Extra Life

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 October 1998

Those of us who can remember writing BASIC programs in makeshift high school “computer labs” no longer need to think of ourselves as nerds. We’re simply old.

In what might be fondly termed the “golden age” of programming, high school kids interested in computers weren’t taught how to use software or upgrade RAM. We weren’t even taught programming, exactly. Instead, we explored the workings of these new machines with well-intentioned and underpaid math teachers at our sides. We had no PC’s – just a couple of “dumb” terminals hooked up to the Board of Education or some other nearby mainframe. By the time we were seniors, we generally understood the machine better than the adults who used it full time. In fact, one of us – an alpha nerd who had demonstrated absolute mastery of the system – who would be entrusted with the highest security codes, and be charged with maintaining the entire machine.
A new book, Extra Life by Wired writer David Bennahum (BasicBooks), gave me the opportunity to reminisce about those good old days when kids had free reign of the networks. Now, those kids are the adults responsible for everything from Netscape to the Palm Pilot. By giving us the keys to the kingdom, our teachers (perhaps unwittingly and by necessity) gave us the best sink-or-swim computer education we could have asked for. They – and the proliferation of Tandy, Commodore, and Atari equipment that required a true understanding of programming to operate – bred a generation of computer geeks who played with the basic building blocks on which today’s communications infrastructure is built.

As Bennahum puts it, these early machines were “untamed, undisciplined by ‘serious’ uses, like accounting and word processing….What they were for was not up to marketing experts and advertising agencies to decide. It was up to us.”

After reading this poignant coming-of-age story, I spend a week in dreamy nostalgia that ended only when I thought to compare the computer education afforded us lucky pioneers with what is available in most public schools today. Although our best schools now have rooms filled with Apple computers and Internet connections, our children are taught how to use computers rather than how to build or program them. It amounts to an education in the current state of software – the kinds of things we adults learn about reading “Wordperfect for Dummies” or a Windows 98 User’s Manual.

Call me a fundamentalist, but this sorry state seems to me the equivalent of learning how to organize a master’s thesis without ever finding out how to construct a sentence. Or how to make sentence without learning how to spell. Perhaps spell-checkers have rendered such basic textual skills unnecessary the same way that modern software has precluded the need for programming know-how. But I have a sneaking suspicion that computer literacy, like verbal literacy, should mean more than understanding how to operate commercial software. Our “competitive advantage” in industry and defense might be depending on it.

In the United States, our tremendous leap forward in space exploration during the 1960’s and 70’s was the result of a government mandate. In 1961, fearing Soviet domination of the orbits, President Kennedy declared that America would get a man on the moon within the decade. School curricula were altered to include calculus and advanced physics, and American students devoured the new subjects as they quested for the stars. The Space Shuttle and Mars Rover would not have been possible without this forward-thinking educational effort.

Today’s explosion of computing technology is a result of a less-intentioned but equally magnificent renaissance in educational opportunities. It didn’t cost a lot – less, in fact, than outfitting schools with personal computers – and it required a lot of equipment sharing and waiting. But working together on the old mainframe taught us to see our computing time as a valuable resource, and instilled in us the community ethic and social responsibility that allowed for the development of Internet standards and networking etiquette.

More importantly, learning computers meant learning computing: how these things work, and how to write code that makes them do cool and important stuff. The reason I whine so curmudgeonly about every new Microsoft release is that I have a basic, if limited, understanding of how inefficiently most of it is put together. I hate to think about the future of computing if it is directed by people who grow up without any intimate knowledge of lines of code they are compiling.

As governments seek to maintain an edge over terrorists – US computer security experts claim our cryptography is currently about six months ahead of our “enemies’” ability to crack it – they will be depending on the children of today to serve as the code warriors of tomorrow. Developing state-of-the-art information defense capability means developing children now who will someday be capable of coding better than the other guys’ children.

For any nation to maintain the ability to compete in the information economy of the future, it will need to take similar steps to promote computer literacy now. Ironically, in addition to hiring teachers who can explain the intricacies of code to young minds, we will have to exercise less, not more control over the machines and networks on which this education is performed.

We’ll have to accept the fact that if young people are someday going to understand computers better than we do, we have to let them, even encourage them to burrow past the ready-made interfaces we’re so comfortable teaching them how to use today.