Friday , December 2 2022

The ‘Learn To Code’ Nonsense

In the 1967 classic ‘The Graduate’ Mr. McGuire became the most high profile example of clueless adults giving career advice to a younger generation when he tells Dustin Hoffman’s Ben Braddock the ‘one word’ essential to his future success: plastics. In 2013, President Barack Obama displayed the same sort of cluelessness when he suggested that all American youth should ‘learn to code’, presumably to help guarantee a bright employment future.

In retrospect ‘plastics’ may have been better career advice. Our government tries to play both sides of the street when it comes to technology. It has to give lip service to the significance of technology to our economic future while at the same time trying to reign in its disruptive potential. They have to do this to achieve the primary goal of all politicians–maintaining the status quo. In addition, technological disruption directly threatens many of the financial benefactors that keep them and their political parties in office. Obama’s baleful ‘learn to code’ suggestion is clearly a pithy catch phrase to make the President sound like a forward looking sage when like most politicians he is alternately clueless and contemptuous of technology and it’s impact.


There’s nothing inherently wrong with learning to code but it’s only one of many skills that are necessary to function in the chaotic and increasingly computerized world economy. Today no less of a computer science icon than Linus Torvalds (he invented the Linux operating system) gave a gentle reminder that coding isn’t for everyone:

“I actually don’t believe that everybody should necessarily try to learn to code. I think it’s reasonably specialized, and nobody really expects most people to have to do it. It’s not like knowing how to read and write and do basic math.”

A better suggestion for the youth of America: learn about technology, the tools at your disposal and how they can be used together for different purposes. Stay current with technological development and don’t fall in to the techophobic ways of our government and media. Understand that the world is changing and offers boundless opportunity. At the same time, realize that no one skill can guarantee you a job for life in an economic environment that is continually evolving.


The best thing that government and their supplicants in the media could do is to give Americans an honest assessment of the economic changes that are at play and their implications for the future. Despite copious evidence to the contrary they operate on the assumption that we’re still in a post WW II economic cycle and it’s just a matter of time until an abundance of high paying jobs for middle level functionaries appear. That’s not going to happen. Technology in general and the worldwide connectivity provided by the Internet has changed everything. Take a look at any list of ‘best jobs for the future’ like this one or this one. The reality of the changing employment market isn’t hard to see in any of these lists–the future growth will be in highly specialized technical fields and lower level service jobs.

There’s only one way to provide any sort of employment security now and particularly in the future–by doing it yourself. It’s going to be increasingly necessary to provide for your own income autonomy by starting a business, becoming a freelancer or otherwise finding a way to create your own job. The good news is that there is boundless opportunity in this area and technology has provided all the tools you need. There are also lifestyle benefits from establishing income autonomy but the biggest upside is that it’ll provide freedom, independence and security.

The brilliant Seth Godin hit on this theme when he advised people to ‘reject the tyranny of being picked’:

If you’re hoping that the HR people you sent your resume to are about to pick you, it’s going to be a long wait. Once you understand that there are problems just waiting to be solved, once you realize that you have all the tools and all the permission you need, then opportunities to contribute abound.

No one is going to pick you. Pick yourself.

The entire post (and really everything that Godin writes) is a must read:

Reject the tyranny of being picked. Pick yourself (Seth’s Blog)

No, Everyone Does Not Need To Learn To Program a Computer(Mother Jones)

About James Murphy

Writer and creator covering the transformative effect of technology on everything it touches. The revolution will be decentralized.

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