Is Coding Literacy for All a Silicon Valley Plot To Lower Tech Wages?

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Last week, the Guardian published a piece arguing that organizations like code.org are essentially a nefarious plot to push down programmers’ wages:

Contrary to public perception, the economy doesn’t actually need that many more programmers. As a result, teaching millions of kids to code won’t make them all middle-class. Rather, it will proletarianize the profession by flooding the market and forcing wages down – and that’s precisely the point….

Guest workers and wage-fixing are useful tools for restraining labor costs. But nothing would make programming cheaper than making millions more programmers. And where better to develop this workforce than America’s schools? It’s no coincidence, then, that the campaign for code education is being orchestrated by the tech industry itself. Its primary instrument is Code.org, a nonprofit funded by Facebook, Microsoft, Google and others. In 2016, the organization spent nearly $20m on training teachers, developing curricula, and lobbying policymakers.

If Silicon Valley was conspiring to drive down how much they spend on coders, I think they could figure out a strategy that would take a little less than 18 years to pay off. Take IBM. According to the New York Times, IBM now

employs 130,000 people in India — about one-third of its total work force, and more than in any other country. Their work spans the entire gamut of IBM’s businesses, from managing the computing needs of global giants like AT&T and Shell to performing cutting-edge research in fields like visual search, artificial intelligence and computer vision for self-driving cars. One team is even working with the producers of Sesame Street to teach vocabulary to kindergartners in Atlanta….

The tech industry has been shifting jobs overseas for decades, and other big American companies like Oracle and Dell also employ a majority of their workers outside the United States. But IBM is unusual because it employs more people in a single foreign country than it does at home. The company’s employment in India has nearly doubled since 2007, even as its work force in the United States has shrunk through waves of layoffs and buyouts. Although IBM refuses to disclose exact numbers, outsiders estimate that it employs well under 100,000 people at its American offices now, down from 130,000 in 2007. Depending on the job, the salaries paid to Indian workers are one-half to one-fifth those paid to Americans, according to data posted by the research firm Glassdoor.

You can certainly make a reasonable argument that teaching lots of people to code has more complex motives an ideological impact than simply trying to help lots of people learn to code, and the author also makes that point in the article. But the idea that organizations like code.org are primarily about driving down wages is just nuts.

More importantly, I think the author is ignoring an important economic impact if everyone learned to code. In the next 20 years we are going to see a remarkable rise of new technology: robots, AI, augmented reality, virtual reality, wearables, and digital fabrication. In this context, if most people learn to code it could fundamentally transform what might be possible in the same way that learning to read and write did on the previous economy. Given that all of these new technologies are driven by code, massively increasing the number of people who know how to do so might not only not draft wages down, they could help generate an unprecedented amount of wealth (in a similar way that California community colleges helped enable the rise of Silicon Valley).

How this would play out isn’t inevitable; it would depend in no small part on whether ordinary people were able to build the kind of economic power in this new economy that white blue color workers were able to build in the 40s and 50s through their unions. But there’s no reason why liberals or lefties should see the possibility of mass coding literacy as an evil capitalist plot.

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