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

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt