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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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution