Computer fluency versus computer programming: Communication as key

The Internet is ever-expanding and also ever-modifying, and so too is humankind. Where twenty years ago we were significantly less reliant upon modern technology to get by, more and more, just about all professions require some kind of involvement with the Internet. And it seems unlikely that that will change: Today’s children are more in touch with their technological options and have more options available to them than ever before. But for learners, that raises a question: Do people need to code to interact with the Internet?

Personally, I am a humanities student to whom the specific arguments we have discussed directly apply. Like Matthew Kirschenbaum, I took classes in programming (although for me they were in Python, and I didn’t have nearly so frustrating a time). As the daughter of two computer engineers, I was also a part of a very computer-fluent household, and I actually began using HTML throughout high school, meaning that I do have some familiarity with it. But at the risk of sounding unaware of the world around me, I don’t think that experience was necessary for me as a humanities student.

Kirschenbaum writes, “I believe proficiency in a computer language can fulfill many of the same functions — accessibility, self-reliance, heightened critical awareness — as knowledge of a traditional foreign language” (Please be aware this is in reference to a specific group of students, not a general argument). Certainly, computer programming languages are referred to as languages, so why not consider them as such? The argument of the article is not that programming should replace foreign languages, so in spite of my disagreement on verdict, I should clarify that. But I think that it is perfectly possible to learn the basics — grammar, semantics, and the logic backing — of programming without learning to program, and that that could be easily achievable within a changing school curriculum. Perhaps, for English speakers, programming languages are like Spanish or French: They are different, but they share similar roots (often having functions in English, and increasingly, designed to be readable) and are thereby more accessible than more distant languages, like Mandarin. Unlike the bases of language, computer programming does have some threads that run through all languages, or at least most, and this argument actually supports both sides of this debate. I would argue, though, that familiarity with a computer and computer fluency are not synonymous with programming ability, nor should the latter be a requisite to studies that are not directly related.

For specific instances, like for creative students interested in incorporating computer programming into their work, of course programming would be important, but for students like me, the ability to communicate with others should not be limited by a language that is literally based around English. Consider the following segment of code:

<h1>My Example Dictionary Term</h1>
    <dd>(n.) a terrible disaster.</dd>

(See definition here, from Merriam Webster.)

Here, we can see a term defined in a loosely dictionary-like format. From the perspective of the creator, I know that I used a header (h1) and a term and description within a description list. But I could also argue that logically, HTML is rather direct. Within one segment is a title that seems to apply to the area below. Then, a term with a following definition is presented within a separate block. Logically, I could thereby propose that this segment of code presents a title and a word with its definition, without any real programming knowledge. A basic understanding of what languages do and their logic, like we did in class, could further deepen understanding by someone who cannot code.

In that sense, computer fluency is not programming ability but the ability to think critically using basic blocks of knowledge. At the same time, for those who argue that somehow computer programming is inaccessible for those without the ability to program, frankly, that is an issue of accessibility for the programmers themselves. The Internet should not be unavailable unless you speak the particular language of the programmer (not to mention the “dialects” of a specific language). Rather, as Donahue argues, “the discourse of programming is only the technical jargon with which computer scientists address many of the very same questions that one encounters every day in the humanities.” Simplify the language with which you speak and learn to communicate, and you will find that, in fact, the humanities and programmers can find similar issues that they are facing and common ground on which to face them.


One Comment

  1. Hi Kelly, I really enjoyed reading your post. We have a similar argument here about how programming language should just be treated as another form of foreign language. Since certain high-level programming languages like Python have syntax and grammar structure that are so similar to those in English, it should be so much easier than learning, let’s say, Chinese. Plus, coding is so beneficial for researchers!

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