“You are not expected to understand this.” Those seven words, which appeared in the source code of Unix’s sixth edition in 1975, have since been reproduced by computer geeks on T-shirts, mugs, jumpers and, with the inevitability of an unloved season, tote bags.
The phrase’s cultural afterlife, and the reasons it has become a rallying cry for programmers everywhere, inspire the titular essay in a new collection on the most important lines of computer code in human history, and how the assumptions and choices taken by programmers shape our world today.
“You are not expected to understand this” has sometimes been used as a commentary on the arrogance and unapproachability of computer scientists. This is somewhat unfair, given that its author, Dennis Ritchie, later explained that it “was intended as a remark in the spirit of ‘This won’t be on the exam,’ rather than as an impudent challenge”.
Unfortunately, the challenge has all too often been unconsciously seized upon as an excuse not to try and understand this. In the UK, this is the case every time someone proudly says they don’t know how a microwave works — or when the actor Simon Pegg claims that Rishi Sunak’s ambition to teach maths to all pupils in England until the age of 18 is because the prime minister wants to turn the workforce into “a drone army of data-entering robots”.
That the UK is an outlier in the rich world in allowing students to abandon maths or science lessons earlier on in their schooling is often seen solely as an economic and social problem. That’s undoubtedly true: poor numeracy and statistical understanding limit what jobs people can take, constraining social mobility and creating skills shortages. But it is also, increasingly, a moral problem.
Why? Because one of the most exciting developments in public policy and in private businesses is the development and deployment of algorithms and machine learning to solve complex problems. Done right, these new tools can resolve difficult problems and facilitate transparent discussions about trade-offs.
But to gain access to those benefits, politicians, business leaders and ordinary people do have to have a basic understanding of the underlying concepts. They don’t need to understand every brace and asterisk in Unix’s source code, just as outside of the legal profession, no one needs to know every dot and comma in the criminal code. But we do expect politicians, chief executives and other leadership officials to have sufficient language skills to understand sentencing guidelines.
More importantly, most governments instruct officials to use plain language in their communication precisely because they believe, rightly, that all citizens should be able to understand what it is that their government is doing and why.
Part of the problem is that, broadly speaking, we perceive someone who can’t read their native language as the victim of some kind of external tragedy. They have, at a minimum, been let down by their parents, their teachers or fallen foul of some kind of terrible misfortune. We think it’s reasonable to believe that a compulsory education ought, at the very least, equip you to follow a Supreme Court judgment without undue difficulty, even if the case is fairly complex.
Even in the UK, a country that is fairly maths-resistant, there is a general belief that everyone ought to leave school able to do basic arithmetic. But we think nothing of the fact that the average politician is simply not equipped to act either as a commissioner of technological services or as a regulator. Nor do we seem especially exercised by the fact that the average voter leaves school without the ability or the knowhow to really understand debates about the basic fundamentals of computer code.
The good news is that once we grasp that technical literacy is as important for people’s ability to be informed citizens of a democracy as actual literacy, policymakers don’t need to reinvent the wheel to fix the problem.
In the West Midlands, for instance, the metro-mayoralty has been able to provide project managers who had previously worked in other sectors with the basic skill-level necessary to act as project managers for the region’s video game industry. Providing a similar course to MPs and legislators would make them better regulators and commissioners of tech. And a greater comprehension of the trade-offs involved would lead government ministers to realise that voters do, in fact, need to understand this.