Could you imagine turning in a resume that listed, “Can read and write,” as one of your notable skills? The idea is laughable, but at one point in history, that was a huge accomplishment and alone could secure you a job far above your station.
Back in the day, by which I mean the early Middle Ages, if you weren’t born into the nobility, there were few ways to move up in the world. Military service was one option, but only worked in some places and times. Trade and mercantilism was another, but it required at least some capital to get started.
One of the most reliable ways was to learn how to read and write, to become literate. It was a skill that was in extremely high demand–it was necessary for the conduct of the state and trade–and it was somewhat rare. Those who could convey, prepare, and understand written instructions were entrusted with important information and tasks and granted access to a world of continued learning.
Eventually, literacy became more or less universal. There were those who were more and less literate, but in general, anyone could read a book and write a letter, so you needed something more in order to be of value to those shaping society (or to shape it yourself).
Then came the age of computing (there were probably some other steps in there) and a thing arose called computer literacy. This involved being able to interact with a computer. The computer literate were not necessarily programmers, but they could operate a program and knew how to type.
Being computer literate opened up a lot of opportunities for you. Companies needed operators and you had a good chance of getting a job even if you weren’t actually knowledgeable in the company’s particular field. Just as a lowly, but literate, peasant might get a job as a merchant’s bookkeeper, a kid who could troubleshoot Microsoft Office might work for a local bank without any financial expertise.
Lately, computer literacy has gone the way of word literacy: it has become universal and therefore taken for granted. Computer literacy is expected.
So what is today’s literacy? What skill set could you learn in order to have access to the workings of the world, to write and understand the rhythms that make modern society function?
With the total saturation of computer usage and the growth of a new medium of interaction in the form of the Internet, it seems that the ability to create web-based programs is actually the new literacy. Simply using the internet is hardly different from using a computer, so the question is, can you create webpages, code web apps, build WordPress sites, and understand APIs?
These things may seem like the domain of a small elite, but that’s exactly what literacy was a thousand years ago. The people who wrote and read books lived in a world far-removed from that of the common person. They provided tools used by the ruling class and that made them valuable. Those who could scratch out a short note were a far cry from the masters of prose who could pen a king’s speech. Many went on to gain huge influence simply because they could generate and interact with text.
Well, today, we convey and consume information through the internet. Consuming the internet is a universal ability, but creating it makes you a valuable resource. Everybody with something to say or to sell needs someone to make sure their message is presented effectively. Those who can do it are afforded opportunities.
Every programmer I’ve ever met acknowledges this, even as they admit that they are still treated like tools (codemonkeys is the phrase I think). They are paid well and get to work on significant projects. They may not all be the movers and shakers, but they have the ability to reach people.
I can’t help but wonder at the significance of this reality. Sure, simply being able to code won’t afford me the life I want, but it seems likely to open up a lot of opportunities and give me access to resources I could use to create that life.
I’ve been thinking about this interpretation of literacy and I’ve decided it’s time I learned to write programs. It’s something I’ve always dabbled in, thanks to my dad, who was among the early programmers, but other than a desire to live up to him and a passing interest, I didn’t see much use in the skill.
But I can’t imagine life without the ability to write. I couldn’t stand simply being limited to consuming books instead of actually sharing my thoughts and ideas. Now that I’ve started to see the Internet in the same way, I feel like that peasant who can write his name; I have some very rudimentary coding skills, but not nearly enough to express the ideas I have. It’s hugely frustrating to have an idea while lacking the ability to express it accurately.
As I have a low tolerance for frustration, I’ve decided to learn to code in order to be able to create the Internet with the same precision I am capable of crafting written prose.
If I’ve convinced you to start learning to code, try out Codecademy, a free online resource that walks you through the process of creating websites and the code that runs on them. That’s what I’m using.
Photo credit: qisur on Flickr