Cracking the Coder

Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World Clive Thompson. Penguin Press. Hardcover, 448 pages. $28

At some point while reading Coders (Penguin Press, $28), technology writer Clive Thompson’s enjoyable primer on the world of computer programmers, I started to note the metaphors being deployed by Thompson and his subjects to explain what it is they do, exactly. Coding, my incomplete list tells me, is “being a bricklayer,” “playing a one-armed bandit in Las Vegas,” “deep-sea diving,” “combat on the astral plane,” “oddly reminiscent of poetry,” “oddly like carpentry,” “like knitting and weaving,” “like being a digital plumber,” and “like the relationship of gardeners to their gardens.” It “summons to mind all the religious traditions where a god utters creation into existence” and, also, has “some overlap with playing in an orchestra.” Code itself is “a clockwork mechanism” that happens to be at the same time “a weird sister of the poem or the novel”; it is, after all, a peculiar kind of speech—“speech a human utters to silicon, which makes the machine come to life and do our will.” That is: magic. “A few hundred years ago in my native New England,” the programmer Danny Hillis is quoted as saying, “an accurate description of my occupation would have gotten me burned at the stake.” These days it will get you a mortgage on a nice house in Cambridge.

The job may feel like some occult combination of manual labor, skilled craft, art, luck, and magic, but at its core, coding is something relatively simple: writing rules for computers to follow. Despite comparisons to witches, coders might be better understood as the intellectual descendants of past lawgivers. Early on Thompson compares his subjects to members of other “suddenly crucial” professions, like the lawyers of the late eighteenth century who “wrote the operating system” of American democracy, or the “civil engineers, architects, and city planners” of the nineteenth century, whose “design decisions would go on to have a huge impact on people’s lives.” Coding as an act may seem ineffably sophisticated (to the point of being witchcraft), but its purpose and its effects are deeply familiar. Coders are building the infrastructure on which twenty-first-century society rests, and their work has every chance of surviving as long, and being as important, as the Brooklyn Bridge—or, for that matter, the Constitution.

It was not always clear that this would be the case. In the earliest days of the digital era, Thompson explains, “the sexy, high-glory” computing job was building hardware for defense contracts and research universities, not encoding the software, which was “seen as a subordinate activity”—and therefore, given the undisguised gender hierarchy of the day, women’s work. Thompson divides coders into four waves. The first wave, which more or less invented the discipline in the 1960s, programming for room-size computers like the IBM 704, consisted largely of women. The second wave—the largely male hackers of the 1970s—“began to push women out of the field” with aggressively antisocial behavior, but were not yet the clear protagonists of a new world order. Even in the 1980s, as the third wave of coders grew up on the first affordable consumer PCs, like the Apple I and the Commodore VIC-20, programming was seen mostly as a hobby rather than a career.

It’s the members of the fourth wave, having come of age as the Web regularly minted millionaires, who became coders with an understanding of the profession’s potential power, not to mention its immense financial rewards. These are the coders you encounter in San Francisco and Seattle and New York, clad in fleece vests and Apple Watches, as eager to make a fortune as to solve difficult problems. They may sport the same typical “beards, sandals, and other symptoms of rugged individualism” that industry analyst Richard Brandon noted of second-wave coders in the late 1960s, but their rebelliousness has a rather more corporate flavor: One coder Thompson talks to got a WeWork tattoo on his chest after the office-sharing start-up bought his company.

This rapid shift over just five decades—from immense, weak, and simple computers on which scientists calculated rocket trajectories to tiny, powerful, and complex computers on which celebrities reveal themselves to be racist—raises an important question: Does a fourth-wave coder like Mark Zuckerberg really have anything in common with a first-wave coder like the MIT programmer Mary Allen Wilkes? For that matter, what do the four-million-plus coders in the US have in common with one another, besides repetitive stress injuries? Put another way: Is “coder” an umbrella description of a type of work, or is it an identity, with an accompanying culture and value system? Thompson clearly believes the latter, and Coders is most interesting when he shades into ethnographic territory and attempts to broadly articulate the values that define coders as a class. It’s valuable work, given that programmers are now building our future. America’s founding fathers had the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence. What have these guys got?

Two coder values, threaded throughout the book, stand out in particular. The first is efficiency: Like the civil engineers and lawyers whom Thompson identifies as their antecedents, coders are our era’s great self-proclaimed rationalizers, self-tasked with eliminating the outdated inefficiencies and frictions of society. The elaborate spreadsheet created by one programmer to help him maximize sixteen life skills, from StarCraft to “spending time with friends,” reminds Thompson of “the original American hacker,” Benjamin Franklin. To efficiency-obsessed software engineers, Thompson writes, “each moment of life becomes a target for Taylorization, a world of nails to be hammered into submission.” Any repetitive task can be automated—not just work chores but also meals (replaced with Soylent), vacations (planned by algorithm), and, of course, texts to loved ones (randomly generated by script).

What takes relentless optimization from harmless personal eccentricity to historic global revolution is the second prominent coder value: scale. Coders, Thompson writes, “have a holy reverence for scale,” which invokes not just immensity but the ability to grow continuously; anything that can spread or reproduce healthily and rapidly with little effort—programs, networks, businesses—is highly prized. Lust for scale arises in part from the demands of venture capitalists, who hope to score big on one company to make up for the losses they suffer on a hundred other failed investments, but it’s also a particular quality of software itself, which can be reproduced at almost no extra cost, ready to execute itself identically on a different machine for new users.

Software’s ability to scale, and coders’ desire to optimize, have transformed the world over the past twenty years, as tech companies enter inefficient markets and brutally rationalize them, generally at permanent cost to the competition. Take Uber, which optimized cab-hailing at the expense of working cabdrivers, or Google and Facebook, which cornered the market on digital ads and in so doing crippled the news media business. The low marginal costs of software mean tech companies are usually rewarded endlessly for growing, rather than reaching a geographic or bureaucratic ceiling; they grow, to use an appropriately invasive metaphor from Thompson, “at a frantic, kudzu-like pace,” creating natural monopolies or duopolies wherever they get a foothold.

And planetary scale means that coder optimizations, such as they are, will have knock-on effects beyond the marketplace in which the companies operate. Take the Facebook “like” button. In the words of one of its designers, the button was meant to create a “path of least resistance to engage in certain kinds of interaction.” It did that, but also inadvertently created an addictive feedback loop for users, in turn transforming the incentives of the global news media that relied on Facebook for traffic, thereby influencing elections for the worse in several industrial democracies. And that’s not all: The “like” button even “gave Facebook a powerful new way to track users.” Consider social interaction optimized!

Though Thompson isn’t blind to the bleakness of tech culture at the current moment, he is eager to document members of the coder tribe who offer possible foundational values and ideas other than those currently in vogue in Silicon Valley. He pays particular attention to women coders, who tend to be less enamored of efficiency and scale than the men who make up the majority of their profession. A chapter devoted to “Hackers, Crackers, and Freedom Fighters” explores the activists of the coder tribe, who maintain an earnest belief in openness—that software should be free, knowledge shared, and governments transparent—even as the internet recentralizes around opaque corporations running on proprietary platforms.

Toward the end of the book, Thompson turns his eye toward “blue-collar coders”: the idea that coding can become a well-compensated, stable profession of the kind that industrial labor offered many men in the postwar period, rather than a kind of priesthood for a tech elite. (After all, “somebody’s gotta tweak the JavaScript to make sure it stays current.”) The idea of the blue-collar coder is much-hyped and still developing, and Thompson isn’t a sucker: He’s critical of the sketchy tech “boot camps” that have sprung up over the past decade, which tend to reward students who are already academically and financially well-off. (Community colleges, he notes, “are a much cheaper and better-regulated route” to a middle-class programming job—except they’re too underfunded to compete for computer science professors to teach classes.) Still, he’s correct to see in this kind of coding work a potential for change in the programmer class: The coders Thompson writes about here are less obsessed with efficiency and scale because their goal isn’t to “change the world” à la Mark Zuckerberg, it’s just to have a pretty good job.

There’s some evidence that the “white collar” coders of top-tier firms in Silicon Valley are also beginning to envision coding as just a pretty good job, rather than as the quasi-mystical calling implied by some of the many metaphors its practitioners use. Coders seem to be increasingly “growing uncomfortable with the ethics and civic behavior of their firms,” as Thompson puts it, but rather than breaking off to found revolutionary new start-ups or hacking the world using their individual genius, they’re simply exerting their power as workers. Thompson’s book arrives at what could be a sea change in how coders view themselves and their relationship to the tech companies that have made so many of them rich: Google and Microsoft each saw widespread employee protests over contracts with the US military and ICE, respectively. “If you’re going to work at one of these companies where you have so much influence in the world,” a former Google programmer who resigned over the company’s defense contract tells Thompson, “you have almost an obligation to think about how much power you have, and what you’ll do with it.”

For now, though, Silicon Valley remains in thrall to the twin cults of efficiency and scale. My personal favorite of the metaphors I encountered in Coders comes when Thompson marshals Keats’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” to help describe the joy and awe felt by a novice programmer while executing his first program: “Like stout Cortez, he’d climbed a peak and suddenly beheld an entirely new ocean of possibility, upon which one could sail, seemingly, forever.” Bricklayers, plumbers, carpenters—sure, those are cute metaphors, and at a different time they might make for more accurate comparisons. But for now, in 2019, what better way to think about coders than as stout Cortez and his men: pitiless conquistadors, staring hungrily out at new seas for trade, backs turned to the wreckage of civilizations they’d conquered to get there.

Max Read is an editor at New York magazine.