Between the endless scandals of Facebook and the debates about false news and polarization, the general public seems to be more aware than ever of the extent to which software governs our daily lives. "People are not worried about this, but they still do not know anything about how the software came about and why these creators decided to address these problems and develop these tools," says Clive Thompson, technology journalist and author of Coders: creation of a new tribe and the reconstruction of the world .
"There's always a mystery behind the people who actually make the software, and at the same time historically there's been a pretty inaccurate view coming out of Hollywood and television," says Thompson. He was intrigued not only by the software itself and the environment that created it, but also by the kind of person who is dragged into this world: "I really wanted to give the average person a look at priorities, dreams and blind spots of the people who are making the tools that are going wrong. "
The Verge spoke with Thompson about the appeal of writing software, the disadvantage of efficiency and the future of manual coding. This interview has been slightly edited for clarity.
The book begins by talking about the invention of Facebook's news source, which is called "the software update that changed the world". small at that time, but what do you think really had a great effect?
The invention of the browser is one. We do not think of the browser as a piece of software, but that was the moment when the Internet became widespread and the average person started using it. Uber, too. Uber was a template for a million other companies that try to make that kind of super efficient match to demand products on demand. Another huge one is the first version of iOS on the iPhone. That created the smartphone and the thing in your pocket became not only a way to make calls and, occasionally, take pictures and send text messages, but on a computer with all the functions.
Correct. And all this came from a specific culture or, as they call it, "a new tribe." What are the characteristics of this tribe? What is the appeal of coding? You have a section in which you talk about how coding can be more fun than writing: why?
You have an incredible emotion when the code comes alive, when you finally discover it and what you created lurks in existence and does it. Exactly what you say to Writing, I can publish a piece. Is it a good piece? I hope so. I certainly try to make it good, but its kindness is … subjective. It is in the eye of the reader and when you are a writer, you are trying to persuade. When you are coding and you have created a tool for yourself, when it starts to work and is running and doing what I need to do, no one can say that it is not working. Is! It is functioning objectively. He is doing what I told him to do and he will do it until the sun explodes and the electricity runs out. There is no such purpose in writing.
Another thing that I noticed when interviewing the programmers is that one of their great passions is to take something that was being done slowly or inefficiently, or something that requires tons and tons of repetition, speed it up and make it more efficient. .
I've heard this comment about the obsession with efficiency before. What underlies that?
It's so convincing, it's almost like an aesthetic. They respond to the efficiency of the way someone who is not a programmer responds to a bad smell, such as "I have to clean that and get rid of it". That's why you can get software that can be fantastic, but you can also get software that is completely idiotic. When optimization is your hammer, everything looks like a nail.
What happens when this love for efficiency goes too far?
In many ways, this is the story of very large social networks. They said: "We want to facilitate communication between people", and that was a fun and praiseworthy goal, but then [the networks] became these incredibly engines of everyday expression. They want people to click and look all the time and, therefore, create algorithms that constantly try to find the most extravagant and extreme expressions to reach the top, because that is what compels and fascinates. Create all this civic damage due to the infernal synchronization of your advertising needs and your ability to encourage and seduce people.
So, Uber, for example, does a great job of optimizing the way we call cars, and that's great for people who need to find them, but it turns out to be pretty bad for people who want to drive cars and do a good living doing it These drivers are the whim of a large corporation in terms of how much money they earn and, because it is so easy to become a driver, the streets are flooded with competition. It is more efficient, but making it more difficult to become a driver has very serious consequences, particularly for, for example, immigrants in urban areas who use driving as a way to enter the middle class.
And I think that software engineers find it so compelling to improve and solve this small aspect of the code that it can be difficult to search and see the whole picture. Engineers like to do things and like people to use them, and it is very easy to be dragged by technical challenges and ignore the greatest economic and social impact.
What would help alleviate some of these cultural problems?
Have a much wider demographic universe of people who come to coding. There has also been some formal response. Many computer science curricula are beginning to work to integrate some of these questions around the social effect of the code that has been created for decades. If you wanted a paradigm for this, it could be the world of physics. During the first half of the 20th century, physicists were really flabbergasted and "we are here to solve fascinating problems in the way the atomic world works." That led to the development of the atomic bomb, and when the world of physics saw the devastation that was created, his deep passion fulfilled a moral calculation.
Some computer scientists told me that their discipline has not had that moment yet. You can see green shoots of that, like the uprisings of employees in technology companies who organize stoppages and say they do not want their products used by the military. Whether or not you agree with your political positions, you are taking seriously the fact that your skills and your work have an impact.
Much is said about coding as a job and how everyone should "learn to code". What does he think about that?
The short answer is no, of course not. It is a growing area, but not enough to employ the whole country. I am a great believer in that people who learn a little bit of code become more valuable in their own industry. There is this programmer, Erik Dietrich, who wrote a wonderful essay entitled "Do not learn to code, learn to automate." It's about how people keep saying "learn to code" as if the expectation is that you're going to develop the web. applications, but, in reality, for the average person there is enormous value in automating small things.
A more interesting evolution is what I call "blue-collar coding". Because software is crucial for many organizations, in banking, hospitality, design, music, whatever, there is a great need for people to write software everywhere. Do not go to Silicon Valley and earn millions, but people who just want a good and stable middle class pay check doing something interesting in a field they are interested in. It is a job that brings value to the everyday world and someone can participate in it. Even if you do not consider yourself as a Mark Zuckerberg programmer in a hoodie. These areas are attracting non-traditional cohorts: women, people of color that were previously frozen by the "right culture" of Silicon Valley. I spoke with software companies in Michigan, where they only need a large number of programmers to develop everything from websites to banking software. They hire and train at work, people who were librarians or workers in the service sector or parents who stay at home. That seems to me a really commendable evolution.