'The Matrix is a system, Neo': Ten reasons coding literacy should be a human right
By Daniela Capistrano / current.com / @dcap
At this year’s Games for Change Festival, industry leaders in game design, ed-tech and more came together to discuss how gaming can be an effective tool to change the world. One of the dominant themes expressed at the festival and by those following along on Twitter was lowering the bar to coding literacy.
With the war on women, our failing educational systems, the economy and immigration occupying much of news coverage today, coding literacy may seem like a topic reserved for the privileged elite. But the truth is that the key component of institutionalized oppression is keeping those oppressed ignorant about how systems work.
If the headline didn't give it away, I'm a big fan of "The Matrix." The biggest lesson the film offers is that if you don’t know how the Matrix functions, you can’t change it (or destroy it).
And in our world, if you don’t know how to make things, you can’t fix them and must rely on others — who often don’t factor in your needs and concerns — to handle it for you. The recession has taught us how well that works.
There was a period of time in our history when literacy — reading and writing — was a privilege, not a right. If a U.S. state suddenly stopped teaching reading and writing in its public schools, the world would freak out, let alone millions of educators, activists and parents.
We can't beat the Matrix if we don't know how it works. It’s time for everyone to unplug and learn how the sausage is made.
The United States is no longer the leader in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), and our own economy doesn’t support the vast numbers of college graduates looking for work. People of color struggle with prejudice and an increasingly competitive job market, where even changing your name on a resume is necessary just to get your foot in the door.
Yet technology companies are hiring. All the time. Sadly, most people without a technology background can't take advantage of this because they don't know how to code (or work with those who do).
Just as advocates for literacy demanded that reading and writing be available to all people regardless of their level of income, race, religious identity or gender, a growing movement of people are demanding that coding literacy be just as accessible as reading and writing to ensure the preservation of humanity and to level the playing field for historically oppressed communities.
"I think coding literacy is a human right," said Dr. Idit Harel Caperton in an interview with Current TV during #G4C12. "When you want people to learn how to read, they have to practice it every day in different ways. Coding is the new reading and writing."
If you're still not convinced, here are 10 reasons coding literacy should be a human right for all:
1. If more schools used coding projects to teach across all disciplines, children would thrive in ways we have yet to imagine.
Knowing how to code accelerates learning — not just in computer or Web programming, but in everything. Just like journalists and authors learn more about the world by writing about it, you learn how to ride a bike by getting on a bike and taking off.
2. Silicon Valley must stop being a rich white boys' club.
Cranky Skirt on Tumblr put it into context:
Computer programming culture has historically marginalized people of color, queer/trans folks and low-income folks, and coding literacy for groups that are underrepresented in game development arenas (among others) is a way for those who’ve been ignored by companies to have more agency with regard to what’s being produced.
Victor, a white transguy who grew up in Northern California, shared his experience:
When I was a young teenager, after having my first computer of my own for a couple of years, I was talking to my mom about how no one else in my neighborhood seemed to know about computers. We also lived in a part of town with a large concentration of low-income folks and people with long-term substance abuse problems. [My friends and I] came up with the idea of a nonprofit public computer lab for kids. We spent a lot of time thinking about funding and projects and how to get neighborhood kids interested, but we never really pushed to make it reality. I wish we had actually tried back then. I suppose it is not too late.
3. Less than 10 percent of the gaming workforce is female, yet 42 percent of all game players are female.
Women and girls need free and low-cost opportunities to learn to code and mentor support — not just to ensure that games reflect more empowering representations of women (check out this incredible Kickstarter project), but to improve economies worldwide.
Dr. Caperton drives this point home:
It is why a number of video game developers are actively recruiting women — as developers, designers, artists, engineers, publishers and marketers — in a clear bid to ensure that the product speaks to the market going forward. That means the game industry is — or should be — a career target for today's female students in elementary and secondary schools as well as in higher education.
4. The Obama administration announced a new plan for expanding high-speed broadband access across the nation to help boost the economy, but the latest documentation doesn’t mention a comprehensive plan for the Department of Education.
We need to make sure that this broadband initiative includes providing all public schools nationwide with high-speed Internet access, along with funding for coding classes and mentorships during school and in afterschool programs. If we turn the spigot on but don’t provide a bucket, we’re just wasting water. Teachers need additional training, and lesson plans need a serious reboot.
The United States is behind several countries in high-speed Internet access, but we have an opportunity to innovate. Our government needs to support such a significant pivot of resources.
Download the White House Broadband fact sheet and think about ways to support your local school district.
5. Efforts to cure AIDS/HIV would be accelerated if all people living with the disease were empowered to connect online and build systems to help cure the disease.
In collaboration with scientists and other supporting bodies, patients could improve research efforts and recruit drug trial volunteers as agents for change. If people living with AIDS and HIV (especially low-income and POC patients) who have great ideas don’t know how to code, the ideas stay just that — and people continue to die.
AIDS/HIV patients face numerous obstacles, and support services are severely underfunded, but my theory is that someone living with AIDS/HIV today — without a degree or any formal education — holds the key to curing it.
While we fight to provide AIDS/HIV patients with housing and life-prolonging meds, let's teach them how to code, employ them on research projects and see what happens.
6. Open government doesn’t mean anything if the general public doesn’t know how to interpret the data or what to do with it.
The Obama administration — supported by cities like New York — is making government data accessible to anyone with Internet access. This is a good thing, but journalists, data experts and activists are concerned about how data can be manipulated and used to defend questionable legislation.
The more the general public knows about how to interpret data and how to turn it into something that people can understand — such as an app, a game, an infographic or a data-driven art installation in a museum (and in the streets) — the more empowered voters will be to make choices based on facts rather than on the misrepresented data.
Open data initiatives shouldn’t just benefit technology companies and inner-circle Silicon Valley types seeking to profit from public information. Citizens should be literate enough to understand the data and be able do something with it to help themselves and others in their communities.
7. Coding literacy alone won’t cure inequality, but it can be a catalyst for justice.
In 2010, the Knight Foundation funded a social-impact game called Macon Money, which took place in real time (with an online component) with real people to support ongoing efforts to tackle local issues and spur economic growth. One of many positive outcomes of this experiment was that participants who played the game in real life and online learned more about their community and made new friends, which resulted in them being more informed about issues in their community.
However, an alarming outcome was how underrepresented African Americans were in the game. Perhaps more black citizens in Macon would have participated in a social experiment with their neighbors if media and coding literacy was already a part of their daily life and if Macon didn’t have such a terrible history of white residents oppressing black residents.
Social experiments like Macon Money on their own won’t eradicate racism and prejudice, but games — and the people who design them — can help people connect who may not have done so on their own.
Can you imagine how fast the civil rights movement would have spread if there had been an app for that made by people of color for people of color?
8. A “Star Trek”–like world is not going to happen if only some people know how the technology driving civilization works.
I've deviated from "The Matrix" (sorry!) to make point: Often children — not adults in positions of power — hold the answer. Remember the "Star Trek: The Next Generation" episode in which Wesley Crusher’s warp bubble experiment saved his mom's life? I'll bet he learned to code when he learned to walk.
If children can’t explain solutions in words that technologists understand or create the solution themselves, “beam me up” is a long way off.
9. Unemployed veterans should be designing the next generation of defense technology.
We have an epidemic of veterans committing suicide. Some of the factors driving this are soldiers feeling like they are powerless to help support their families in a struggling economy and see no end to the senseless deaths of their brothers and sisters fighting for freedom around the world.
In addition to making greater use of video conferences between patients and doctors and integrating its electronic health records with those maintained by the Defense Department, the Veterans Affairs Department should start providing veterans with coding skills. Veterans could then gain employment at technology companies and potentially use their skills and experience to help create innovative solutions for our country.
10. We’re all going to die. Yes. Womp. All of us.
Between now and when each of our lights goes out, we have a finite amount of time to seek happiness and fulfillment and to help others. Can you imagine trying to make it through this life without being able to read or write? The discomfort you feel envisioning that level of limitation is the same attitude you should take toward coding literacy for future generations.
Something needs to change. And it starts with you. For all these reasons and more, coding literacy must be a human right. If you’re not sure what to do next, teach yourself and the people you love to code.
“You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” —Morpheus, "The Matrix"
We’ll be rolling out several articles to encompass the exciting discoveries shared at this year’s Games for Change Festival, so stay tuned and let us know which topics at the festival sparked your interest.