‘…teach kids: how to do regular expressions’
Cory Doctorow pens an elegant extension to a powerful modern myth. Teach children how to programme so they can understand the machines. In this variation he asks why aren’t we teaching children how to use regular expressions to parse textual content.
The sign of a great myth is the apparent obviousness of the argument. Our world is getting more technical, therefore everyone should understand the mechanics of technology to be ensured of a future in the modern world.
There is some truth to this, but it’s a truth that’s based upon our broken relationship with technology. Particularly our relationship to the PC (and its latest incarnation the smartphone). Despite almost 50 years of PC use and the creation and apparent maturation of the ‘user experience’ disciplines (an entire industry designed to put people at the centre of the design and development process) we still haven’t move very far from technology being at the centre of the universe.
Why should we teach our children to use obscure, unintuitive syntax to parse the output of a computer system?
If, In order to solve problems our children must learn advanced parsing syntax, such as Regular Expressions, the problem is with the output of computer systems; Not with our children’s apparent lack of knowledge.
The question we need to ask is why aren’t our machines giving us the information we need?
After all we don’t demand that our children learn how to strip down an internal combustion engine to understand how thier cars will work.
Writing an essay or creating a presentation is not at all like writing regular expressions. Essays and presentations are about communicating ideas from one person to another. Writing a regular expression is about extracting information from a machine to make it meaningful to a person. Why the extra step? Why not demand more from the machine we created to provide us with that information in the first place?
Yes, the knowledge is interesting. Yes, in some cases exposure to programming, can be rewarding and will spark an interest that will launch a career but why demand so much of our children as a whole, and so little of our machines.
How about teaching our children to understand people, so that they can finally step out of our shadow and get the machines to work for us?
Sure, some of these children will have to learn Regular Expressions but they will be an exception rather than the rule.
These children will become programmers and engineers but they will be designing systems that support others to do better work, not to perpetuating a world that values the machine over a person.