Spark

The surprising ways coders shape our lives

In his new book, Coders, author Clive Thompson immersed himself in the culture of computer programmers to figure out what makes them tick.

Author Clive Thompson on the culture of programmers

Participants take part in HTML500, a course teaching computer coding skills, in Vancouver, B.C. (The Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward)
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Clive Thompson knows the pleasures and frustrations of coding. The celebrated tech journalist and author does a little coding in his spare time.

In his new book, called, appropriately enough, Coders, Thompson takes an in depth look at who coders really are: the aptitudes and personality traits they need to be successful, but also how the coder mindset has been turned into a pop culture cliche.
Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World, by Clive Thompson

 

He interviewed many coders, including some highly respected and pioneering coding heroes, to paint a picture of what it takes to thrive in the often frustrating world of writing code. Beyond individual personality types, he shows us what the culture of coders has become, and how that affects -- for good and for ill -- the digital products and services we get.

 

Thompson spoke to Spark host Nora Young about the impact of coder culture on our digital lives. Here is part of their conversation.

 

The whole book explores nuances of what it means to be a coder. But just in general, how would you describe the coder disposition or personality traits?

 

They have to be able to think really logically and systematically. They have to take big things and break them down into small pieces. They also have to be incredibly meticulous. If there is a single semicolon out of place, thousands of lines of software can stop working. So that tends to select for, and maybe increase the extent to which, coders can be really persnickety in conversation. They're always demanding: "Is that exactly what you mean to say? Are you being precise about that?" Because if you don't have that level of precision and logic you don't get very far.

Technology journalist and author Clive Thompson

 

As you point out, if there's one feature that coders share it's this cult of efficiency, which sounds great because who doesn't like things to be efficient? But the overwhelming focus on efficient, friction-free interactions can have some negative consequences. I mean, do we really want to optimize for efficiency all the time?

 

Every time you optimize something there are some great positive effects that you intended, and there's almost always some weird unexpected negative effects that you didn't even think about.

 

So, Uber [came from] the developers looking at the world and saying: 'Hey finding a car is an incredibly inefficient process. The cars don't know where the people are and the people don't know where the cars are'. So they solve that problem. They make it very efficient to get a car, and that's a huge win for people like me who want a car. But it turns out to be a really big problem for people that want to drive for a living because it floods the street with cars. It creates one company that controls the wages for thousands or hundreds of thousands of people. And so what Uber has created is a world where it's really easy to drive as a part time gig and really hard to do it for a living. This has serious urban implications for most cities because for four decades driving a cab was a way for new immigrants to get a toehold in the middle class. That was a very important thing for the structure of the economy and the culture of the city. And that is essentially gone now.


There have been a lot of enormous technical successes, but also some very serious problems. What do you see as the main challenges that digital technology faces now?

We have effectively a monopoly on the sources of public discourse and civil conversation: Facebook, followed probably by Instagram and Twitter. You have a very small number of companies that dominate how people talk to each other, how they learn about the news. They are all motivated -- by their desire to sell ads -- to promote the most hysterical and emotionally intense material. If you want people to constantly stare at your app you are incentivized to say, 'hey, here's this thing it's going to drive you nuts or make you laugh hysterically or stoke partisan rage'.

There are a lot of conversations right now certainly down in the U.S. about using antitrust law to break them up. To say, 'OK, Facebook you cannot own WhatsApp and Instagram. They need to be competitors to you so that if people are annoyed at Facebook they can leave for another thriving social network.'

 

How does the current structure of the venture capital system further distort how some of these platforms operate?


Venture capital is obsessed with absolutely massive rapid growth. They're actually comfortable with two things: they're comfortable with investing in a company that just completely flatlines, never gets any users, and is dead in six months. They're fine with that. They are very happy with one that suddenly gets millions upon tens of millions, then billions of users. They love that. And so they invest in like 100 companies in the hopes that three of them will grow madly and make up for all their losses.

The problem is rapid growth tends to produce unbelievably terrible decisions at most of these companies. It creates a treadmill of needing to grow more. You've got your venture capital staring at you wanting growth you've got the capital markets, you're hoping to go public. They want growth. And that's exactly what leads to all these problems we've seen with Facebook or Twitter or Instagram.

 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Click the listen button above to hear the full conversation.

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