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Code: the New Second Language

December 18, 2014

I used to be an avid fan of Legos only several years back. Building with Legos was one of the rare ways that I had of mirroring what was on my mind into reality as close as possible, whether that be a simple blueprint of a house, a remote-control forklift, or anything in between. In the imaginary world of Legos, literally everything is constructed from simple bricks. The stark reality, of course, is much more complex, and there's no universal building block, save the subatomic particles, that can be used to build something universally. But at this day and age, there's something that comes oh-so-close to being the universal tool for creation, and that's code, the magic instructions behind the Internet, your phone, and literally everything in between.

There's no universal skill that we can have to do everything, but coding comes pretty darn close to being one.

Before personal computers were really mainstream, and just when industry really started to take off, in order to produce anything at scale, you had to work an incredible amount in a specific field to be decent. Suppose you wanted to open a new bookstore downtown. Not only would you need to find people to work there and the vendors of the books, you'd also have to invest incredible amounts of time and energy into buying resources for building the brick-and-mortar store, finding the books, and inviting people to come there. But now, suppose you want to open a freelance video production business instead. Almost all of the skills that you used previously to open the bookstore would now be of no use whatsoever. You'd have to find a new place for an office, new equipment, new clients, and a lot of time, not to mention the money and energy invested into finding information needed to thrive in the business. In other words, for most of human history, starting something new required a lot of overhead cost, time, and resources. But flash forward to the 21st century, and the universality of computers and the staggering reach of the Internet dramatically decreases the overhead to create something new and continue doing it. The fact that over half of the entire world's population owns a computer, most of which are connected to within a few milliseconds' notice, creates a singular platform for making anything at scale.

Just several decades ago, in many Asian cultures, there was a boom in English education. The talk of the time was that the United States' exploding economy would put any English-speaker at an advantage over a non-speaker, because English would be the global standard of communication. Of course, that's true today, but perhaps not as much as it was back then. I think there's a new universal language in the midst of popularity, though, and it's not a spoken one, but a typed one. As more and more connected devices populate our lives, the reach of the code, the programs, that people can write will also increase. Code is becoming the universal tool for creating anything, or at least, it's come far closer to that goal than anything else in history.

"Never has such a valuable skill been so accessible" - Alexis Ohanian

Like it or not, our society is growing to be ever more dependent on code and the computers that run these programs. Many billion-dollar companies run exclusively on websites and computer applications, with no brick-and-mortar counterparts*. Unlike producing material goods, building something on a computer is far more accessible because it doesn't require too much initial investment, it doesn't call for staggering amounts of money to scale up, and the lower bound for starting something on the Internet is practically none compared to what was needed beforehand. The Internet provides a playground for anyone with any idea, no matter how ridiculous or unlikely it may seem at first. But something that makes code even more unique is the fact that by virtue of the Internet, it's just as easy to learn. Uncountable number of resources exist, from three-minute videos to full-on E-books that can help people learn to program from scratch, with nothing more than a low-powered PC. As Reddit Co-founder and Y Combinator partner Alexis Ohanian put it, "Never has such a valuable skill been so accessible."

All this goes to say that computer code is the New Second Language. The modern societies are growing and learning to depend on it just as much as real, human language, and as far as we can tell, we're not even scratching the surface of what may be possible in the future -- it's a blank canvas. On the blank canvas, some build charity projects, others small mobile app businesses**, and yet others multi-billion dollar companies. At such a low cost of entry and such high potential, the ability to program is one of the most disruptive skills anyone can have right now.

Last week, from the 8th to the 14th of December, was the Computer Science Education Week. In particular, one initiative called the Hour of Code caught my attention. The successful Hour of Code movement had a goal of reaching 10 million people new to programming to try it out for an hour. Currently reaching over 77 million, I think this captures the idea well, that we're still at the edge of a new industrial age, where instead of concrete factories and buildings, disruptive ideas and movements take place in the virtual rather than the material. The ability to code today is just as powerful as the ability to speak a second or a third language; it's the Lego bricks of reality, and you should give it a shot.


* Except, of course, an office building, if that.

** Small here being a relative term. Summly, an app created by a 15-year old Londoner, later got acquired by Yahoo! for over $30 million