Literacy is obsolete

The idea that being literate is essential to success in life is deeply ingrained in Western culture and democracy.  Today people intimately expect that everyone around them can read and write to a certain high communication standard.  The foundational tenants of all basic Western education are the three R’s, Reading wRiting and aRithmatic.  We believe that this basic level of literacy is also essential to the success of democracy and the high standard of living in Western civilizations.  One of the great achievements and measures of human progress in the 21st Century has been the tremendous leap in literacy rates around the world especially among emerging  economies.


Our education systems, our values, our entrée into office jobs and the information age has always assumed literacy as its foundation.  Literacy is so fundamental to everything we do today that we don’t even think of it as a job skill anymore… reading and writing constantly isn’t just what we do all day at work, it’s what we do all evening at home on social media sites, on twitter and on chat. In an era when 100% of the world’s population is essentially going to be completely literate the “special” career advantages traditionally associated with literacy alone are vanishing.  One might reasonably observe that the internet age itself has broadly assured that everyone around the world that has any form of access to the Internet will quickly become literate with little or no traditional educational support.  So if literacy education has taken on a life of its own and is no longer a competitive advantage in life, what is?

Coding is the new literacy.  The ability to communicate with computers and teach them to think is the key educational differentiator for almost all jobs in the future.  If you can’t code in the year 2020, you have as much career potential as any peasant serf in the 1500’s.  This is especially true for engineers and scientists.  We have discovered and studied almost everything in math, astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, archaeology and physics that is approachable within the limits of human intelligence and manual tools.  Anybody who lacks the ability to harness increasingly powerful and intelligent computation to explore further will find themselves working in tomorrows VCR and typewriter repair shops.

Computing and mathematics is the new literacy, the fundamental differentiator between those who will have all of life’s opportunities and a red carpet rolled out for them and those who will make the Happy Meals and do their laundry.

I point this out because there are a lot of technologically illiterate people in the world who would adamantly deny and object to being called functionally illiterate in the information age.  They would say that they don’t need to learn to read and write because they have tools like radios and record players that can do it for them!  Our educational systems are abysmal at teaching technological literacy, even in the best educational environments the idea of teaching computer science is an option introduced late in children’s development, long after they have learned to speak and write in their native tongues.  People who are educated enough to be able to code are so valuable that you seldom if ever find a dedicated sole working at the youngest tiers of our educational systems.

codeComputing and mathematics is just another kind of language, the kind we learn best and most intuitively as infants.  One of the major reasons that the language of computing is spoken so poorly by so many is that we take it up as a vocation so late in life.  By the time most people learn to code for the first time in their college years, they are well past the age of mental plasticity that makes new language acquisition easy.  As a consequence most of what we consider our best educated programmers today can only speak to computers with the thickest and most guttural accents for the duration of their careers.  Coding is so strenuous for them that they can only endure it at work for a few short hours before needing to revert to a more natural communication medium.  We casually take for granted that when people go home from work they continue to engage in literacy for most of their waking hours because communicating in their native tongue and in text is not considered a “taxing” activity.  The effort to translate between a fuzzy, emotional, ambiguous human thought and structured, flawless, mathematically rigorous computer thought is so unnatural to most of the new generation of software engineers that many feel compelled to complain that doing so (in text on their mobile phones at dinner with their families) is too hard or stressful to do all the time… a sentiment they don’t express about speaking and writing in say English.

kindergartenersRapid and accelerating advances in computing and automation are making many traditionally human jobs obsolete very quickly.  Our next generation of kids had better be raised fluent in the language of computing and mathematics from their earliest age if they are to have any hope of employment or competitive career differentiation in a world populated by 9 billion, 100% literate people. Paradoxically one of the jobs that will be consumed by automation is human supervised teaching itself.  The internet is already teaching kids to read and write faster than their schools can manage it.  Even the old world of teaching primary math and arithmetic is obsolete in an era when calculators can be taken for granted but algorithmic thought and problem solving is highly valued.  The value of a programmer is already so great that anybody who has mastered coding well enough to teach it has exponentially better paying career opportunities available to them than teaching.

“We’re at the point where the Internet pretty much supplies everything we need. We don’t really need teachers in the same way anymore.”

It’s clear that we’re at a point in human history when traditional schools and teachers are going the way of libraries and post offices.  The challenge is finding ways to quickly move education online and to create better tools to automate teaching early coding skills and mathematical intuition.  The traditional roles of teachers are already evolving towards becoming a strange combination of baby-sitter and IT administrator.

*Parents’ if I’ve alarmed you enough, start here:

**Also note that MIT’s entire curriculum, course materials and notes are online for free as well… because they see the future closing fast on them too…




  1. Unfortunately simple and logical (catch 22 free), yet compelling coding environments for kids do not really exist. Online Logo environment does not do a lot of good when kids are experienced in Minecraft mods and GTA tricks. A jump to coding environment where they can realistically achieve fast only something very mundane like a moving square or hello world is just too boring, not in the lines of YOLO.

    Coding is in my viewpoint very far from learning any native language. Coding ability primarily means capability to construct logically functional and explicit event sequences menthally before writing a single line of it in any language. Once that logic is in place, learning any coding “language” is trivial. But how to teach event sequence logic in a way interesting to kids? Math is the best approach in traditional school system, but unfortunately current math teaching methods are much too shallow and focused on remembering, not problem solving and deeply understanding. Russians and EE countries used to teach it better than western world, many brialliant coders grew up in there without even seeing a pc before their adulthood, but that time has passed.

    The 1-2% of people who are suitable by birth to be coders learn it anyway at early age even without guidance. The rest, 99% of the kids, just don’t find it compelling enough with current tools to spend time and effort to it. To force-feed it is schools with current tools and devenvs, not likely to end well.

    If a kid does not show a tendency to “like” coding with a short trial period, I would much rather teach that kid some useful manual labour that will likely not be replaced by robots next 20 years. Plumming, repairing cars, fixing roofs… In Scandinavia, decent plummer makes 80 euros per hour. That is twice the pay a good coder can get. There are many manual labours robots and “coding” will not take over any time soon.

  2. They are scarce in fact, but for other reasons 🙂

    Finland did in the end of 1990’s and beginning of 2000’s just about what you seem to recommend – started teaching coding and technology to anybody who could spell their name correctly after high school. There were efforts to teach coding to uninterested YOLO kids in their early teens. Universities and career colleges expanded their tech/sw departments in such an extent that 35% of the whole age class were taken in at the “best” (worst) years. If you could not get in anywhere else, you could get in the tech sector education programs!

    This was of course during the high years of Nokia – that now soon-to-be-forgotten company was by far the biggest mobile device company in the world and paid single handidly lion’s share of Finnish corporate taxes. It was believed that Finland’s mobile tech hegemony would last forever.

    Now, those people that were relatively well educated in SW and Tech sector are in deep trouble. Only the absolute top (say 5%) of them can get decently paid jobs in Finland. One quarter of people educated in SW are jobless in many smaller cities or trying to hack it with their “parachutes” Nokia gave them after massive layoffs. There are hundreds of Doctors of Technical Sciences without jobs even closely equal to their education.

    The lesson for Finns: Only educate the people who REALLY want to code (=have to code to feel alive) to be coders. Given seconds change, I am sure more than half of those unemployed “coders” of Finland today would not select the same education now… They would rather be plumbers.

    • Interesting. Taking your premise at your word, these folks would be able to get high paid jobs outside of Finland in a heart beat. Is their a talent exodus or do the love long winters and caribou so much that they wouldn’t move to any of the countries with a tech hiring boom?

      • This would warrant much longer answer, but the three key points would be:

        35% of age class can never have real inclination to tech/math/coding, so at least three quarters of them just considered it a well paying normal job. They were educated reasonable well but without talent and passion from their side…

        Second, in Nokia hegemony period anybody and everybody could get a nice 9-5 job in tech in Finland. They were mostly put to very strict box, one guy could work on SIM management code for Symbian’s c++ variant for 8 years and nothing else. So they never developed the wide range of skills needed when times get tough. Who is going to hire 37-year old coder who really only worked on Nokia’s perverse version of c++ and nothing else?

        Third, Finns had and still have very poor social and self-marketing skills at engineer level. This does not match well with the idea of them being able to move to silicon valley and thrive there. They should get very lucky and find a recruiter with an eye to non-talkative, introvert hillbilly looking men.

        • Interesting, yes I confess to a very western bias on this point because our most advanced technologists have often been extensively broadened by many career and role transitions over their lives. Historically the US has also not had the 9-5 mentality that also stunts people’s development.

  3. The main goal of teachers today is no longer to teach people useful knowledge or skills. The main goal of teachers today is to fill the minds of impressionable young people with propaganda until they lose their capacity for critical thinking and they’re no longer capable of thinking outside of the box. What passes for education today is, more often than not, merely pure indoctrination.

    Here’s a great satire by some “young’ uns” from “Down Under” on what it’s like to be in high school today ->

    • yeah… that’s about it isn’t it. That’s not even a satirical exaggeration of what they’ve done to their schools in CA. You know up to maybe 6th grade I can see people making a “Career” out of being teachers, but after 6th grade, it seems to me that you really need teachers who have done something… anything else with their lives before becoming teachers so that they know something about the real-world and real careers before they are allowed to influence teenagers. The whole idea that educators should be a specialized career field isolated from real jobs and competitive careers in the private sector is a very strange concept in modern times. It’s fine to claim that teachers should be paid more provided that you are also hiring people who KNOW more about the world than just being teachers.


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