Coders by Clive Thompson

From the early coders of the most primitive computers to today’s venture capital wet dreams, Clive Thompson’s book Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World peels back the layers on just who is behind the keyboard of the code that is impacting our lives.

How coders work, why they think the way they do, what it is they actually do, and even their reflections on what they’ve done. The first part of the book is really an anthropological survey into the backgrounds and careers of some select coders. But this book has an unexpected narrative about the moral obligations and discussions around code, decision-makers, and the future.

In that way, it’s very much unlike any other book on technology that I’ve read recently, which is to say that while you get some history on coding, that history is only there to explain how coders came to be and by what means they came into their own, with the tools and more importantly the access to those tools that helped create them, which in turn helped them create what the modern digital world has become.

It seems like a lot, but it’s very manageable. And this book should be read by anyone who deals with technology that is coded, which basically means everyone!

A few highlights for you to consider.

“Programmers are what I’ve come to think of as “near Sisypheans.” They toil for days in resigned failure, watching the boulder roll back down the hill . . . until one day it abruptly and unexpectedly tips over the crest. And what do they behold on the other side? Another hill.”

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on UnsplashAnd in this regard, Programmers are very similar to content creators, where once you get over the hill, you create your blog post, your podcast episode, your vlog, what’s on the other side? Another one! But as Thompson points out, “Some of the joys of publishing are the same as the joys of coding. They both have the joy of creation ex nihilo; where there was once nothing, now there is something.”

In the history of computing at one point “Computers were intellectually stimulating but socially isolating.” I’ll be honest here, reading other history books on technology and specifically computers, I kind of wish we were back in the old days when things weren’t so user-friendly. That isolation was a badge of honor for some of us…

But that isolation has wrought some amazing breakthroughs.

The list of small-person or one-person innovators is long. The first version of Photoshop was created by two brothers, the version of BASIC that launched Microsoft in 1975 was hacked together in weeks by a young Bill Gates, his former schoolmate Paul Allen, and a Harvard freshman Monte Davidof. An early and influential blogging tool, LiveJournal, was written by Brad Fitzpatrick. The breakthrough search algorithm that led to Google was a product of two students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin; YouTube was a trio of coworkers; Snapchat a trio (or, the level of the code, one person, Bobby Murphy). BitTorrent was entirely a creation of Bram Cohen, and Bitcoin was reputedly the work of a lone coder, the pseudonymous “Satoshi Nakmoto.” John Carmack created the 3-D-graphics engine that helped usher in the multi-billion-dollar industry of first person shooter video games.

The reason so few people can have such an outsize impact, Andreessen argues, is that when you’re creating a weird new prototype of an app, the mental castle building is most efficiently done inside one or two isolated brains.

Now, I’m very familiar with all of this. Carmack’s story is chronicled pretty well in Masters of Doom by David Kushner, and most of the overall internet and computer histories I’ve reviewed and recommended cover the origins of Microsoft, Google, and Apple as well. Books like The Innovators by Walter Isaacson, How the Internet Happened by Brian McCullough, and Where Wizards Stay Up Late by Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon to name (and plug) a few.

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

But what Thompson does in Coders that differs from many of the other history books is that he not only focuses but really shines a light on a discussion that should be more publicly had, which is “the enormous challenges that tech companies pose for civic life, as the code they weave changes, inexorable, the way society works–including in ways the creators struggle to foresee.”

And in that Thompson’s narrative is brilliant, in the way he weaves it all discussing gender and race in the industry, and even going further into diverse socio-economic backgrounds to talk to and include coders that are often not heard from at all, if ever.

Thompson also is sure to cover one of coding’s most unique oddities.:

“One of the things that makes coding weird, as an industry, is that people can teach themselves how to do it.

Coders by Clive Thompson Book CoverThere aren’t very many technical professions that work this way. Boeing does not employ engineers designing planes who taught themselves–who just sort of fiddled around building Dreamliner jet wings in their backyard, until they, you know, mastered the craft.”

Coders isn’t the end. As a book, it’s just the start of a larger conversation and guess what? The conversation and discourse of that conversation is already taking place, but it should be if not on everyone’s lips, than at least in the back of one’s head. Let us not forget, that you’re reading this on the internet which is just lines of code.

Perhaps you arrived here from the code that made up Twitter or Facebook, or the Google Algorithm? It was all created by someone and that someone was a coder.

Do yourself a favor and read this book.