For the last few years we’ve been hearing a good many people (most of them computer programmers) say that every child should learn to code. As I write these words, I learn that Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, has echoed that counsel. Learning to code is a nice thing, I suppose, but should be far, far down on our list of priorities for the young. Coding is a problem-solving skill, and few of the problems that beset young people today, or are likely to in the future, can be solved by writing scripts or programs for computers to execute. I suggest a less ambitious enterprise with broader applications, and I’ll begin by listing the primary elements of that enterprise. I think every young person who regularly uses a computer should learn the following:
- how to choose a domain name
- how to buy a domain
- how to choose a good domain name provider
- how to choose a good website-hosting service
- how to find a good free text editor
- how to transfer files to and from a server
- how to write basic HTML, including links to CSS (Cascading Style Sheet) files
- how to find free CSS templates
- how to fiddle around in those templates to adjust them to your satisfaction
- how to do basic photograph editing
- how to cite your sources and link to the originals
- how to use social media to share what you’ve created on your own turf rather than create within a walled factory >
I like that list. A good way to acquire those skills is to contribute to WordPress and other open web projects.
In essence, the open Web, while not free from governmental and commercial pressures, is about as free from such pressures as a major component of modern capitalist society can be. And indeed it is this decentralized organizational model, coupled with heavy reliance on volunteer labor, that invites the model of stewardship I commended earlier in this essay. No one owns the Internet or the World Wide Web, and barring the rise of an industrial mega-power like the Buy-n-Large Corporation of Pixar’s 2008 movie WALL•E, no one will. Indeed, the healthy independence of the Internet and the Web is among the strongest bulwarks against the rise of a Buy-n-Large or the gigantic transnational corporations that play such a major role in the futures imagined by Kim Stanley Robinson, especially in his Hugo Award–winning Mars trilogy.
Some of the people most dedicated to the maintenance and development of the open Web also produce open-source software that makes it possible to acquire the skills I listed above. In this category we may find nonprofit organizations such as Mozilla, maker of the Firefox web browser, as well as for-profit organizations that make and release free and open-source software—for instance, Automattic, the maker of the popular blogging platform WordPress, and Github, whose employees, along with many volunteers, have created the excellent Atom text editor. One could achieve much of the independence I have recommended by using software available from those three sources alone.
Instead of focusing so much on learning to code, children should learn to web.
This isn’t about making sure literature students “learn to code” or history students “learn to code” or medical faculty “learn to code” or chemistry faculty “learn to code.”
Rather it’s about recognizing that the World Wide Web is site for scholarly activity. It’s about recognizing that students are scholars.
Mike talks about the difference between what he describes as the “garden” and the “stream.” The stream are the other threats to the Web, I’d argue – these are Twitter and Facebook most obviously. The status updates and links that rush past us, often stripped of context and meaning and certainly stripping us of any opportunity for contemplation or reflection. The garden, on the other hand, encourages just that. It does so by design.
And that’s the Web. That’s your domain. You cultivate ideas there – quite carefully, no doubt, because others might pop by for a think. But also because it’s your space for a think.