Shortsightedness

Tech Life

Somehow I had missed this Tim Cook interview on The Guardian, but fortunately I have Kirk McElhearn in my RSS feeds, and his recent article The Tech Industry’s Tunnel Vision about Coding and Language has brought that interview to my attention.

Irritatingly, the article doesn’t present the full text of Cook’s contribution, just a series of quotes. And, like Kirk, I was a bit let down by this one in particular:

I think if you had to make a choice, it’s more important to learn coding than a foreign language. I know people who disagree with me on that. But coding is a global language; it’s the way you can converse with 7 billion people.

At first I was reminded, by contrast, of this famous Steve Jobs quote:

It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.

I wanted to emphasise what I perceive to be a stark difference between Jobs’s and Cook’s mindsets, so yesterday I tweeted those two quotes together. The excellent Zac Cichy, in turn, reminded me of Steve Jobs’s specific position on learning to program, and posted this excerpt from the seminal Steve Jobs — The Lost Interview (1995) with Robert X. Cringely. Essentially, Jobs says:

It had nothing to do with using [programs] for practical things, it had more to do with using them as a mirror of your thought process. To actually learn how to think. I think everyone in this country should learn to program a computer. Everyone should learn a computer language because it teaches you how to think. […] I think of computer science as a liberal art.

From what I understand, Jobs’s standpoint remains more articulate than Cook’s. Learning to program helps shape how you think, he says, and that’s important and should be taught in school in addition to all the other arts. Learning to program should be treated as another liberal art. In Cook’s view, coding is more important than learning a foreign language. This expresses a preference — A is better than B. Jobs’s point of view is more inclusive — we should have A and B. Cook’s is, at best, shortsighted.

An objection to my tweet points out that the two quotes “have different contexts.” That Jobs “talked about Apple’s main values, whilst Cook has explained — given the huge impact of technology nowadays — what is more important for education.” The contexts aren’t actually that different. One has to keep in mind that Apple’s main values were essentially Jobs’s values. What Jobs believed directly impacted Apple’s direction and actions. With Cook, things doesn’t look as clear-cut to me. His Apple has lately been pushing the importance of coding a lot (see for example the free Hour of Code sessions in all Apple Stores); but his personal views on technology don’t seem to fully embrace the same direction. More people who learn to code from a young age means wanting an even more technology-driven (and technology-obsessed) society. On the other hand, The Guardian’s article, paraphrasing Cook, opens with: The head of Apple, Tim Cook, believes there should be limits to the use of technology in schools and says he does not want his nephew to use a social network. And with the quote “I don’t believe in overuse [of technology]. I’m not a person that says we’ve achieved success if you’re using it all the time,” he said. “I don’t subscribe to that at all.” To me, this sounds a bit contradictory — or at least like the position of someone who wants to have his cake and eat it too.

As for the quote that started my reflection — It’s more important to learn coding than a foreign language — I fully agree with McElhearn:

Learning a language leads to all sorts of cognitive benefits, and kids who learn languages generally do better in other subjects as well. I don’t know if Mr. Cook speaks a foreign language, but his attitude about language is typically American.

[…]

No, coding is not a global language, you can’t talk to people with if – then statements. It’s a tool, not a means of communication. This sort of attitude is dangerous; not only because it neglects the other elements needed in tech – art and design, empathy and understanding – but it dumbs down the world and attempts to turn kids into drones. You can converse with far more people through music and art than you will ever be able to by learning code. And it’s a shame that Mr. Cook ignores that.

Oh, and, by the way, Mr. Cook, those developers you hire from India, China, Germany, Brazil, and other countries? They can only work for you because they learned a foreign language: English.

I’m trilingual, and my educational background is rooted in the liberal arts, so McElhearn’s standpoint resonates a lot.

What I believe to be severely lacking in schools everywhere, however, aren’t coding classes. What we need more and more, as this technological progress marches onward at breakneck speed, is learning how to use, how to handle technology properly; is learning how to healthily integrate it in our lives. It’s learning that technology isn’t everything and that it’s not necessary to let it dictate every aspect of our everyday life. It’s learning that an excessive reliance on technology may make our life easier on the surface, but also make us a bit dumber and antisocial in the process (again, if we let things go unchecked).

We need to teach and encourage critical thinking towards technology and its global impact on how everything is shaped today. That this critical thinking is largely absent is apparent everywhere you look on the Internet and social media. We’ve come to a point where scientifically proven facts are ‘debated’ while a lot of people are ready to believe everything they read online if it gets repeated enough. We’ve come to a point where people eat evidently poisonous things just because they saw a funny video.

We have to bring back critical thinking and common sense. I think this is more important than coding.

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