Of computer technology and its discontents.
Computers can do all kinds of cool things. The reason they can, writes tech journalist Thompson (Smarter than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better, 2013), is that a coder has gotten to the problem. “Programmers spend their days trying to get computers to do new things,” he writes, “so they’re often very good at understanding the crazy what-ifs that computers make possible.” Some of those things, of course, have proven noxious: Facebook allows you to keep in touch with high school friends but at the expense of spying on your every online movement. Yet they’re kind of comprehensible, since they’re based on language: Coding problems are problems of words and thoughts and not numbers alone. Thompson looks at some of the stalwarts and heroes of the coding world, many of them not well-known—Ruchi Sanghvi, for example, who worked at Facebook and Dropbox before starting a sort of think tank “aimed at convincing members to pick a truly new, weird area to examine.” If you want weird these days, you get into artificial intelligence, of which the author has a qualified view. Humans may be displaced by machines, but the vaunted singularity probably won’t happen anytime soon. Probably. Thompson is an enthusiast and a learned scholar alike: He reckons that BASIC is one of the great inventions of history, being one of the ways “for teenagers to grasp, in such visceral and palpable ways, the fabric of infinity.” Though big tech is in the ascendant, he writes, there’s a growing number of young programmers who are attuned to the ethical issues surrounding what they do, demanding, for instance, that Microsoft not provide software to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Those coders, writes Thompson, are “the one group of people VCs and CEOs cannot afford to entirely ignore,” making them the heroes of the piece in more ways than one.
Fans of Markoff, Levy, Lanier et al. will want to have a look at this intriguing portrait of coding and coders.