Part 0: Introspectus
In 2006, I followed up my predictions of a decade earlier with an essay on the future of programmers. Since the mid-1980s I have grappled with the usability of computers by non-programmers. For a long time, I considered these subjects to be merely related; this now seems incredibly obtuse. The link between the first two subjects ought to have been particularly clear to me: we programmers (obviously) shape and (less obviously) are shaped by the computing environments we develop. What took me much longer to realise was the continuum between different users and uses.
Early experiences of trying to explain computers to my family (even my father, who started his career as a programmer, though he spent most of it as a manager of large-scale systems integration projects) suggested that my experience of computers was quite different from others’. I was excited by the machines for their own sakes, and as gaming platforms. My brother enjoyed playing the games; my parents and grandparents had only the most casual interest in the games (and were often censorious, for example of their violence), and little to none in programming (my grandfather dabbled a little in retirement, and my father did some web development towards the end of his career, but in both cases there was a utilitarian end, without much less enjoyment of or interest in the process than I experienced).
Carlos Bueno’s 2012 Lauren Ipsum, to computer science as Alice in Wonderland is to logic, crystallised in my head the notion that computational thinking is the twenty-first century equivalent of literacy (something one can get along without, but which increasingly is required for upwards social mobility); and Raspberry Pi’s extraordinary success, starting the same year, in pushing computer science into the school curriculum brought the idea into the mainstream, and some energetic and surprisingly fruitful efforts by the British educational establishment to act on it.
Alix Dunn’s 2018 piece on teaching “technical intuition”, Technical Intuition: Instincts in a Digital World, elaborates what computational thinking is and why non-programmers need it, especially to deal with and take advantage of technology in an organizational context (I had been thinking mainly of its direct personal uses).
More speculatively, having wondered for years about the way in which our most powerful and long-lived myths are technologically backwards, rarely venturing beyond the wheel, as well as socially conservative (though our myths are easier to repurpose for progressive social ends than for advanced technological or scientific ends; unsurprisingly, as in the social realm the ideas required are not new, even if they tend to be marginalised, whereas the changes wrought by technology and based on science simply require a great deal more education to understand), I have been wondering how one might make new myths, and how those might incorporate not just more progressive social ideals, but embed a technological world-view, but without requiring a Star Trek– or Culture-like world with the mechanical technology explicit—both because “myths of the future” have and will always be as alienating to some as they are enticing to others, and because at the present, in the shadow of various potential society-threatening catastrophes, I seek myths suitable for a Dark Mountain age, myths which, even if we by some miracle escape civilizational collapse, contain the connection to the natural world and our own natural selves that we will require for a sane future.
This seems like the right place to acknowledge those who have most directly influenced the thinking behind this series of posts, in chronological order: my parents, who have taught me, with much greater tedium than they deserve, much about how others interact with computers; Eben Upton, whose difficulties recruiting good potential computer scientists to study the subject led me to think about how we teach programming (and him to invent the Raspberry Pi!); Mark Longair, who cares so deeply about the technical and social matrices he inhabits; Martin Keegan, who has exerted himself both professionally and politically to turn the techno-rod we have made away from our own backs; and Vinay Gupta, larger than life, larger than death.
Last updated 2019/08/20