The benefits of learning to program

I’ve been writing about the current discussions in Britain about whether computer science should be part of the National Curriculum in secondary schools. (For the record, my view is yes.) So it was interesting to come on this piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education which tackles one of the objections that are often made: what’s the point of learning to program? Isn’t it like insisting that everyone who drives a car should be able to repair it?

I recently finished reading Douglass Rushkoff’s Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age. Rushkoff argues that knowledge of coding is essential: “Understanding programming—either as a real programmer or even, as I’m suggesting, as more of a critical thinker—is the only way to truly know what’s going on in a digital environment, and to make willful choices about the roles we play” (8).

The learning that goes on in the traditional classroom may teach digital literacy, but does it teach an understanding of code? Rushkoff claims that for students taught to use programs rather than to create them, “their bigger problem is that their entire orientation to computing will be from the perspective of users. When a kid is taught software as a subject, she’ll tend to think of it like any other thing she has to learn. Success means learning to behave in the way the program needs her to. Digital technology becomes the immutable thing, while the student is the moving part, conforming to the needs of the program in order to get a good grade on the test” (136). This echoes some of the same patterns I’ve seen in my classroom: a student who is only familiar with what others’ programs can do, and used to working within those systems, might never consider a solution outside those boxes.

Douglass Rushkoff’s Program or Be Programmed might not convince you to dive headfirst into C#, but it is a solid foundation for starting conversations on the value of technical skills for yourself, your institution, and its students in any discipline. Some of the arguments are dubious, but the book offers succinct and clear discussions of lessons gleaned from longer works such as Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together and Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget, other essential texts considering these same ramifications of our relationship with new technologies.

Memo to self: Must get Rushkoff’s book.

So does SIRI have a moral agenda?

Interesting blog post by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Siri can help you secure movie tickets, plan your schedule, and order Chinese food, but when it comes to reproductive health care and services, Siri is clueless.

According to numerous news sources, when asked to find an abortion clinic Siri either draws a blank, or worse refers women to pregnancy crisis centers. As we’ve blogged about in the past, pregnancy crisis centers, which often bill themselves as resources for abortion care, do not provide or refer for abortion and are notorious for providing false and misleading information about abortion. Further, if you’d like to avoid getting pregnant, Siri isn’t much use either. When asked where one can find birth control, apparently Siri comes up blank.

The ACLU put Siri to the test in our Washington D.C. office. When a staffer told Siri she needed an abortion, the iPhone assistant referred her to First Choice Women’s Abortion Info and Pregnancy Center and Human Life Pregnancy-Abortion Information Center. Both are pregnancy crisis centers that do not provide abortion services, and the second center is located miles and miles away in Pennsylvania.

It’s not just that Siri is squeamish about sex. The National Post reports that if you ask Siri where you can have sex, or where to get a blow job, “she” can refer you to a local escort service.

Although it isn’t clear that Apple is intentionally trying to promote an anti-choice agenda, it is distressing that Siri can point you to Viagra, but not the Pill, or help you find an escort, but not an abortion clinic.

Apple’s response, according to CNET:

Apple … is still working out the kinks in the beta service and the problem should be fixed soon.

“Our customers want to use Siri to find out all types of information and while it can find a lot, it doesn’t always find what you want,” Apple spokesman Tom Neumayr said. “These are not intentional omissions meant to offend anyone, it simply means that as we bring Siri from beta to a final product, we find places where we can do better and we will in the coming weeks.”

Although I’m as partial to conspiracy theories as the next mug, somehow I don’t think SIRI’s apparent moral censoriousness is a feature rather than a bug. But it does remind one of the dangers of subcontracting one’s moral judgements to software — as parents, schools and libraries do when they use filtering systems created by software companies whose ideological or moral stances are obscure, to say the least.