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Journalist Clive Thompson’s lucid yet breezy new book is a great way to learn.

  • Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World
  • Author: Clive Thompson
  • Genre: Non-Fiction
  • Publisher: Penguin
  • Pages: 448 pages

Digital technologies surround us, and unfortunately, so do digital criminals. They include identity thieves, phishers, spies, hackers, cyberbullies, and data hostage takers. The motive for these crooks is money, and their exploits are covered widely in the media.

However, we rarely think about the legal and less high-profile digital machinations that take place while we go about using our computers. Pervasive algorithms are embedded in the technologies of work, play, commerce, learning, social media and entertainment. They are the work of people who create the software that sets out the hidden, implicit or explicit rules governing our digital existence. Given the enormous impact of digital technologies, we should pay more attention to these people and the way they shape our day-to-day realities.

Journalist Clive Thompson’s lucid yet breezy new book – Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World – is a great way to learn. Thompson is a gifted seer of the digital age and a writer for Wired and The New York Times Magazine. He examines who the coders are, their culture and what makes them tick.

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He tells great stories: The first female coder to work at Facebook ended up creating the iconic “Newsfeed” capability. She immediately loved her job and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg’s motto of “move fast and break things.” Users hated the Newsfeed but Facebook stayed the course, and now it’s foundational to everything there. Compared with traditional coding work, “it was different, it was vibrant, it was alive.”

Coders are not typical office employees like those in marketing or accounting. They deeply prize efficiency, and love taking something slow and repetitive and automating it. They’re in a constant war with bugs and errors, and Thompson says they have “a masochistic ability to endure brutal, grinding frustration.”

Many are introverted, and prefer to work in long, immersive dives into programming. Their work rhythms are less like typical white-collar workers and more like novelists or artists. They want to be left alone while they build things in their heads. They’re an increasingly diverse bunch these days, personality-wise; the hackers who work on crypto are often deeply concerned about civil rights, and the world of front-end design has attracted some highly artistic types.

Recognize anyone in your organization?

Thompson writes that there have been four waves of coders since computers arrived. Initially, many coders were women. They worked for companies such as IBM, and their contributions have been largely forgotten. Then came the “hackers” of the sixties and early seventies, for whom the code was a form of artistic expression. The third wave happened in the eighties, when teenagers discovered video games, and computers became a way to interact with the outside world. The fourth wave is the often-aloof Silicon Valley coders of today.

In the world of Silicon Valley and its “big tech” companies, most coders are young and male. The stereotype of the “arrogant and dickish” coder is often true. Venture capitalists constantly push companies for rapid, planetwide growth. Some coders come to see their lives as David versus Goliath. They want their employer to conquer the world.

These coders tend to be myopic – obsessed with the code’s efficiency, while ignoring the big picture of their code’s impact. Their employers’ interests are paramount and they pay scant attention to our interests as users and citizens.

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Consider the time we spend online with Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram, Apple and other social platforms. Instead of money, they acquire our data, time and attention so they can target us for compelling advertising. Coders devise many clever ways to do this, and we don’t know when it is happening.

A coder told Thompson that there is often a fundamentally adversarial relationship between today’s coders and users. Coders constantly try to trick or nudge users into compulsive behaviour. It works because the nudges are subconscious or invisible.

Thompson writes: “The tech firms would pepper us users with alerts, trying to interrupt doing other tasks, to get us to come back to the mother ship. They’d slap little ‘quantification’ numbers everywhere to stoke our curiosity and our desire ‘to clean things up.’ You have 14 new items in your news feed. What could they be? And they’d make all these alerts bright red, to increase the chances we’d pounce on them.”

Unfortunately, we lap it up. Big-tech defenders say they simply provide what their users want.

I describe our relationship with big tech as digital feudalism. In medieval times, the nobility owned the land. Serfs worked the land to create value but had most of the value confiscated by the landlord. Today, the new asset class is data – created by us but captured by digital landlords such as social-media companies, search engines, governments and banks. “Surfing the internet” has become “serfing the internet,” throwing off our data for the internet landowners to expropriate and monetize.

When the World Wide Web arrived in the early nineties, the buzzword was “stickiness.” It meant that a website held our attention for long periods. However, stickiness had constraints. We went online for an hour or two a day, via a desktop computer at home or work. We didn’t have the computer beside us when we ate dinner, watched TV, went out with friends or went to bed.

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Flash forward 25 years, and our supercomputer smartphones put sites such as Facebook at our fingertips 24/7. As one coder told Thompson, “Before mobile, the Internet was bounded in a place, because you could step away from it and close the laptop. But once it was in your pocket, it was a firehose.”

We are some 25 years into the global internet era, but already we’re losing control over our digital experience. We don’t know the underlying rules of how things work. We need to understand better the algorithms that lock us in, and affect and shape our behaviour.

Moreover, we’ve only just begun letting corporations vacuum up intimate details of our personal lives. Coming up fast for big data collection and analysis are personal health and fitness data (courtesy of voluntary self-monitoring), our daily comings and goings (communicating vehicles and smartphones), and the inner lives of our homes (home network “ecosystems”).

In a chapter titled “Scale, Trolls, and Big Tech”, Thompson writes that only deep, structural change can seriously alter the trajectory of big tech. “The major tech firms all accrued the same power – and developed the same problems – because of the structural forces governing code: who writes it, who funds it and how it makes money.”

Thompson poses an interesting dilemma. If the software of a company or government is harmful to citizens and undermines our rights, what is the responsibility of coders? Should they examine the morality of the end product when they choose where to work? When I spoke to Thompson about this, he notes that there is a strong code of behaviour among physicists that was galvanized with the first use of a nuclear weapon. Says Thompson: “Perhaps coders haven’t had their Hiroshima yet.”

Or have they?

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Don Tapscott is a co-founder of the Blockchain Research Institute, an adjunct professor at INSEAD and a Chancellor of Trent University. He has authored 16 books about the digital age.

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