After volunteering for the Obama campaign last year, a friend of mine insisted that I write a letter to our new President telling him what I thought he should do. This post is the result. Now, I don't pretend to be an expert on macroeconomics, international grand strategy or even enough of a policy wonk to make serious recommendations on how best to implement Issue X Reform. I can only speak to my little corner of the American experience. Here's what I do know:
- The future strength of our economy depends on its ability to create, support, and sustain entrepreneurs. (If you are somehow not convinced of this point, I'll let Fareed Zakaria explain)
- We know who the next generation of entrepreneurs are going to be. They are in school, right now, all across this country.
- They are nerds.
Take a look at this article on a programming Q&A site: How old are you, and how old were you when you started coding? There are over forty pages of responses from programmers of all ages, and if you just read the stories at random, you'll see a clear pattern. (Or, if you prefer a more quantitative analysis, one of the commenters has helpfully summarized them in graph form. We are nerds, after all. Here's the most striking thing about the statistics of this post: the average "age when started programming" is 13. Think of how many 10-year-olds there must be in the data to balance out the occasional person who started mid-career.
That data is completely consonant with the people I know who are successful technologists today, and similar patterns are documented in each recent wave of technology innovation. I am especially grateful to Malcolm Gladwell for reintroducing the stories of people like Bill Gates and Bill Joy into the mainstream discourse. What's striking about these stories, if you get past the PR hype, are two very important themes:
- These prodigies were self-taught, and had a fundamental fascination with technology from a very young age.
- Their stories would not have been possible without access to sympathetic adults with the necessary equipment and knowledge to get started.
My belief is that, right now, even in the worst and most under-served schools in the country, there are kids with the same potential as Bill Joy. They are probably bored. They are getting beat up by their peers, getting into trouble with their teachers, and generally having a pretty bad time. Those are the kids I think we have an obligation and an opportunity to reach. I don't think we can rescue them from humiliation (that would require a seriousness about education reform I don't see any evidence we're ready for), but I do think we can offer them an escape. And it just so happens that escape is to an activity essential for the future of our civilization. I think it's a pretty good deal.
I didn't learn to program from school, although it sometimes happened at school. In fact, it often got me in trouble. We were supposed to learn how to use computers via a carefully structured curriculum that taught us basic concepts one at a time, slowly advancing the whole class through a regimented program. You've probably read accounts like this, from other arrogant nerds, but bear with mine: in the first week, my nerdy friends and I had already mastered the whole curriculum. We spent the rest of our time pretending to work on the assigned homework, but really trying to do interesting side projects, like sending juvenile messages across the school network or building primitive video games. We did our best not to get caught by our teachers or noticed by our peers. Our fear was well substantiated: both had severe consequences.
Later, I discovered the incredible world of online role-playing games, called MUDs. These were primitive open-ended video games created by the players themselves, using simple programming languages. I spent endless hours getting the world's best introduction to object-oriented programming, and I didn't even know I was doing work. MUDs made the essential truth about software into a powerful metaphor: that code is magic, giving those who wield it the ability to create new forms of value literally out of thin air. We also learned that law is code, and that leadership was needed to build thriving communities in a digital age. You can find the origins of many successful companies in these early lessons.
So all I'm asking, on behalf of the thousands of nerds who could one day change the world for the better, is that we give them access to simple, open, programmable devices; a little time to work on them; and a safe space to work in. They'll take it from there. They don't need adult supervision, or a certified curriculum. If we network them together, they'll answer each others' questions and collaborate on projects we can hardly imagine.
Those of us who made it stand ready to do our part. Given the opportunity, we will build the systems these kids need. We will answer their questions. We will mentor them to get them started, and give them jobs and internships when they are ready. Asked to help, I am confident that Silicon Valley and every other innovation center will step up.
But I do think this requires participation from the public sector, too. There are three threats that are limiting the opportunity to unlock these kids' creativity:
- Inequity of access. Too many kids today don't have access to computers, cell phones, video games or other programmable devices. We need to leverage every part of our public inf, including public schools and libraries, to make access for those that want to learn programming universal. This doesn't have to be expensive - in fact, many of the physical devices are in place. But we need to open up access to kids so that they can use, program, and remix them on their own terms.
- DRM and other restrictions. Increasingly, today's computers and video games are not programmable, they are locked to their users. There would be no Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, or countless other job-creating tech companies today if early computers required corporate authorization to use.
When I was a kid, the way I logged onto the internet for the first time (to play MUDs, naturally) was through an open dial-up console at San Diego State University. When I say open, it's hard to believe how open it was: just dial the number, and you were dropped directly at a UNIX prompt. No logins, no codes, just raw uncensored internet access.
- School hostility to phones, nerds, and other things they don't understand. An awful lot of kids have cell phones, and schools are busy banning them from classrooms. What a lost opportunity! Kids are voluntarily bringing a portable networked supercomputer to class, and we want to restrict them to pencil and paper?
A modern phone like the iPhone is a miraculous device. But it's not very open, and not very programmable, unless you have an expensive Mac and an approved developer license. We need to think about how to make these devices programmable by their users, so that they can grow and share as soon as the innovation bug bites them. You might not enjoy typing in code on such a small device, but kids don't mind. I know; in class I used to write video games for the TI-82, a graphing calculator provided to me by my school. Sure it was tedious, but compared to the alternatives, I thought it was great.
So that's my plea on behalf of nerds everywhere. If you're interested in helping them out, leave a note in the comments.