This Week @TheLearningSalon: The Coding Debate & Shadow Work

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Multi-Ethnic Group of People Working TogetherThe Learning Salon is a place where I share a bit about what I’m reading each week. It’s modeled on the weekly gatherings of Maxine Greene, an educational philosopher, author, social activist and professor at Teachers College, held with students, colleagues, and friends in her Manhattan apartment. Like the Italian and French salons that preceded Greene’s, my goals are similar: to share ideas that inform, inspire, and challenge. I invite you to engage in this virtual Learning Salon with me.

Here are some articles and a book that got me thinking this week:

1. Karl Vanhemert’s article this past April in Wired, A Tool that Lets Designers Tweak iPhone Apps without Code. Rather than picking a side in the should we or shouldn’t we learn to code debate, Vanhemert offers us another perspective. He introduces us to Jaanus Kase and his product, Hone, a piece of software “that allows designers to tweak the appearance of iPhone and Mac apps instantly and dynamically, without messing with code.”

As an engineer working with designers, Kase recognized how much of a hassle it was for designers to make changes in their designs. Even minor changes required new build on the part of a developer. With Hone, designers can make the changes themselves. It’s not only empowering, but it means they don’t need to learn how to code. Vanhemert sums it up well when he writes: “It made me optimistic, at least momentarily, that someday we’ll build digital tools that demystify the process of building digital tools.”

What if, instead of fixating on learning how to code, we thought more about the kinds of tools we can build to take that perspective out of the equation? It opens up a whole new world of possibilities and potentially removes obstacles to innovation and creativity.

2. Another article related to programming that got me thinking this week was James SomersToolkits for the Mind. Somers does a terrific job taking us into the minds of several successful tech companies, like Google and Facebook, and helping us understand how their company cultures grew out of the programming languages they chose. He says, “Programming languages shape the way their users think—which helps explain how tech startups work and why they are able to reinvent themselves.”

Reading this article helped me reflect on how programming languages shape product and organizational cultures, especially as companies grow from startups to full-fledged. That shaping must inform hiring and company mission and philosophy. Is it a hacker culture or a carefully crafted culture? How can and do organizational cultures change over time if the programming language created one type of culture early on and now the organization needs to create another (going from hacker to more careful craftsmanship, say)? These are not only business and culture questions, they’re also philosophical questions.

3. Another article got me thinking about what all the coding and empowering tech tools are doing to us in all areas of our lives. The topic of “shadow work” came up in Craig Lambert’s 2011 NYTimes article, Our Unpaid, Extra Shadow Work. Lambert explains that Austrian philosopher and social critic first coined the term in 1981 in discussing all the unpaid labor “including, for example, housework — done in a wage-based economy.” Lambert writes a few things about “shadow work” in this article that I find interesting. First, he writes: “Digital technology — with its spam, e-mail, texting, smartphones and so on — is steadily ramping up the burden of shadow work for all whose lives revolve around its magnetic field.” Next, he contends that as the services we’d been accustomed to – help in actual stores, gas station attendants, and so on – have gone away, our agency has increased, but so has our fatigue. With all the added tech, we’re working more, say to respond to all the emails and spam and texting, but without those tech tasks being part of our jobs. They’re on top of them. Since 2011, the amount of shadow work has certainly increased, hence, Lambert’s recent book release on the same topic.

Lots to chew on, especially with all the articles and books out now on artificial intelligence and the growing economic impact. That’ll definitely be an upcoming Salon topic (probably more than one). Lots to think about there, especially when it comes to learning.

In the meantime, let me know what you’re reading and what you think about any of these topics.

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