[Software] Development as Freedom

What happens when you position code camps as a solution to inequality? This two-part blog series explores how the idea of coding as a ‘liberating practice’ can harm the purposes it claims to support.

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The future is digital. Skills will set you free.

This mantra seems to be creeping its way through policy, education, philanthropy, corporate social responsibility and more. Across the world, coding camps are increasingly positioned as emancipatory projects that will facilitate upward mobility and liberate historically marginalised groups from their perpetual underrepresentation in the tech sector[1]. In the ‘network society’ we now inhabit [2], access to a computer and internet skills are put forward as core solutions to inequality.

Despite this, critics are increasingly warning about the false promises of coding as a liberatory practice. But why exactly is this the case?

This two-part blog series, entitled [Software] Development as Freedom, explores the downfalls and dangers of the idea that simply giving people coding skills will create a more equal society. I use the term ‘software development as freedom’ a little tongue in cheek — and as a nod to Amartya Sen’s book Development as Freedom [3]. Sen argues that international development can’t simply be solved by achieving a set of quantifiable economic indicators, but should ensure that everyone has access to political freedoms, freedom of opportunity, and economic protection. Analogously, freedom in the ‘digital age’ can’t be boiled down to quantifiable metrics like access to computers or having ‘internet skills’, but requires a more nuanced view of how inequality operates and how it can be addressed.

Coding Skills in the ‘Network Society’

The notion that people can improve their social conditions by acquiring new skills often results from the conceptualisation of the digital age as a ‘network society’ in which all participants could, in principle, adapt their networks to achieve different goals [4]. In this model, access to the right digital technologies and skills are prerequisites for engaging with the social and media networks which underpin society [5]. This ‘flattened’ conceptualisation of the world is shadowed by a neoliberal ideology which denies the role of social structure in determining a person’s social mobility, instead viewing the world through an agentic paradigm in which individuals have the choice to acquire the skills and relationships which will set them onto a trajectory of success [6].

van Dijk, J.A.G.M. (2013) ‘Inequalities in the Network Society’

However, these characterisations of society aren’t only oversimplistic, but they also obscure and deny the lived reality of those facing structural inequalities. For example, Sreela Sarkar’s study of ICT training programmes for women in Seelampur, India, highlights the limitations of ‘digital skills’ in addressing the neo-colonial and patriarchal dynamics these women face when attempting to enter the ICT sector [7]. Sarkar’s study shows how gaining work in industry upon finishing an ICT course isn’t only contingent on the possession of ‘technical skills’, but also on having the ‘right’ kind of English language skills, having access to elite educational institutions, and being ‘modern’ in appearance — all of which are factors deeply implicated in questions of class, caste and gender. So, focussing on the technical skills the Seelampur women gain in their ICT classes as the ‘key’ to their social mobility obscures the role of structural inequalities in shaping the opportunities available to them.

“The notion that coding will close the ‘digital divide’ fails to recognise the role of structural inequalities in shaping the opportunities available to different people.”

Similar criticisms have been made of the UK Government’s depiction of digital skills as offering a ‘pipeline to prosperity’ [8]. In their study of how British secondary school students use technology, Davies and Eynon show how young people defy the ‘discursive construction’ of technology skills as emancipatory. On the one hand, their study highlights how the students use technology in ways that address their immediate needs and interests — thereby contradicting the notion that the student is a rational economic actor who, when given the right tools, will use digital skills to maximise their long-term economic interests. On the other, interviews with the students highlight their reflexive awareness of the structural constraints that prevent them from ‘thriving’ in the digital economy (such as the social or economic capital to go to university). As a result, the students’ use of technology challenges the “deterministic discourses that tell young people learning to code would be an act of economic self-interest that will, in turn, defibrillate the economy.” [9]

Who benefits?

Despite the rhetoric of coding camps as “agents of social mobility” [10], the notion that coding will close the ‘digital divide’ fails to recognise the role of structural inequalities in shaping the opportunities available to different people. This view of coding camps as liberating is a politically powerful one: it shifts the blame for social mobility onto individuals, and creates the idea that those who fail to engage with digital technology are agents of their own demise.

That’s not to say that coding camps offer no value to those who engage in them — indeed, the women from Sarkar’s Seelampur study found great pleasure and entertainment in their ICT classes.

However, the notion that digital skills alone can address social mobility doesn’t just overlook the role of structural inequality; it also serves an important political purpose. Maintaining the idea that individuals are responsible for their destiny supports the neoliberal myth of meritocracy, and blames those who face poverty, inequality and discrimination for their struggles. As a result, untangling the idea that software development leads to freedom is an important part of addressing the digital — and social — divide.

Part 2 of the series — [Software] development as freedom: who for, what for? — will explore how the goals and harms of common technology applications shape the ability of digital skills training to truly challenge inequality. Click here to subscribe and be notified when Part 2 is out.

[1] Miltner, 2021; Sarkar, 2021; Abbate, 2021; Davies and Eynon, 2018

[2] van Dijk, 2013; Castells, 2010

[3] Sen, 1999

[4] van Dijk, 2013

[5] van Dijk, 2013

[6] Davies & Eynon, 2018

[7] Sarkar, 2021

[8] Davies & Eynon, 2018

[9] Davies and Eynon, 2018, p.3976

[10] Miltner, 2021, p.21

Bibliography

Abbate, J. (2021) ‘Coding Is Not Empowerment’, in Mullaney, T., S. et al., Your Computer Is on Fire. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 253–271.

Castells, M. (2010) The rise of the network society. Second. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell (The information age: economy, society, and culture).

Davies, H.C. and Eynon, R. (2018) ‘Is digital upskilling the next generation our “pipeline to prosperity”?’, New Media & Society, 20(11), pp. 3961–3979. doi:10.1177/1461444818783102.

Miltner, KM 2021, ‘Everything old is new again: A comparison of mid-century American EDP schools and contemporary coding bootcamps’, Information & Culture.

Sen, A. (1999) Development as freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sarkar, S. (2021) ‘Skills Will Not Set You Free’, in Mullaney, T., S. et al., Your Computer Is on Fire. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 297–310.

Star, S.L. and Strauss, A. (1999) ‘Layers of Silence, Arenas of Voice: The Ecology of Visible and Invisible Work’, Computer supported cooperative work, 8(1), pp. 9–30. doi:10.1023/A:1008651105359.

van Dijk, J.A.G.M. (2013) ‘Inequalities in the Network Society’, in Orton-Johnson, K. and Prior, N., Digital Sociology: Critical Perspectives. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan UK, pp. 105–124.

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Sophie is a Senior Digital Ethics and Innovation Consultant at Sopra Steria.

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Sophie Taylor

Sophie Taylor

Sophie is a Senior Digital Ethics and Innovation Consultant at Sopra Steria.

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