Coders By Clive Thompson


Some notes I wrote down from Clive Thompson’s new book Coders. These notes are by no means comprehensive. They are selected paragraphs or sections that struck me while reading. Have thoughts or recommended reading for me? Feel free to leave a comment below.

The software update that changed reality (ch 1)

If you look at the history of the world, there are points in time when different professionsl become suddenly crucial, and their practitioners suddenly powerful. The world abrubtly needs and rewards their particular set of skills.

Back during the Revolutionary Amerca of the late eighteenth century, the key profession was law.

The American style of government is composed of nothing but laws, of course. SO lawyers and legal writers—anyone who could construct legal systems in their head, who could argue persuasively and passionately for a particular framework—were powerful. They had a seat at the table. When you look at the careers of the found fathers, the majority were trained lawyers (John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson), and those who weren’t (James Madison) were nonetheless masterful legalists. They were the ones who wrote the rule sets that made America America. They wrote the operating system of its democracy. And the tiniest of their design decisions had massive, long-standing effects on how the republic evolved.

A hundred years after the American Revolution, a new professional class rose to importance. With the Industrial Revolution roaring onward, the country began urbanizing, and skyscrapers climbed in New York and Boston and Chicago. Suddenly it was crucial to figure out how, precisely, you could get millions of people to live in tight proximity without drowning in their own exrement and while providing them reasonably clean water and air and some way of moving around. This required a ton of ingenius mechanics, so all of a sudden civil engineers, architects, and city planners were in the driver’s seat.

Anyone who could work in those fields—subway builders, bridge-builders, park-planners—had an outsize role in determing how the city dwellers of the US would live. And once again, single design decisions would go on to have a huge impact on people’s lives.

Today we live in a world of software and programmers are the architects.

The first recorded use of “Hello, World!” was in 1972, when a young computer scientist named Brian Kernighan was writing the manual explaining how to program in the coding language called B. He wanted to show the simplest thing you could get B to do, which was to print a message. As he told me, he’d seen a cartoon of ac hick coming out of an egg, saying, Hello, World!, and liked its funny, quirky ring.

Facebook looked at our lives as a problem of inefficient transmission of information. Before Facebook, all day long I was doing (and thinking and reading) things my friends might find intriguing. News Feed was, in essence, a massive optimization of our peripheral vision, on a planetary scale.

Blue-collar coding (ch 11)

The entire world of programming is now growing so quickly that it’s changing the nature of who becomes a coder, and why. We’re likely to see the mainstreaming of coding—its rapid growth into a skill that many more educated adults, and possibly a majority of them, need to possess to some degree.

The reigning image has been of the hoodied young Zuckerbergian coders, cribbing together apps they boast will “change the world.” Now the shift is toward programmers aiming instead for stable, high-quality jobs—a replacement for the well-paying trade work that sustained the middle classes in the latter half of the twentieth century. It is, as Anil Dash dubts it, the emergence of “the Blue-collar Coder.”

Boot camps and self-education and job training will indeed open the door for more people to be software developers, including many women, minorities, and working-class folks from all walks of life and neglected regions. These jobs will probably pay a lot better than the wages these workers could command in the service sector. But the top money? That’ll go to the new, emerging fields, and it’ll be dominated by the existing coders of today, as well as the computer science grads of tomorrow.

Blue-collar code will emerge, it seems; but so will pink- and white-collar.