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A Digital Renaissance?


Sometimes I don’t really understand the world I’m living in. I’m not the classical nerd with little social contact. Which made it even more obvious to me how little people understand about the essence of what I’m doing when I’m “nerding around”.

I’m in my thirties, and for the last 20 years, it was almost a stigmata to be interested in math… computer science… or programming. Then later, I became overcautious with people in my private life knowing what my profession is - and vice versa. Interesting guy can’t be a software developer, good developer can’t be an interesting persona.

This loosened the last couple of years.

But strange things are happening these days. My girlfriend says she’s proud of me for the fact that I’m able to hack code. Huh???

OK, it took me a couple of weeks, but I was able to cope with that one. Awesome!!

But now this short blog entry by Douglas Rushkoff really irritated me:

I am writing Program or Be Programmed as a book. I will be done soon. Weeks, not months. Recent events in the Facebook and Apple universes have convinced me more than ever that programming is our era’s equivalent of literacy. Whether corporations are controlling the direction of technology, or whether technology is an emergent entity doing this on its own, our only option is to participate in its unfolding by participating in its programming.

[…]

Obama recently told a college audience that they’re being distracted by their iPads, and that they need to become aware of who is programming the devices they use. He is right.

(via Douglas Rushkoff)

Good point Mr Obama.

But wait - programming and literacy?

I saw many occasions when people talked about literacy in such a detail that nobody in their audience had a clue what the monologue was all about. And they were admired for it, the listeners having excited expressions on their face.

And I saw the ever same expression of pure boredom and non-interest on the same peoples’ faces when it comes to the subject of my profession - and there was no epic monologue at bytecode level, but an dialog on “executive report” level. Math… Computers… Logic… leave me alone with this crazy stuff!

Why is that? It’s just for the good reputation of writers, medicines & lawyers. They are free to talk about topics others can’t relate to, because it’s mostly simply out of scope. Domain specific knowledge. But it’s generally accepted & cool to have knowledge in these areas & show off with it.

Mathematics, computer scientists and simple developers like me have a bad reputation. We are not free to talk about topics that are out of other people’s scope. Since it’s generally accepted & cool to have no knowledge in these areas & even show off with that fact.

In my case, people in the private peer group are often surprised by the fact that I’m an IT pro.

Visiting an art exhibition, one of the artists asked “Are you having an atelier here, too?” I denied, but couldn’t hold back a bashful but charmed little smile. “But you’re doing something creative, right?” Which I heavily accorded to, proudly saying that I’m a designer.

I design software & software systems.

In the last couple of months, things got even stranger when people at work behaved that way - only from the over perspective.

Working at a customer’s site that seems to have a strict border between how the “resources” and the people managing them behave & appear, a project manager took me by the side after an initial meeting asking me: “Hey listen - you are really able of actually coding these things you just drew on the board?” “Sure… why not?” “Amazing! It’s just that you don’t appeal like that.”

Why didn’t I appeal like it? He apparently equaled top level view of the system we were working on plus my appearance with… no programming skills. Because I’m able to express myself, I have a bit of “stage presence” and I know what’s necessary to evoke certain impressions. I’m not only hacking computers, I’m also a cultural hacker.

So better watch out ;-).

Business people often aren’t used to a person that has soft skills, but is nonetheless also capable of crunching some microseconds from their e-commerce backend.

That’s why I judge the idea that Rushkoff declares - “programming is our era’s equivalent of literacy” - as absolutely true, but equally unperceived.

I’d love to see people recognizing the value of programming & the creativity that is necessary to do so. But I don’t think this is going to happen in the near future. There’s the occasional silver lining on the horizon from time to time, but will the perception shift?

Even for me, as I judge myself as a quite convincing character, it’s something like the ultimate challenge to awaken interest on these subjects that I invest a major part of my energy and time.

I’m impressed when there’s a little success - when I am able to let somebody gain a little insight from time to time. As i said, I totally agree with Rushkoff, and I’d go further and claim that programming belongs to our cultural assets.

But we’re so far away from a broader audience that does not only consume what we do, but also asks “What’s under the hood, how does that engine work?”. Or even asks: “What’s happening behind the scenes? Who profits from this service?”

One big step into that direction is happening right now. I was totally stoked when a friend of mine, a doctor of medicine, amazed me by the fact that she wasn’t only not bored when I lead the subject toward smart-phones & the choice between the iPhone, the Nexus One & the N900, but even advised me against the nexus one. I asked why, almost bursting from curiosity and having a hard time not to use a leading question. “Google is hoarding information, and ‘Don’t be evil’ doesn’t matter any more. You should not trust in their technology, neither software nor hardware.”.

Wow. That blew my mind. Just like some months ago, when my girlfriend told me that I shouldn’t use google for searching the web anymore, but ixquick.com. It hurt my ego that this idea did not come from me. I wasn’t able to find the google killer myself in years. But I managed to survive.

The M.D. continued to surprise me “When it comes to searching the internet, you should use ixquick.com since it respects your privacy.”

I was glad my girlfriend already put my ego in it’s place about ixquick: I think I couldn’t have recovered from that one ;-).

So what’s the bottom line? I’m curious how this topic will evolve on a long term. I’d be more than glad if Rushkoffs new book on the subject will propel this thought successfully.

This thought needs help to spread - and if it succeeds in doing so, there will be a kind of digital renaissance. The means of production are already democratized. Imagine the broad audience really using their computers & the internet not only to blindly consume, but to bring the content and infrastructure to question. Add basic knowledge of hard- and software hacking and it even will be possible to adopt the infrastructure according to the needs of the people, since they are able to do so themselves.

Besides these revolutionary changes to society, I personally would really love to see a broader understanding of my passion in general.