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The Bad Side of Good Publicity

As a teacher, I have spent the last eighteen years of my life dedicated to teaching technology skills and computer science. One of the most rewarding aspects of this work is when I am visited years later by former students who have become successful coders or engineers. It makes me happy to know that one of my classes helped introduce them to their chosen fields.

Over the years, organizations such as CSTA, ACM, NSF, WIT, and WITI (to name just a few) have made enormous progress. This past year, Code.org has also done amazing work. Billions of lines of code written by students, regardless of gender or ethnicity has been nothing short of inspiring for classroom teachers like myself. But we still face important challenges. Here are some of the hard truths. The glass ceiling for women in technology is real. The declining numbers in enrollments in CS and engineering programs by women is real.

And now we are seeing the ugly flip side of the good work that has been done. When you bring an issue to the forefront, you have to worry that some folks will take exception and satirize your accomplishments in name of humor. Enter codebabes.com, an organization brought to my attention by an article in the Washington Post. While not wanting to give it legitimacy by naming it, it is difficult to skip the opportunity to express my outrage. This organization and the website it has created flies in the face of the years I have spent trying to teach students to code for good.

Fifteen years ago, my school had a guest speaker from the Internet Crimes Task Force. He spoke about computer hackers and portrayed the typical hacker as a teenage male (yes, usually a teenager, but always male). I wondered why this was the case, and decided that either there weren't any female hackers, or they were so much better than their male counterparts because they had never been caught!

As a middle and high school teacher, I have taught several talented young men. Some of them had great potential as hackers. I always felt a sense of obligation when I worked with them to try to get them to understand their potential and show them that it as important to do good things with their code. Sadly, code babes presents the antithesis of this message, portraying coding as dangerous to women and dangerous to our future.

Too bad they couldn't create a site that would not be offensive to women and offensive to computer science teachers. It is clear that the authors possess a really immature sense of humor, and we can only hope that someday, when they grow up, they will be ashamed of their sophomoric actions. At the minimum, let's hope that if they pass on their coding skills to future offspring these offspring will all be girls, and that the antics of their fathers in their younger days will not dissuade them from bright coding futures.

Joanne Barrett
CSTA Member and Florida Chapter Leader

Comments

Joanne raises a concern I have had for some time about the "anything goes" ethos often afflicting young (immature) practitioners. This wasn't a problem in my youth, as only serious professionals gained access to computers with internet connectivity. Yet, the influential designers of the early internet services (e.g. AOL) bought into the "freedom" of allowing users to adopt pseudonyms, and thus to act covertly behind a veil of anonymity.

30 years later, if we compare the evolution of the internet to a well-regulated high-tech domain, global jet air travel, the internet has opened up vast new avenues for criminal enterprise, while the aviation industry boasts daily operation free of crime. I truly wish our field could become as serious-minded about ridding our powerful technologies of theft, fraud and subterfuge. If we could at least admit that the potential to inflict harm via networked-computing was on par with driving a motor vehicle, and devise similar maturity-readiness criteria and identification & accountability infrastructure, it would send young men the message we want to send -- computing in a connected world is a privilege with responsibilities, not some libertarian playground where the rule-breakers define the rules.

Sometimes I think it would help if CS majors had to study more civics and history before being turned loose to design networks and apps, the thinking being that we want high-tech designers to be strongly committed to the rule of law, not indifferent or contemptuous of it.

The western nations could stand to be more circumspect about the direction internet society is evolving. The lawlessness and antisocial mischief are being noticed with alarm by countries not on the forefront of technology. I heard today that Russia is considering a new law that would preclude anonymous internet usage in the future. It is a big mistake to dismiss this as creeping totalitarianism. Our way of life is historically rooted in accountability for one's public behavior. When automobile accidents started occurring in the early 1900s, and many drivers succumbed to the impulse to just drive off, within a generation drivers most everywhere in the U.S. were licensed and cars wore ID tags.

My sense is that kids need to be involved with computing in a structured environment. And just as they can drive go-carts years before turning 16, there ought to be supervised activities with computing designed for kids. What I don't think is going to serve us well, nor continue another decade unchallenged, is giving young kids the keys to the global internet and letting them run amok unsupervised. When I see all the hacks and scams going on daily, and think about the way in which people are being harmed and confidence in law and order undermined, I feel like the CS field really needs to up its social-responsibility game. The first step is to lose the "technology is neither good nor bad" evasion of responsibility. The second is to start doing Rule-of-Law Reviews on all developing systems to anticipate, and preclude by design, criminal exploitation of the new technology.

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