Learning code: Time for us all to recognise the creative value of those 0s and 1s

A biography of Beatrix Potter published last century may not sound like it should warrant a mention in a column about technology.

Yet, when a friend sent it to me recently, I was surprised: as a child, the author and illustrator had conceived her own cipher or code for use in the private journals that she wrote well into her late 20s. In total, this comprised 200,000 words that were not successfully decoded until two decades after her death.

So why did she write in code? And why was there such baffled curiosity that a creative writer would do this?

The thoughts Potter encrypted were neither controversial nor particularly personal. The biographer speculates that she was a lonely, if intelligent, child who sought refuge in her own imagination. It was, if you will, a peculiar act of creativity to escape an otherwise colourless childhood.

I was struck by how little fundamental attitudes to writing code have changed in decades. In our industry, as in others, there's positive intent and considerable uptake of courses designed to teach the basics of programming languages. Yet reading and writing code are still not a part of the fabric of life in the way learning a language, sport or an instrument is. Many still see code as intimidating, or the preserve of the solitary (male) computer science geek.

Even as we grasp how code and the role of different languages are transforming marketing output and our ways of working, still too many of us step back from getting to grips with code directly and personally. That's for newcomers to the industry, right?

Yet it's no more complicated than anything else we learn, and it's part of the day job: we already know the internet has been the biggest advertising sector in the UK for the past four years (IAB data) and will register double-digit growth every year for the next four (PwC's 'Global Media & Entertainment Outlook for EMEA', 2012-16).

So what now?

Perhaps we don't all itch to shape the way the web develops, but let's embrace the fact that, at its simplest, code is how things get made on and for the web. Much as Potter understood a century ago, code is creative. Of course there's much to do: if code, in combination with its older siblings, art direction and copy, is to grow up faster, better and stronger, it needs leadership at all levels.

We don't all need to learn to code, necessarily, but we do need to know what code can do. Time to get with the program, people.

Mel Exon is co-founder of BBH Labs. Follow her on Twitter

In action

  1. 'Art, Copy & Code' - Google's series of experiments to re-imagine advertising, reflecting the triumvirate now at the heart of commercial creativity. Watch the video where location and time change dynamically, tailored to you. http://goo.gl/tQx1A
  2. Code.org - If I were secretary of state for education, I'd make it mandatory for all girls in secondary education to watch this video. What Most Schools Don't Teach features a host of geekarati championing code. http://goo.gl/hY5UE
  3. Decoded - The original 'learn to code in a day' course. You leave with a good grasp of the history and roles of different programming languages, plus an app you built. Highly recommended. http://decoded.co/
  4. Dr Techniko - Teach kids the basics of code via a session in which the parent is a 'robot' expected to respond to commands: 'How to train your robot'. http://goo.gl/5ZffM
  5. ... and as a counterpoint - Learning to Code is a Waste of Time, from Forbes magazine. http://goo.gl/20sGh

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