The most influential people on the planet

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on October 20, 2019 Published on October 20, 2019

Title: Coders: Who They Are, What They Think and How They Are Changing Our World Author: Clive Thompson Publisher: Picador Price: ₹699

Coders have changed human life more than any other disruptor. A new book uncovers the different facets of their world

‘Man doth not live by bread only, but by every word of God’, declared the Bible. Clearly, this was written before computing came to the planet. Undoubtedly, in the computer era, the Bible maxim would read thus: ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word of Code’.

Such is the influence computer code exerts on human life now; you may not be a believer in God, but you blindly trust the Code in almost every walk of your life today — from knowing to seeing to perceiving to responding, the code determines your behaviour in ways previously unimaginable. In other words, whether you like it or not, you’re constantly under the spell of the code, especially if you are a middle-class urbanite who starts his day by looking at the mobile phone for messages and ends the day by investing faith in the alarm on his phone.

Hence, it makes perfect sense to say code is the new God. It is in a way invisible, omnipotent and omnipresent. And that’s why one can easily see that, inarguably, in the past few decades, those who write computer code have transformed human life more profoundly than any religion, cult or political ideology has ever done. The coders, most of who remain invisible to the users of their products and services, are perhaps the most unique and most intriguing species to have sprouted on the planet.

In Coders: Who They Are, What They Think and How They Are Changing Our World, tech journalist Clive Thompson tells their amazingly intricate and bizarrely naive story, throwing open before you a world where everything exists in curious binaries.

When it comes to coding, you can’t say it all started with a big bang. Because it didn’t. Back in the 1950s, when computing was moving out of labs and into the market with scientists starting to collaborate with companies to commercialise products that would take many years to make an impact, not many people were ‘employed’ in computing. To an outsider, and even for the media, it was not really a happening place. Not many, sparing science fiction writers who were paid to be optimistic about the future of technology and the scientists who really believed in the potential of computing to change the world, actually believed in the potential of the computer code as a tool for social transformation. Even in 1959, “almost nobody had experience in computer programming,” writes Thompson. “The discipline did not yet really exist; there were vanishingly few college courses in it, no majors to take. (Stanford wouldn’t create a computer science department until 1965.)”

BASIC beginning

A lot of things happened in the world of coding ever since, making it the popular, attractive subject it is now. One of the most important — and by all means, epochal — event in the history of coding was the arrival of BASIC. Short for Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code (yes, I know you didn’t know that), BASIC is a “general-purpose, high-level” programming language which was designed to be a easy-to-handle but powerful computing language. It was introducedin 1964, designed by John G Kemeny and Thomas E Kurtz at Dartmouth College in the US. “BASIC is, historically, the most consequential computer language in history because it dramatically threw open the floodgates to amateurs,” notes Thompson.

Even then, there was no such position as a software engineer or programmer. Early coders had no clue where their activity would take them, and most of their works produced no results. It was an exercise in philosophy. You dealt with emptiness and pursuits without ends; and yet, there was a feeling of having learnt much about life and people. At this point in coder history, there was no clear sense that programming was a particularly lucrative field — or, indeed, even a field at all, notes Thompson. He quotes a Uber engineer: “I saw computers as this fascinating thing that I wanted to understand — although I didn’t know why. To me, it truly seemed as practical as art history.”

Appreciating the art

This sounds eerily funny if you consider how coders now control human life, from curating emotions to choreographing wars. Thompson introduces a bevy of characters, each unique in his or her own way, to narrate the history of global coding. Here you come across the good, the bad, the ugly, the weird and the awkward about the art of coding — not necessarily in that order. For instance, here’s one of my favourite parts in the book where Thompson explains why code is oddly reminiscent of poetry. “Poetry is a form where the power often comes from compression,” he writes.

To prove the point, he quotes the coder and entrepreneur Matt Ward: “In a well-crafted poem, every single word has meaning and purpose.. (The) entire piece is meticulously crafted.” Ward adds that a poet can spend hours struggling for just the right word, or set aside a poem for days before coming back to it for a fresh perspective.

Early modernist poetry in English, particularly, “fetishized compression”, writes Thompson. “Among the first famous “modern” poems, inspired by the age-old concision of haiku, was Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”: The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough.” Ward observes: “In just two lines and fourteen simple words, Pound paints a striking image, ripe with meaning and begging to be devoured by scholars and critics. Now, that’s efficiency.”

Behind the scenes

Such nuggets are one of the many beautiful features that make Coders a delightful read. Thompson does not remain a neutral observer to the history he tracks in the book; he in fact clinically analyses each phase in computer coding and exposes its virtues and vices.

For instance, in Chapter 7 — which I think of as the most important chapter of the book — titled The ENIAC Girls Vanish, Thompson discusses the important issues of gender discrimination in computing industry. He begins the chapter with a provocative question: “What makes programming so often inhospitable for women?” He takes a hard look at the way the industry treats its women by illustrating the example of the so-called ‘ENIAC girls’, women programmers who were an integral part of the first programmable digital computer in the US. The ENIAC was an over-30-tonne behemoth made of 20,000 vacuum tubes and 70,000 resistors. Even though the engineers were lauded later in history, the women who programmed the machine were pushed into the margins.

Thompson reveals a startling statistic here. Computer programming is a strange aberration in the world of high-stakes, high-pressure professional work, he observes.

In the last few decades, the number of women has grown rapidly in many such fields but not in computer programming. In 1960, they were only 3 per cent of lawyers; by 2013, they were 33 per cent. During the same period, women went from 7 per cent of physicians and surgeons to 36 per cent. In many parts of science and technology, it’s the same story. Women were 28 per cent of biologists, and were fully 53 per cent by 2013; they’ve risen from 8 per cent of chemists to 39 per cent today. But in computer programming and math jobs, women were 27 per cent of workers in 1960. That number rose until 1990, when it reached about 35 percent. But then it reversed trend—and started falling. By 2013, the participation rate for women was back to 26 per cent.

The answer to this lies in the way the computer industry grew, celebrating the toxic masculine nature of its business and society. And that’s a story in itself.

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Published on October 20, 2019
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