30 jan The computer is our friend

As technology increasingly starts to define our future, it’s time to ask what that means. For Finland’s Linda Liukas, it means that all of us—especially girls and women—need to learn programming.

We’ve only been talking for 15 minutes when Linda Liukas suddenly says something that makes me start to worry. It was an offhand remark, but still, her words stuck with me. “I think it’s intellectually lazy that we always say that computers are too complicated to understand.”Apparently I feel I’m being addressed on a personal level. Because it’s very much true: I like to use computers, but I never wondered what exactly happens when I press the play button on a YouTube video or when I transfer money online or send a WhatsApp message to a friend. Let alone do I have any sort of programming skills. Much too complicated. Not for me. But now I think: maybe I am too lazy?

Liukas has a fear, as she will tell me later. She is afraid of a future in which there is a division between creators and passive users. The creators speak the language of computers. They use technology to build, to create and to better understand the world around them. They use software to find solutions to problems, to make informed decisions and to better organize their lives. On the other hand, passive users only consume software that is made for them by others. I’m beginning to suspect that I belong to the latter category. Is that a bad thing?

The morning began so carefree. The sun was lovely when I walked through the beautiful, stately Aleksanterinkatu shopping street. Helsinki had only just woken up. The famous Stockmann department store had opened its doors. Just down the street, between two clothing boutiques—just like Liukas had described—I found the narrow stairs up to a cozy little bar called La Torrefazione.

There, I found her in a corner next to the window, frantically drawing in a sketchbook. She had just started a breakfast of bread, salmon, orange yogurt and a large cup of coffee. We soon started talking about how computers, technology, the Internet and software have undeniably become an increasingly important part of our lives. We are becoming more and more dependent on the computers in our pockets, we organize our finances using software, our health is increasingly being monitored with the help of online applications, and computers have become a natural part of the workplace. More and more devices are equipped with Internet and software, from smart thermometers to lampposts, refrigerators and sportswear with sensors.

The question Liukas asks is: Who are the architects of these technologies? In other words, if the latest software determines our future, then who creates that future?

This is no trivial question. “In some way, the software engineers decide what things in the world get better and more advanced,” Liukas says. She believes it is a problem that the group of people who are able to program is still too small, geographically concentrated and homogenous.

Simply look at the statistics: according to the American Bureau of Labor Statistics, 80 percent of software programmers in America are men. Furthermore, this group is disproportionately centered in the Silicon Valley tech mecca. At companies like Google, women make up just 17 percent of the global tech workforce, and 95 percent of the employees are either white or Asian.

Naturally, this doesn’t mean that Liukas wants to portray young white men as bad guys. In fact, she says, “They are the brave ones who are curious enough to start building things with computers.” But young men tend to focus on other young men when they create things—this is the law of the land, unfortunately, says Liukas. “Here in Finland, we really need advanced software in the health-care sector. Instead, the software programmers have been building high-quality food-ordering applications. That’s nice, I like them, but I think we need to be more conscious about raising a generation of people who can use software to solve the big societal problems.”