Stop Saying That Code Is The New Literacy

Buzzwords and buzz phrases annoy me. They take up space, accomplish nothing, and are generally parroted without realizing how vapid they are. Today we’re going to be going after one of my most hated buzz phrases.



The idea that ‘Code is the new literacy’ is one of those phrases that makes less sense in direct proportion to how much you actually think about it. On paper it sounds obvious. The Department of Labor is predicting that the United States will add 1.2 million computer science jobs by 2022. Being even a rookie developer can open up a lot of professional doors and career options at every level of business, from startups to Fortune 100.

Even if you aren’t a professional developer, code is so ingrained into business that HubSpot has written at length about how marketers should be code-savvy and I’ve written on the subject myself. As someone working on a team knowing the basics of code can be immensely helpful in collaborating with team members, understanding expectations, managing deliverables, and making sure developers on your team don’t secretly want to kill you due to your own lack of technical proficiency.

The problem is that when you deconstruct this term it really doesn’t mean anything. Literacy is, as traditionally understood, the ability to read and write, but it’s much more than that. Literacy is a key foundation for enlightenment. It allows people to receive and in turn send knowledge through communication. Literacy forms the basis of all communication, understanding, learning and idea sharing. It basically represents how we can bring our thoughts and ideas to life (Chris Granger has a fantastic and detailed post about this).

On a more specific level this is why ‘literacy’ has become synonymous with education, being applied to a person’s knowledge of a particular subject or field. That’s where concepts such as techno-literacy or computer-literacy come from.

So the idea that “Code is the new literacy” boils down to the assumption that code itself is the new basis for all manner of communication and learning. Which it isn’t. Being able to code is a discipline and a skill. An extremely valuable skill that’s a crucial part of our everyday lives, but it’s a skill. It’s a skill like copywriting, accounting, and mathematics. There are people who perform it full time, but there are also people who benefit from just understanding it. Either way, it won’t replace literacy.

Even if I don’t take the phrase itself in such a literal way and interpret it to mean that being able to write code is just as important as being literate, that’s debatable at best. I’m the first person to stress the value of understanding code on a basic level, even if just for enlightenment. A basic understanding of coding may even give you an edge in an unrelated field when you’re applying. That said, if you’re a community manager, account, or graphic designer, you’ll be able to function just fine without knowing how to code.

By comparison, literally every single career, profession, and business is going to require literacy in some capacity. Even if you’re applying for a manual even if it’s reading an application for a manual labor job. Not being able to code can make things complicated and difficult if you work with developers, but in all likelihood you’ll be able to function without it fine.

I think Lee Hutchinson from Ars Technica summed up my problem with this phrase perfectly when I mentioned how it got under my skin.

When you consider how little the idea that “Code is the new literacy” means, that’s all it is: Garbage wisdom. Something that sounds clever and looks great in press releases or on website banners promoting your regional chapter of Hour of Code. You know what the new literacy is? Literacy. Don’t devalue literacy itself by suggesting that a single (valuable) skill is going to replace it.