In my last years at school they opened a computing room, wherein lurked a terrifying beast, spewing out reams of tickertape with “0”s and “1”s on it. If you have seen this season’s Mad Men. Yes, it was just like that.
The room was for “geeks”, not that we knew that word then, nor that geeks like Tim Berners Lee, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs would change our lives and inherit the world. As successive digital technologies have come to revolutionise our lives, the knowledge gap between those programmers who created that world and those of us who simply benefit from their brilliance has become a chasm.
It is terrifyingly opaque to an outsider, but it need not be so. Certainly, that’s the belief of the four founders of Decoded, an organisation set up to demystify the coding process and unlock ordinary people’s digital potential. In the belief of Kathryn Parsons, one of the four co-founders of Decoded “too small a group of people had the power and knowledge”.
Decoded, in its surprisingly swanky loft-like space near East London’s Old St Silicon Roundabout, aims to teach us, with our zero skills, enough code in a day that we can build our own app – in a day.
It seemed an unlikely outcome as a nervous group of ten disparate coding virgins (from the City, retailing, design, the wine trade…) settled down to the history lesson that begins the day. That history, and the moderators’ skill at situating our day in the continuing digital evolution is what really opens our eyes.
To understand, as Parsons puts it, how “human” technology is in the flawed way it is often created and iterated, is to realize that you too can “engineer”. Berners Lee created the World Wide Web in ten days, the HTML code in a dozen. It actually is as counter intuitive as it first appears, partly because of that speed and partly because nuclear physicists like him aren’t the world’s greatest communicators.
Decoded’s founders recently taught all their mums the course. “In a day” matters, says Parsons, because most people can’t take six months out to learn code. Her beguiling, confident matter-of-factness about “realising the art of what’s possible” is credible because Decoded spends one year devising, planning and testing each day-long course.
Stefano Hatfield is editorial director of High50