Last night BBC’s Newsnight ran a segment on the UK government’s ‘Year of Code’ initiative to encourage kids to learn programming.
Much has been made of the studio interview with Lottie Dexter, the government-appointed ambassador for the scheme, who admitted to Jeremy Paxman that she herself can’t code. That doesn’t both me so much, if she does as she said she would and makes an effort to learn in the coming year. I can easily enough imagine an overweight person fronting an anti-obesity initiative in the same way.
What most annoyed me was Newsnight’s tone. In the first minute we were told that code is ‘baffling’ and ‘gobbledegook’. They’re pretty pejorative descriptions, and seem to reflect an anti-intellectualism that it all too common in reporting on maths and sciences. They’re terms that otherwise get used to describe UKBA visa rules or EU arcana. It’s unlikely Newsnight would use them to describe Ulysses, a work of legal scholarship, or something else in the media’s comfort zone of the arts and humanities. They might, however, apply them to an equation in physics or a new theorem in maths.
Gobbledygook means ‘language that is meaningless or is made unintelligible by excessive use of technical terms’. Most programming languages are anything but that. Computer scientists have thought harder about clear and elegant language design than any other group of people. The ratio of bullshit-to-meaning is lower in science and engineering than other fields, precisely because engineers and scientists have to distinguish between millions of different concepts with absolute clarity – not, it must be said, a strict requirement of other fields (journalism included).
Yes, becoming a skilled coder takes years, but getting past ‘baffling’ takes only a modicum of effort. The Newsnight reporter chose not to bother, preferring a resort to cliché.
Either way, lazy reporting like this is part of the problem.