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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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.