or writing a formal letter, might be missing out on something grander. That, at least, is one of the lessons implied in Geek Sublime, the fascinating memoir by the novelist and programmer Vikram Chandra, newly published by Faber & Faber. It draws on his life experiences to explore how coding can be a medium, like language, that makes deep artistic expression possible.

Now a senior lecturer in creative writing at the University of California, Berkeley, Chandra was born in New Delhi in 1961 and moved to the US to study English as an undergraduate. His debut novel, Red Earth and Pouring Rain, won a 1996 Commonwealth writers’ prize; but before then, as he tells it in Geek Sublime, he “came to computers while trying to run away from literature”, and paid his way through college with temp coding jobs.

“There’s a very strong tendency among the scientifically and technically adept to think of the domain of technology as being separate from culture, as being somehow ‘objective’ as opposed to the subjectivity of culture,” he told me by email. “The reality is of course that how we view and experience technological practice is very much historically contingent.”

Chandra’s analysis is tempered by the cultural reality of programming. The first programmers were women, relegated to the task in the 1950s by computer scientists who felt it was another form of secretarial work – ironically, considering the sexism of the computing industry today. Silicon Valley is infested with what Chandra calls “hippie capitalism”, a paradoxical mix of libertarian “brogrammer” bravado with sandals, drugs and bohemianism.

The proportion of female computer science graduates in the US has been declining for decades: down to 18 per cent in 2010 from a high of 37 per cent in 1984. Only 20 per cent of US start-ups have at least one female senior-level executive. Clearly, this is not a culture we should want to duplicate.

So how should we be shaping the next generation of tech enthusiasts? We can look for inspiration to the work of organisations such as Code Club, which since 2012 has organised after-school coding groups for children aged ten and 11. “Within an hour, they’ll create a computer game,” Code Club’s general manager, Sam Milsom, told me over coffee
in Shoreditch, east London, near Silicon Roundabout. “They know computer games, they play computer games, and suddenly they realise they have the power to do this themselves. Rather than being consumers, they can create. That’s very liberating.”

Laura Kirsop is the club’s managing director and a former primary school teacher. She said: “If our aim is to make children who can get a job in a large company where they can write lines of code, then we’re far off the mark. It’s about getting children to take control of what they’re creating.”

“I don’t think you need to be a programmer, much less a good programmer, to understand just a little bit more about the world we live in today,” Chandra says. “I teach a literature class at Berkeley about the modern short story, and I have the students write and revise a short story . . . on the grounds that trying to make a story teaches you something about how stories work.

“So you don’t have to, and shouldn’t want to, turn novices into Steve Wozniak [the co-founder of Apple]; you just have to introduce them to the grammar, the tools, and give opportunities and support to those who would become Woz – they’ll take care of themselves.”

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Tech Issue

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.