Event Raises New Questions About Code as Literacy, Code as Culture

On Friday I attended Kitchen Table Coders Presents: Learn to Code from an Artist at the New Museum of Contemporary Art. The panel discussion was the first of a two-part series/workshop that featured artists and educators in the fields of programming and design. Panelists included, Amit Pitaru (co-founder of Kitchen Table Coders), Sonali Sridhar (co-founder of Hacker School), Vanessa Hurst (co-founder of Girl Develop It), Jer Thorp (artist and lecturer), and award-winning author and documentarian Douglas Rushkoff.

The panel was unlike most talks I've attended about computer science and technology namely because the panelists were artists and educators speaking about coding and programming as expression. The discussion consisted less of tech jargon, and more so included insights about how coding can be a creative process with which many people, not just computer engineers and master programmers, could engage. Being that all of the panelists were educators, the conversation also focused on how we can best teach code to novice and master programmers. Jer Thorp, in particular, was less concerned about producing the next generation of workers, but more so interested in helping to create a code literate generation.

"What we’re seeing now is that code is being taught to produce workers, not to necessarily produce expressive authors of code and art. It's like we're producing technical writers as opposed to producing novelists."

Douglas Rushkoff began the discussion by asking the panelists several thought-provoking questions about code literacy---the ability to read, write, and think critically using computer programming languages. Among the questions Rushkoff asked included:

  • How do we make people aware of this space?
  • Is learning how to code what we should be teaching the world?
  • What are the biases of digital space?
  • What do we need to communicate about code to the public?
  • What’s the difference between a user and a programmer?
  • Do we have to know how to code in order to participate meaningfully in a digital world?

Concerning the last question, the panelists all agreed that learning code does allow for more meaningful participation in a digital world. Amit Pitaru stated that "we should at least be able to read code, maybe not write it at first." Similarly, Sonali Sridhar noted that learning code "opens up the black box" of knowledge. She spoke about how learning code changed her perspective about everything around her, from the way buildings are structured to how gadgets work. Vanessa Hurst echoed her colleagues' sentiments and added that learning code is not simply about solving problems that have already been solved, but about being able to tackled unsolved and complex problems.

"I'm not comfortable with solving problems that are already solved," said Hurst.

The panelists also discussed how learning code can be both a social and solitary experience. They mentioned that most master coders have put in 10,000+ lonely hours tinkering around, mostly failing, but constructing new and innovative projects as a result. Sridhar's Hacker School operates mainly as a self-learning model, but also functions in a collaborative space of newbie and master programmers. Pitaru noted that Kitchen Table Coders is an open source model available to anyone willing to adopt its structure as means of learning code.

"At Kitchen Table, you wouldn’t know who’s teaching and who’s the student because everyone is sitting around a table learning from each other," said Pitaru.

I was particularly interested in Sridhar and Hurst's experiences as women coders and educators. Sridhar mentioned that for women, "there's an immense amount of fear in this space." Hurst, who works with women at Girl Develop It, agreed that even though women are just as capable as men to program, they're less likely to have a sustained interest in computer science in the long term, with girls tending to disengage in the field once they reach middle school.

Toward the end of the session, I asked the panelists to talk more about code as culture and code as art. Specifically, I asked:

  • Where is the culture in code? Is code gendered, raced, classed? If not, do we want it to be?
  • Is there emotion in code? If so where is it?

To the second question, Pitaru responded saying that “emotion is not in the code, it’s in coding (the action of code)." I can attest that learning how to code, and the act of doing code, can be both a frustrating and satisfying endeavor. Technologist, Ann Daramola would likely agree.

Hurst told the audience that code shouldn't be gendered, raced, or classed, although the reality is that computer science is largely a white male industry.

Both Sridhar and Hurst cited the book Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing as a useful primer source on the topic of gender and computer science. Rushkoff chimed in stating that the cultural perceptions we have about computer science is problematic. He mentioned research studies that prove girls are just as good as boys at mathematics, but our cultural perceptions skew this reality.

But even if we all agree that cultural perceptions influence the ways in which traditionally marginalized groups participate in computer science and STEM fields, we also have to acknowledge the structural forces at play that impact the participation gap between white middle class males and girls, people of color, and immigrants.

Gender stereotypes, racial discrimination, socio-economic status, and citizenship all influence the pipeline to higher education and STEM careers. Even time to tinker and play with a computer is a privilege for a large number of gendered, raced, and classed communities.

I would have liked to hear the panelists speak more about how race and class dynamics, not simply gender, impact code literacy, but perhaps that's another panel discussion entirely, and one that I hope will feature more programmers, educators, and researchers of color.

After the panel discussion I had a chance to briefly chat with Hurst about what I'd like to accomplish with my research regarding girls, youth of color, and immigrant coders. She noted that one of the reasons why the Unlocking the Clubhouse is always cited by women in tech is because the field is desperate for new research in computer science at the intersection of gender, race, and class.

Lack of research in this area may present challenges for those curious about the cultural aspects of computing. However, this shortage of knowledge presents a great opportunity for researchers like myself who are intent on exploring the interplay between culture and computing, especially given that gender, race, class, sexuality, and citizenship all matter in this digital moment.

Related resources

Amit Pitaru @pitaru

Sonali Sridhar @jollysonali

Vanessa Hurst @DBNess

Jer Thorp @blprnt 

Douglas Rushkoff @rushkoff 

Kitchen Table Coders @ktcoders