Assange, Swartz, Manning, Snowden: you get it, right?

A fundamental part of being a human nowadays is that if you don’t really understand something, you are pretty certain that someone somewhere is an expert at it; and if it is a matter of global political discourse that many people know about it, and not only *it*, but all the tiny *its* that are a part of the big *it*, that obviously some University or other is studying, or has studied the facts for years and the next generations are far better equipped to deal with the complicated future. (I think I might just have stumbled on the formula for Radio 4).

We take heart from the academic inquisitiveness, so we don’t all need to know the nuts and bolts of what is causing us to have a slightly uncomfortable feeling – because the current and next generations are getting ever more clever and brilliant. Phew…


What: Wikileaks

Common understanding: publishing lots of things through a site called Wikileaks

Scary: because there is no control over what is being published

Phew: he is being held in a room in an Embassy in London and (weirdly) the government people went and oversaw (not sure if that is English) the destruction of the Guardian hard drives containing the information, which should be OK


What: Committed suicide after being arrested for illegally downloading academic journals

Common understanding: young geek allegedly caught stealing/illegally downloading academic journals with a mind to publish them for free. His suicide was a nasty shock and no one can ever know why, but the court case and litigators were mighty, so that was probably tough for a young person

Scary: someone actually died

Phew: freely publishing academic journals, whilst wrong, does not sound like it threatens our security – this was just a single, and very sad, case


What: leaked restricted documents

Common understanding: a US soldier released classified documents to Wikileaks

Scary: who knows what is in these documents

Phew: she (Manning has since changed sex, but this is unrelated) has been caught and punished


What: leaked details of mass surveillance

Common understanding: US and UK government agencies can read our private email and messages

Scary: not sure we want government agencies of any country reading our emails

Phew: maybe they will intercept the terrorist emails and not illicit sexting, and someone will work out whether this is right or wrong – meanwhile Snowden has not been arrested yet so it is not something to be too worried about… but we had better be a bit more careful about the illicit stuff and what we say in emails “haha @jamesbond *just joshing* (please disregard this message)…”


I am being deliberately obtuse here to illustrate a point. If you are not news or politically minded, I could point to the completely baffling business models of modern day organisations: twitter, Tumblr, Snapchat – where is the revenue model? Someone obviously knows something, I mean of course there is an ad revenue in services such as Google, but *ha* I will not be caught out by those suggested ads so that won’t last. And I must protect everything I put on Facebook because Mark Z is going to sell my data to someone, which might mean I put my family at risk, so I had better just be very careful what I put on FB, and occasionally lie to wrong-foot those would-be thieves/burglars/bad people. (Also what I write in my emails in case the FBI is monitoring me).

Thank goodness, we cry, that we are from the last century and can reminisce fondly on our first experiences with computing. These digital kids, we can’t even begin to understand their world…

“… why I even have to get my son/daughter to help me dm someone on twitter… ha! Vine? I like mine bottled not digital… kids nowadays, they are the digerati!…”

But yet

  • in schools we do not teach children the basics of programming, the language of the digital world – this is changing next year in the UK with the introduction of coding in primary and secondary education so in 15/20 years time we will have lots of people grounded in the digital basics in the workforce
  • we stopped teaching programming in schools over 20 years ago therefore there is a huge generational gap in the mass market of people who actually have a grasp on the digital revolution
  • very few people worldwide actually understand and drive the digital direction, because it all happened so fast and generation upon generation assumed the education system was keeping up
  • there are more and more demands on a rapidly dwindling and ageing digital workforce by analogue institutions, trying to ram digital renaissance into creaking infrastructures
  • *those in charge* of the next generations, including us parents, make it our life’s work – no it is our duty – to limit, deny and restrict access to the digital world, that superhighway of paedophiles and porn because someone else will be educating them in all the stuff they actually need to know in this digital future, the educational and politically important stuff that someone else knows all about… right?
  • our kids spend their lives online, they need to get offline and play, take an interest in the real world (that world that drives stories such as Assange, Swartz, Manning and Snowden)

I hate to scare you, but the reality is that our children need to be online, our duty is to give them digital freedom to explore and learn. The rules are not yet made for digital citizenship, our children need to define, shape and abide by them. Not just in keeping safe. Not just in understanding whether Assange, Swartz, Manning, Snowden are right or wrong. Or whether a business based on reach of message to mass communities is a viable model. Or what open data really means.

The current drive to teach our kids to code is being built on a sand-bound argument of economy, but I challenge this. We need to actively find ways to educate our children and ourselves in the basics of the Internet, of information, of data, of sharing, of algorithms – computational thinking.

Because, if we don’t, an ever decreasing number of us will actually really understand, and an ever decreasing number of us will shape the future. And history has shown time and time again that this way madness lies.

9 responses

  1. Pingback: Assange, Swartz, Manning, Snowden: you get it, right? – Emma Mulqueeny | Public Sector Blogs

  2. Emma thanks for your insight and straight talking. I was the first generation in my school to be taught to code (basic, since you ask). And it has served me well.

    I hope you get your message to the right people.

  3. Pingback: Schools and our online lives | Community Site

  4. This post has two parts – firstly a series of political judgements, and secondly an assertion about how important it is that young people are active participants in the online world rather than passive consumers.

    Marxists have always railed against the manipulative way in which important economic and technical processes are simplified and how this simplification supports oppression.

    But though I know you were giving snap-portraits of Assange, Snowden, Swartz & Manning, the way you’ve chosen to do it kind of illustrates a point I’d make that this is as much about politics as it is about technology.

    Snowden, for example, went through a particularly interesting process where he gradually, through the choices he made in the face of different coercions, decided that he was ultimately an ally of Russia. Transparency is good, of course. In a multi-polar world, exposing the secrets of one side but not the other involves a choice. Until Snowden comes up with a plan to do the same to Russia, China, etc, he’s effectively a Russian agent. This was proven to the whole world in slo-mo as the summer dragged on. If he did do to the Russians what he did to the US, I suspect he’d have spent more time enjoying futile radiation treatment instead of hanging around airports in recent months.

    Personally, as a democrat, I’d not have chosen to side with Russia.

    Similar judgements can be applied to Manning and Assange (along with a few other special little notes that need adding to Assange’s record).

    Swartz was a copyright activist with a long record of depression. This activism resulted in him getting himself into hot water. He committed suicide after this happened. Post hoc ergo propter hoc? Personally, I’d argue that his position on copyright was a crude tech-reductionist one that will continue to have regressive consequences in which creating intellectual property will become less rewarding and more of it will be appropriated by nasty corporations. I’m baffled by the credulousness of those who claim he was some sort of martyr, and the opportunism with which his death was used to somehow add respectability to his argument was a bit disgusting.

    I’m not saying this to be argumentative (or not *mainly* to be argumentative, any way). My point is that phenomena such as social media, open data, transparency, etc etc, has resulted in significant and effective campaigns to iron out many of the wrinkles of democracy. But the wrinkles that are ironed out are the ones that are perceived by activists who have a grasp of how to use these tools – and not necessarily the wrinkles that a respectable public-interest campaigner would chose. Sometimes the opposite.

    They’re also the wrinkles that are perceived only by particular social castes. As a trade union official, my perception of what the fixable injustices are in this country is very different from the perception that most of us would get from watching various social media timelines.

    I’d suggest that the politics, as much as the mechanics of all of this stuff needs to be explored more energetically than it is being done.

  5. Pingback: Schools and our online lives - The Speakers Company

  6. Thanks Emma. I’m taking from this that changing the curriculum isn’t enough. All the examples are about Ethics- and at the moment our conversation with young people seems to be all about persuading them to learn to fill IT skills gaps, rather than making a new world.

    In the imminent national curriculum, they will be learning Computing rather than ICT which we hope will empower them, but in an adjacent classroom will Citizenship be teaching them about the tough ethical questions regarding living online, the impacts of digital on the real, etc? -or will it avoid this thorny area, leave them with no online ‘ethical compass’ to guide their new skills.

    If replacing ICT with Computing in the curriculum was all about replacing passive consumption with proactive engagement with the digital world, shouldn’t there be a similar move to get these upcoming digital citizens to make their own assessments on Assange, Swartz and debates about freedom and democracy, and how these should change if at all? but as you allude to, how many teachers are clued in enough to initiate those ethical debates with pupils?

  7. Pingback: Some more thoughts about programming and kids | Tetriminos

  8. Pingback: Head Tale - “Remember, Remember the Fifth of November” (This Isn’t A Movie Anymore; It’s A Warning)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: