Time Assets

This Stephen Hawkins article on “How to build a time machine” (all that’s needed is a wormhole, the Large Hadron Collider or a rocket that goes really,really fast) is well worth a read.

The concept of time travel was, for most of my life, simply science fiction, but it’s now looking more & more like science fact. Most science-fiction plots involving time-travel tend to involve travelling to the past; this, however, is not part of the emerging time travelling theory, moving forward in time seems the only option.

We may not be able to go back in time but we humans have become adept at “capturing time” and packaging it for reuse later on; our early ancestors spent valuable time crafting  tools and honing skills that they figured would repay any time spent many times over; they were in fact investing in time assets.

Software is perhaps human kind’s greatest time asset generator, similar in concept to the tools and machines we’ve always built, but nearly totally frictionless and with the potential of immense returns on the asset once the initial upfront cost has been met. Yet many are leaving our formal education systems with no idea of the power of software to harness time, to save it, shape it and reuse it again & again. They have not been taught to program.

I’m not suggesting here that every student be forced to study computer science, no, just for them to be introduced to the practical everyday uses of programming (with some formal theory as a foundation) – Applied Computing, if you like. In fact, if hardcore geeks consider the course to be rubbish and refuse to take it, then you know you’re hitting the right note.

At a minimum, everybody should be taught the basics and the possibilities of spreadsheets.  Although using Excel for this purpose would be more “saleable” once students hit the streets and join the work force, I would think that Google Docs Spreadsheets would be a better option as a teaching tool, because:

  • Firstly, it would be cheaper, no licences, minimum hardware requirement (anything with a browser) and the collaboration features of Goggle Docs in general are ideally suited for use in education.
  • Secondly, such training should not be primarily vocational, it should be about learning the possibilities of end-user programming.
  • Excel’s macro language is VBA, a noble language with a long distinguished history, but a language that its owners have abandoned. Google Doc’s scripting language is JavaScript, like VB a language that has often been much maligned, but unlike VB, it’s a language with a future, it’s the magic behind the browser. So students would not only learn the fundamentals of spreadsheets but would through the courses’ scripting modules learn a language that lies at the heart of their everyday computing experience.
  • Google Docs can also be manipulated via a web-based API and can be embedded in web pages. So again students would learn the fundamentals of REST and basic HTML markup, the underlying architecture of the WWW .

Studying such a course, would not only teach a useful life skill (the manipulation of numbers and lists and the automation of such tasks to create time assets) but would also provide an understanding of the building blocks of modern IT.

We need more, and better prepared (dare I say, trained) citizen programmers; there’ll never be enough professional programmers to go around and even if there were, the cost will continue to be prohibitive in many situations (both the financial cost and the time cost of keeping professional programmers aligned with (or even aware of) the business needs of multitudes of organisations).

Just like the right to bear arms was regarded as a necessity in the frontier society of 18th century America, the right (and the basic skills) to program is a necessity on our modern IT frontier. Not everybody will use (or indeed even be capable of using, or allowed to use) that right, but for millions of others, having the power to build time assets for themselves or their businesses will be one of their most prized skills.