The Current

Digital technology is reshaping our world — and coders are deciding how, says author

Digital technology has become an integral part of our daily lives, but one author argues that the computer code underlying all our apps is also influencing how our society and wider world develops, and the people doing the coding are making decisions with far-reaching implications.

'Code now architects the way that society changes,' Clive Thompson says

Technology journalist Clive Thompson described coders as introverted problem-solvers who will dedicate hours to their work and thrive off the thrill of producing successful code — even if it's for their own self-interest. (Shutterstock)

Read Story Transcript

The world around us is being "deeply influenced" by coding, often in very invisible ways, while those writing the computer code are paying little attention to the consequences, according to a technology journalist and author.

"Over and over again we see that activities that used to be analogue are now becoming digital, which means they're now run by code," said Clive Thompson.

"And so the design decisions — that are made by the coders, and the designers, and the UI [user interface] engineers — change the way we live," he told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

These changes are similar to how the building of subway systems in the late 19th and early 20th century had a strong influence on how a city was going to grow, he explained.

"Code now architects the way that society changes."

Thompson is the author of Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World.

Airbnb started as a tool to rent out your spare room, but has has unintended consequences, said Thompson. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

The new tribe of the title are coders themselves, who Thompson describes as introverted problem solvers who will dedicate hours to their work, and thrive off the thrill of producing code that works.

"The thing that I think unifies a lot of coders is that they all love the idea of optimizing things, and making them efficient and faster," he said.

However, he argued that coders are often young, white men who focus on solving their own small problems and inconveniences, such as producing code that "marginally improves the speed of pizza delivery."

"I feel like society has a lot of really big problems and it would be more fun to watch engineers really tackling those," he told Tremonti.

Coding decisions can have far-reaching implications

That push for efficiency often doesn't consider the long-term effects, he added, using the popular short-term rental company Airbnb as an example.

The online marketplace was designed to allow people to rent out their spare room at a fraction of hotel costs. On the surface, Thompson said, this sounds like "a terrific little tool for optimizing the use of an under-utilized resource: the empty room in your house."

"But what it very quickly transformed into was a bunch of landlords saying: 'Well I can make more money renting my apartment four weekends a month than I can renting it to a family for the whole month,'" he told Tremonti.

This mentality turned Airbnb into a device that took real estate off the market, making it harder for people who actually wanted to live in a city, and "causing new problems for the affordability of housing and cities."

People have a sense of what doctors do all day long ... They have no idea, at all, how software is made or who's making it.- Clive Thompson- Clive Thompson

The influence of code is so strong because the average person doesn't understand what is a "really inscrutable industry," he said.

"People have a sense of what doctors do all day long. They probably have a sense of how a building is built. They have no idea, at all, how software is made or who's making it."

He argued that people should start thinking politically about how software affects their lives, and "if there's something they see happening they don't like ... make it part of their political conversation."

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Julie Crysler


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?