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Written in Code

Twenty-three-year-old Zach Sims could very well be changing the future of the Internet (eat your heart out Al Gore) by putting the power of its evolution into the hands of the masses

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The Colbert Effect

Inevitably, success paints a target on one’s hide. Message board snipers, mainly career programmers, charge that you can learn only rudimentary stuff on Codecademy, and thus its main effect will be to inundate the field with poor to middling programmers. (But nearly everyone concedes the lucidity of the site, which guides you through lessons via a series of prompts and tells you when you’ve gone astray: “Oops, try again.”) Others argue that most people have no more need to write code than they do to throw a pot or build a toaster. A programmer named Chase Felker wrote on Slate, “The fact is that no matter how pervasive a technology is, we don’t need to understand how it works—our society divides its labor so that everyone can use things without going to the trouble of making them.”

The media theorist Douglas Rushkoff rejects the case for programming ignorance. Rushkoff, the author of Cyberia and Present Shock, was a Codecademy admirer who later joined its team as a code literacy “evangelist.” “I’m not asking that people know how to open a computer and fix it,” he explains by e-mail. “[But] we are spending an increasing amount of our work and personal lives on digital platforms. We owe it to ourselves to know something about how these platforms work, how they are biased, who owns them, and what they are for. Otherwise, we end up at the mercy of those who do understand these places. It’s the difference between a driver and a passenger. If you don’t know how to drive, you have to trust the driver to take you where you say you want to go.”

But aren’t the drivers trustworthy? On the contrary, Rushkoff says, they’re often quite sneaky, and he’s not talking about the NSA. “Ask kids what Facebook is for, and they will tell you it’s to help them make friends. That’s not what it’s for. Go to the boardroom and you’ll find out what Facebook is for: It’s to monetize kids’ social graphs [the data trail they leave behind them].”

Rushkoff emphasizes kids because they’ll be living in a world far more digital than our own. But is Zach overstating the matter when he says that code will be “the literacy of the twenty-first century”? “Oh, it will be,” Rushkoff says. “That part is certain. What’s not certain is whether we will have a literate or an illiterate population. Chances are, when six Chinese kids hack Citibank, Americans will decide that code literacy might be a good idea.”

Code literacy has its bulls and its bears, but it’s the bulls who can expect to partake in the digital version of the American Dream. Codecademy has produced a number of them already—non-techies with good ideas. Michael Perry, of San Francisco, spent 126 hours on Codecademy, enabling him to build his app GVING, which helps merchants keep better track of their customers. “There’s dozens, or hundreds of stories like this,” Rushkoff says. Friends of his, inspired by the Occupy movement’s ability to collaborate and not break into bickering factions, wanted to build a web tool that helps groups reach consensus. “But they didn’t know any code, so they couldn’t build it. They went to Codecademy, learned to code, and now they’ve got a real, working, brilliant site—loomio.org,” Rushkoff says. “Codecademy isn’t doing this for people; it’s letting people do it for themselves. And that’s the signature achievement of the digital age itself.”

How Codecademy plans to make money is not entirely clear. Its site remains free and uncluttered by advertising. Zach himself is intentionally vague about financial matters—his sights are set on improving the product, and thus increasing its value. But he does speak of “connecting” Codecademy users with companies looking to make smart hires, so perhaps that will be its money-making role: as a farm system for a hungry tech industry. We’ll see. It’s all pretty early yet.

“Zach set out to do something that was going to make a difference,” says Jane, his mother. “That was his main thing.” The coverage Codecademy draws in serious media outlets, from Wired to The New York Times to The Wall Street Journal, intimates that he’s already begun to change the world. But to those who remember Zach as a college dropout, chasing after some pie-in-the-sky Internet dream, the true sign that he’d made it came last October 31, when he appeared as a guest on the Colbert Report.

“Some of my friends from high school and college finally think that what I’m doing is legitimate,” Zach says with a cautious smile. “I’ve been legitimized by Stephen Colbert.”