Recent Read: “Code to Joy”

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Don’t miss a great piece in 1843 by Andrew Smith on learning to code in middle age. Some highlights below:

Like most people, I have spent my life entirely ignorant of how the code that increasingly corrals me actually works. I know that microprocessors use tiny electrical switches to create and manipulate great waves of 0s and 1s. But how do these digits mesh with the world? Programmers speak to machines in impenetrable “languages” and coding, as the pop-cultural cliché suggests, appeared to be the impregnable domain of spectrumy maths geniuses. Though code makes our lives easier and more efficient, it is becoming increasingly apparent how easily it can be turned to malign purposes. It’s used by terrorists to spread viruses, car manufacturers to cheat emissions tests and hostile powers to hack elections. As the line between technology and politics blurs, I wondered whether my ignorance of its workings compromised my capacity to understand what it should and should not do. Being unable to speak to these mavens in their own terms, as they encoded the parameters of my world, brought a sense of helplessness for which only I, as a citizen, could take responsibility. And two questions that embraced all the others began to form. Should I learn to code? Could I learn to code? With a trepidation I later came to recognise as deeply inadequate, I decided there was only one way to find out.

I reckon that I’ve learnt enough to build my app. But then something extraordinary happens. I look at my blank code editor and my head empties. I look longer and – by some strange quantum effect, I assume – my head seems to empty further. With the training wheels off, I suddenly feel that I know nothing and am panicked by the sensation. FreeCodeCamp’s Larson chuckles when I tell him about this phenomenon.

“The thing that gets lost,” he says, “and which I think is important to know, is that programming is never easy. You’re never doing the same thing twice, because code is infinitely reproducible and if you’ve already solved a problem and you encounter it again, you just use your old solution. So by definition you’re kind of always on this frontier where you’re out of your depth. And one of the things you have to learn is to accept that feeling – of being constantly wrong.”

Which makes coding sound like a branch of Zen Buddhism.

After all the caffeine, sweat and tears, were my efforts to learn to code worthwhile? A few hours on freeCodeCamp, familiarising myself with programming syntax and the basic concepts, cost nothing and brought me huge potential benefits. My beginner’s foray has taught me more than I could have guessed, illuminating my own mind and introducing me to a new level of mental discipline, not to mention a world of humility. The collaborative spirit at code culture’s heart turns out to be inspiring and exemplary. When not staring at my screen in anguish, I even had fun and now thrill to look at a piece of code and know – or at least have some idea – what’s going on. I fully intend to persist with Python.

More powerful than any of this is a feeling of enfranchisement that comes through beginning to comprehend the fascinating but profoundly alien principles by which software works. By accident more than design, coders now comprise a Fifth Estate and as 21st-century citizens we need to be able to interrogate them as deeply as we interrogate politicians, marketers, the players of Wall Street and the media. Wittgenstein wrote that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” My world just got a little bigger

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