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TECHNOLOGY

Coding Isn't the Cure
 

A New York entrepreneur sets out to teach a homeless man to code. A good-faith gesture, or an act of entrepreneurial hubris?

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Another day, another entrepreneur makes an ass of himself on the Internet. 

This time it was Patrick McConlogue, a New York City tech entrepreneur and co-founder of a start-up called Affecter. McConlogue is also affiliated with something called "Kickass Capital," but I can't really figure out what that is. 

In case you missed the uproar yesterday: McConlogue penned a post on Medium titled "Finding the unjustly homeless, and teaching them to code." In it, McConlogue explains his grand plan to teach a homeless man how to code, thus, ostensibly, relieving said man of his "unjustly" poverty. (Is there justifiable poverty, then? I digress.)

This post comes a week after another 20-something programmer, this one in San Francisco, explained the 10 reasons he hated San Francisco--homeless people being one of them. Posts like these have spawned a whole cottage industry of media bloggers whose sole job, it seems, is to react to the daily absurdities of the smug Silicon Valley founders. (Sam Biddle, the Gawker writer, yesterday called McConlogue a "a 21st century asshole Henry Higgins.) Business is good. 

Now, you can choose to see posts like McConlogue's as isolated incidents from a few tone deaf, arrogant founders. Unfortunately, I tend to think there's something a bit more insidious at play, and it has a lot to do with how founders (and the Silicon Valley tech set in general) see technology, and coding in particular, as a panacea that will help alleviate the world of its most pressing crises.

George Packer of the New Yorker elegantly described this conviction in his May 2013 critique of Silicon Valley.

The industry's splendid isolation inspires cognitive dissonance, for it's an article of faith in Silicon Valley that the technology industry represents something more utopian, and democratic, than mere special-interest groups. The information revolution (the phrase itself conveys a sense of business exceptionalism) emerged from the Bay Area counterculture of the sixties and seventies, influenced by the hobbyists who formed the Homebrew Computer Club and by idealistic engineers like Douglas Engelbart, who helped develop the concept of hypertext and argued that digital networks could boost our "collective I.Q." From the days of Apple's inception, the personal computer was seen as a tool for personal liberation; with the arrival of social media on the Internet, digital technology announced itself as a force for global betterment. The phrase "change the world" is tossed around Silicon Valley conversations and business plans as freely as talk of "early-stage investing" and "beta tests."

There is a creeping feeling (one that makes it out to New York, too, where I live) that the technocratic elite of Silicon Valley are losing touch, whether indirectly or directly, with the more "common" folk around them. Oliver Burkeman of The Guardian called it "Silicon Valleyites Acting Massively Arrogant, Entitled, and Generally Just Obnoxious."

This isn't a particularly new theme--the tech set has been criticized since the late 90s for similar hubris--but now, there's an added element to this condescension: the idea that technological literacy can somehow save the universe. It's the belief that when the mental health programs fail, and when government welfare systems fail, and when the public education system fails, technology will be there to cure us.

This line of thinking already has a name--"technological solutionism"--branded by Evgeny Morozov, the author of "To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism."

Coding, of course, is just one of the variants of technological solutionism. Learning to code has been espoused by everyone from Chris Bosh, the NBA superstar, to President Obama. There are seemingly hundreds, if not thousands, of online education courses and groups created to help people learn to code. There's Code for America, CodeAcedemy, Girls Who Code... the list goes on. At this point, it's no small act of sacrilege to doubt the importance of coding. 

Perhaps technological literacy is a laudable goal and one that tech entrepreneurs can help encourage. As the country progresses toward an education system that embraces technology as a tool, teaching coding in elementary schools will likely be staple of America's future education system. As President Obama recently said: "I want to make sure that (young people) know how to produce stuff using computers and not just consume stuff."

But the problems come with conflating 'learning to code'--a commodity skill--with alleviating serious national problems, like unemployment rates or homelessness. 

Chase Felker, a software engineer, wrote on Slate last week:

One common argument for promoting programming to novices is that technology's unprecedented pervasiveness in our lives demands that we understand the nitty-gritty details. But the fact is that no matter how pervasive a technology is, we don't need to understand how it works--our society divides its labor so that everyone can use things without going to the trouble of making them. To justify everyone learning about programming, you would need to show that most jobs will actually require this. But instead all I see are vague predictions that the growth in "IT jobs" means that we must either "program or be programmed" and that a few rich companies want more programmers--which is not terribly persuasive.

What was so egregious--and annoying, frankly--about McConlogue's post yesterday wasn't so much the insular and disrespectful tone it struck. It was how he viewed coding as a skill that has the potential to lift the less fortunate from their despair. Coding may be an enviable skill, but it ignored the sad and unfortunate reality that some people simply slip through a porous social system that still needs improvement. Realities, I might add, that have absolutely nothing to do with knowing JavaScript. And, rather than talking about the actual issues that perpetuate systematic poverty (mental health, racial inequality, a corrupt prison system), the entrepreneur believed that technology itself, not what it could produce, would be this one man's savior.  

And this line of reasoning is exactly what drove Packer's critique of Silicon Valley's group-think in the first place. 

When financiers say that they’re doing God's work by providing cheap credit, and oilmen claim to be patriots who are making the country energy-independent, no one takes them too seriously--it's a given that their motivation is profit. But when technology entrepreneurs describe their lofty goals there’s no smirk or wink. "Many see their social responsibility fulfilled by their businesses, not by social or political action," one young entrepreneur said of his colleagues. "It's remarkably convenient that they can achieve all their goals just by doing their start-up."

Social initiatives may be helped by technology, but let's not confuse technology itself for a social iniative. 

"We don't need everyone to code--we need everyone to think," Felker writes. "And unfortunately, it is very easy to code without thinking."

Entrepreneurs like McConlogue should recognize that coding is a means to an end--not the end itself. Coding, in other words, is not the cure.

IMAGE: Stacey Shintani/Flickr
Last updated: Aug 22, 2013




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