Ideologies of a New Mass Literacy

Annette Vee, University of Pittsburgh CCCC 2013, Las Vegas March 14, 2013 …one can argue that procedural literacy is a fundamental competence for everyone, required full participation in contemporary society, that believing only programmers (people who make a living at it) should be procedurally literate is like believing only published authors need to learn how to read and write. Michael Matteas, “Procedural Literacy: Educating the New Media Practitioner,” 2005.

In the 19th century, churches, governments and educational institutions in Europe and the United States promoted the literacy of reading for the masses. Reading was associated with morality, docility, good faith, and good citizenship. In the 21st century, a new movement for mass literacy is growing: the mass literacy of computer programming. This new mass literacy campaign is associated with new ideologies. Video clip: Marc Prensky Video clip: Douglas Rushkoff Video clip: Jeannette Wing Promoters of the mass literacy of computer programming do not rely on morality, faith or docility. Instead, they invoke the rhetoric of citizenship, individual empowerment, intellectual development, and employability and economic benefits to push their cause. In doing so, their arguments often dovetail with another contemporary force in mass literacy: As Deb Brandt has observed, “writing seems to be eclipsing reading as the literacy event of consequence.” While reading has historically been promoted by universal literacy campaigns, writing has not. Writing was a greater threat to moral order. Now, however, writing is essential to commerce. It is a source of employment, independence and empowerment, but especially empowerment through the market. What does it mean that computer programming is being promoted as a mass literacy? That this promotion invokes the history of mass reading campaigns, yet also seems to parallel more recent campaigns to promote writing?

Arguments about education are always ideological, of course, and they tend to reflect the ideologies of their time. Arguments about literacy may serve as uniquely effective ciphers of their time because of literacy’s central role in learning and society. For those of us who promote and study literacy, its ideologies are particularly important for us to acknowledge—even, I would argue, to the extent that literacy is used as a powerful metaphor for other skills, like computer programming. Although I may not be able to fully answer the question about what this new mass literacy campaign for computer programming means, I want to draw our attention to its ideologies so that we might understand our role, even our complicity, in shaping them. I’ll start by reviewing some of the history of how programming has been promoted as a kind of literacy from the 1960s to the present. I’ll note a few examples of the dominant ideologies I’ve seen as I’ve tracked these promotional trends and figures. As I do so, you’ll hear me use the word proceduracy to refer to the literacy of computer programming. The promotion of computer programming goes by many names—computational thinking, procedural literacy, etc. I use the term proceduracy to refer to all of these, in order to capture the connection of programming to procedures—rather than the device of the computer per se—and to note the connection many people have drawn to literacy. Before moving into the history, though, I want to look at a contemporary campaign for computer programming from is a venture capital-backed non-profit foundation focused on promoting computer programming education, and will be a central focus of this analysis. With an advisory board that reads like a who’s who in Silicon Valley start-ups, is rapidly becoming the highest profile sponsor of the mass programming movement. The following clip is from a video they put out in February 2013. [[ clip of girl explaining programming to Facebook engineer]]

That was just a taste of the current movement to promote programming as a new mass literacy. Let’s go back to the beginning. 1960s Although they appear to be accelerating now, calls for programming as a form of literacy actually began as early as the 1960s—long before the personal computer revolution made them seem very feasible. At a 1961 conference at MIT called “Computers and the World of the Future,” computer engineer Alan Perlis

promoted programming as a literacy that should be taught to all undergraduates. He proposed a computing course that resembles first year composition: the first student contact with the computer should be at the earliest time possible: in the student’s freshman year. This contact should be analytical and not purely descriptive, and each student during this first course should program and run or have run for him a large number of problems on the computer. […] This course should share with mathematics and English the responsibility of developing an operational literacy. […] In a liberal arts program the course could be delayed until the sophomore year, but certainly deserves inclusion in such a program because of the universal relevance of the computer to our times. (Greenberger, 188) Perlis’s vision is particularly striking given the state of computers at the time. In 1961, only some college campuses had mainframe computers. But computers were increasingly important to large-scale business and government, including defense. The emphasis on broad undergraduate education in programming suggested that future leaders of America should know something about these universally relevant machines. Perlis’s vision was at least partially realized with the BASIC programming language, designed at Dartmouth University in the early 1960s by John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz. Like Perlis, Kemeny and Kurtz saw the computer as universally relevant, and designed BASIC to be accessible to all undergraduates-not just those in engineering. They made the language freely sharable, and it spread across college campuses in the 1960s. It’s impossible to overestimate the impact of the BASIC programming language on proceduracy initiatives throughout the history of the movement—we’ll see it come up again in subsequent decades. 1970s This movement to teach all undergraduates programming in the 1960s moved off of college campuses in the 1970s. In his 1984 book Hackers, Steven Levy traces the epicenter of programming from the east coast to the west around this time, and the impetus to promote programming to the masses seems to have followed the same geographical trajectory. At that time, the push for proceduracy was imbued with post-60s San Francisco area politics--hobbyists and hackers thrived, typified by The Homebrew Computer Club and the People’s Computer Company. Cconsequently, programming took on a vibe of liberation and empowerment. The People’s Computer Company was founded in Menlo Park, California and launched with a 1972 publication that insisted “Computers are mostly used against people instead of for people, used to control people instead of to free them. Time to change all that. We need a PEOPLE’S COMPUTER COMPANY.” Against the oppressive IBM, which computer liberation advocate Ted Nelson called a

“concentration camp for information,” the PCC founders wanted to promote computers for everyday users. BASIC was their flagship language to do so, and they provided code and instructions within PCC publications and also in a popular book that humanized computers, My Computer Loves me When I Speak BASIC. 1980s From the liberation rhetoric in the 1970s, the proceduracy movement became more mainstream in the 1980s. Affordable home computers were perhaps the greatest influence on 1980s proceduracy campaigns. Since machines at this time often required some knowledge of BASIC to use them, simple computer programming was a relatively accessible and sometimes necessary hobby. Computers brought BASIC into homes, but they also brought commodity software. Prior to the 1980s, software was generally free and bundled with hardware. In response to this new commodification, Richard Stallman at MIT launched the free software movement. Free and open source software has protected the free sharing of code in subsequent decades, and contributed greatly to proceduracy initiatives. Also in the 1980s, computers became accessible to kids, which has been key to proceduracy initiatives. The LOGO programming language, which was focused on graphics for kids, was taught in many elementary school classrooms, and ads for home computers often focused on their educational value. The idea of computers as tools for kids owes much to educational research done in the 1970s. Seymour Papert developed the LOGO programming language during that time, and at Xerox PARC, Alan Kay led a team of researchers to prototype the Dynabook laptop as well as the programming language Smalltalk, both of which were designed to make computing and programming more accessible to children. After this foundational research in the 1970s, the adoption of programming in American schools in the 1980s was largely due to Cold War funding for math, science and technology initiatives. 1990s In the 1990s, the hotspot of proceduracy-promotion moved to new World Wide Web. The architect of the Web, Tim Berners-Lee, insisted on technical and organizational protocols that would enable it to be accessible and programmable by everyone. For their introduction to programming, many young people today credit HTML, the simple markup language on which the Web is built. HTML doesn’t have the capabilities of BASIC, but it was inspired by it, and shares BASIC’s accessibility and ubiquity. Aside from HTML, computer programming campaigns seem to have tapered off in the 1990s in favor of consumerism. Attention was focused on the digital divide of

access to computers, not to programming them. Adam Banks signals this moment in his book Race, Rhetoric, and Technology when he breaks down the concept of “access” at work in the 1990s, particularly for poor and minority groups. In government reports such as the “Falling through the Net” series, access was imagined as strictly material, and focused on the use of computers, rather than any transformative activities such as programming. 2000s Although the 1990s signaled a decline in proceduracy sponsorship amongst universities and government, the 2000s took the movement into diverse online communities with little connection to formal computer science and institutions. The growth of the web allowed for ready circulation of open source programming languages that offer more possibility than HTML, such as Javascript, Python, PHP and Ruby. Many of these languages have robust Web communities supporting and evangelizing them, and resources for learning programming outside of computer science have never been greater. However, people aren’t automatically exposed to code now in the same way that they were on their Commodore 64s in the 1980s, and many proceduracy advocates have pointed to this as a problem. Now Now, we see a different approach to accessing code in proceduracy-promoting organizations such as, which tries to consolidate free educational resources online. In the last couple of years, with the interest in mass online education through Khan Academy, free lectures from MIT and UC-Berkeley, TED Talks, plus massively open online courses, fits right in. Interestingly, it consolidates many different ideological strands of the proceduracy movement since the 1960s. But it also reflects a new ideology: the ideology of marketfocused neo-liberalism. Like the ideology behind writing as a new mass literacy, proceduracy is access to employment in addition to—and often in tension with— its empowering and liberating force.

With this historical review of the movement, I want to highlight a few of the dominant ideologies we have seen in the promotion of programming as a new mass literacy. There are, as I see it, four different ideologies at work here, although they often overlap and one call will often draw on more than one ideology at once. Individual empowerment and creativity Expansion of the mind and human capability Citizenship and collective progress

Employability and economic concerns Each of these ideologies are represented in’s video, but also in many other calls for proceduracy. I’ll show just a sample of these here. Individual empowerment and creativity Programming is powerful. And as computers become more ubiquitous, the ability to program them gives a person access to more avenues of creativity and control. Discussing universal programming literacy, computer scientist Ken Perlin writes and invokes a popular trope for this strand of ideology: Those of us who program know that our skill provides us with an enormous increase in our ability to take advantage of the power of computers - the computer becomes a fantastically powerful and extremely protean servant. Feb 24, 2008 As we heard at the beginning of the video, the pop technology theorist Douglas Rushkoff comes from a more defensive perspective. Provocatively, he argues, Program or be programmed. Choose the former and you gain access to the control panel of civilization. Choose the latter and it could be the last real choice you get to make. (Program or be Programmed, 1) Programming can, then, empower you, or leave you in the power of others. Here’s’s rendition of this ideology. clip: Code is empowering (25sec) Expansion of the mind and human capability In his 1968 article “The Computer as Communication Device,” J.C.R. Licklider, one of the early visionaries behind the Internet, argued that the computer was “intelligence amplification” and should therefore be widely accessible to people. The designer of LOGO, Seymour Papert, called computers “objects to think with,” and encouraged children to engage with programming to learn math. His student, Andrea diSessa, argued for teaching programming as a kind of literacy because code was a material technology that could help us think in new ways. begins its video by invoking Steve Jobs, in a statement that echoes this ideology: [8 sec clip] Citizenship and collective progress Guido van Rossum, who wrote the Python programming language, invoked the promise of mass literacy when he applied for a DARPA grant to support the teaching of Python in 1999:

We compare mass ability to read and write software with mass literacy, and predict equally pervasive changes to society. John Kemeny, the co-author of BASIC, referenced the powerful printing press as one of the ways society has progressed in his 1983 article, “The Case for Computer Literacy.” He asked, "What capabilities will mankind develop once it fully masters the use of computers and intelligent machines?" (216) In the liberatory 1970s strand of the proceduracy movement, Ted Nelson wrote in his Computer Lib/Dream Machines manifesto If you are interested in democracy and its future, you'd better understand computers. And if you are concerned about power and the way it is used, and aren't we all now, the same thing goes. More recently, the Code for America program promises to connect the democratic process to programming by facilitating collaboration between programmers and participating city governments. For this strand of argument, leans on pop musician, who here and elsewhere has been a vocal advocate for proceduracy. clips Employability and economic concerns Nathan Ensmenger, who writes about the shifting professional status of programmers throughout the 20th century, notes that a so-called “software crisis” begins in the 1960s. At that time, software was becoming necessary for large-scale commercial enterprise, defense, and banking. And there weren’t enough programmers to write and manage the code needed to run these systems. The software crisis is alive and well today, as major software corporations like Electronic Arts and Google partner with universities to train potential future employees. Perhaps for this reason, this ideological strand of proceduracy is often intertwined with computer science. It goes like this: we need more programmers than we have now, so computer science must be recruited to professionally train them. This ideology is perhaps the dominant one in’s promotional video, as it showcases the modernday software crisis and many of the participants reference employability as a benefit from learning programming. Playing to their younger audience, they emphasize some other benefits of employment as a programmer. “Charmed Lives” clip

Here, I’ve tried to outline some interesting ideological aspects of a new mass literacy campaign. Campaigns for mass reading literacy were influenced by ideologies of their time period, and so too are campaigns for proceduracy. It’s no accident that the promotion of reading in mass literacy campaigns invoked ideas of citizenship, morality, and homogeneity during times when democratic structures were being built, and when heterogeneous populations and industrial technologies threatened traditional order. Proceduracy campaigns also reflect the concerns of their time periods, from the recognition that future leaders needed to understand the universally important computer in the 1960s, to the liberatory rhetoric of the 1970s hackers and hippies, to the minicomputer revolution and free software movement of the 1980s, to the 1990s promise of the World Wide Web and technological consumerism, and now the massive scale of online courses and mobile apps and venture capital that wants to change the world. In the proceduracy movement’s current iterations, I think we should be wary of the claims that programming is a literacy, but that it is also contained within computer science. Like the literacies of reading and writing, proceduracy isn’t, or should not, be restricted to one field’s perspective. I also think we should be wary of the way proceduracy is being subsumed into market logics. Like the contemporary push for mass writing, I wonder: what powerful aspects of writing or programming might be lost when they are framed only as a professional activity, or a practice that can build one’s brand for the market? Programming is, I would argue, all of these things the proceduracy campaigns suggest: it’s employable, powerful, intellectual, and inherent in contemporary power structures. As literacy educators, we are implicated in the ideologies behind the promotion of literacies, so we should consider carefully the impact these ideological frames have on the way we think about programming, as well as about contemporary literacy.

Music Abscondo, "Consciousness - Instrumental" Victory in a Landlocked Sea

Film sources (in order of appearance) Prensky, Marc Interview, Center for Excellence in Media Practice, Oct. 21, 2010 Wing, Jeannette "Computational Thinking and Thinking about Computing" Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, 2009 Rushkoff, Douglas "Program or be Programmed" SXSW 2010 "What Most Schools Don't Teach" dir. Leslie Chilcott published by, Feb 26, 2013 "Cold War Computing: The SAGE System" The Computer History Museum "Australian Ad Commodore 64 Computer - 1987" Uploaded by tramman82mk2 "Seymour Papert" Uploaded by Seth Morabito "HTML Tutorial 1: HTML Document" LearnToProgramDotTV

Image sources (in order of appearance) Library of Congress, “Woman looking at book while another woman points to something in the book” Berlin : Loescher & Petsch ; Verl. E. Linde & comp. (Sophus Williams) [between 1867 and 1873] People’s Computer Company, Newsletter #1, 1972 Digibarn Computer Museum “Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman’s Crusade for Free Software” System/360, Computer History Museum People’s Computer Company, Newsletter #1,1972 Digibarn Computer Museum Commodore 64 Ad, Computer History Museum “Discovering the World Wide Wed (1995)” Still from: “Student Authenticating Access” theunquietlibrary,

Website references Code for America: Ruby Language: "Falling through the Net," National Telecommunications & Information Administration

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful