The Code of Life
MONTREAL — AFTER almost 20 years as a working book critic, I’ve come to accept that my line of work is basically a relic of another age. Book buyers now prefer the collective “wisdom” of Amazon reviews; newspapers and magazines, struggling to survive, are devoting less and less space to book matters; and writers are being forced by the economics of the Internet to give their opinions away for little or nothing.
The realization came almost two years ago, at the start of 2012, and if I’d had the option then of crawling into my dusty room of first editions and dying, I might have. But as the single mother of an 11-year-old boy, there was a life to build, and bills to pay. So I was motivated when I came across a magazine article arguing for the importance of “code literacy.” Inspired, I signed up for a yearlong programming course at Codecademy, an online educational start-up in New York City.
The first surprise of learning to program? I actually enjoyed it. Yes, programming is challenging, frustrating and often tedious. But it offers satisfactions that are not unlike those of writing. The elegant loops of logic, the attention to detail, the mission of getting the maximum amount of impact from the fewest possible lines, the feeling of making something engaging from a few wispy, abstract ideas — these challenges were familiar to me as a critic. By my third month, I had internalized a new logic, a different way of looking at information. By the time summer came around, I was learning about good web design by constructing web applications, taking them from simple prototypes to something sophisticated enough to test with users. And by the end of the course, I knew the basic structure of computer operating systems.
Now, I was never going to be a career programmer. Though I got into it with the idea of getting myself out of a financial pinch, it turned out to be unnecessary. I managed to transition from a book critic to a features writer.
It’s also become more obvious to me how to use social media to enrich my life, not unravel it. For one, I don’t waste time trying to “catch up” on a Twitter or Facebook feed, any more than I would waste time ringing the doorbell of every person in my neighborhood every day.
But I also know enough now to be genuinely disturbed by the apocalyptic tone recently taken by two of our most influential writers.
The Guardian and by Dave Eggers in his new novel, “The Circle,” a satire of techno-corporatism. But I couldn’t disagree more with the tribalism that they advocate.
They are right about the real dangers of an emerging techno-elite coming to control not just our software and our hardware, but our books and, increasingly, our newspapers and magazines (think of Jeff Bezos’s purchase of The Washington Post this year, and the Facebook millionaire Chris Hughes’s purchase of The New Republic in 2012). But what they don’t seem to understand is that much of the tech world itself is, and has always been, worried about this, too.
Mr. Franzen and Mr. Eggers are wrong to encourage anyone to wear techno-illiteracy as some kind of badge of courage, as they sometimes seem to do. If we’re going to fight the corporate agendas embedded in our software and hardware, people need to become more tech savvy, not less.
Mr. Franzen divides the world into Apple and Windows people. But he’s forgotten all about Linux people — programmers, both professional and amateur, who’ve communally developed an operating system. They’re more numerous than they’ve ever been. In fact, the Android operating system, which runs 39 percent of mobile devices worldwide, is based on a Linux core.
But how many of us would give up the profound gains — scientific, economic, social and artistic — yielded by the collective knowledge, dispersed across the planet and the ages, that writing made possible?
And how many of Socrates’ students took his advice, anyway? What ever happened to them? Who knows. We’ll only ever know about the ones who didn’t. Technophobes, take note.