Coders — Clive Thompson

Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World is promising, but many sections are too wrapped up in media business rituals for it to be great. That said, if you’ve not read about the mindsets that cognitively demanding enterprises demand, the book provides a good introduction to them. Despite that, it likely underemphasizes and underplays the extreme meritocracy of the tech world, where code works—or doesn’t, and products work—or don’t. The large amount of signaling cruft that has accumulated in many other worlds is (mostly) absent. Coders are arguably the end result of a centuries-long process away from being who you are because of you or your family’s place in the social order and towards being who you are because of what you can do. Maybe that will change over time, but it hasn’t yet, and tech is attractive to outsiders in general because you can’t fake your way in, and, if you do, you’ll likely be found out relatively quickly.

Thompson disagrees, it seems. He writes, “the software industry has long cherished its self-image of a pure meritocracy.” I don’t think many people think a “pure” meritocracy is possible, so this notion has a whiff of the strawman about it because of the word “pure.” A better question might be, is the software business meritocratic compared to many other industries? Sure seems like it, given the way the Internet opens the field to talented but uncredentialed outsiders. Thompson goes on to assert it’s not true, without providing real evidence (though he has some typical media stories). For example, the chapter “10x, rock stars, and the myth of meritocracy” has lots of stories but very little, if any, data, and none that supports the central point. Chapter 7 is worse.

Despite that, there are useful threads; for example, people complained vociferously about Facebook’s News Feed when it was introduced. But “the day after News Feed emerged, Sanghvi and the team found that people were spending twice as much time on Facebook as before.” Revealed preferences, in other words: we could call our era the “revealed preferences” era, because so much of our online lives shows things that we don’t want to say. The aggregate of our desires is often quite different from what we say we want. Still, it might be inhumane to live in a world where shading the truth is a lot harder, and we’re in a world where online denunciations are becoming more common yet our cultural immune system hasn’t adjusted to them yet.

After I read Coders, I read “Robert A. Caro on the Means and Ends of Power,” and it makes me think: Who is going to be the Caro of the coding generation? The writer who is so deep into the technical mind, the mind that has shaped the digital tools almost all of use, that he says it all? Thompson has the potential to get there, but Coders doesn’t arrange the material right. He gets that, to Ruchi Sanghvi, Facebook as a company “was different, it was vibrant, it was alive,” as she says. That’s a powerful force and, as someone who’s worked in and around government and universities for years, I see the appeal of being in a startup where urgency is everywhere. But Thompson also writes things like, “Facebook looked at our lives as a problem of inefficient transmission of information.” Did it? Or was it just an experiment? Maybe an experiment in self-presentation? arguably those two questions are variants on “transmission of information,” but, equally arguably, “transmission of information” is too abstract for what Facebook was, or is. That’s the sort of thing someone like Caro is likely to get right, while many others are likely to get it wrong.

But, despite that, I think this is correct, or, if not correct, interesting:

Back during the Revolutionary America of the late eighteenth century, the key profession was law. The American style of government is composed of nothing but laws, of course.

I wonder if “writer” has ever been the key profession, or if it’s always been the profession of the carpers instead of the doers. Nonetheless, the theme of coding’s rise reappears elsewhere: “Sure, politics, law, and business are powerful, but if you want to really remold the contours of society? Write code.” That, at least, his view of the ’90s and the Internet.

For one coder,

It was like constantly solving puzzles: trying to make an algorithm run faster, trying to debug a gnarly piece of code that wasn’t working right. The mental chess colonized her mind, and she found herself pondering coding problems all day long.

Sounds like many writers on writing, who also find that the top-of-mind project colonizes their minds—if they’re to do it at the highest levels. Both fields are also prone to generating the question, “Where do good ideas come from?”, which has no answer at this stage of technological and human knowledge.

Yet solving puzzles also means managing frustration, because another section declares it writing it well to need “a boundless, nigh masochistic ability to endure brutal, grinding frustration.” Why do some people find some things, like running or coding, as fun, while many if not most others hate them? We are again running into unanswerable psychological questions with large-scale social implications. Yet the work also engenders “a sense of clarity, of proof that his work actually was valid.”

You can no doubt sense my ambivalence about Coders. Thompson needs to give up his media rituals and relentless political correctness henpecking; they’re likely to mark Coders as being too much of its time, rather than for all time. There is a classic in this book, but the book is too of its media moment to be the classic. And that’s a pity, to see someone with a lot of material who misuses the material.

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