Program or Be Programmed author, CNN columnist and Frontline documentary director Douglas Rushkoff announced on his blog today that he’s taken a job with Codecademy, a company that offer free online programming courses entirely through a web-based interface. Rushkoff writes that he is joining the company as an evangelist much in the same capacity as Vint Cerf’s role at Google as a “net evangelist.” Rushkoff won’t just be evangelizing Codecademy, but the concept of “code literacy” in general.
Rushkoff was an early chronicler of cyberculture. His first book, Cyberia, is a collection of journalism published in the early 90s. He went on to write other books, such as Media Virus, and direct the Frontline documentaries including Mercants of Cool and digital_nation.
Rushkoff helped kickstart the code literacy movement in 2010 with the publication of Program or be Programmed. Since then, companies like Codecademy, Code Academy, Programr have emerged to spread a greater understanding of programming. There’s now even a children’s book that teaches programming concepts.
Here’s how Rushkoff explained the reasons to promote code literacy in his CNN column on Codecademy in January:
It took a few centuries after the invention of text for regular people to learn how to read and write. The printing press, which democratized print by reducing the cost of manuscripts, certainly helped. Now that we live in a world with newspapers, road signs, package labels and drug inserts, almost no one still questions the idea that teaching kids to read is a good thing, or that basic literacy makes us more likely to create value for ourselves or our employers.
Well, we now live in a world with apps, networks, and stock market trading algorithms that we use, even though desperately few of us understand how they work. And while learning to code may have once been an arduous or expensive process, the college dropouts who developed Codecademy have democratized coding as surely as Gutenberg democratized text. Anyone can go to Codecademy and start learning and creating code through their simple, fun, interactive window, for free.
Interest in Codecademy has been particularly high. The company famously signed up hundreds of thousands of users for its “Code Year” experiment, including of course New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. Just last month Codecademy announced $10 million investment from Kleiner Perkins, Index Ventures, Union Square Ventures Yuri Milner and Richard Branson.
Codecademy hopes to keep offerings its courses for free by charging companies to recruit people who complete its courses. It seems unlikely that large numbers of people who complete the courses will actually be proficient enough to become professional programmers. But as Rushkoff points out companies like Google and Facebook are spending obscene amounts of money on talent acquisitions, so maybe all Codecademy needs to do is find a few undiscovered superstar developers. Hungry Academy is trying a variation on this model by providing paid programming training funded by Living Social. The catch is that those who complete the program agree to work for Living Social for 18 months.
But Rushkoff’s idea of code literacy extends beyond just teaching programming. “I’m not about promoting one website’s solution to the problem of digital literacy as much I am about promoting the culture of knowing the code,” he writes. “This is bigger than just computers. We live in a programmatic world – ‘code literacy’ in business or economics means something different than it does in religion or politics.” Considering that Codecademy recently opened its platform up to developers to build their own tutorials, things could get very interesting there in coming months.