As a contributing writer for New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired, Clive Thompson has become one of the country's leading technology journalists. This week he released his second book on the subject, Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World. From the tech monoliths of Silicon Valley to the MIT labs of the 1960s (where most career programmers were women), the book delves into the cultures, the history, and the potential dangers of a job that's defining how we live.
On Wednesday, April 3, Thompson talks with local journalist Mónica Guzmán as a part of Town Hall Seattle. As a preview, I interviewed him about the new book, his own coding habits, and why coders and artists actually have a lot in common.
What about coders interested you?
I realized from talking to a lot of people—readers, everyday folks—that they have no idea how software is made. They know that they use software when they order a car, when they order food, when they send messages, when they post photos to friends. They know that their lives are now very reliant on software. But it's a completely mysterious industry. Who gets interested in this type of living? What are their dreams and aspirations for what they're trying to do with their code? What are their blind spots? What is the stuff that they don't understand about society? I really wanted to help shed some light on the fabric of today's digital world by showing the lives and the psychologies of the people that are weaving it.
Coding seems like an interesting lens into not just coding culture but into American culture. It seems like a lot of different things—from sexism to obsession with efficiency and how that relates to economy—become kind of distilled.
One thing that I think is definitely true is that the American market system for funding big tech software—the venture capital system—produces all manner of pressure that really exacerbates some of the natural inclinations of people who write code.
One of the things that almost everyone who wrote software told me was that they're really quite compelled by efficiency and optimization. They love picking everyday processes and figuring out how to accelerate them. I've come to believe this is almost sort of woven into the nature of what computers and software are. Computers are really good at these automated tasks that humans are terrible at. So when you learn how to code you immediately start seeing the world as structured into two buckets—the things that people do and things that could be done by machines.
I've felt it myself and I started doing more coding. I was writing this book and I immediately started noticing all these repetitive tasks I was doing and I wanted to automate them because I could. The thing that's really interesting about the American environment for software financing is that venture capital is very eager to fund anything that promises to optimize any part of everyday activity because they see it as a way to make a lot of money really quickly. To inject efficiency into a system—that can sometimes wreak a little bit of civic or cultural havoc.
We have various subsets of the coder stereotype. But how true did you find those to be and what problems could come along with seeing coders as a type instead of as a profession?
Individuals, exactly. There definitely are stereotypes that are not true, and I tried to dismantle some of those. The idea that they are a bunch of introverts is less true than it ever has been because [coders are] diversifying so dramatically. And it was always sort of a stereotype of this particular type of shoe-gazing, mostly male guy in the 1980s and maybe 1970s. It got a little popularized and turned into something that I think could actually chase away people who should be interested in software development. They think of it like, “Wow, I'm not a shoe-gazing introvert and I'm not gonna be happy being locked away from society.” In reality that's not what a lot of software development is these days. It actually requires you to work with a bunch of people and think about the needs of users.
I think inherently, though, the object of a book like mine is trying to find some of the commonalities in the way coders think. And to a certain extent in the way that the discipline requires them to think. But I sort of create stereotypes on my own that don't always apply. When I say that the vast majority told me that they are quite compelled by and even obsessed with efficiency, it's not universally true. So even as I'm dismantling stereotypes, I'm probably creating some other ones that are inherently kind of true, but not always true.
Have you continued coding since writing the book?
Oh god yeah. I find it more pleasant than writing by a country mile, and I procrastinate on writing by coding. On Friday I noticed that I was spending too much time at the browser refreshing my Amazon page to see [if] I appeared on any bestselling lists. What’s my sales rank? This is psychologically totally typical for anxious writers. And also psychologically harmful. I decide, okay, one way to cure myself of this is to have a robot do it for me. So I just spent the morning writing a scraper that goes through my Amazon page, scrapes up text, finds what I'm looking for specifically—are there any lists that I've appeared on? What is my sales rank? Are there any new reviews? It takes that information and texts it to me four times a day. I don't need to go to that page ever again. I sort of joked that it was cognitive behavioral therapy.
Do you think it's just something you're doing for fun at this point or is it actually making your life more efficient? Because you mentioned in the book that writing some code can actually end up taking longer than the thing you're trying to replace.
I would say about two-thirds of the time it actually is really good—I figure something out that is of enduring value to me. For example, when I'm cleaning my house, I don't like listening to NPR. I want to get the news, but radio stations are actually very inefficient. You have to listen to all these stories you don't want. So I made something. I can give it a whole bunch of New York Times stories that I'm interested in and it just scrapes them out and reads them to me in a robot voice, at like one-point-five speed, while I clean. About two-thirds of the time I do something that dramatically improves my life or my work. Then one-third of the time I want to automate something that is completely ridiculous. And I waste more time trying to automate it than I save.
You get into the similarities between artists, especially poets, and draw correlations between them and coders. It seems really interesting to me, because in Seattle at least culturally there's some animosity between the artist and the coder. Do you think there is a similarity of disposition and how deep does that run?
I think there's absolutely a similarity. Coding often requires and rewards some of the temperament of artists. Each one is sort of an insight-based world where deep immersion is necessary to do the non-trivial work. There's a reason why [artists] have studios. It's because they need to go somewhere where they can just get away from the world and have everyone stop bothering them and dive into the creative challenge at hand because it takes so many hours to get to the place where you're really doing the deep work. That's why you know an artist famously will go to seemingly crazy extremes to lock the world out.
It really reminds me of the work dynamics and the need for immersion and the desire for total isolation that you get with a lot of coders who are trying to do the non-trivial, hard work. [There’s a] sort of absolute hatred they have when they get interrupted because the magic trance is gone and the deep work can't be done anymore. I think it's actually one of the reasons why it's sometimes hard to manage developers because they have these rhythms that are more like the rhythms of artists. It would be like running a company and saying, “Okay, you're the manager. You manage twelve novelists.”
Anything else you really wanted to talk about?
Super excited to be talking to Mónica. She is one of my favorite writers and thinkers on technology ever. She and I met through my first book actually. She called me to interview me for a piece and I started paying attention to her writing. She's so incredibly sharp and smart and has such great ability pierce to the heart of the cultural stuff inside technology. So I'm just thrilled that I'm getting a chance to talk with her on stage about it.
Clive Thompson with Mónica Guzmán
Apr 3, The Summit on Pike, $5
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.