Data Opinion

Computer Programming: A New Frontier

By Tom Segal — December 11, 2013 4 min read
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The New York Times (and others too, I’d imagine) issued a report earlier this week detailing the pushback from such tech giants as Microsoft, Google, Twitter, and Facebook against the well-documented sleuthy activities of the federal government, led by the NSA, and other equivalents across the world. It was the latest development in a growing friction between the owners, observers, and facilitators of online content, usage, and search activity. The big guns in the tech industry are calling for global government surveillance reform, and have issued the following statement on a jointly constructed website dedicated to the cause:

The undersigned companies believe that it is time for the world's governments to address the practices and laws regulating government surveillance of individuals and access to their information. While the undersigned companies understand that governments need to take action to protect their citizens' safety and security, we strongly believe that current laws and practices need to be reformed. Consistent with established global norms of free expression and privacy and with the goals of ensuring that government law enforcement and intelligence efforts are rule-bound, narrowly tailored, transparent, and subject to oversight, we hereby call on governments to endorse the following principles and enact reforms that would put these principles into action."

The move for stricter reform shines a spotlight on the fattest of the fat gorillas hanging around the tech party (rumored to weigh upwards of 600-700 lbs): When it comes to the internet, we as a society still have relatively little idea what the &%#^ we are doing.

The internet is still very much in its infancy, barely able to open its eyes and absorb the images it sees--and social networks are barely out of the womb. The truth is that the explosion of mobile technology has happened with such speed and vigor that the majority of the people on this earth now possess a power in their pocket light years ahead of anything even the most tech-savvy, connected, and sophisticated among us had just a decade ago. The growth is staggering and frankly unparalleled in the history of mankind (though perhaps some primordial goo back in the day produced its equivalent of the iPad that just got lost along the way... who’s to say?).

It’s clear that a major overhaul of the rules associated with privacy and transparency as it relates to the internet is in order, especially when we consider just how swiftly things are likely to change in just the immediate future (the rise of Google Glass and Amazonian droning will likely open up all sorts of worm cans). This is not to say that government surveillance is a complete negative: on the contrary, I am very much in favor of it, as are the tech giants pushing for said reform (as noted in the second paragraph of the above quote). But our legal system needs to remain as nimble as the culture it professes to protect (though admittedly it would be nice if we could manage to keep the lights on for more than a few months at a time first).

Part of my beef with the NSA fear brigade is the manner in which it has influenced societal conceptions of data management, particularly as it relates to formal education. Very few people really understand what the NSA is up to, but when the media breaks stories of the NSA “spying” on user information through Google and Facebook as if a war has broken out, it sends the masses into a self-induced tizzy, a mob mentality overtakes the “crowd,” and all of a sudden we are more fearful of the entities tasked with protecting us than the entities tasked with subverting us. Again, I do not fully condone the actions of the government, but I recognize that A) they likely have my best interest at hand, B) there likely need to be more black and white restrictions around government access to internet dialogue and usage data so we don’t get so caught up in the battle of the gray, and C) the people that appear most skeptical of big brother’s reach are often the same folks cataloging their lives for the world to see on Instagram and Foursquare.

I think it is little coincidence that the NSA spying scandals have directly preceded the rise in fear over student data: the inBloom controversy, the common core pushback, and all things terrifying about the government and corporations handling such sensitive data as test scores and DOBs (hide your kids, hide your wife!). Rationality be damned! Who cares if there are no names associated with such student data, or if the analyses drawn from this information can and do significantly improve our understanding of efficacy and facilitate enhanced student outcomes with increased efficiency! The Government is spying on me! The corporations want to steal my child’s information in order to turn a profit (even if they only make a profit by processing this information in order to produce an outcome that betters its clientele)!!!

Of course, this movement has additional consequences for education. As technology continues to render entire industries obsolete (from Blockbuster to manual labor), we are constantly seeking new opportunities. As we recently learned, even seemingly harmless implementations of technology, like the virtual worlds of Second Life and World of Warcraft, may be ripe for the infiltrating. Our intellectual security needs have never been greater: this creates opportunities for jobs. As they say, the only thing that stops a bad guy with computer hacking skills is a good guy with computer hacking skills, or something like that. I’ve always had trouble paying attention to Wayne LaPierre for more than a few words..

The internet may be disrupting various functions traditionally performed by humans, but it has also created oodles of career paths previously unknown. Not only that, but these career paths are typically intellectually stimulating and financially rewarding. Our K-12 institutions charged with preparing future generations must adjust their curriculum to mirror this reality.

As the field of computer engineering and code writing continues to expand, there will by definition be a growth in the forces of evil looking to steal, slander, and terrorize. Our military is well aware of where its future lies (note: it is not in horses and bayonets). Ask Iran how they feel about American computer programming. Perhaps our schools should take more notice as well.

Learning code should become a civil right. It’s our only hope of maintaining a civilized civilization.

The opinions expressed in Reimagining K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.