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.”

 

Greenwich Agenda

  • Nigh Season: New Paintings By David Konigsberg

    2014.09.13
     @ Kenise Barnes Fine Art

    Dates: September 13 – October 31, 2014 Opening Reception: September 13, 6 – 8:30 PM  Public Invited   NIGH...

  • Undulate: Paintings By Julie Gross and Margaret Neill

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    GALLERY II Dates: September 13 – October 31, 2014 Opening Reception: September 13, 6 – 8:30 PM Public Invited...

  • Isaia Fall Trunk Show

    2014.09.19
     @ Richards

  • Parties at the JCC Center

    2014.09.02
     @ Stamford JCC

    A place to celebrate birthdays and special occasions. Be a guest at your own party! The JCC offers a wonderful space for you and your guests to...

  • The Many Faces of Multi Media

    2014.09.20
     @ Meli-Melo of Greenwich

    Dr. Julia Trebing, Director Creative Therapies in Stamford, CT exhibits her paintings at Meli-Melo Creperie & Juice Bar  during Sept...

  • SoulCycle GWCH for Make-A-Wish CT

    2014.09.20
     @ SoulCycle

    Make-A-Wish Connecticut is thrilled to be partnering with SoulCycle's Greenwich location for a charity ride on Saturday, September 20th!...

  • Wall Street Tennis Challenge

    2014.09.20
     @ Greenwich Country Club

    The goal of The Wall Street Tennis Challenge is to support the Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation’s efforts while spreading awareness...

  • Nam Cho Trunk Show

    2014.09.20
     @ Richards

  • Arts & Crafts on Bedford

    2014.09.20
     @ Bedford Street

    Shop at over 100 craft and artisan boutiques on Bedford Street, which will be closed to traffic for the weekend. Dine in our extended sidewalk...

  • Puttin’ On The Dog Festival

    2014.09.21
     @ Roger Sherman Baldwin Park

    Puttin’ On The Dog Festival Greenwich, Connecticut the place to be on September 21st for dogs and their owners...

  • Candy Fairies Book Reading

    2014.09.21
     @ Imagine Candy

    SCARSDALE, NY, Imagine Candy brings the acclaimed children's author Helen Perelman, the writer of the wickedly sweet Candy Fairies book...

  • Chizi's Tale Book Launch Party

    2014.09.21
     @ Tudor Investment Campus

    You and your family are invited to join Diane's Books of Greenwich and TUSK USA to celebrate the launch of Chizi's Tale: The True Story...

  • Chizi's Tale Book Launch Party

    2014.09.21
     @ Tudor Investment Campus

    You and your family are invited to join Diane's Books of Greenwich and TUSK USA to celebrate the launch of Chizi's Tale: The True Story...

  • SM&NC Farm Market

    2014.06.15
     @ Stamford Museum & Nature Center

    Sundays, June 15 – October 5, 10am – 2pm We're thrilled to bring back the SM&NC Farm Market — now on Sundays!...

  • "Israel and the U.S."

    2014.09.22
     @ New Canaan Library

    The public is invited to attend a World Affairs Forum Great Decisions event featuring Seth Anziska, Columbia University. Mr. Anziska will speak...

  • Holistic Health Practitioner Kevin W. Reese

    2014.09.24
     @ Meli-Melo

    Meet Holistic Health Practitioner Kevin W. Reese & Take Home a Signed Copy of His New Book! Kevin is a holistic health practitioner,...

  • Annual State of the Town Address and Luncheon | Greenwich, CT

    2014.09.25
     @ Milbrook Club

    Greenwich Chamber of Commerce Annual State of the Town Address and Luncheon will be held at Milbrook Club. Registration 11:30am; start at...

  • Greenwich Harbor Sunset Wine Cruise | Greenwich, CT

    2014.06.05
     @ Delamar Hotel Dock

    The boat "Prudence" departs from the Delamar Hotel Dock on 500 Steamboat Rd. All the wine is sponsored through VALS with food...

  • Aaron Henry Trunk Show & Personal Appearance

    2014.09.26
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