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New technologies have a profound impact on our behavior. Is our next generation gap, or is it a humanity reset?

In the early part of the last century, Harold Innis, a professor at the University of Toronto, studied how exposing basically illiterate people to literature changed their behavior. Greatly influenced by this, Marshall MacLuhan asked how technology affected our behavior in the TV age. It's been 50 years since we opened our minds to the medium as the message.

The medium has not only changed, but is deeper and wider. Passive hours of TV watching are still with us, but also layers of multi-screen behavior and the ability to access content and interact.

Programming is the new medium of creation. Rather than succumb to our rational sense of literate expression, it's redefined human expression through its limitations...or lack thereof.

We once lived in a world where movies and TV would take us to other places and amaze us with their ability to tell even deep stories through a medium that wasn't very moldable. Remember those crappy special effects on "Space 1999" or "Star Trek"? Their oddness made them interesting and novel.

Scratchy vinyl albums were replaced by CDs. Crisp and vibrant digital recording replaced vacuum tube mixing consoles, whose foggy, bold midrange gave early jazz a polish we can't recreate. The medium was part and parcel of the creation process.

Now, programming has taken all the wrinkles out of how we hear and see the world. Pop artists don't have to sing in tune on a hit record. Even the local carpet guy has 3D graphics in his local TV spot.

All thanks to the facility of code. It's our new language, it's always changing the way we create, and more importantly how we interact. As a form of composed interaction that we leave as a semi-permanent record of our existence. For many new world creators it's the new craft of unintelligible language.

The mystery of how technology will affect humans may be still hard to measure, but what's even more mysterious is how future code will evolve and outmode what now know as digital reality.

Will code itself be responsible for the next generation gap? Will non-program literate parents scold their children for hacking into communication systems of the future? Will code be an endless distraction to the follies of youth?

We need a way to record progress and evolution in this medium. Without it, we could be doomed to lose our past in one big, demagnetizing storm. Perhaps humanity needs a digital Rosetta Stone for some French soldier to discover in the sand amongst our ruined monuments.

Dorian Sweet will deliver a keynote at Econsultancy's Peer Summit.

Dorian Sweet

Published 5 October, 2010 by Dorian Sweet

Dorian Sweet is VP/Executive Creative Director of TrueAction and a contributor for Econsultancy.

4 more posts from this author

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nik butler

You appear to be confusing Media and Message, Syntax and structure. Programming languages are not a new code or a new language. You can go back to Betrand Russell or possibly Euler and further to Aristotle the language of programming 'code; as you so sweepingly define it here is as wide spread and diversified as any spoken language. The creation process though is not code any more than wood and metal or Spade or Screwdriver. Code creates the tools and the applications, the applications create the media and the media is delivered to the audience. It is not Code as the language here but the tools built inside that code. 20 Years ago a friend said to me that programmers would be redundant by 2000s now more than ever programming as a skill set is called on at many levels but they are not creating the media, they are creating the tools to build that media The Rosetta stone you seek here is not one of Compilers and Syntax rules but of Formats for media. Of Interpreters for mp3s files and word documents which again will require tools built from a different era. Finally the technically illiterate will continue to define their prominence in society if only to misconstrue the word hacking in terms of illegal access and not as it is more correctly asserted, the art of creative tool building.

about 6 years ago

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Maggie Little

Interesting idea but I don't agree either. Machine code is a tool used on a number of levels to enable communication. For example, translating an online report from English into Russian, you translate the content but not the code. 

The ability to marshall (sorry!) technical skills like writing code in order to faciliate communication and create new markets is already a skills divide in society.

The emerging division, in my opinion, will be the ability to sift and prioretise large amounts of information using different layers of code upon code, not the ability to process the language itself.

about 6 years ago

Julian Grainger

Julian Grainger, Director of Media Strategy at Unique Digital

I partly agree.

Very code coders can be very creative and the often derive the end of product. Facebook, YouTube and Google are examples of very good, creative people who could translate an idea into code and back to a brilliant new media channel.

However, I'm struggling to think of examples outside of media channels and apps. So far I don't think we've seen a message in code bridging the divide between idea and the masses.

It could happen though

about 6 years ago

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Luis Torrefranca

As stated before, code is a broad term.  Depending on where you contribute in the human / machine spectrum, "code" is part wrapper for language and part method of transmission.  I don't think code is the language itself.  We don't communicate code to one another, we communicate ideas and concepts via code (and the hardware code controls.  Code is the language of machines that creates a path which propels ideas and facilitates interaction, at least in how "code" relates to programming languages.  When talking about how thought is encoded in order to go from one person to another, that's another aspect of the word "code" that does lend itself to being language.

In a very broad definition, code is language, or rather language is thought encoded for transmission.  When referring to programmers, I don't think the declaration holds.

about 6 years ago

Dorian Sweet

Dorian Sweet, Managing Director at TrueAction Europe

great comments. and to be clear... code (in the literal sense) has changed the things we do and what we use to do them, mostly. In the past steel, wood, plastic and glass fueled progress over the centuries. The way in which we do many things now depend on programming code. So what if 200 years from now and you find an iphone? Would you know what made it work? or would it be a bunch of metal, plastic and glass? Additionally, code is responsible for 'fixing' our world...for better or worse. And many people in the coming generations will be taking that for granted or be oblivious to it. Code is a creative medium that may never been understood in the future should generation upon generation evolve better ways of programming stuff. Do you know many young people who know Pascal or Fortran? Programming languages behave like human languages, the live die and evolve and yet there aren't many hard copies of them out there. Again, keep talking...ideas always start in some form of dispute.

about 6 years ago

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Luis Torrefranca

Again, "code" in the literal sense has a broad range of connotation which includes written word and general symbology, but the assumption here is computer code.

I think if you substitue "code" for "technology", this can apply to just about any time.  How many people know how to operate a loom to make clothing or forge metal to make tools.  Even in a relatively modern sense, how many people know (Morse) code or can operate an Enigma machine to encode a message?  Outside of the ham radio community, who knows how to build a transmitter from cans and wire?

That's how technology evolves.  Innovation happens which becomes commonplace upon which new innovation builds upon.  Abstraction from the fine details allows room for growth.

There are those who know how to operate a loom or forge metal or build radio transmitters because there is documentation out there.  Same goes for code.  I don't see ADA or Prolog being taught as much now, but when I was younger, I was just barely starting to see Java being taught in University curriculum.  This is due to the technological trends and current needs.  This still does not eliminate the need for an education in basics and foundations.  I do still see Assembly language taught.  I don't know about computer science students, but as a computer engineering student I still had to be exposed to chip design and had to build my own ALU in a simulator.  Even had to build a basic counter and simple calculator with a bread board, gates and LEDs.  I also enjoy sewing, whittling, working with metal and can make complicated meals that don't require a microwave oven or electrical appliances.

I also used to work in a University Computer Science library.  All these languages exist in hardcopy as well.  Lots of old, dusty books and journals from the IEEE-CS and the like that are being preserved and digitized and duplicated to preserve the original copies.  I you're not finding hardcopy on more antiquated programming languages, you're not looking hard enough.  Check any University with a halfway decent computer science/engineering program and you'll find resources not just at their library, but other libraries around the world via the OCLC network.  Barring a breakdown of society and sudden simultaneous combustion of books everywhere, I'm certain documentation for current coding techniques and practices will be preserved just as there is documentation on how to make Medieval turnshoes.  Can't stop the signal.

about 6 years ago

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Luis Torrefranca

I have to say, my confidence in the preservation of our present-day technology is in my experience in a University library environment.  I have had the honor of assisting in research that may not be directly used in the corporate world, but still is being pursued in academia.  These fundamentals are still important because they lay the foundation for the corporate world yet is hardly aware of.  Just look at the IEEE-CS digital library (http://www.computer.org/portal/web/csdl) or the ACM library (http://portal.acm.org/dl.cfm) at the breadth and depth of knowledge.  It's not just modern material being requested for research.  I've helped find older material from around the world.  So, like I said, it's the knowledge is out there in some form, be it in the original documentation or as a citation in subsequent work.

What's important to realize is that the world consists of more than producers and consumers of technology.  There are also the academics - the researchers.  Those whose efforts are put forth for the pursuit and furtherance of knowledge.  Those who gave us Linux and GNU.  Those who thought up hypertext and a web.  Academia isn't just where people prepare to leave and innovate in the corporate world.  It's very much a place that leads innovation.  While innovation happens in the corporate world, it's wrapped in entrepreneurship and that distinction must be made.

Entrepreneurs have a different objective from academics and that is to build and maintain a sustainable business model.  Time and effort must be more strategically managed and as a result, the fine details and foundations must be taken for granted.  A business can't be mired in reinventing the wheel over and over.  Why would, for example, a web design agency care if someone knows Pascal or Fortran or ADA?  Why would a chip manufacturing company care of someone knows how to build a counter with a breadboard and some gates?  In order to be productive, assumptions must be made, standards adopted and development abstracted from the details.

... and I'm not even getting into the role historians, journalists and cultural anthropologists play.

about 6 years ago

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