Proceduracy, which is my term for the literacy associated with computer programming, is the ability to break down complex processes into smaller procedures and express them explicitly enough to be read by a computer.
Proceduracy, which is more than a mere “coding” ability (writing using a vocabulary of the machines), is about modelling, mental processes which allow understanding the working of software systems—its different components, the steps of algorithmic treatment, its various layers of interaction.
The importance of proceduracy could not be underestimated, although it is often dismissed for disciplinary excuses (writing software is left to programmers and other computer professionals). But computer code has become too important to be left to computer scientists. The digital is cross-disciplinary, it is “infrastructural” to life in society:
I note that computer code has become infrastructural to Western society in the same way that text did during the Middle Ages; underlying most of our daily communication and activities is a layer of computer code. Because computer code is so central to so much of what we do, the literacy associated with it is a literacy that matters, a literacy that is both infrastructural and powerful.
Citing professor Michael Mateas, Vee underlines the similar analogy of relegating language proficiency to a particular trade:
[O]ne can argue that procedural literacy is a fundamental competence for everyone, required full participation in contemporary society, that believing only programmers (people who make a living at it) should be procedurally literate is like believing only published authors need to learn how to read and write.
More than learning to “code,” what “literacy” means in a widely computerized society points to a basic understanding of the general mechanisms at work, an understanding which helps citizens not only “function,” but also navigate autonomously, make genuine decisions (instead of constantly falling back on default choices), and even develop a critical, computational thinking.
To find oneself baffled in blissful contemplation before “simple,” but opaque solutions (as they become more difficult to dispense with), such is a reality that popular digital education must combat. In this context, proceduracy can prove to be a useful framework.
A few questions for digital literacy
- How does a computer connect to the Internet and how does it resolve an address?
- What is a URL? How to read it?
- By which means can one share a file between two devices, such as an image, a text or a video? Which intermediaries are involved, where are they located, and is it possible to get rid of them?
- How does an artificial intelligence “fed”? Which are the patterns that give it away? Which informed uses can be made of it?
- What is cryptographic encryption and how does it allow securing an exchange between two parties or validating the integrity of a digital artefact?
- What is the difference between a protocol, a format and a programming language?
- How to sort a dataset? How to produce a visualization, a particular modelling?
- Is it possible to have access to the source code of given software? What are the values embedded in it?
Procedural Literacy: The concept was previously coined by researcher Michael Mateas in his eponymous paper of 2005 Procedural Literacy: Educating the New Media Practitioner. ↩︎
Processor: It’s a slip of the tongue—Annette Vee is, of course, an English professor—but one that I could not resist keeping. ↩︎