Programming ability is the new digital divide: Berners-Lee

Tim Berners-Lee says lack of programming knowledge leaves users at the mercy of corporations

Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee says all school students should be given some hands-on experience of programming, to provide a critical mass of enthusiastic and competent programmers to stem the current shortage of developers.

Perhaps more important, he says, this approach will promote a view of the computer as a machine that can be made to do anything its owner wants, rather than a domestic appliance "like a fridge", performing certain fixed tasks.

There are two kinds of digital divide, Berners-Lee told the audience at a booked-out presentation in Wellington yesterday; the more familiar divide is between those who can afford a computer and internet access and those who can't. Less talked of is the divide between those who can program and those whose computer "skills" are restricted to knowing how to work standard applications such as word processing and spreadsheets.

Lack of hands-on experience of the computer's flexibility leaves the user at the mercy of "a bunch of companies who would love to be able to lock it down, so you can only run the applications that they allow; the ones you can get from their app-store," Berners-Lee says.

A powerful fighter against this kind of restriction, he says, is author and blogger Cory Doctorow, who calls it "the war on general computation."

The larger theme of openness was Berners-Lee's central topic. This theme, as InternetNZ president Frank March pointed out, will be taken up by the NetHui conference organised by InternetNZ in July this year.

Berners-Lee explored openness as applied not only to the internet but to open access to information, to open -- hence more efficient and accountable - government and to the development of program code. He explained open-source development to his audience, emphasising the potential of sharing code for rapid development, free of formal licensing and procurement processes. "Open source makes everything run very much faster; people talk about a web-year as equal to 2.6 [ordinary] years."

He made only a glancing reference to patents, but many of his audience would have been conscious that the Patents Bill, with its exclusion of software, is now first on the Parliamentary Order Paper after the mammoth debate in reply to the Prime Minister's opening statement.

Openness and the free (in both senses of the word) ethos were an early stimulus for use of the web, its inventor pointed out. The University of Minnesota, which produced Gopher, an early tool for finding documents through the internet, wanted to start charging for it. This, says Berners-Lee, encouraged people to look to his own free offering.

One of the first principles of an open standard, he says, is that is that you shouldn't have to pay to get a copy of the standards document -- as is demanded, for example, by the International Standards Organisation. A key feature of web standards too is that anyone should be able -- indeed encouraged -- to be involved in criticising and developing the standard. "Almost everybody out there [in the technically minded web community] has an idea for a tag that should be in the html standard," he says.

Early writers of browsers adopted the open-source principle, freely trading bits of code among themselves and this spirit continues to inform the web. Patents are permissible under W3C principles, but use of the patented features is kept royalty-free.

Tags business issuespersonnelapplication developmenttrainingcareerssoftwareIT management

More about BillinventorW3C




Providing all school students with hands-on experience of programming is a huge waste of teaching time and resources - for a skill that is only required by a tiny minority of the working population.

The vast majority of computer users simply want a 'tool' to perform specific tasks.

A good analogy is a the car: the vast majority of drivers want a vehicle to get from A to B and have zero interest in what is under the bonnet. No point in providing all school students with hands-on car maintenance, just those that intend to become auto mechanics and those interested in maintaining their own car.



Were is your google plus button ?

I wanted to share :-)



The industry want's an oversupply of developers so as to drive wages down. However, on the other hand when there are plenty of new graduates, they do not employ them because they do not want to train them. They prefer to pay high wages to an elect few. "Schitzo". Also, today's kids are aware of a major drawback of programming as a career. That of temporary knowlege capital.

Prem Kamble


Kim's views about need for developing programming skills are far removed from corporate reality.

Any CIO of the corporate world will tell you that the problem of IT failures (and the infamous ERP failures) in corporate world is not lack of programming knowledge, but lack of what I call Computer Awareness among the senior managers who are involved in the implementations or use of IT solutions. This includes managers, Heads of departments and CEOs.

Tim says, "#this approach will promote a view of the computer as a machine that can be made to do anything its owner wants
.." Again, any CIO will tell you that the problem is not of under-expectation, but over expectation. Need is to tune down the expectations of managers to realistic levels. With the common belief that computer is a super machine, the expectations are sky high resulting in disappointment, frustrations and friction when the results are not so instant and, sometimes, not so miraculous.

Pls see my full comments at



I am not totally averse to schools teaching programming. I certainly oppose them teaching kids "consumerism" - teaching kids to search Wikipedia to do their homework on an expensive and not particularly useful device (that the school has specified because the Head Master has one and is all gaga about it).

I don't go a long with the argument that technology is necessary in schools because they are "teaching students for jobs that don't even exist yet". I was schooled in the 1960s and 1970s and yet I am able to do a job in ICT. My teachers taught me for the job I am doing today. They skills I learned then were reading, writing and maths that are universally required in any job/profession. Even though I do not have any formal ICT training, I have all I need to be able to do my job.

I suggest that schools should not expose students to ICT until senior levels and then not from a user perspective but from a developer perspective. They should not even be teaching kids to 'code' but about algorithms and data modelling etc

Comments are now closed

Kiwis clamour for unreleased NZ tech