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Why the “Learn to Code” Meme Is Toxic and Shouldn't Be Used (zeroequalsfalse.press)
30 points by majikarp 15 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 53 comments

So this meme didn't come from nowhere. Blue collar professions have been given this 'helpful advice' by journalists quite a bit over the years. It was tone deaf then, and still so now. I admit I don't yet see why it's verboten/'toxic' to parrot this same tone deaf advice to journalists now?

I admit I haven't wandered through the more dilapidated internet street corners lately, so perhaps it's become toxic due to the sheer volume of use where its no longer something to be seen in good fun, or perhaps we are running low on goodwill as a society to be able to enjoy a joke?

Setting that entire matter aside, the article has (to me) a somewhat tenuous argument that saying the tone deaf joke of 'learn to code' is disrespectful to programmers and the like. I'm not sure about that, but I don't have a coherent reason to articulate that just yet.

>So this meme didn't come from nowhere. Blue collar professions have been given this 'helpful advice' by journalists quite a bit over the years. It was tone deaf then, and still so now. I admit I don't yet see why it's verboten/'toxic' to parrot this same tone deaf advice to journalists now?

Right. This short, low-effort article doesn't seem to be aware of the context of the meme, and how it's just spitting back the very meme that journalists were promoting. Of course if you're not aware of that context, or didn't take the effort to research it, then the meme will seem more trollish and less poetic than it is.

I agree, the writer of this piece isn't doing a good job as a journalist. Maybe he should learn to code...

Did all the journalists being targeted by this actually tell blue collar workers to learn coding? I've searched on my own and found articles about "this company in west virginia that's training coal miners to code" or "jobs that will be automated in 10 years - is your's next?", but I don't specifically see or recall journalists telling displaced workers that coding would fix their problems. If anyone here can provide examples of that, I would appreciate it.

If this was a widespread thing that many journalists spouted, I understand the outcry. If only a few journalists spouted this nonsense, then I don't think it's fair to punish an entire industry over some bad apples.

What I suspect is that the "learn to code" push was more of a society-wide meme trafficked by politicians, economists, and tech CEOs. And I have to imagine that some journalists gave those people a platform. But perhaps I'm looking at the wrong evidence?

EDIT: dexen's post found maybe one example: A Buzzfeed quiz that suggests coding could become the next blue collar profession. That kind of fits the "learn to code" meme. The other articles dexen posted were actually counter to that - An article where Michael Bloomberg said learning to code is unrealistic for many displaced workers, and another article about coal miners proving him wrong.

Is that it? Or are there more examples?

Whether it was journalists pushing it, or "politicians, economists, and tech CEOs" pushing it, and journalists merely repeating it, I don't know.

But I definitely remember hearing that message in the media for the last 20 years, and I don't recall anyone calling it "trolling" until it was directed at journalists.

Well it's important to know what was actually said and who said it. If, by and large, journalists did not actually advocate for displaced workers to code their way out of unemployment, then harassing them with #learntocode is unjustified.

I've wasted the entire morning looking for sources of this by now. Like you, I sort of remembered hearing that message over the years. But now that I'm looking, I'm not actually finding many examples where news outlets are seriously suggesting this.

Have you ever thought you knew something, but end up misremembering it? There are lots of people who swear they remember a movie called Shazzam staring Sinbad as a genie, but there is no such movie. There was a movie called Kazaam staring Shaquille O'Neal, and Sinbad once dressed up in similar garb when hosting a movie showing. But people conflated the two things.

I think that's whats going on. And if so, we should not be harassing journalists who had nothing to do with this.

> punish

The whole point is that it wasn't a punishment when some journalists did it, but it's a punishement when some journalists hear it. So, they are full of crap.

> it wasn't a punishment when some journalists did it,

But when did they do it? and who? Please send me any evidence you have. I feel like I'm going crazy here. Not finding anything.

Retraining is one of the options when an industrial sector shrinks. Suggesting a growing industry like software development as an option doesn't deserve a "punishment" unless it was spiteful in some way. Mocking journalists, or anyone else, who has lost their job is the toxic part of this.

I agree with your sentiment. I don't recall this being such a widespread thing. I think it is fine to scold the people who originally made these remarks (I myself do not remember who particular started the "Learn To Code" platform) but we should leave it at that. Just getting more upset about it and involving journalists who were never originally involved is a bad idea to just keep upsetting more and more people.

I guess the media don't like getting a clap back [since they stated it years ago when "those jobs ain't coming back" and so on]; they like to be the ones dishing it out.

> I admit I don't yet see why it's verboten/'toxic' to parrot this same tone deaf advice to journalists now?

Because journalists are better than you. This is the only "reality" the media are interested in pushing forward. It underlies every weird thing coming out of the media in the last few years.

This was also implicit in the way Twitter dealt with it. Tweeting "Learn to Code" was fine, tweeting it at a journalist would get you banned.

I think sexism is also involved. Media professions attract more women (my journalism and marketing classes were filled with women). And the media loves to cover the gender gap in STEM. So now it's a bunch of guys tweeting to women telling them to "Learn to Code" after said women complain about getting laid off or career difficulties.

So what? Women journalists comment on male careers all the time, what's wrong with the reverse?

Unless you're prepared to apply that "sexism" standard equally, you're being sexist by applying unequal standards.

Actually these people redefined sexism and racism as "doesn't count when applied to the sex/race I dislike". I wish I was joking but this is the state of the art in academia.

> Actually these people redefined sexism and racism as "doesn't count when applied to the sex/race I dislike". I wish I was joking but this is the state of the art in academia.

This is a great place to talk about something I've observed about academic ideas like these, which I'll call the difference between Academic and Vulgar, by analogy to "Vulgar Libertarianism" and "Vulgar Socialism":

There's a difference between Academic Positions and Vulgar Positions, where Academic Positions are defined as being the ones academics write papers about and Vulgar Positions are the ones average people who support those Positions use in day-to-day discourse, especially in discussions with others. This is a convenient feature: Academic Positions are nuanced and logically defensible, whereas Vulgar Positions are simple, pugnacious, and useful in street-fight debates where you primarily want to shut down the person you're opposed to.

Intersectionality has a Vulgar form: "Check your privilege!" In the Academic sense, that statement is, at most, a gentle reminder to examine the totality of a situation before judging it. In the Vulgar sense, it's a way to shut someone down by stating that they're "privileged" and are, therefore, unworthy of having a judgement at all. In the Academic sense, saying someone is "privileged" is nonsensical, or perhaps tautological, in that everyone has some position where they're privileged and some positions where they're disadvantaged, so saying that a person is privileged is not very meaningful. In the Vulgar sense, "privilege" absolutely does adhere to individuals, and people with "privilege" must never disagree with those without.

Anyway, the Academic form is the only one officially acknowledged to exist, whereas the Vulgar form is the lived experience, the one which drives actions and policies. Therefore, the Vulgar form is never seriously discussed, because when you mention its features, the person you're discussing it with will deny that their philosophy has those features, as, indeed, the Academic form does not.

This isn't motte-and-bailey because there are plenty of people who honestly don't hold the Vulgar position and who would argue against it if someone expressed it to their face. This isn't a tactic, it's the inability of the academic world to communicate their ideas in a nuanced fashion, and the unpalatability of nuanced ideas to people who just want a fight.

Look up James Damore. When men comment on women's career choices, they get fired. And now men are getting banned from Twitter. Probably because "sexism."

You may be right. It's a a sexist double standard, but in certain circles, it's essentially forbidden for a man to criticize a woman in any way, while it's permissible for a woman to say anything she likes about men, however hateful.

And those circles do seem to have a lot of overlap with the circles that consider the "Learn to Code" meme "toxic".

I think these certain circles are quite small but the emphasis is put on them and many people, whether they agree or not, are put into the circle for viewing the "Learn to Code" meme as toxic. I agree that telling blue collar workers to learn to code originally was tone deaf and these journalists should be scolded for it but I also assume that not every journalist was on the "holier than thou" train.

We should just be better to each other. Don't fight their ignorance with the same ignorance, it is just making the world a meaner place in my opinion.

> When men comment on women's career choices, they get fired.

James Damore circulated a long unscientific document critical of female engineers as a whole at his place of work. This is far more than just "commenting on career choices".

He made a frankly stupid choice to be unprofessional and it cost him his job. Beyond anything else his judgement was poor. It's fair as is dismissal for other unprofessional behavior at work or for incredibly poor decision making.

>the article has (to me) a somewhat tenuous argument that saying the tone deaf joke of 'learn to code' is disrespectful to programmers and the like

Yeah, seems off to me too. If there's anything about the whole thing that's disrespectful to programmers, it's that journos think programming as a career path is beneath them.

> So this meme didn't come from nowhere. Blue collar professions have been given this 'helpful advice' by journalists quite a bit over the years. It was tone deaf then, and still so now. I admit I don't yet see why it's verboten/'toxic' to parrot this same tone deaf advice to journalists now?

Because you're taking a meme meant for low-income low-prestige men and applying it to members of a high-income high-prestige mixed group.

You are, in short, reducing the status of the journalists to those of unemployed coal miners. Hell, you might as well slap a paper hat on their heads and tell them to man a fryer. It's "problematic" and "toxic" to be reminded that you can fall in the class structure like that.

I don't think it has anything to do with income - journalism is not an especially "high income" career path. It's all about culture, cliques and good-old-boy networks - here as perhaps in other cases, journalists are relying on a rather context-specific sort of "prestige" in an effort to escape this sort of attack/criticism.

>Currently (...)

Way to start with a false premise. The meme died out by now[1].

> The phrase “Learn to Code” was initially posted on Twitter after the layoffs at BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post.

Way to continue with a false premise.

The phrase was used literally [2], and the subject was referenced [3] by numerous newspapers and other media outlets back when the economy was tanking, as a helpful suggestion to laid off workers - miners, autoworkers, and so on. "Those jobs aren't coming back" and all that. The only concern back then was of practicality, and nobody in their right mind considered it to be a put down of the workes, or of programmers.

Yes, the phrase may seem insensitive from our, programmer's, POV. Nonetheless, there's a historical precedent to it, based off of much wider segment of society than just programmers.

I find it shameful that Twitter, in its infinite wisdom, decided to suppress the accompanying hashtag, and later on even went as far started penalizing the posters. It used to be understood as a good idea back then, it's still considered a good idea now-a-day. I think it was shot down only for the expediency of keeping the journalists a-buzz on Twitter.


[1] https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?date=today%203-m&q=...

[2] https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/katienotopoulos/should-...

[3] https://gigaom.com/2014/04/09/michael-bloomberg-you-cant-tea... and https://www.wired.com/2015/11/can-you-teach-a-coal-miner-to-...

> Way to start with a false premise. The meme died out by now

Change the dates and look at the graph, I don't think you can say such a trend died by looking at the last 90 days.


We still see articles about teaching kids to code, either at home or in school almost weekly on HN.


I appreciate your diligence, but I'm having a real tough time following any argument you are making. I feel like you are receiving downvotes because you come off as sounding secure in your perspective but your arguments appear rather aimless.

You're right— I wasn't really building up to an argument. I criticized my parent post and then essentially made an assertion that the ‘#learntocode’ meme is essentially bad faith, and gestured at what seems to me to be the obvious motivation for that.

Part of the reason is that I haven't done a comprehensive historical investigation of the meme. What I have done is actually read the handful of articles that I've seen used to support it (here and elsewhere), and examined who have been involved in propagating it, and drawn a conclusion that I think is pretty obvious if you know the terrain.

Like a lot of HN comments, it was something that I hastily typed at work in between other tasks. I'll think about returning to the subject for a more thorough examination if I have time. :)

>no, no, no, edgelords and /pol/tards

Please consider providing a positive narrative - "this started a trend, this expanded it, that was the result, here's where we are at presently, that's the expected future". Picking apart a succinct and sourced (even if weakly) post is much less convincing.

Having been part of the "culture war"[1], I nonetheless couldn't just post my lived experience here, as it wouldn't stand on its own. Thus I went out of my way to build up narrative from supporting sources. It's not exactly how I perceived it personally, but that's the closest version I could support with sources, i.e., as close to objective as I could provide in under 15 minutes or so.


[1] I'm using different moniker for the purpose, due to the high tensions and the mudslinging involved.

I'm also looking for sources... and finding none that justify harassing journalists like this.

I had this vague recollection of "learn to code" being spouted by different publications. But the more I look into it, the more I think we're just mis-remembering news stories from the time.

All I'm finding are articles about Rusty Justice. That's not a journalist telling miners to code. At least not directly. Maybe that's the implicit message. But I think that's reading into it too much. It's a human interest story, not a prescription.

I think a lot of people are angry at the media, and looking for anything to validate that anger. There's no shortage of media scandals you could point to. But in this specific case, I'm not seeing evidence. Maybe journalists deserve more credit.

I'd be more interested in the experience that you mentioned, if you're willing to share it. Individual personal experiences aren't compelling in the way that certain arguments can be, but there's also some inherent validity (and for me at least, interest) to them even when if they're not necessarily representative.

The reason the learn to code meme is popular with 4chan is because some journalists were insinuating that coal miners and truck drivers will have to learn how to code in order to pay their bills.

Now that journalists are being told to learn how to code to pay their bills, it is controversial.

The "Learn to Code" meme in its current evolution, i.e. as thrown back in the faces of journalists, is pointedly in defense of the value and difficulty of software development which the article espouses.

We should be aware that the meme has origin on journalists themselves.

When blue collar workers faced job shortages due to environmental regulations (I am not arguing those were wrong of course, just putting it into perspective), journalists suggested those workers to "learn to code" in some very insensitive remarks.

Now, those words are being thrown back at journalists facing job shortages themselves.

Do you remember which journalists made those remarks? I'm trying to find the source of this.

The Know Your Meme article about it has quite a lot of info and some sources for the old articles: https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/learn-to-code?full=1

I think this author is a bit too easily offended. Software engineering is a good job but we're not better than anyone else.

This author doesnt understand sarcasm - another reason I tend to ignore anyone who uses the word "toxic" outside of health and safety.

Software engineer for 12 years, in IT for 18.

Not in the slightest bit offended by this. No one should be. It's a silly meme.

Why do people think that software engineering is the ultimate job in the world ? Sure it pays well and is generally a good job but other jobs are important too. Our modern lifestyle isn't solely built by software engineers. The meme is that everyone should learn to code is as silly as saying everyone should be an astronaut.

My belief is that because people who don't know anything about writing software think it's easy and pays lots of money because you understand this arcane language that seems mystical to them.

Because on the outside, it does look like the ultimate job.

They think it's easy, low-effort, and high-paying. To most people, we sit at desks (or play ping pong) all day, type words on keyboards, then collect a five-figure paycheck at the end of the week.

The difference is that writing code is useful to many people who aren't professional programmers. I'm a research scientist, not a programmer, for example. But writing code to analyze my data gives me an advantage over people who just put everything in Excel because they can't code.

I'm not sure it's toxic. Ideas can't hurt people, not really.

That said, I don't think most people can code very effectively. It requires a person to be generally intelligent, and then to specialize in a narrow part of computer science. "Learn to Code" is great advice, but it should probably be understood that everyone who's being displaced won't become effective coders.

> I'm not sure it's toxic. Ideas can't hurt people, not really.

Jesus said "The truth will set you free."[1] The corollary is that lies make you a slave. Ideas can definitely hurt people - especially ideas that are believed.

In this context, the idea that I need to learn to code could be very harmful if I believe it, devote time and money into learning how to code, and find out that I can't code well enough to get a job (or that I hate it). Now I'm out a bunch of time and money that I could have spent learning how to do something else that fit me better.

Even worse is if I conclude that "coding = success, not being able to code = failure", and therefore that I am currently a failure, and a permanent failure if I fail to learn how to code. That can be massively harmful.

The meme itself isn't a big deal. Directing some smack talk at the media is completely fair game. If someone takes the meme seriously, however, it can definitely hurt people. (Don't take career advice from memes. Even more, don't take advice as to your identity or value as a human being from memes.) -- [1] Actually, he said that if you followed his teaching, you would know the truth, and the truth would set you free - it was spiritual truth and spiritual freedom he was talking about. I'm taking his words more broadly than perhaps he meant them.

This is a great response.

I think I probably could have caveated a little better, and said something like:

"People are throwing around the word 'toxic' far too freely. I'm worried about over-sensitivity and censorship. Because of these concerns, I'm apt to push back on characterizations that words and ideas are harmful, even if the ideas themselves are flawed and open to criticism. Specifically, flawed ideas that deserve to be criticized can't really hurt you in the way that 'toxic' implies."

Related: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19336925

Tim Apple himself is saying that colleges are not doing enough to teach folks to code! Acknowledging this underlying reality, even in a somewhat provocative way, is hardly "toxic".

It's supposed to be a jab at fired journalists and not serious career advice which is how the author appears to have taken it. The toxic part is not that learning to code is going to solve all their problems and be all "rainbows and unicorns" but that it is mocking people for being laid off, whoever they are.

I disagree. Hearing this about a decade ago was the kick in the pants that I needed to get my life in shape. I realize it doesn't work out for everybody, but demystifying software development as something anybody can do is excellent.

What hurts our industry is the ninja/hero culture where devs burn the midnight oil for no overtime. If you want to be respected as professionals, behave like a lawyer. What would your lawyer say if you told him he needed to do a Saturday night deployment?

Feels like he started with the conclusion and worked in a premise.


I don't think you understand the context behind the meme... at all.


Plenty of people from all across the political spectrum would sooner complain than take responsibility and initiative, and plenty of others from across the board are otherwise inclined.

Maybe tone down the broad-brushed contempt; among the people you're talking about there will inevitably be people who are just dealing with tough luck through little fault of their own, and who are not reacting with cruelty to others.

Virtue signaling, much?

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