Software: or why the government should engage in magical thinking

This morning’s Observer column.

What governments don’t seem to understand is that software is the nearest thing to magic that we’ve yet invented. It’s pure “thought stuff” – which means that it enables ingenious or gifted people to create wonderful things out of thin air. All you need to change the world is imagination, programming ability and access to a cheap PC. You don’t need capital or material resources or adult permission. Tim Berners-Lee and a tiny group of colleagues created the web out of nothing more than vision and programming skill. A gifted teenager named Shawn Fanning created Napster – and spawned the file-sharing revolution – by sitting in his bedroom for six months and writing code. All Mark Zuckerberg needed in order to launch Facebook was a laptop, his precocious programming skills and a thousand bucks borrowed from a friend. And so on – through Amazon and eBay and Google and Blogger and Twitter and YouTube and countless other world-changing ventures built out of computer programs.

That’s why software is like magic: all you need is ability. And some children, for reasons that are totally and wonderfully mysterious, have an extraordinary aptitude for programming – just as some have a musical, mathematical or artistic gift. If the government excludes computer science from the national curriculum then it will be effectively slamming the door to the future.