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Cracking the Computer Code

Few people know the programming languages like Java and Ruby that run the modern world. The People of the Book should fight against this illiteracy.

Liel Leibovitz
April 30, 2012
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock.)
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock.)

Next month, more than 1.5 million American college students will graduate with bachelor degrees. Nearly all of them will be illiterate. In their offices and in their apartments, they will stare at the key texts that guide their lives in mute horror, unable to understand what they mean. They will come to depend on a small and mighty class of priests to interpret the secret language for them. No matter how successful they become or how many graduate degrees they accumulate, they’ll remain forever ignorant and powerless.

If you think the paragraph above is needlessly alarmist or somehow allegorical, you haven’t been paying attention. Whatever professional path the members of the class of 2012 may take—medicine or marketing or manufacturing—most will lack one area of knowledge essential to all facets of life: the language of machines.

Everything around us, from the phones in our pockets and the cars we drive to the terminals that monitor the fluctuations of our fortunes, is governed by computer systems that run on lines of code. And yet, “[s]o few Americans know how to program,” media theorist Douglas Rushkoff wrote earlier this year, “that firms like Google and Facebook are actually buying whole companies just for their code-literate employees, in what are known as ‘talent acquisitions.’ ” Rushkoff’s solution—and the title of his new and essential book—is simple. It’s program or be programmed; learn how to use these awesome new tools or be used by them.

As a professor of new media, I habitually present my students with a thought experiment: Try to imagine a different Facebook. The social network being their chief means of communications—and, for most, an object of obsession—you’d think the question would be easy to answer. You’d think these young and bright men and women would have a plethora of ideas about how to make Facebook a more intuitive, enjoyable, and useful platform. They very rarely do, and for one simple reason: For all the hours they spend on Facebook, they don’t really understand how it works. Unable to read or write code, all they can do is interact with it in the precise, narrow way its developers had intended, stripped of agency, easy to fool or manipulate.

It would be folly, of course, to expect everyone to become a computer scientist capable of high-level programming and technological innovation. But it is just as preposterous to hand our children a tool without any instruction of how it works and what it can do. If they spoke the language with some proficiency, they could find easy and elegant ways to counteract the dazzling violations of personal privacy that are more and more prevalent online, say, not to mention create the products and services that might catapult them and the economy at large into prosperity. Instead, they’re digital Blanche DuBoises, always depending on the kindness of strangers.

This plight of coding cluelessness is an American challenge—think of all the jobs being snatched up by Chinese and Indian kids who are more digitally fluent—but it is also, in a way, a Jewish one. The People of the Book is more than a moniker; it suggests a certain kind of sensibility that allowed this small nation to survive and thrive. Put simply, the Jewish mentality has always been that of the open source: Rather than rely on a small class of clerics to parse the holy writ, Judaism invited everyone to look at its central code, argue about its meaning, and interpret, sometimes even rewrite it, at will. We don’t just read the Talmud; we use it, we understand its logic and its functions and apply them to aspects of our lives that the ancient texts had no way of foreseeing. It’s a text, but also a tool, and it requires a learning curve.

Around us, the digital landscape, once wide open and consisting mainly of web-based software, is shifting, relying more heavily on apps, which are closed, single-purpose systems. An environment that was once largely inviting to hackers, modifiers, and tinkerers is gradually fencing out all but tech’s illuminati. The Internet, it seems, is following radio’s trajectory, from a domain of enthusiastic amateurs to an industry rigidly controlled by a small number of companies seeking profit and shunning innovation. We all know how that worked for radio, an industry that lost its dominance as soon as the next big thing appeared; we all have to make sure the Internet takes a different path.

What to do? Thanks to Zach Sims and Ryan Bubinski, two maddeningly young entrepreneurs, the question is easier than ever to answer. Last August, the two started Codecademy, a web-based, interactive programming tutorial. Less than three months later, they already raised the spirits of more than 500,000 users, not to mention $2.5 million from one of the more venerable venture capital firms in the business. It’s easy to understand why: Codecademy’s tutorials are free, and they’re great fun. The lessons are short and easy to follow, and each completed section earns you a badge. For hard-core computer geeks, this may be silly stuff; for college kids, or small business owners, or would-be entrepreneurs, or New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, who recently signed up, it’s a stellar introduction into a world that seems much, much harder than it actually is.

Let’s not waste another minute. Judaism’s old motto, tze ulmad—go forth and learn—tells us just what to do. We’ve done pretty well mastering the book; we must now do the same with our keyboards.


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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

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