Bitwise: A Life in Code

Bitwise: A Life in Code

by David Auerbach
Bitwise: A Life in Code

Bitwise: A Life in Code

by David Auerbach


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An exhilarating, elegant memoir and a significant polemic on how computers and algorithms shape our understanding of the world and of who we are
Bitwise is a wondrous ode to the computer lan­guages and codes that captured technologist David Auerbach’s imagination. With a philoso­pher’s sense of inquiry, Auerbach recounts his childhood spent drawing ferns with the pro­gramming language Logo on the Apple IIe, his adventures in early text-based video games, his education as an engineer, and his contribu­tions to instant messaging technology devel­oped for Microsoft and the servers powering Google’s data stores. A lifelong student of the systems that shape our lives—from the psy­chiatric taxonomy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual to how Facebook tracks and profiles its users—Auerbach reflects on how he has experienced the algorithms that taxonomize human speech, knowledge, and behavior and that compel us to do the same.
Into this exquisitely crafted, wide-ranging memoir of a life spent with code, Auerbach has woven an eye-opening and searing examina­tion of the inescapable ways in which algo­rithms have both standardized and coarsened our lives. As we engineer ever more intricate technology to translate our experiences and narrow the gap that divides us from the ma­chine, Auerbach argues, we willingly erase our nuances and our idiosyncrasies—precisely the things that make us human.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101972144
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/23/2019
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 1,100,017
Product dimensions: 5.19(w) x 7.97(h) x 0.63(d)

About the Author

DAVID AUERBACH is a writer and software engineer who has worked for Google and Microsoft. His writing has ap­peared in The Times Literary Supplement, MIT Technology Review, The Nation, The Daily Beast, n+1, and Bookforum, among many other publications. He has lectured around the world on technology, literature, philosophy, and stupidity. He lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt


Thoughtfulness means: not everything is as obvious as it used to be. 
—Hans Blumenberg

Computers always offered me a world that made sense. As a child, I sought refuge in computers as a safe, contemplative realm far from the world. People confused me. Computers were precise and comprehen­sible. On the one hand, the underspecified and elusive world of human beings; on the other, the regimented world of code.
I had tried to make sense of the real world, but couldn’t. Many programmers can. They navigate relationships, research politics, and engage with works of art as analytically and surgically as they do code. But I could not determine the algorithms that ran the human world. Programming computers from a young age taught me to organize thoughts, break down problems, and build systems. But I couldn’t find any algorithms sufficient to capture the complexities of human psy­chology and sociology.
Computer algorithms are sets of exact instructions. Imagine describ­ing how to perform a task precisely, whether it’s cooking or dancing or assembling furniture, and you’ll quickly realize how much is left implicit and how many details we all take for granted without giving it a second thought. Computers don’t possess that knowledge, yet com­puter systems today have evolved imperfect pictures of ourselves and our world. There is a gap between those pictures and reality. The smaller the gap, the more useful computers become to us. A self-driving car that can only distinguish between empty space and solid objects oper­ates using a primitive image of the world. A car that can distinguish between human and nonhuman objects possesses a more sophisticated picture, which makes it better able to avoid deadly errors. As the gap closes, we can better trust computers to know our world. Computers can even trick us into thinking the gap is smaller than it really is. This book is about that gap, how it is closing, and how we are changing as it closes. Computers mark the latest stage of the industrial revolution, the next relocation of our experience from the natural world to an artificial and man-made one. This computed world is as different from the “real” world as the factory town is from the rural landscape.
Above all, this book is the story of my own attempt to close that gap. I was born into a world where the personal computer did not yet exist. By the time I was old enough to program, it did, and I embraced technology. In college, I gained access to the internet and the nascent “World Wide Web,” back in the days when AOL was better known than the internet itself. I studied literature, philosophy, and computer science, but only the latter field offered a secure future. So after col­lege I took a job as a software engineer at Microsoft before moving to Google’s then-tiny New York office. I took graduate classes in literature and philosophy on the side, and I continued to write, even as the inter­net ballooned and our lives gradually transitioned to being online all the time. As a coder and a writer, I always kept a foot in each world. For years, I did not understand how they could possibly converge. But neither made sense in isolation. I studied the humanities to understand logic and programming, and I studied the sciences to understand lan­guage and literature.
A “bitwise operator” is a computer instruction that operates on a sequence of bits (a sequence of 1s and 0s, “bit” being short for “binary digit”), manipulating the individual bits of data rather than whatever those bits might represent (which could be anything). To look at some­thing bitwise is to say, “I don’t care what it means, just crunch the data.” But I also think of it as signifying an understanding of the hidden layers of data structures and algorithms beneath the surface of the worldly data that computers store. It’s not enough to be worldwise if computers are representing the world. We must be bitwise as well—and be able to translate our ideas between the two realms.
This book traces an outward path—outward from myself and my own history, to the social realm of human psychology, and then to human populations and their digital lives. Computers and the internet have flattened our local, regional, and global communities. Technology shapes our politics: in my lifetime, we have gone from Ronald Reagan, the movie star president, to Donald Trump, the tweeting president. We are bombarded with worldwide news that informs our daily lives. We form virtual groups with people halfway around the world, and these groups coordinate and act in real time. Our mechanisms of reason and emotion cannot process all this information in a systematic and rational way. We evolved as mostly nomadic creatures living in small communities, not urban-dwelling residents connected in a loose but extensive mesh to every other being on the planet. It’s nothing short of astounding that the human mind copes with this drastic change in living. But we don’t think quite right for our world today, and we are attempting to off-load that work to computers, to mixed results.
Computers paradoxically both mitigate and amplify our own limita­tions. They give us the tools to gain a greater perspective on the world. Yet if we feed them our prejudices, computers will happily recite those prejudices back to us in quantitative and apparently objective form. Computers can’t know us—not yet, anyway—but we think they do. We see ourselves differently in their reflections.
We are also, in philosopher Hans Blumenberg’s term, “creatures of deficiency.” We are cursed to be aware of our poverty of understanding and the gaps between our constructions of the world and the world itself, but we can learn to constrain and quantify our lack of under­standing. Computers may either help us understand the gaps in our knowledge of the world and ourselves, or they may exacerbate those gaps so thoroughly that we forget that they are even there. Today they do both.


Excerpted from "Bitwise"
by .
Copyright © 2019 David Auerbach.
Excerpted by permission of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction 3
The Turtle 9
The Assembly 17
The Split 26
The Join 33
The Work 42
Interop 44
Microsoft Agonistes 48
Code Work 53
The Buffer Overflow 56
Praxis and Theory 63
Truthtellers and Liars 65
1s and 0s 68
On and Off 71
True and False 74
Labels 89
Male and Female 93
Masterminds and Crackpots 99
Bitwise and Byte Foolish 109
The Big Five (or Six) 113
Diagnostics and Statistics 117
Machine Psychiatry 130
Dungeons and Dice 136
Deterrence and Détente 148
The Quantified Dwarf 151
7. BIG DATA 177
From the Client to the Cloud 177
Hangman 184
The Library of Babylon 186
Descent from the Sky 192
Initial Conditions 199
Received Ignorance 206
The Child as Network 209
Machine and Child Learning 214
9. BIG HUMAN 223
The Vacuum Cleaner 223
Profiles 229
Bad Labels 236
The Social Graph 243
The Presentation of Self in Internet Life 247
Epilogue: The Reduction of Language, the Flattening of Life 257
Acknowledgments 261
Notes 263
Further Reading 269
Works Cited 271
Index 279

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