Computer Literacy as Minimal Education

Eric Redmond
Sep 13, 2015 · 5 min read

Readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic — the triumvirate of a minimally educated person, we are told. But why are these three a point of focus, foregoing other useful life skills, like basic medicine, logic, or finance? This thought experiment culminated in a book series project to introduce computer science to infants, but more on that later.

The definition of what it means to be educated is unfixed, changing through history. Before the advent of the printing press, reading wasn’t necessarily a requirement for being an educated person in the West. Oral rhetoric, knowing Latin, and Bible studies were marks of a gentleman. For most of human civilization, even literate people wrote infrequently. Writing composition wasn’t required at Harvard until 1873 in reaction to the letter writing culture spurred by fast transit (viz. the Pony Express). Widespread math education grew in reaction to the Industrial Revolution — mass production requires a workforce with basic math skills. Also, lest we forget that secondary education wasn’t considered necessary for women or minorities in the US until quite recently (and in some senses, not considered enough).

Since history has shown educational emphasis to be malleable, what if we were to design a curriculum for modern times from scratch? What would we include? Need we teach arithmetic — meaning the ability to add, subtract, multiply, and divide numbers? This mechanical task has been the purview of calculators for 50 years. More advanced calculating capabilities have long held more in common with computer programming than arithmetic. As for reading, screen readers are decades old. Even text on paper can be scanned and read back — with a British accent if one so desires. Surely, we need to teach writing, right? Perhaps, but it’s well within the capability of modern computers to take verbal dictation, autocorrect misspellings, and make proper composition suggestions. Apps like Siri are showing that you can control computer systems, including sending text messages, without writing.

I’m not seriously suggesting that we dispense with reading, writing, or arithmetic. But I very seriously suggest that we all understand the basic concepts of the very devices that could reasonably replace the three R’s. In the future I have no doubt that computer literacy will be a requirement of the educated class. Not only do I believe we should start the transition now, I’ll go further and contend that this education should start at birth.

I’ve received some criticism for pushing on the boundaries of childhood education to include studies in computer logic. The most common criticisms have fallen two camps: “all kids don’t need to know about computers”, and, “perhaps they might, but you’re starting too young.” These are reasonable points to bring up, so here are my responses.

Is Universal Computer Literacy Necessary?

Computers are tools, like pens, paper, and printing presses. Whether you write with a typewriter or clay tablet, the act of composition is a mental process. The same rules applies to computers. Whether you’re using your VCR, smartwatch, or laptop, you’re using a computer. Computers are (drumroll please…) computing machines. They don’t even require electronics, and indeed the first computing machines were build before electrons were discovered.

Here’s a computing machine made of wood

Computers of the future may very well be photonic, or chemical, or quantum. But one thing computers won’t be is gone. We need a population of people who have a basic inkling of how the machines that are eating the world actually work. If not, those that do understand them may become the technocratic masters of the rest.

Computers are eating the world

Assuming that computers are even worth learning, why start so young?

Babies? Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Redmond!

Are babies capable of understanding computer logic? Well, no and yes. No, in the sense of applying complex Boolean logic, or comprehension at a collegiate level. Yes, in the sense that baby brains are pattern matching machines, and introducing them to a set of simple patterns helps shape their minds in the future. It’s more than the wishful thinking of eager parents that drives the creation of baby books filled with ABCs and 123s. Those symbols are the building blocks of reading/writing and mathematics. Sure, babies can’t apply what they see immediately, but it makes comprehension easier down the road. This is the goal behind Boolean Logic for Babies: to introduce babies to the terms, and to get a feel for the usage behind, for example, the Boolean operations AND, OR, and NOT. Counting in Binary for Toddlers and Functions for Tykes follows this concept for older kids.

Boolean Logic for Babies, a cloth book

Starting with the belief that computer literacy should be on par with traditional literacy and mathematics, we would be remiss to start anywhere other than the beginning. Children entering elementary school usually have plenty of tacit exposure to words and numbers. They should have a similar introduction to the logic of computers.

The downside of kickstarting an educational movement is finding a starting place. Babies made the most sense to me, in part selfishly, because I’ve recently become a dad with a baby (and soon a second) of my own. I care about her and his development, and as a computer scientist am capable of teaching her these concepts myself.

Most educated adults are capable of teaching their own children to read and perform simple math, since they themselves know how to do it. However, most adults are not in the computer industry. We need a mechanism to teach adults well enough to, in turn, teach their children. So another aspect of the project is including instruction of these basic computer concepts (Boolean Logic, Binary, and Functions) to non-specialist adults.

Computer Science for Grown Ups

Even if this first project fails to succeed, I’m convinced that in the coming generation of children must understand at a basic level how these computing machines do what they do. Marc Andreessen once said,

“The spread of computers and the Internet will put jobs in two categories. People who tell computers what to do, and people who are told by computers what to do.”

Hopefully, we can increase the population of the first group.

Eric Redmond

Written by

Director of Technology Innovation at Nike, Author