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Fred Wilson says we should all learn to program. Maybe not...

People work at computers in TechHub, an office space for technology start-up entrepreneurs in London, England.
People work at computers in TechHub, an office space for technology start-up entrepreneurs in London, England. Oli Scarff/Getty Images

I've mentioned Fred Wilson, a venture capitalist and principal at Union Square Ventures, before. Not because he's a noted VC with some big strikes outs, as well as some big wins, in his background, but because he blogs every day and generally blogs very well.

Mind you, he often blogs about companies in his portfolio, including most recently, Codeacademy, an "online resource for people who want to learn to code," according to Wilson. In reading his blog, A VC, I find myself disagreeing with some of Wilson's positions, but he always seems awfully sharp on tech, tech culture, and the world of venture investing generally. He's obsessed with clarity and isn't afraid to share the nuts and bolts of his profession. He doesn't get gobs of traffic and many, many comments (using Disqus, an excellent system we have here at KPCC and that USV has invested in) for nothing.

But I can't say I follow his rationale for blogging about Codeacademy.

I don't think setting up a company that proposes to make learning code easy for people is in itself a problem. You want to learn code, great — learn some code. It should be easier.

The difficulty arrives when you posit that coding is now some kind of of essential life skill, or at least an essential education skill, on par with reading or math. The difficulty is compounded when you bolster your argument — as USV's Andy Weissman did in a separate blog post (you really have to admire USV's embrace of blogging as a medium) — by quoting this sort of thing, from Douglass Ruskoff's "program or die" manifesto:

When human beings acquired language, we learned not just how to listen but how to speak. When we gained literacy, we learned not just how to read but how to write. And as we move into an increasingly digital reality, we must learn not just how to use programs but how to make them. In the emerging, highly programmed landscape ahead, you will either create the software or you will be the software. It's really that simple: Program, or be programmed.

It's not hard to find that facile progression super-annoying: listening begets speaking; reading begets writing; using an iPhone begets...programming? This is techno-reductionism at its worst. Or, to borrow a phrase from Tom Wolfe, when it comes to being homo digitalus, you're either on the bus, or you're off the bus. Rushkoff's book is titled "Program or Be Programmed" and it's a plea to seize control of the means of technological production before you become a slave to its masters and their brave new world of code, code, code.

Wilson jumps right on the bus:

I don't mean that everyone should become a software engineer. I do mean that everyone should understand software engineering (or whatever technical subject/industry you want to work in). I don't speak French fluently. But when I go to France, I know enough French to speak it badly until the person on the receiving end changes the language to English.

Language is of course a medium of exchange and self-expression, while code is merely a tool that makes machines do stuff. So the analogy falls apart faster than you can say Comment dites vous "Javascript?" I seem to remember a brief episode of instruction back in elementary or maybe junior high school when I had to make an IBM-style punched card, to what end I wasn't sure. I later had to do something similar with statistical research and a mainframe, which invovled creating instructions, programming them into...I don't even remember what, and then waiting about a week for the results to come back. Half the time it didn't even work (my bad, probably...).

Both exercises were faddish and ultimately, not useful. I would have been far better off learning how to do double-entry accounting in the manner of the 13th century. Or building an actual computer with a soldering iron and some leftover plywood.

The point here is course that if you're in business, and especially in the business of investing in or running tech startups, knowing code might be worthwhile. I do appreciate that Wilson says you don't need to be a code ninja — you just need to be able to "hack" something together. A better programmer can clean it up later. But what he's really saying is "hack or be programmed," which I'll grant could be valuable business skill, preventing your programmers from putting one over on you — and giving you the capacity to get an idea into the prototype stage in a quick-and-dirty fashion.

However, the vast majority of people in society don't need to know any code at all, and if they begin to believe that if they don't program, they'll be malevolently "programmed," then they really will have lost sight of what it means to acquire the truly human fundamentals. Apple seemed to figure this out a long time ago and built an interface on top of all its devices that enabled users to tinker without any specialized ability. Gearheads may not have liked it, but the public certainly did. 

In the previous century, machines became ubiquitous. For the less complicated ones — everything from cars to washing machines (not printing presses or jet engines) — it was common for people to learn how to fix them, even if they weren't mechanics or engineers. As those machines have become more reliable, that's become unnecessary. This bugs some people, those who lament the decline of mechanical aptitude, but in the end it has freed up time to spend on more productive pursuits. 

I think computer coding will follow the same arc.

I could be way wrong. Maybe we will all need to code in the future, just like we all need to read and write and add and subtract now. But I doubt it. If you get hung up on programming, you'll just become adept at something that will eventually be invisible.

Follow Matthew DeBord and the DeBord Report on Twitter.

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