Dear (beautiful) coding minds, what the heck are you doing? What has happened to the Internet?
The God of freedom, creativity, human ingenuity in at its best?
Recently, I was asked by someone strange to the internet and technology, to explain what exactly my job. My job is to stay human, recognize the human and take care of it, while interacting with non humans.
Could you, dear coders, explain what your job is nowadays? My impressions are mixed now, after having read the books and articles I am about to talk about.
My questions are : Who are the coders? What are they thinking ? What are they creating? Do they think about it or does the label ‘brain in a jar” really describe their reality?
To shed some light on my exploratory thoughts I will make my way ahead as it follows.
Who are the coders?
Coders are human beings speaking different computer languages. They are male and female human beings. It is still amazing that this fact needs to be explicitly mentioned since we are living in a world where cognitive dissonance is blurring our collectives mind, just like bias is. It’s not biology, it’s culture - let’s make this clear now.
The book Coders by Clive Thompson is a tour de force, a documentary in written form about the history of the virtual God.
A thriller in how it flows and bursts open at seams with details.
I have highlights and marked pages I will get back to, some facts stuck in my head nevertheless.
The now infamous (many will agree) Like button of Facebook was created by a woman ( Ruchi Sanghi - the first female software engineer to be hired by Facebook). The purpose of it was to stir the attention of the users and to keep it. Facebook a simple thing back then.
There have been studies done, read about them in Chapter 7 - The Eniac Girls Vanish- to find out the reasons for such low rate of women coding.
The findings are related to the cultures these girls are born in (See Malala fighting , as we speak, for the right of Afghan girls to education) the education they get, the type of activities they are encouraged to have. Then, if they do get to become programmers, their work is looked down upon, their male counterparts choosing to scrutinize it in search of weaknesses. Dealing with sexist comments seems to be a daily task for women coders.
Ellen Ullman in Life in Code, A personal History of Technology is confirming the above.
I listened to the audio book, read by the author herself- Oh! the charm of audio books- it feels like the voice is talking to you the listener directly making it a very intimate experience. Ellen Ullman is a self taught woman programmer and her life work is rough to listen to, she is a hero just for the fact of trying and actually professing. A door opener for all women naturally driven by curiosity and natural intelligence.
What are the main characteristics of people who write code?
Obsession with efficiency - Just a fun example here in Clive Thompson’s book who tells the story of a Japanese computer engineer who trained AI (neural nets) to recognize the “good” cucumbers'' from the curved ones, on his parents farm.
Mesmerized by power - ok, it used to be creative, intellectual power at the very beginning when the infrastructure of the internet was laid down. This virtual reality was pouring out of human minds venturing into the unknown, going over limits, looking for what is possible while testing unknown territory. It is now capital power, power over a territory, resources, data, the users are harvested off data which is feeding bots which are in return creating an artificial, extremely segmented reality.
Mentality resilient - to a certain point. Coders, like any creators, are haunted by self doubt, self criticism, an avalanche of new details not making sense. They are dealing with machines which are intelligent only after a period of absolute dullness , no spark of light there - it is the humans who need to make the computers work, the smallest details will keep a whole system stuck in a loop. This whole process is an ordeal, at the same time fascinating. It locks people in there for life. Coders tells the story of many such humans who after a while had to step back- they had to choose between sanity or insanity.
Attention - coders run on attention, flow and concentration, brain power.
Out of the box- what? what is the box, they might ask. Cyberpunks, cyber freedom, cyber life.
They are unconventional in thinking, ways of living and presenting themselves. The programmer wearing pajamas, long hair and having overall a rather shabby physical appearance does seem to be real. I worked in offices where the corner of the coders was the silent corner, the isle of full concentration or sudden bursts of voices, discussions.
Systemic thinking - they see systems everywhere, see correlations, patterns. Here I will refer to the movie : A beautiful mind, starring Russell Crowe as John Nash and Jennifer Connelly as Alicia Nash. John Nash was an American mathematician who made essential contributions to differential geometry, game theory and partial differential equations -used in economics. His story touches the soul of any human who understands human strain, mental suffering, mental illness and love.
What saved his humanity, that state of integrity when a human being is in charge of their “supernatural” human powers, the only thing which kept him alive while suffering and being treated for schizophrenia was - love, human love. Yeah, that thing AI is trying to figure out as we speak.
Current issues of and on the Internet:
Privacy and freedom in the cyber space - there is no such thing.
Capitalism - who has the money has the power. The software used nowadays are impregnated with advertisement, the uses having become the products.
Training - where do coders come from?
From my readings it seems that a University degree in computer science is the safest and most intelligent way to prepare a human being to deal- at least- with the immensity of the subject matter, the continuous change, the tools, the connections between systems and possibilities arising from there.
But we are currently living in a reality governed by a great demand, demand of humans writing functioning code. Both Clive Thompson and Ellen Ullman talk about people who taught themselves coding. Everyone does it for different reasons, better employment prospects and thus better life conditions, are the main reasons. Clive Thompson questions the efficiency of boot camps, where the skill is taught and developed in record time but the subsequent rate of employment is quite low. Ellen Ullman, as an example I now know closer, spent her life learning and and trying. A death of thousand cuts, as she stoically puts is.
Major health concerns - mental and physical health of millions is affected, depressed teenagers suffering of eating diseases, burned out salarymen heading into suicide as a last escape. All stated with a little button followed by an array of tools which a cutting though flesh while trying to scale, to go deeper, to take over.
Human relationships, culture and communities disruption - the question of social responsibility of tech companies - tech giants, eco start ups, control and privacy.
The December issue of Time has Frances Haugen on the cover, the former Facebook employee turned whistleblower.
Her story is impressive, an example of how to prepare for war. She is now at war with one of the most influential tech companies of all times. She is someone who was born and raised under certain conditions, has the right education but also that human spirit, that spark of light which is spiking from time to time to the surface.
God help you Frances Haugen and God help you Daniel Motaung - a South African whistleblower who is telling the story in the February issue of Time.
He was a content moderator with Facebook, from a shabby office in Kenya. I’m reading his stories trying to understand what might push a human being into accepting a job like that, although nicely wrapped and presented to the world- remains a struggle, a question, a tear on the cheek...