Only learning to code can stop technology from being the boss of us

Barack Obama supported the Hour of Code this week

This week, Barack Obama became the first US president to write an app. Well, he wrote some JavaScript. Well, he wrote "moveForward(100);" which drew a line to complete a square.

And that's awesome. He was kicking off Hour of Code 2014, a global movement to get students to engage with coding, and here's what the CEO of, its parent company, said on Quora about that line of JavaScript: "Drawing one line to finish a square isn't hard, it's not rocket science. And that's exactly the point. That's how computer science starts. You don't write a fully-fledged game when you write your very first line of code, you write something as simple as PRINT 'Hello World'."

You could be forgiven for wondering what you can possibly learn of value in an hour. How much electrical engineering, how much ballet, how much stonemasonry, how much of pretty much any skill can you learn in an hour? But Hour of Code isn't about churning out legions of ready-to-work coders. It's about capturing the attention of the next generation and showing them both that they can control computers as well as just use them, and that they should be neither scared of nor bored by code.

Back to school

In England, we're finally adding mandatory coding to the curriculum for primary and secondary schools - the first country in the world to do so, and you can't be anything other than delighted that we've done that. Some are concerned about exactly what will be taught and how - and those concerns are appropriate and healthy - but it mostly doesn't really matter. What you learn in computer science isn't necessarily Ruby or PHP or JavaScript or Objective-C or .NET. The important lessons are about thinking logically, thinking critically, and working out how to solve problems in efficient, elegant and robust ways.

Writing about the renewed focus on digital skills this week, Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture, Communications and the Creative Industries, highlighted both the need to prepare the workforce for the emerging digital economy, and how coding "has given millions of people from all backgrounds a platform to express their creativity and make their ideas a reality." You can't really argue with either point, but there's a subtler, less ploddingly goal-oriented and actually equally important side-benefit to getting kids code-literate.

When computers first appeared on our desktops, by necessity they were things that you had to poke and prod at to get working. You had not only to be proficient in software - writing or at least laboriously copying in programs before your loose assemblage of plastic and metal would actually do anything useful or fun - but also electrical engineering, to assemble it in the first place. This, of course, sounds like hell for most people, and computers after the 70s quickly became much less manual - a necessity if they were to appeal to people who wanted to do things with rather than to computers.

Unlocking the box

We've definitely lost something in that process, though. Computers have become sealed boxes - literally, in the case of most of Apple's hardware, where you can't even upgrade the RAM yourself - and we're in danger not just of ceding a lot of control over our technology, but of having neither the skills nor the attitude to taking back that control. 'So what?' you might ask. 'I'll gladly cede that control if it means I get a simpler, more robust experience. I don't need to know how an Anti-lock Braking System works for me to want it in my car'.

It's a fair analogy, but that's all it is, and it breaks down quicker than an old Alfa Romeo. Computers are not cars, and as we pour ever more of ourselves onto the internet, and invite ever more internet-connected devices into our lives, the potential for us to sleep-walk into a world where we've become hugely vulnerable, and desperately reliant on a vast and impossible-to-untangle interconnected jumble of technologies is real. Knowing how computers work will only get more fundamental as we weave technology ever more pervasively throughout our society and culture.

That's why Hour of Code and initiatives like it are so important. Adults today, for the most part, are intimidated by what goes on under the hood of their computers, but we have a chance through education of ensuring that kids are back in charge. Computers have never been easier to use and never been harder to hack, but with coding skills, the next generation can treat technology as an empowering, ennobling playground to be bent to their will rather than the unknowable beast that we're only barely controlling today.