Computational Thinking—The New Literacy
Our democracies face a massive challenge today. The battleground for electoral success is based on information that few are equipped to question. A small elite manages our thoughts through knowledge only they possess, to the exclusion of most citizens.
I am talking about the overriding effect of modern data science and more generally computation in our societies. Just a tiny fraction of our populations are educated in directly applying computational thinking to information, arguments and decisions they have to take. Including about government. Including about voting.
Of course this elitist control has occurred before, indeed it is only in recent centuries that it has been dissipated. And there was a key driver of this change: universal education in reading.
Very few members of society used to be able to access any knowledge directly. They had to rely on religious leaders, aristocrats and a few others to hold the majority of information and transmit it as they pleased. They themselves couldn’t check it out.
In effect this disenfranchised them—unable to verify almost anything put to them—even if they notationally did have some say in their governance.
There are eerie parallels with today’s data science. By failing to know how to question computational results that produce it, unable to reason through data science and pull the information to check out themselves, most of the population are effectively disenfranchised from decision-making on their governance.
This is not the preserve of one political party or ideology. But its pervasiveness is causing growing rifts in our societies as there is little common understanding of the data science that in effect controls most people’s life. A computational elite is powerful in controlling our destiny just as the literate elite were a few centuries ago.
Of course not all the elite are badly intentioned; far from it. But the situation is far more precarious because so much power has been effectively concentrated in so few hands, with the ability of the disingenuous to misuse it.
We have already ended up with a computationally driven banking crisis and data science driven incredulity in recent politics. Now there’s little belief in any expert because there’s no educational basis for most to distinguish good from bad computational arguments. Predictions passed off as having the power of computation and quantification without any of the logic or reality. People have been gamed by a few of the computational elite who want to keep their power by reducing others’ access to it.
Without urgent, major intervention we may end up entering a new pre-Enlightenment era where hocus-pocus trumps logical thought because there’s asymmetry of key knowledge for decision-making and relevant thinking—this time computational thinking. A huge amount of data is available, and computing power, to everyone, but only a few know how to get power from its use.
When a few have all the unfettered power of decision-making with little or no control from everyone else’s understanding, people are sooner-or-later mislead. Increasingly boldly misled. The lack of computational understanding in our societies may already have set going serious national security consequences.
What intervention should occur? The imposition of universal computational thinking education. Education that covers modern data science—not just its calculation but cause and correlation, risk and future expectations, how to be sceptical of data, how to reason computationally—centrally integrating not yesterday’s modern technology of paper and pencil but today’s of computers.
Maths education, stuck in a pre-computer era, isn’t remotely achieving this except for a small elite who’ve studied it to a higher level. Yet it is today’s only core computational school subject.
I have long argued for such a change in core subject. What I haven’t appreciated until recently is the urgency. Not just an urgency for better jobs, more life enrichment but of enfranchisement. Of social cohesion. Of security.