The B&N Podcast: Clive Thompson on the World’s Most Important Language

Every author has a story beyond the one that they put down on paper. The Barnes & Noble Podcast goes between the lines with today’s most interesting writers, exploring what inspires them, what confounds them, and what they were thinking when they wrote the books we’re talking about.

Today on the podcast we’re taking a look into the still-young language of coding — and into the people who speak it and use it to build the digital world that is increasingly meshing with our daily lives. Clive Thompson has been walking the border between high technology and social change for years, in his writing for publications like Wired and the New York Times Magazine, and in his widely insightful 2013 book Smarter than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better. Now, in Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World, Thompson draws on wide-ranging reporting, dozens of interviews, and his own experience trying to use code to solve the headaches of ordinary life. He explores the way in which programming has evolved from its infancy, feeding cards into machines, and created a world with its own deeply-held mores, and its own powerful effects on our culture, economy, and even our politics. Clive Thompson sat down with us in the studio for a talk about what he discovered — and about the breakthrough that might be the most significant piece of coding in history.

Hello, world.

Facebook’s algorithms shaping the news. Self-driving cars roaming the streets. Revolution on Twitter and romance on Tinder. We live in a world constructed of code–and coders are the ones who built it for us. From acclaimed tech writer Clive Thompson comes a brilliant anthropological reckoning with the most powerful tribe in the world today, computer programmers, in a book that interrogates who they are, how they think, what qualifies as greatness in their world, and what should give us pause. They are the most quietly influential people on the planet, and Coders shines a light on their culture.

In pop culture and media, the people who create the code that rules our world are regularly portrayed in hackneyed, simplified terms, as ciphers in hoodies. Thompson goes far deeper, dramatizing the psychology of the invisible architects of the culture, exploring their passions and their values, as well as their messy history. In nuanced portraits, Coders takes us close to some of the great programmers of our time, including the creators of Facebook’s News Feed, Instagram, Google’s cutting-edge AI, and more. Speaking to everyone from revered “10X” elites to neophytes, back-end engineers and front-end designers, Thompson explores the distinctive psychology of this vocation–which combines a love of logic, an obsession with efficiency, the joy of puzzle-solving, and a superhuman tolerance for mind-bending frustration.

Along the way, Coders thoughtfully ponders the morality and politics of code, including its implications for civic life and the economy. Programmers shape our everyday behavior: When they make something easy to do, we do more of it. When they make it hard or impossible, we do less of it. Thompson wrestles with the major controversies of our era, from the “disruption” fetish of Silicon Valley to the struggle for inclusion by marginalized groups.

In his accessible, erudite style, Thompson unpacks the surprising history of the field, beginning with the first coders — brilliant and pioneering women, who, despite crafting some of the earliest personal computers and programming languages, were later written out of history. Coders introduces modern crypto-hackers fighting for your privacy, AI engineers building eerie new forms of machine cognition, teenage girls losing sleep at 24/7 hackathons, and unemployed Kentucky coal-miners learning a new career.

At the same time, the book deftly illustrates how programming has become a marvelous new art form–a source of delight and creativity, not merely danger. To get as close to his subject as possible, Thompson picks up the thread of his own long-abandoned coding skills as he reckons, in his signature, highly personal style, with what superb programming looks like.

To understand the world today, we need to understand code and its consequences. With Coders, Thompson gives a definitive look into the heart of the machine.

Explore all books by Clive Thompson.

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