On January 5, I made a whimsical New Year’s resolution. Like the other roughly 400,000 people who signed up to Codecademy’s Code Year challenge, I decided I would make 2012 the year I would learn how to code.
Usually New Year’s resolutions are about things you’ve been trying to accomplish for a while, or at least something you’ve been thinking about. I can honestly say, it had not once crossed my mind at any time before January 5 that I should learn to code. Or that I would ever want to code. To be totally honest, I wasn’t even quite sure what code was.
I was hooked by the headline of an article by Douglas Rushkoff on CNN.com. “Learn to Code, Get a Job!” Coding, he argued, was a skill that not enough people had, and companies were paying big money to find people who were “code literate.”
I was curious. For the last eighteen years I’ve supported myself primarily as a book critic. But the paying work now available to book critics, even those with almost two decades of experience, has pretty much dwindled to non-existent. People still call me regularly. But more and more they believed I should be doing this as an act of philanthropy, from my sacred perch as a wizened elder keeping the old ways alive. And why not? Everybody and her kitten has a book blog. What makes me and the roughly 20,000 hours I’ve spent doing this so special?
I can’t say I quit my job, so much as accepted that the world has quit my skills and expertise. I’m not bitter. I loved what I did. I’d curl up and die in my dusty but comfortable room full of contemporary first editions. But I’m the single mother of an eleven year old boy, so this is not a currently a life option.
I went to the codecademy site. Typed in my name as a “string.” And so it began.
And continued great for about ten minutes. Until it got harder.
Half an hour later I was staring at a screen. Squiggly lines and semi-colons were dancing in front of my eyes like alien creatures. I had felt this gut full of confusion before. Where? Oh, right. That time my son’s father and I drove across the El Paso border and found ourselves in Ciudad Juarez. Two Montrealers with about 20 words of Spanish between us. ( I don’t know where we’d gotten the idea that Juarez would be a friendly border town, kind of like Burlington, Vermont. But it's not.)
Fortunately my son, Ben, was also curious about codecademy and was able to help me.
“What’s wrong with me?” I wondered. “Why is an eleven year old kicking my ass at this?
I now realize that Ben had an edge. Like most Montreal kids, he’s fluently bilingual. Since the age of 14 months, when I enrolled him in French language daycare, his brain has been trained to sift shared syntax from distinctive details. “Mom,” he sighed loudly, clearly enjoying his exasperation with my unusual attack of mental density, “if you write something after console.log, you have to put it in parentheses.”
My brain had also been trained in two languages, but apparently the master gears needed oil.
Cut to twelve weeks later. Ben’s still learning to code, but at a slower rate. Turns out that age and experience are helpful assets in cultivating the sheer bloody mindedness it takes to master this skill. An innate talent for perceptual reasoning probably doesn’t hurt either. But like any branch of science, and life in general, to succeed all you have to be willing to do is fail. A lot.
A couple of Wednesdays ago, Ben came home from school to a mother lost to the dark obsessive frustrations of “Snake Eyes.”
The challenge was to write a program that would record the random dice scores of four players, giving each an extra turn when a double is scored, but grinding the whole game to a halt when any player rolls double ones. This is, no doubt, an elementary problem for any programmer. But I was stuck; and until I figured it out, dinner would have to wait. Or Ben would have to learn how to find his way to Mcdonald’s and buy us both dinner. Which he may very well have done. I’m not sure. My memory of that evening is still hazy.
One day maybe I’ll look back on Snake Eyes as something akin to my first retreat into the desert of programming.
I just know I emerged a different person. Somebody who now sometimes has thoughts like “you know, a well sustained metaphor really works an awful lot like a multi-dimensional array.” Somebody who used to deal with panic through deep breathing exercises, but recently decided it would just be a lot faster to assign my anxiety to a variable and de-increment it in a “for loop.” Somebody who knows that most people will probably read that sentence as complete babble. But somebody who kind of doesn’t care. Because some people will get that joke. And those are my people now.
My moment of programming satori will no doubt wear off. But I do know that my resolution to learn code ceased to be a resolution a while ago.
Whether or not I continue, I’ve realized something important. For too long I’ve bought into a false dichotomy between books and technology. Because they’ve been with us for so long, we think of books as something natural, like trees. We believe they grow slowly and organically through the creative earth of the human soul.
Who can watch the horror, as technology mows them down!
Lo! It is the hero, Jonathan Franzen. Alone with nothing but his rapier condescension, falling to a mechanized army of tweets.
I know enough about the book industry to know what an illusion that is. I love books, but I also know that they are books, not sacred objects. What I didn’t know before, however, in a concrete way, is how much of technology is actually writing. All the things we think are destroying writing, are actually manifestations of writing. Robots are writing, 3D animation is writing, behind all the magic visuals, wizard of Oz-like, are the new writers.
The magic cannot happen without the people who love to play with the clunky blocks of text that keep the dream spinning. And the people generating the blocks of text, combining hard won craft with instinctive art, are not all that different from the people who used to write books, or screenplays, or even book reviews.
Just like the writers of yore, some of them are making heaps money. But just like the writers of always, many of them are giving their knowledge and mentorship away for free. Free for anyone with enough stamina and commitment to learn it.
Maybe codecademy will help find those people. But just as importantly, maybe it will help them find themselves.