The age of code literacy

There was a time when people who didn’t know how to read or write were left out from the system. Left out in the sense that these people could not really participate in economically rewarding activities. It would also be fair to say that these people even struggled with their day to day existence even to the point where they found it difficult to avail their basic rights they were entitled to. The world eventually belonged to the ones who could read and write so to speak. And we called them literate. And ever since then, literacy decided which camp you ended up in: the haves or the have not’s.

The relationship held true for a long time, until a point where computers became ubiquitous. The digital age was here. Now digital literacy distinguished between the haves and the have not’s. And by this time, we had also coined a word to capture the ever widening gulf between the two camps; the digital divide. Digital age and digital technology have been growing at an exponential rate ever since its advent. And now we are entering an age where code literacy: your ability to read and write code, is soon becoming an all-important functional literary competency!

Literacy in its basic definition is only being able to understand the alphabets of a language. And the basic purpose of language is to provide you with the ability to communicate with your fellow human beings. While we all knew that the literate would do well, what was not implicitly said was the fact that being literate in one language as against the other can have a drastic impact on your economic fortunes. The economic rewards that accrue to someone who is competent in Swahili or Sanskrit as against someone who knows English or Hindi is substantially different. India as a country benefitted in the last decade from the IT outsourcing phenomenon predominantly because we have a country with the largest English speaking population (one among many other factors of course).

The understanding theme that connects them all then is not literacy in itself. It’s our ability to communicate and exchange information with our fellow human beings and particularly, the smart ones. It’s our ability to read and understand what is captured in the books and other forms of documented information. What connects them all is information & knowledge.

The definition of literacy as it is might be your ability to read and write. But if you are willing to consider literacy as that key competency that will reward you with information & knowledge which in turn will lead to economic & spiritual prosperity, then we can look at literacy which we should really strive to achieve as some sort of functional literacy. Not literacy for its own sake. When viewed from that angle, people who were functionally literate prospered at all times. The only thing that changed was what it meant to be functionally literate at each age. Ability to read and write language back then to an ability to read and write computer language now.

Stories of exploitation abound about the literate exploiting the illiterate. In fact, stories of landlords (and other people in power) exploiting the farmers (and others who don’t have information & knowledge) through paperwork and math (or other forms of applied knowledge) is the central story plot of many movies even to this date. What you might want to appreciate, is the fact that we might end up being in the same position as those exploited, if we are passive to information and knowledge that is being fed to us without understanding the whys and hows. Simplest example being, we go through our Facebook feeds regularly, without having any great knowledge or control over what appears in that feed wall. Facebook or rather some lines of code decide that for you. And this information form the basis of your knowledge, connections and in turn your social reality.

I see a striking similarity when I consider the image of the farmer who signs the stamp paper provided by the money lender without knowing what’s in the document and taking the money, with us today taking all that information Facebook is feeding us without knowing how and why. Do you see such a similarity?

Maybe the money lender did the math correctly and the paperwork was accurate. Maybe Facebook decides the feed keeping your best interest in mind. Maybe we can blindly trust. I’m all for trust. After all, trust is the currency and probably the only currency for furthering the prosperity of humanity. But I have a problem when trust is not a choice but the only choice, when trust becomes the only choice as a direct consequence of my ignorance. For our own good and for the good of the world, literate we must be. And what that means today is that code literate we must be!

Sharing some additional literature before I conclude the post.

First, a very interesting video:

And on a lighter note, sharing this image as well. This also happens to be the Urban Dictionary definition for “Programmer”