Coders

The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World

By Clive Thompson

Penguin. 448 pp. $28

Reviewed by John Timpane

A lot of us are reluctant to feel good about the modern world.

Part of it is news overload. Part of it is the same old high-school-level cynicisms one sees everywhere, intellectual equivalents of pigeons beneath overhangs. Fear and ignorance are in there, too.

One of the many fine things about the work of Clive Thompson, on the other hand, is his gusty pleasure in our moment. His lovely new book, Coders, adds to the momentum of 2013′s Smarter Than You Think, which argued, unanswerably, that the advantages and benefits of the communications-age world outdistance the bad stuff (which naturally gets most coverage). His new book, Coders, is fearsomely subtitled — The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World — but it’s not his fear. He likes coders — people who create computer code for a living — and is fascinated by their stories of how they discovered coding, what it’s like to code, and the wonderfully weird and weirdly wonderful world they have helped build.

He makes the case to be made: “Programmers are … among the most quietly influential people on the planet. As we live in a world made of software, they’re the architects. The decisions they make guide our behavior.”

(That last point is not overreach. Do you use a mouse with your computer? Someone had to think that up. Have you ever used Control-Alt-Del? Someone had to write code for that. In your every action on your mobile phone, laptop, or desktop, you follow pathways anticipated and created by coders. They guide you to your destination.)

The human world has indeed been remade, a remaking underway for four generations now, four “waves” of coding and coders. And these folks are indeed a tribe, with their own culture, languages, and outlook. Thompson gives us the best survey to date of this world and its people. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz would have admired his thick description of the conditions and structures within which people and machines interact.

Never, however, does Thompson lose the personal touch. An avalanche of profiles, stories, quips, and anecdotes in this beautifully reported book returns us constantly to people, their stories, their hopes and thrills and disappointments. What they do is hard. It takes discipline, focus, thick skin, attention to detail, a love of math and patterns, and creativity. Yet the technical aspect never overwhelms Coders. Rather, it’s the background program for the book, a productive global purr that lets everything happen.

Running against the male domination too often seen in the coding world (our cliché of the programmer is that of the “young man, enhoodied” — beautifully done, Mr. Thompson), he brings forward women crucial in the growth of coding, including Ruchi Sanghvi, who helped develop the news feed on Facebook; Adele Goldberg, co-creator of the foundational program Smalltalk; or Mary Allen Wilkes, a pioneer at Lincoln Labs at MIT in the 1960s, when most career programmers were female. But when Wilkes took a break and tried to return, a wave had intervened, there was no place for her, and she went into tech law. An entire glorious chapter, “The ENIAC Girls Vanish,” concerns the place of women in the coding workplace, and efforts to get more women into coding.

All is not light. Everyone should read Chapter 8, “Hackers, Crackers, and Freedom Fighters,” which tackles the ambiguous moral and ethical areas where coders, often outright and proudly, run afoul of the law. It’s superb.

Thompson acknowledges that privacy tools — for example, encryption programs such as Tor — while they might have been developed for all, have also become a blessing to bad guys such as the Silk Road drug-runners and ISIS. “There’s no way,” Thompson tells us, echoing many law-enforcement cyber-battlers, “to create crypto math that gives privacy to only the ‘good’ people.’ ” People use code for all sorts of bad things, as we learn from Thompson’s visit to DEF CON, an annual hacker convention in Las Vegas. It’s hardly just random hackers: It’s big business and Uncle Sam, too. The United States, he tells us, “has its own phalanxes of government-employed hackers” targeting both the cyber-shenanigans of other countries and the activities of John and Jane Q. Public.

Meanwhile, you can code at home. People in a lot of walks of life, at a lot of ages, learn to love coding. Thompson says that “cultural fun” is a productive way to attract kids into it. Many programmers began as players of Minecraft, the crazily popular computer game in which players can mine blocks of code-like info. But he stops short of the notion that everyone should be drafted. That’s too much of a Silicon Valley solution, he says, as in “Hey! every problem in the world should be solved with some software.”

Thompson reminds us that, as crucial as coding and coders are, we must maintain a wholly other way of determining value. I wish more CEOs, managers, investors, and systems analysts understood the following:

The whole reason the humanities are still a crucial field of study is that they help us understand the grayscale, maddening complexities of human behavior. They help us define our vision for society and the human spirit.

If they did, they’d realize that discussion of human values must always precede discussion of tools. And they and their coders would do a better job.

Fun to read, this book knows its stuff and makes it fun to learn. “If we want to understand how today’s world works,” Thompson writes in his introduction, "we ought to understand something about coders.” His book by that name ensures, delightfully, that we can.