Why coders want to optimize the world

Coders are “among the most quietly influential people on the planet” today, according to technology reporter Clive Thompson. In the past 30 years or so, he tells me, software has become a guide for “the way we communicate, the way we pay for things, the way we pay attention to the world, and the way learn about what’s happening.”

But what makes coders tick? And what does that tell us about the products they put out into the world? In his new book, Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World, Thompson tells me he wants to answer these questions — to “get a glimpse inside the minds of the people who build all this stuff.”

Coders is a collection of profiles that help illustrate the history of the field, starting in the 1960s, when women like Mary Allen Wilkes pioneered software engineering, to the current generation, raised with the internet. Through the profiles, he reveals how the creators of technology have shaped our world and the unintended consequences that can emerge.

Thompson is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and Wired. I spoke to him about how coding became so white and male and what platforms like Facebook and YouTube can do to prevent radicalization.

Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Hope Reese

You argue that coders are “among the most quietly influential people on the planet.” How so?

Clive Thompson

As Marc Andreessen [the co-founder of Netscape] famously said, “Software is eating the world.” There’s very few things we do anymore, whether that is at work or at play or in our home lives, that aren’t brokered by software on some level.

The guidance is often a little invisible. There’s all these algorithms determining what we see and what’s recommended for us to look at. We have a lot of labor markets being heavily changed and tweaked by software, ranging from the on-demand economy [to] the gig economy and how that’s changing the way labor is deployed.

Hope Reese

We have these stereotypes about coders, that they’re introverts and “happy sitting at home alone on a Saturday night,” as you write. Are they true?

Clive Thompson

I’ve known programmers all throughout my life reporting about technology, which is about 25 years now. I have a sense that the composition and the demographics of who was going into coding have changed a bit.

Thirty years ago, the people who got into coding were mostly young men. They got interested in software as kids. They had no idea it would be useful at all to the world. When they grew up into their 20s and 30s and 40s, in the ’80s and ’90s and early aughts, they essentially stumbled into the wealth because software became very, very lucrative.

Twenty years later, the web comes along and it’s much more a cultural portal. You get a whole bunch of folks that are stumbling into coding for HTML and building websites, for their bands or their Neopets, and they’re frantically customizing that. This brought in a wider demographic of folks, away from just the nerdy boys being pushed and admitted into the industry 30 years ago.

So the stereotypes are surprisingly robust — coding tends to attract people who are a little more introverted. It definitely attracts people that are great logical and systematic thinkers. They actually like the challenge of breaking complicated things down to the little things. They’re very meticulous. But it’s also true that there’s a lot more artists and weirdos coming in through that web door these days.

Hope Reese

So if we take these generalizations about coders, what do these characteristics actually translate into?

Clive Thompson

One aspect of their worldview is that they are all quite captivated by and obsessed with efficiency and optimization. A lot of this has to do, I think, with the fact that life is filled with boring, dull, repetitive tasks. Most of us buckle down and do them because we have to. But when you know a little bit of programming, you quickly realize that the computer is fantastic at doing dull, repetitive tasks with great precision. If you can carefully break down the task into steps and write a script or a program before it, boom, you’ve got this obedient device that will do it until the sun explodes. This lightbulb goes off. They’re like, “Wow! I just wrote 12 lines of code that is going to save me three hours a week.”

It quickly becomes a passion and almost an aesthetic, like something that’s almost bone-deep or spiritual. When they see something being done inefficiently or in an un-optimized way, they’re sort of annoyed or rankled by it. Because virtually every piece of software that has transformed our lives, whether it’s Microsoft Word or Facebook or ATMs, it has won the day because it has optimized and made efficient something was previously slow.

Hope Reese

There’s a prevalent attitude among coders that there’s a meritocracy — that “code never lies,” and therefore the race/gender/wealth of who is doing the coding doesn’t matter. But this assumption is patently false, since some coders have had early advantages.

Clive Thompson

In general, it’s very true that lower-income neighborhoods — and in the US, that describes many African American, immigrant, or Hispanic neighborhoods — usually have far fewer tech resources like laptops in public schools, and are also far less likely than wealthy neighborhoods to offer programming in high school. Since these are some of the important ways that kids get early exposure to programming, it really affects how many realize they love coding. Fewer lower-income kids get that chance.

On top of that, there’s still a digital divide at home. Pew research found that in January 2018, 72 percent of white households used home broadband, compared to only 57 percent of African-American households and 47 percent of Hispanic neighborhoods. Now, you certainly can learn programming without broadband at home, but wow, it’s a lot harder; when you’re writing code, you’re constantly jumping online to search things, read forum posts, or even watch coding videos — and frankly, a lot of the software you’re writing is intended to live online, so developing and testing it requires a decent connection.

There are also tons of rural areas that are predominantly white but have terrible or nonexistent broadband, so people in those towns and neighborhoods face connectivity limits too.

Hope Reese

And women are underrepresented in the field as well. Starting in the ’80s with the advent of the personal computer, there was a steep drop-off in the number of women coders. Part of this was due to the fact that boys, who spent more time on PCs, were at a big advantage. What happened there?

Clive Thompson

What started happening in the ’80s is that for the first time ever, people had access to personal computers. This became a great advantage for any kids who wanted to study computer science, because they could get three or four years of hardcore hacking before they showed up at college. They started computer science 101 class, and now they were way ahead of everyone else because they had already spent a lot of time learning the basics of data structures and the flow of programs.

But virtually all of those kids were boys, as academics discovered when they interviewed students who’d gotten access to those first home computers. When a family bought one of those home computers, if they decided to put it in one of their children’s rooms, it went in the son’s room, not the daughter’s room. And fathers would sit down and they would learn BASIC at the same time as their sons — but they would rarely or never do that with the daughters. It completely changed the face of computer science.

And the computer science grads were heading off to become millionaires. Not just become coders, but become Microsoft millionaires, in the ’80s. So there’s this massive tail-off in the ’80s and ’90s of women studying computer science, and it lasts for almost two decades. It doesn’t start recovering until the last five or six years.

Hope Reese

The New Zealand terrorist attack was called an act created “of and for” the internet. What responsibility do YouTube, Facebook, and others have in the perpetuation of hate?

Clive Thompson

It was their design decisions that made it possible for their platforms to be abused, right? Most of the algorithms for suggesting content on YouTube or a place like Twitter or Facebook would [steer people toward] stuff that people were excited about, that they were clicking on a lot, that they were already sharing a lot. That’s how they make money with ads.

But that very, very quickly turns into an algorithm that favors any type of extreme emotion, stuff that makes you laugh hysterically, stuff that makes you incredibly angry, stuff that stokes partisan rancor. It’s not going to be surfacing and recommending content that’s measured or thoughtful or asks you to slow down and think about things. Frankly, they bear responsibility for not even noticing or acting on it.

Hope Reese

Mark Zuckerberg’s whole “move fast and break things” ethos has been a popular attitude of technologists — and, in a way, the antithesis of how government works.

Clive Thompson

In the US, speech is very well protected, as it should be. But some of these very large tech companies are simply too big to be able even to manage themselves. With billions and billions of users, you essentially have a company that is ungovernable. One solution might be for them to be broken up in the same way that the government has historically broken up companies when they pose monopolistic problems for society.

Europe has much tighter laws and better regulations on things like privacy that the US could definitely adopt. But when you talk with this wicked problem of the algorithm pushing extreme content up, it’s hard to legislate that, because now you’re legislating speech. That algorithm is essentially a speech act. It’s not easy to get in there and regulate that.

It feels more like pressure is also building within the companies, some uprising by staff of coders, of tech people and designers of UI engineers saying, “We are unhappy with the moral direction of this company.” You’re seeing walkouts of Google and petitions at Microsoft.

This, to me, is very interesting — the moral awakening of the engineering class could have some very significant impacts on the way these companies operate.

Hope Reese is a journalist in Louisville, Kentucky. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, Playboy, Vox, and other publications. Find her on Twitter @hope_reese.