The Year of Code's neoliberal agenda

6 February 2014

Follow up, 9 Feb 2014: Lottie Dexter should quit and take the Year of Code board with her

The Year of Code is a UK government project to teach schoolchildren to program but the real lesson is nothing to do with technology.

I tweeted:

[E]veryone should have the opportunity to learn to program but I can’t support #yearofcode’s neoliberal agenda.

and TechCrunch’s Mike Butcher replied:

why is #yearofcode a neoliberal agenda? It’s about getting coding back into schools, not learning MS Word etc

Butcher didn’t think my answer to that was valid so he switched to condescension rather than argument and got a bit snippy when I returned the favour. I’m going to expand on my answer here. (And here’s Butcher’s own piece for TechCrunch.)

While I think everyone should have the opportunity to learn to program, the real lesson here is that students are being taught to know their place in the work-or-starve “new economy” that’s being created by the very same people running and supporting the Year of Code. Obviously, this is no coincidence.

Let’s take a look at a couple of clips from yesterday’s Newsnight report on the subject. We start with reporter Zoe Conway narrating over a shot of students in a classroom:

CONWAY (03:13): These 10 and 11 year olds have just started learning about coding. It’s a pilot for the lessons the government is introducing in England and Wales from September

Then Conway interviews a 10/11-year-old student:

CONWAY: Why can’t you just play with a computer, work on a computer. Why do you need to know all that stuff do you think?

STUDENT: Because when you’re older you’re going to think you might need coding for your work, like say if you were a banker you needed coding to do the banks.

CONWAY: Do you think you might need it?

STUDENT: (pauses) Yeah.

CONWAY: To do what?

STUDENT: To work and to make your own website if you wanted to.

So, you can make your own website if you want to. (Why would anyone want to?) But mainly you’re learning to code so you can work when you’re older. 10-year-olds need to be thinking about their future careers in banking, and equally importantly, the unpleasant things that might happen to them if they don’t get a job like that.

Later, Jeremy Paxman interviews Year of Code director Lottie Dexter in the studio.

PAXMAN (06:40): Isn’t this whole initiative, though, based on a falsehood - the idea that it is essential to know how to code. It’s not essential to know how to code. It’s not essential to know how a light bulb works, is it?

DEXTER: I think that in the modern day economy, code is really a vital skill. Technology has completely changed our economy, our labour market, our society, and unless…

PAXMAN (interrupting, as is his wont): To know how to do it…

DEXTER: Unless we understand technology we don’t really understand how the world works. So when I was at school I was taught, you know, so much about the human body and physics. I was taught how to wire up a light bulb. I don’t need to know how to do that but it’s very important to understand how it works to get by on a day-to-day basis. And knowing how to code is crucial to so many people to getting jobs in the new economy. We need a workforce for the new economy but also to increase your earnings potential and indeed to start your own business.

Dexter gives us a glimmer of understanding how the world works but the central message here is stamped through her speech like the writing in a stick of rock: modern day economy, skills, labour markets, “getting by”, jobs, new economy, workforce, earnings potential, start your own business.

Why has our education system been captured by people who wouldn’t look out of place on The Apprentice? Lottie Dexter is a slightly more polished version of Katie Hopkins and her Year of Code backers are the “you’re fired” bosses of the supposedly new but actually very retro Victorian economy: giants such as Google (send the tax bill to our Bermuda office, please), private investors like Index Ventures and a motley crew of funky Shoreditch startup addicts with crap job titles like “commander in chief of product”.

Imagine my thorough lack of surprise when I discovered that Lottie Dexter’s other job is running the Million Jobs Campaign, a Tory front group that advocates scrapping employers' National Insurance contributions for younger workers (the workers themselves would still pay it), repealing “harsh discrimination laws” that bother bosses like the Equalities Act 2010, and that supports the very same DWP workfare policies that Cait Reilly of Poundland fame challenged successfully in the courts. Naturally, the Million Jobs Campaign is a Year of Code backer. Previously, Dexter was communications manager at the Centre for Social Justice, the neoliberal think tank set up by Iain Duncan Smith to give poor people who don’t know what’s good for them a bit of state-funded, corporately-delivered tough love. IDS is specially advised at the DWP by the Centre for Social Justice’s former director Philippa Stroud, a failed Tory candidate whose Christian-flavoured “pray away the gay” antics probably cost her a very winnable seat in parliament back in 2010. By her own admission, Lottie Dexter doesn’t know how to program, but she’s an expert in corporate welfare and that’s all that’s required for a job like hers.

So the Year of Code isn’t about doing fun stuff with JavaScript, Python and Ruby. It’s about building another element of a society where those that don’t work don’t eat, and where the rewards of work are skewed ever further towards a tiny minority at the top of the pile. Read Dickens and Orwell if you want to know how much fun that is. It’s about creating childhoods overshadowed by adult anxieties about work and economic survival. It’s about replacing the broad expanse of education – with all the exploration, creativity and genuine freedom that implies – with the narrow tunnel of schooling. It’s training children to have “relevant” employer-friendly skills and the right attitudes and politics to go with them. All social concerns are subordinated to a particular kind of economic settlement. The state is reduced to a vehicle for expanding and defending private property. This is neoliberalism.

In June 2012 I wrote that we need more professionals who can program. I stand by much of that piece but I put the emphasis in the wrong place. We don’t need more professionals who can program, we need more people who can program. Programming is useful for everyone, and not just for our jobs or even for work in the wider sense. It’s useful for everything – for work, for play, for science, for art, for the personal, for the political, for good and for evil. As with everything we learn, the best use of programming isn’t so we can get by or perhaps even so that we can get ahead as individuals. It’s certainly not so that we can build a world safe for Google, GCHQ and Goldman Sachs. Programming doesn’t just help us to understand the world, it lets us change it too, and with that great power comes incalculable responsibility. As Larry Lessig says, code is law, so as potential lawmakers we need to develop a sophisticated philosophical and political understanding of the impact of our programs and the social context in which we write them. Before the information society, the world for most people was read-only at best. In a mass-programming society the world can be read-write for the many not just for the few. While there is huge potential in a mass society having the skills to code a better world and the understanding to verify that’s actually what’s happening, there’s also great potential danger in a mass workforce of skilled coders who can’t even see the neoliberal political projects into which they’re being conscripted. As the fish said to the other fish: “What’s water?”

So my concern isn’t so much that the Year of Code is just another trojan horse for sneaking politics into schools, but that it’s nasty politics: the politics of work-or-starve, of having a boss or being a boss, of hierarchy and inequality, of private affluence and public squalour, of the kind of self-satisfied meritocracy that consigns those deemed unmeritorious to miserable lives, public ridicule and early deaths. Code to get by very soon becomes code or die. If that sounds like hyperbole, get away from the keyboard more.

There’s a possibility that many of the schoolchildren who are being fed a teaspoon of coding and a pint of capitalism will use their talents to create a more just world rather than to secure a suburban semi in the catchment area of a good school. Undoubtedly, some of them will. Whether it will be enough to tackle the challenges of environmental destruction, rampant poverty and inequality, ubiquitous corporate and government surveillance and the captive state that coordinates the whole deal very much remains to be seen. I often wonder how the world would look if, for example, the parents of the 16% of adults who are functionally illiterate had as much clout as the parents who run Young Rewired State. It shouldn’t have to be one or the other, but in practice it is. I’m certainly not going to argue against learning to program or against teaching coding in schools. You should learn to program, and whole lot of other things, as your life really does depend on it. But it shouldn’t do, and we should be rightly suspicious when projects like the Year of Code are run by and clearly for the benefit of the usual tax-cutting, deregulating, society-shrinking corporate interests. It might be happening in a classroom but it’s not education.