Asian student looking at her books against a backdrop of computing concept

Book review: ‘Code for What?’ by Clifford Lee and Elisabeth Soep

Image credit: Canva

Over the course of 10 years, a team of 14-to-24-year-olds worked with mentors to combine journalism, data, design and code and create digital media products that would impact their communities. This is their story.

Facial recognition software, a streaming service’s music-categorising algorithm, gendered and racialised high school dress codes and LBGTQ+ discrimination are some of the social issues that a team of teens at YR Media sought to address, using digital technologies.  

In 'Code for What?: Computer Science for Storytelling and Social Justice' (The MIT Press, $29.95, ISBN 9780262047456), Dr Elisabeth Soep, and Dr Cliff Lee challenge current practices in computer science courses. Instead of teaching computing in a technical and decontextualised way, they encourage educators to push the boundaries of traditional education and lean into interactive and impactful methods that can approach the content from a more human perspective. 

Could coding become a justice-driven medium for storytelling? Would it empower youth to create digital products for social impact? What would that look like? These are some of the questions the authors aimed to answer alongside the young group of interns working at YR Media. 

The programme allowed students from underserved communities to build skills in digital media. Over the course of ten years, the teens designed projects that could serve their communities and learned how to code them into existence. The book is a recounting of these initiatives: its successes, failures and the learnings that could be applied by educators looking to modernise their ways of teaching.

West Side Stories was a project that allowed students to highlight the rich history of a community facing gentrification in an interactive way. Meanwhile, in Can You Teach AI to Dance?, the teen coders looked at artificial intelligence tools used to quantify creative art products. In Erase Your Face, they challenged the limitations of facial recognition algorithms and the social implications for the rise in popularity of the technology. 

Some of these products had tangible impacts on the students’ communities. Double Charged: Behind the Numbers shone a light on how assigned court fees were keeping young people in cycles of poverty and debt, and even leading them to pick up new charges and return to prison. In order to raise awareness of this perceived injustice, the YR Media team created an interactive digital experience in which users would follow a young person’s conviction story. With each step, a calculator added up all accrued charges, based on real people’s experiences. 

The news stories prompted by this investigation lead to Alameda County’s decision to abolish administrative fees in juvenile delinquency cases. In 2018, the state of California followed suit.

Written from the perspective of the mentors, the book is a capturing reflection of what it means to teach computing to a highly-digitised generation. Described as “a radical reimagining of STEAM”, the authors make a convincing and engaging argument for a human-centred approach to computer science, where students can ask themselves what coding can do for them, and for the benefit of their communities. 

While the book is very centred around the specific experiences of the YR Media youth programme - which would not be necessarily easy to replicate under the current constraints of most education systems - it does provide a useful context in which to rethink current ways of teaching. In this aspect, the last section, ‘Tensions and Expansions’ shines a light on real-life educators and innovators that have been able to establish “justice-driven” approaches to teaching that can be placed in the intersection of computing and art.  

Using accessible language, but going in-depth into the implications of computer science teaching, Soep and Leep make a compelling argument for the importance of incorporating ethics into coding courses. At the end of the day, it is humans who code; and human errors are often the cause of algorithmic bias and technology’s tendency to reproduce inequality. 

Rather than thinking of coding as a skill solely useful for the tech sector, Code for What? provides real-life examples of how coding can benefit media and journalism, as well as education overall, and leaves you wishing you had attended impact-driven coding lessons in middle school.    

What do we code for? The authors of this book look at how computer programming can provide insight, connection, community, accountability, creative expression, joy and, ultimately, hope for the next generation. But, ultimately, the book’s title question could be summarised in only one concept: We code for change. 

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles