“What is Code?“ — Quick Response (9/22)

Paul Ford’s “What is Code?” tackles the eponymous question in the form of a 38,000 word digital epic of seemingly Odyssean scale. The topic is one of such scope, however, that anything less could hardly scratch the surface of the multi-faceted industry/technology/service/culture/lifestyle that is code. Ford does an admirable job of explaining that code, which seems scary, complex and abstract, isn’t actually so unapproachable. As a social science major with little interest in STEM who’s dipped their toes into intro programming courses, I think he does a great job of explaining the fact that while code is often dense and complicated, it’s really just very simple pieces fitting together to make bigger pieces which fit to make even bigger ones.

The way Djikstra (allegedly) explains that “computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes” especially resonated with me. He just as easily could have said that “computer science is no more about computers than conversation is about telephones.” At it’s core, computer science is no more than using new technologies (computers) to store logic that has been around for centuries, and then using that logic as a tool to make things happen. For example, boolean data (true or false values) permeate code in all of the major languages. The logic behind that data is borne from George Boole, a mathematician and philosopher from the 1800s. Another example is the conditional logic that Ford explains is truly central to programming (if-then), which has Aristotelian roots and has been dated back even further. As humanity progresses, learns, and creates new technologies, we will use them to supplement our most essential crafts (see radio, cars, telephones, and telescopes). What differentiates computer programming from past advances, however, is that computers don’t solely simplify the use of logic; they transform it into a tool, allowing us to implement any number of actions and “satisfy basic human desires.”

What I found even more interesting, however, was something I have no experience in: the culture of coders. What really stood out to me was the problem of misogyny in coding, the problem of women in technology who are simply outnumbered by men. In a 2015 survey Ford included in his post, 92.1% of developers surveyed were men. As he further explains, there are plenty of intelligent and highly capable female surgeons, accountants, lawyers, etc., so it isn’t as if the entire gender is unable to perform on the level needed. If anything, I’d compare female programmers to female CEOs. The potential is definitely there, but the system doesn’t let them win. In my brief time at Tufts, however, I’ve met many aspiring female computer programmers. I’m not entirely sure what this means. Does this represent a future trend? Will these women end up not working in computer science or will they not be hired? Do they not compare to the number of men? Or am I missing something else here? I’d love to hear Miles Blackwood’s opinion on the matter, as he currently works in the industry and can give a more nuanced and up-to-date (if personal/anecdotal) analysis of the state of women in computer science today. I wonder what he thinks the industry will look like in ten years.