Clive Thompson on the Creative Imagination of Coders

Clive Thompson on the Creative Imagination of Coders

“Code giveth, and code can taketh away." Clive Thompson

Clive Thompson, author of Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World, explores the calling of the hidden architects in our society that we call coders. Coders destroy and rebuild reality in ways that highlight our vulnerabilities. Despite their tendencies for destruction, it is the creative imagination of a coder that remakes our world – often for the better.

Clive Thompson - The Creative Imagination of Coders

The coders Clive Thompson describes are like the hackers who inspired Jan Holmevik’s Inter/vention. They find holes in systems not just to tear them down, but to rebuild something better. In many ways, I feel called to this kind of thought production as well. My training in literary theory has prompted me to frame this as a focus on the construction part of deconstruction. I detect the same approach to knowledge in Thompson’s work and it is refreshing.

Clive Thompson - Coders
“Many coders were young and coming out of the already antiauthoritarian counterculture of the ’60s. When you put these kids in charge of important machines that their managers didn’t understand, it was a recipe for insolence—or, as Brandon noted, employees who were “excessively independent.” The average programmer, Brandon continued, was “often egocentric, slightly neurotic, and he borders upon a limited schizophrenia. The incidence of beards, sandals, and other symptoms of rugged individualism or nonconformity are notably greater among this demographic group.”

This is the posture of the hacker, but hacker connotes something rebellious. Coders are super heroes and Clive Thompson recognizes their power. 

He traces the  the evolution of these renegades with the hope that thought leaders will emerge from the folds, combining a community-oriented practice with the creative philosophy of imagination already characterizing coders. 

“Never before in history have basically fifty mostly men, mostly twenty to thirty-five, mostly white engineer designer types within fifty miles of where we are right now, had control of what a billion people think and do when they wake up in the morning and turn their phone over . . . Who’s the Jane Jacobs of this attention city?”
The Creative Imagination of Coders
“Programmers are thus among the most quietly influential people on the planet. The decisions they make guide our behavior.”

Coders are people called to a certain way of thinking: a creative imagination fuels them. They are not victims of what Kenneth Burke calls the bureaucratization of imagination. Red tape does not stop them. 

This is partly because institutions as a whole are not all that critical to coders. Thompson recognizes “One of the things that makes coding weird, as an industry, is that people can teach themselves how to do it.”

That means that coders are hired from every background, field, and discipline. Some are formally educated, but not all. What the best coders do well, and this is utterly beautiful, is know how to grasp the quantum weirdness of human psychology.

“One benefit of hiring employees from nontraditional fields is that you gain their broader perspective. Eager computer science kids fresh out of college have little life experience. They easily fall into the naive, cocky belief that they can solve any problem -- and often fail to even notice the real problems in the world that might be tackled with clever software, because they’ve not encountered them. And if they’ve studied very little of the humanities -- history, sociology, literature -- they often have what Northrop Frye might have called an uneducated imagination”: They have little ability to envision what motivates the users of their software. They’re great at grasping the binary soul of the machine but not the quantum weirdness of human psychology.”

Coding is not wholly unique because of the coder or the diverse backgrounds from which normal people stumble upon these superpowers. Thompson says “Code itself straddles worlds, half metal and half idea.”

“It’s a form of engineering, sure. But unlike in every other type of engineering—mechanical, industrial, civil—the machines we make with software are woven from words. Code is speech; speech a human utters to silicon, which makes the machine come to life and do our will. This makes code oddly literary. Indeed, the law reflects this nature of code. While physical machines like car engines or can openers are governed by patent law, software is also governed by copyright, making it a weird sister of the poem or the novel. Yet software is also, obviously, quite different from a poem or a novel, because it wreaks such direct physical effects on how we live our lives. (This is part of why some coders think it’s been ruinous to regulate code with copyright.) Code straddles worlds, half metal and half idea.”

Coding is writing for the electrate age. With that in mind, there is a push to teach kids to code that is akin to teaching kids to read. This is a literacy that will change the future. A careful reading of Clive Thompson’s Coders, though, demonstrates that coders usually teach themselves in order to achieve something like designing a game or creating a fan site for their favorite show. Much like reading, the importance of coding must be recognized for oneself. Only then will we see the kinds of worlds we are capable of making.  

Clive Thompson on the Creative Imagination of Coders