“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.”