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A little power…

Recently Karen pointed out on a mailing list a panel taking place at CHI 2009: “Growing Up Programming.” One of the panelist there had argued that our attempts to make things more accessible (especially the ability to make) had resulted in trivialization or devaluation of the practice. The panelist’s arguments were, from all accounts, not so good. But I felt that perhaps this guy was getting at a good point, though perhaps in the wrong way.

Before everyone jumps on me, let’s just go ahead and unpack this. The summary bandies about words that have complex social, epistemological, and even economical implications, and yet we interpret it quite in the vernacular. I had kittens just over the equivocation of devaluation and trivialization, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Also, the example that the panelist used (that Guitar Hero and professional guitar playing were somehow linked in this way) is to me a red herring, and I’d rather use a more salient example in this argument. So let’s instead go with programming, since Scratch is so near and dear to my heart, and home grown to boot.

To be sure, the idea of democratizing knowledge is not exactly foreign to me: I did do my masters on that topic. Still, I agree with the panelist’s point because I feel its sting all the time, and not because anyone had meant any harm, but because stereotypes are so darn convenient. We live at a time when the wonders of yesterday become the norm of today. And to the average layperson, what I do (sit hunched in front of a keyboard all day, looking at what may as well be ancient Sanskrit) on a daily basis doesn’t look so different from the kid banging away towards supremacy in the latest shooter, or the other kid who’s learned to program in scratch and is producing cute stories that her parents could never have imagined, simply because they lacked the tools that encapsulate so much knowledge. For those who are not experts in the field (the so-called laypeople), it is nearly impossible to distinguish the difference. As a result, I am in fact devalued — the investment that I made is actually learning the lower level details, the ones that let me solve complex problems in more robust ways is valued the same as the knowledge of someone who can use the OSX interface editor to make a UI.

Note that this has nothing to do with the fact that that I can program “better.” In fact, the person I am being compared to may in fact do it better by many metrics. However, ability is not equivalent to experience, and experience can only be conveyed by thick description, while it is simple to convey ability. As such, when faced with a layperson, the quick description of what I can do (my ability) appears equivalent, which my capability is in fact different. In democratizing, we democratize ability, but do not necessarily democratize the gaining of experience. The transition from ability to experience is rather apparently logarithmic: the step from no programming to simple programming opens up an entire world, but from there, there remains a significant amount of boring, tiresome slogging to understand the intricacies of cache structures, balanced trees, goodness of hash functions, and the myriad other factors that allows me to write scalable and robust software. Since democratization so conveniently democratized away structure (“go do what you want to”), nothing forces the learning of these frankly boring minutiae. Moreover, communities based on democratization are based first and foremost on the internal sharing of information. These complex topics get discussed relatively more rarely under such circumstances, since there are many more beginner questions than advanced ones. Finally, such communities generally have no use for what production-quality systems require: the aforementioned scalability and robustness in hostile environments. The focus is on “you can do it,” not on “you can make it bulletproof.” So to me the panelist is correct in a very superficial way, but he’s missing the crucial nuance — democratization devalues experience and in-depth learning of a skill, not the skill itself.

In closing, a few words about trivialization and devaluation. The statement “democratization devalues experience and in-depth learning of a skill” can use devalue and trivialize synonymously, but only in this context, when the value of experience has been lowered by setting up an expectation that the experience is a trivial addition to ability. In a purely monetary sense, devaluation has occurred to the person (and to expertise in a skill), while trivialization is the vector for the devaluation. If the skill as a whole was trivialized, it would mean that the skill was so simple (like sweeping the floor, for example), that anyone could do it and thus there would be no merit to studying it. This, of course, is patently false. Even if I could learn something about everything (a goal that I strive to), it is obvious that in my limited lifespan, I would be only able to get to a few of those things. I could become experienced in some limited number of things, though I might become enabled in any number of things based on my patience and the willingness of others to share their expertise in understandable ways.

Experience, without fail, takes time. So I welcome democratization, but I do have concerns about the the ignorance of the masses. Democratization is akin to the act of Prometheus: it gives of fire of the knowledge to the people. But without understanding of what that fire is, and the limitations inherent to it, this fire will not only give light, but burn the very things that made the democratization possible by dissuading those who might seek expertise and the ability to pass on and grow the knowledge from seeking its depths.

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