Coders The making of a new tribe and the remaking of the world

Clive Thompson, 1968-

Book - 2019

"From acclaimed tech writer Clive Thompson, a brilliant and immersive anthropological reckoning with the most powerful tribe in the world today, computer programmers - where they come from, how they think, what makes for greatness in their world, and what should give us pause"--

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New York : Penguin Press 2019.
Main Author
Clive Thompson, 1968- (author)
Physical Description
436 pages ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages [381]-422) and index.
  • Chapter 1. The Software Update That Changed Reality
  • Chapter 2. The Four Waves of Coders
  • Chapter 3. Constant Frustration and Bursts of Joy
  • Chapter 4. Among the INTJs
  • Chapter 5. The Cult of Efficiency
  • Chapter 6. 10X, Rock Stars, and the Myth of Meritocracy
  • Chapter 7. The ENIAC Girls Vanish
  • Chapter 8. Hackers, Crackers, and Freedom Fighters
  • Chapter 9. Cucumbers, Skynet, and Rise of AI
  • Chapter 10. Scale, Trolls, and Big Tech
  • Chapter 11. Blue-collar Coding
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Index
Review by Choice Review

Clive Thompson, a contributor to The New York Times Magazine, a columnist for Wired magazine, and author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better (CH, Feb'14, 51-3207), has written a book about the world of computer programmers and how they have changed the way people interact and communicate. While the title is hyperbolic, the story is timely. Divided into 11 chapters, the book travels a roughly chronological path through the growth of computing from the days of huge computers that occupied entire rooms in large universities to PCs and the development and evolution of social media. Thompson has interviewed many people who were involved in the tech industry at various times. These interviews provide the snippets Thompson intersperses throughout this story. There are no footnotes in the text, but there are 41 pages of endnotes referencing newspaper stories, magazine articles, books, and video interviews. Footnotes would have been more useful for focused study. Thompson's text will appeal to a broad audience, but is less useful for a scholarly one. Summing Up: Recommended. General readers. --John B. Napp, University of Toledo

Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.
Review by New York Times Review

Code seems cold and objective, the raw logic of the internet, and Silicon Valley likes it that way. Programmers hunker down in low-slung Palo Alto office parks having signed a nondisclosure agreement at the door. The work is opaque, confoundingly mathematical. The nation's media capital is 3,000 miles away. When algorithms are implicated in a scandal - say, a new tool to decide jail sentences gives black people longer ones, or a web search for information about vaccines offers up noxious conspiracy theories - the playbook is simple: Blame the code, some off-kilter machine learning, an outof-control ??. spasm. Certainly no human hand was involved. Of course, this is a farce. Human hands are all over all of it. In his new book, "Coders," the longtime Wired magazine writer Clive Thompson works to describe those humans and exactly what their hands do. With an anthropologist's eye, he outlines their different personality traits, their history and cultural touchstones. He explores how they live, what motivates them and what they fight about. By breaking down what the actual work of coding looks like - often pretty simple, rote, done in teams rather than by loner geniuses - he removes the mystery and brings it into the legible world for the rest of us to debate. Human beings and their foibles are the reason the internet is how it is - for better and often, as this book shows, for worse. Every boom in the Valley gets a book, and this sober one is extremely 2019. It is not as fun as the rollicking "The Nudist on the Late Shift," Po Bronson's hilarious sendup of Silicon Valley culture of the '90s. It's not as intimate as "The New New Thing," Michael Lewis's tight profile of an obsessed founder at work. Nor is it slightly aspirational, like Steven Levy's "Hackers." But 2019 is not about fun in this town. Thompson approaches Silicon Valley as if he were performing an autopsy. "Why didn't the engineers and designers who built these tools, back in the mid'00s, foresee the dark ways their platforms would be used?" Thompson writes. He trots out the brogrammers and rock star coders, the hackers and disheveled introverts. He explains how they show off and how they got their jobs. As he introduces the various types of people you might meet in Silicon Valley today and how they behave, he begins to learn their craft himself, and the book sneaks in a helpful Coding 101, allowing the reader to see that it's not so hard. "What exactly is a bug?" he asks. And in plain English, he explains. He lays out some lines of code in the language Python. The bug was that the line was missing the required colon that always comes after the word "if." The lesson is that coding is about tiny but manageable details. And he likes it. Coding begins to give him a "remarkably soothing sense of progress," he writes. He uses poetry to describe how tight, short code is the most powerful. After decades of writing magazine stories, it gives him joy to apply himself to something that "just works." The good coder values efficiency, and he begins to appreciate that. He drinks the popular meal replacement Soylent, and he does not complain. He starts to see how annoyingly complex humans are in comparison. But a few pages later he sours on his own brief joy as he realizes how it is perverting him. "You can wind up developing habits of mind that feel half machine themselves," he writes. The backdrop to this book is that something is broken about Silicon Valley. To understand what isn't working for so many people it's necessary to scrutinize the coders themselves, their personalities and biases. The very particular culture they've created infuses everything they produce for the rest of us. Because deeply introverted people were drawn to coding, they did not prioritize positive human interactions. A community that indulges thoughts of anarchy was wary of adding any guardrails to the programs and products it produced. When dealing with an algorithm that can be built for one and scaled to billions, those idiosyncratic foibles matter a lot. A few individuals' blind spots mean a massive, world-changing system has those same blind spots. Remember that Instagram had 13 employees when Lacebook bought it. WhatsApp had 55. The mostly white men who built the tools of social networks did not recognize the danger of harassment, and so the things they built became conduits for it. If there had been women or people of color in the room, Thompson's argument goes, there might have been tools built to protect users from the get-go. They were mostly middle-class and upper-middle-class kids from Stanford, and so some of the brightest minds focused on convenience apps, grocery delivery systems and on-demand laundry. coders themselves like to buttress the idea that some among them are magical. There is the notion of a lOx coder, a genius who can do the work of 10. One of those famous in Silicon Valley is Max Levchin, who built PayPal. Thompson describes the brutal hours it took Levchin to build something that never existed before, the work and obsession it required to make a thing that now seems obvious. "Empyrean feats of coderly productivity," he calls it. And then he dismantles the idea of the genius coder. He presents the case of a start-up ousting a "brilliant jerk" who was writing elaborate (and to everyone else, illegible) code, discovering they were more productive without him. The lesson was that if the team could work better together, "they wouldn't need superheroes," and this seems to be the moral of the chapter. Despite the mystique, coding is not an art. It's pleasing as he picks up each Silicon Valley cliché, each canard never criticized, and dumps it into this wood chip machine. Many Silicon Valley engineers are convinced that the work is done by males (and built mostly for males) because males are better at coding. They imagine a pure meritocracy. Code either works or it doesn't. Good code rises. There would be more female coders if females were interested in coding and were a little less neurotic, the argument goes. The leading proponent of this is James Damore, a former Google employee who wrote a memo arguing that the reason there were not more women was that women are temperamentally unsuited for coding. "Is it possible that Damore is right?" Thompson asks. "No." He draws a history of early coding when the best early programmers were, in fact, women, and he describes how other countries have far more gender balance in tech. "If women were so biologically neurotic that they couldn't endure the competitiveness of coding, then the ratio of women-to-men in programming ought to be similar around the world," Thompson writes. The only real hero coders in the book are the cypherpunks, a group of cryptographyobsessed coders deeply wary of governments, surveillance and big tech. And they are the good guys here because they told people to be scared of what everyone was building. "The cypherpunks are paranoid, sure - but the rest of us probably should be, too," Thompson writes. He ends by describing how coal miners are now learning to code. The work that had seemed so complicated can be taught pretty easily, it turns out. The new Brahmins lose their power if everyone knows what's behind the curtain, and that seems to be Thompson's goal with this book. Algorithms are human tools, not magical spells. "You think miners can't figure out how to write JavaScript?" he writes. "Think again." A community that indulges thoughts of anarchy was wary of adding any guardrails. NELLIE BOWLES covers technology and internet culture from San Francisco for The Times.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [July 21, 2019]
Review by Booklist Review

Thompson (Smarter Than You Think, 2013) offers a broad cultural view of the world of coders and programmers from the field's origins in the mid-twentieth century to the present. In this highly readable and entertaining narrative, he notes the sense of scale and logical efficiency in coding and the enthusiasm with which programmers go about creating new features and finding bugs. Thompson explains coders' dedication as, in part, a boundless, nigh masochistic ability to endure brutal, grinding frustration, as they often spend more time scanning code for errors than writing it. This same devotion is found in programmers' backing of open-source code and freedom of information, which puts activist cypherpunks at odds with government organizations. In this comprehensive look at the people behind the digital systems now essential to everyday life, Thompson also elucidates the myth of meritocracy by examining the trend from mostly female to mostly male coders in the past 50 years, how a corporate monoculture can contribute to negative work environments, and what educational institutions are doing to promote gender parity in computer-science programs.--Kenneth Otani Copyright 2019 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

In this revealing exploration of programming, programmers, and their farreaching influence, Wired columnist Thompson (Smarter Than You Think) opens up an insular world and explores its design philosophy's consequences, some of them unintended. Through interviews and anecdotes, Thompson expertly plumbs the temperament and motivations of programmers. Thompson explains how an avowedly meritocratic profession nevertheless tends to sideline those who are not white male graduates of prestigious university computer science programs, tracing this maledominated culture back to 1960s and early '70s MIT, where the "hacker ethic" was first born. Remarkably, though, he makes clear that programming is an unusual field in that successful practitioners are often selftaught, many having started out with only simple tools, such as a Commodore computer running the BASIC programming language. This book contains possibly the best argument yet for how social media maneuvers users into more extreme political positions, since "any ranking system based partly on tallying up the reactions to posts will wind up favoring intense material." Impressive in its clarity and thoroughness, Thompson's survey shines a muchneeded light on a group of people who have exerted a powerful effect on almost every aspect of the modern world. (Apr.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

Technology journalist Thompson (Smarter than You Think) delivers again with this well-written narrative on coders, individual histories, and the culture of coder life, at home and work. Thompson accomplishes this by describing his own coding experiences and how they might explain the motivations of the people profiled: the women who worked at Bletchley Park; Mary Allen Wilkes, who worked on LINC (Laboratory INstrument Computer) at MIT; and Linus Torvalds, creator of Linux and git. Thompson also considers the state of the industry over time and how women have rotated into and out of the field based on changing opinions about code's importance in the overall realm of computing. In addition to analyzing the work-life of coders, he brilliantly reveals several examples of how they live in their respective relationships. Throughout, Thompson also does a great job exploring the various drivers that permeate the industry: merit, openness of code, long coding stints without sleep, and how the culture tends toward start-up culture even when companies are established. VERDICT This engaging work will appeal to readers who wish to learn more about the intersection of technology and culture, and the space in which they blur together.-Jesse A. Lambertson, Georgetown Univ. Libs. © Copyright 2019. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

Of computer technology and its discontents.Computers can do all kinds of cool things. The reason they can, writes tech journalist Thompson (Smarter than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better, 2013), is that a coder has gotten to the problem. "Programmers spend their days trying to get computers to do new things," he writes, "so they're often very good at understanding the crazy what-ifs that computers make possible." Some of those things, of course, have proven noxious: Facebook allows you to keep in touch with high school friends but at the expense of spying on your every online movement. Yet they're kind of comprehensible, since they're based on language: Coding problems are problems of words and thoughts and not numbers alone. Thompson looks at some of the stalwarts and heroes of the coding world, many of them not well-knownRuchi Sanghvi, for example, who worked at Facebook and Dropbox before starting a sort of think tank "aimed at convincing members to pick a truly new, weird area to examine." If you want weird these days, you get into artificial intelligence, of which the author has a qualified view. Humans may be displaced by machines, but the vaunted singularity probably won't happen anytime soon. Probably. Thompson is an enthusiast and a learned scholar alike: He reckons that BASIC is one of the great inventions of history, being one of the ways "for teenagers to grasp, in such visceral and palpable ways, the fabric of infinity." Though big tech is in the ascendant, he writes, there's a growing number of young programmers who are attuned to the ethical issues surrounding what they do, demanding, for instance, that Microsoft not provide software to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Those coders, writes Thompson, are "the one group of people VCs and CEOs cannot afford to entirely ignore," making them the heroes of the piece in more ways than one.Fans of Markoff, Levy, Lanier et al. will want to have a look at this intriguing portrait of coding and coders. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.