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Thursday, October 7, 2010

Where are we Taking this Thing?

In a way, I have been a linguist and advocate of literacy for most of my life, but perhaps not as you would expect. 

I started copying programs from books and magazines when I was 4 years old.  I started writing my own code when I was about 7.  As I gained a greater knowledge of computer programming my concern also grew about how others would learn.  As technology has advanced and the topics in computer science become "solved", the underlaying complexities have also grown and I worry that we are raising a generation that will not be equipped to deal with the emerging languages.

imageIn fifth grade I wrote a text-based choose your own adventure game on the Commodore 64 and brought my creation to school.  My classmates could put their own names in and play along, choosing their way through my somewhat limited and unoriginal stories. I stood back in the computer lab and watched as they played; they were facinated!  I remember my teacher, Mr. Pugh, came over and said, "You know, James, most of them won't understand what you've done."

When we wanted to see graphics on the screen as a kid, I set array values mapped to registers in the video memory that would turn a pixel on and off on the screen.  We programmed the hardware. We “mapped bits” and created “bit maps”.

Today, with a single line of code, we can bring a myriad of pixels to life with vibrant color and movement and full-screen HD video streaming across a network we don't even own.  What you tell the computer to do is no longer what the computer is doing: it's doing much, much more and it doesn't require of you a greater understanding.

Here's an excerpt from Douglas Rushkoff's new book, Program or be Programmed:

When human beings acquired language, we learned not just how to listen but how to speak. When we gained literacy, we learned not just how to read but how to write. And as we move into an increasingly digital reality, we must learn not just how to use programs but how to make them.

In the emerging, highly programmed landscape ahead, you will either create the software or you will be the software. It’s really that simple: Program, or be programmed. Choose the former, and you gain access to the control panel of civilization. Choose the latter, and it could be the last real choice you get to make.

I don't necessarily buy into the doomsday duality scenario of zombies and computer programmers, but there is some truth in there and I wonder what it holds as outcomes for humanity and culture.

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