While organising the talks for Software Freedom Day in Melbourne this year, I tried to put a lot of emphasis on having talks that would be accessible for people who are not already part of computing culture.
I was thinking later about why this was so important to me (after all, the vast majority of attendees would actually be people who have some idea what the phrase “software freedom” means), and it crystallised for me when I watched this video of Bill Thompson on the ’10 cultures’ problem. Bill Thompson is a UK “technology commentator” and the talk description is It’s fifty years since CP Snow’s famous lecture on the Two Cultures – science and literature. We seem to have a different divide these days, between ‘people like us’ and the rest. What might be done about this? (People like us = geeks, BTW. It was a tech conference.) His talk only goes for about 15 minutes (the rest of the video is questions), so do have a look.
Thompson remarks that “Very few people are functionally literate in code”, and points out an example of the result of this:
The debate about ID cards is a classic example, where those who do not understand the problem have been allowed to focus on the issue of the card itself instead of the National Identity Register. Which means nearly all of the politicking about it… they don’t actually count for very much, because they don’t go to the heart of the system. But very few journalists, very few commentators, very new ordinary citizens, are capable of the systems thinking.
It is not hard to think of other examples: Electronic voting systems. Yahoo capitulating to the Chinese government. Twitter/mobiles and rapid mobilisations for political purposes. DRM in e-book readers. Open standards and formats. Copyright reform in a digital age.
He proposes to replace ICT classes with programming classes, bringing up dinner party conversations about Python, and introducing pop culture role models (“Buffer the overflow slayer” anyone?), to help people feel that code and programming are fundamental parts of everyone’s culture.
Understanding code has certainly changed my life. It’s a very powerful kind of knowledge — powerful and dangerous. Everyone should have a chance to experience that power if they want to!
So here is a video from SFD/melb 2009:
The talks were well attended and whenever I sat in on one for more than a few seconds, I was impressed by the speaker’s enthusiasm or the audience’s attention.
Thank you to Wen Lin, Ben Sturmfels, Daniel Jitnah, Minh Nguyen, Tansel Ersavas, Andrew Thornton, Tony Forster, Joseph Wojciechowski, Simon Hobbs and Duana Stanley for their excellent talks. Also thank you to Kathy Reid, Andy Gelme (and helpers) and Donna Benjamin (like she wasn’t busy enough!) for their popular tutorials/workshops. I was super impressed that you were all so awesome.
Thank you to volunteers who stood or sat around answering questions and handing out CDs: Jiri, Ben, Tony, Wen, Anne, Andy, Jason, Andrea… and others I’ve forgotten I’m sure.
And of course, a huge thank you to the MelbPC Melbourne PC User Group, who have such awesome facilities and friendly members!