Meet the People Coding Our World

Meet the People Coding Our World

Images of computer programmers tend to be charged with stereotypes: the quiet nerd, the punk hacker, the hoodie-wearing loner. But what do we really know about the people who are, more than ever, shaping our lives? As screen times soar and tech continues to replace even the most mundane tasks, it might serve us well to know more about the people behind the programs.

I first became interested in Clive Thompson’s new book, Coders, after reading his New York Times story, adapted from a chapter in the book, about the history of women in tech. As a woman in tech myself, I was struck by how thoughtful and thorough his coverage was — and not just for a guy. In Coders, Thompson, a longtime tech reporter, brings that same anthropological approach to the world of coding writ large. He deftly guides us through a culture that can often seem inaccessible, boring, or just frustratingly self-involved. He approaches tech with both an insider’s expertise and an endearing fondness, while never failing to offer a healthy dose of skepticism where skepticism is due, making the whole read equal parts fascinating and refreshing.

I had the pleasure of chatting with Thompson on a recent afternoon in Brooklyn. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Clive Thompson: I wrote the book primarily for people who aren’t coders to help them understand who these people are and what they do all day, so the average person can understand what’s going on in the technological world around them, why coders make the decisions they make, how they decide to tackle problems, how they define what a problem is… There are really so few books that have ever tried to explain what coders do, and so many of the Hollywood images are so unrealistic.

All the coders love that one!

When people ask me what makes someone succeed at coding, they expect me to say someone has to be really logical or really good at math or systematic thinking. Some of those might be true. But honestly, the single biggest psychological disposition is the ability to endure unbelievable amounts of daily grinding frustration. I don’t know any other discipline like it.

I sometimes feel like that’s what we should tell kids up front: This is going to be enormously fun when it works, but until it works, this is insanely frustrating. But don’t give up! Don’t feel bad or stupid, because everyone feels that. I talk to people who have been coding for 30 years, and they sit around staring baffled at the screen all day because they can’t get something to work.

Yes! I think a lot of writers would be surprisingly good at coding, because they’re already accustomed to the work rhythms required of coding: blocking aside eight hours to go deep into something, sitting alone all day long. They would also be delighted in the languageyness of it. Coding is great for manipulating language. Most of the coding I do is just scripts that help me with my writing.

I talked about this with Paul Ford, who is a fantastic writer and coder. He thinks writers have too much learned helplessness. They would have trouble with the binary failure modes and get frustrated with that. On the flip side, unlike writing, you don’t have to persuade someone that the code is working. With writing, you have to persuade your editor and your audience. I don’t have to persuade anyone that the weird little scripts I write are working — they just work!

Optimizing for engagement itself is already a massive value judgement. Engagement gets us more. But is that always a good thing? Sometimes, sometimes not. We’re already sitting on a world of hidden social environments that no one looks at that are not in any way optimized for engagement — the world of hobbyist BBS.

Bulletin board services. If you and I discover that we’re both into Toyota Corollas, we can go into any number of free bulletin board services. It costs pennies a month to run, so we don’t need ads or to make money. It’s just for fun. Every time I talk to people and ask what they do online, they’ll say Instagram, Facebook, etc. But when I ask what they really like doing online, their eyes light up when they talk about some weird forum they belong to. These aren’t optimized for engagement, so they have the normal pain-in-the-ass problems of dealing with humans, but not abnormal problems.

So, in one sense, yes, this will exist; it already exists, but it’s all outside the marketplace. Anytime the hand of the marketplace gets involved, you really start to torque up into the idea that we need scale, which means we need engagement, which means we need algorithms to find the best things to look at, which means toxic garbage and extreme utterances get pushed to the top. I’ve been asking some of the top thinkers how to design a large social network that doesn’t fall into those problems, and no one has a good answer.

Yes, if the VCs changed, and if the composition of people who made the tools changed so that you have a better, more diverse set of heads bonking against a problem. In the book, everyone I talked to pointed me toward the main things that would have to change to get a better landscape of social networking services, and that includes VCs not requiring massive crazy metastatic growth, a more diverse group of people creating these things, and something that moves away from ad-based models, because ads require massive engagement, massive engagement requires algorithms, and algorithms wind up getting gamed.

Yes, it is tricky to rebut an argument without giving it more oxygen.

Part of the reason I wanted to have him in the chapter was because this idea about the biological unsuitedness of women [in coding] runs deep in Silicon Valley, and it’s massive in all the online forums for disgruntled misogynist dudes. And that exploded in the middle of me writing this book. So, I thought I could use this to try and rebut this whole idea that women are biologically unsuited, but I did wrestle with how to do it economically.

I wanted to let readers know that these arguments exist. I wanted to indicate that from everything I’ve seen in researching it and talking to people in coding, there is absolutely no way that anything biological explains the status of women in coding. That is just a completely surreal argument. I wanted to do that without blowing it up into more than it was. Because everyone reading the book had heard this, so they want to know the answer, and that’s the answer: There’s no way biology can remotely explain the subalternate status of women in tech.

Yes, by and large. The problem is that nobody cares whether or not tech is making us smarter. What they care about is whether tech is making us better — morally better. And I actually wondered about that when I wrote the first book and decided that I was not going to tackle morality, because it’s a completely different question than cognitive ability.

I point out in the politics chapter in the end of Coders that there are these despots who got really, really good at wielding tech, and that made them into better despots. So, yes, tech makes you smarter. And if you’re a horrible person, it will make you into a much more horrible person. The problem is that intelligence is morally neutral.

I don’t think everyone should learn to code, no, but I think everyone should be exposed to it — certainly at the school level. And they should also be exposed to it in a completely different way than they’re currently exposed to it. Right now, we think: Should I be someone who makes an app? When I look at the coding I do in my life, I have no desire to make forward-facing software, but I have a massive desire to make software that’s valuable to me — scripts that make my life easier, personally and professionally, and art.

There’s something so fun and creative about it. I wish people were exposed to it more with that as the end point.

Meet the People Coding Our World

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