The products made by Apple, Google, and Facebook in large part mediate our experience of the world, and yet most of us haven’t a clue about how they actually work. Brooke speaks with Paul Ford, the writer and programmer behind this week's 72-page issue of Bloomberg Businessweek, "What is Code?," about the integral role code plays in our lives.
Ornette Coleman: Turnaround
BROOKE: This week, thousands of software developers gathered in San Francisco for Apple’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference. Apple delights in putting on a show for its legions of acolytes, and as usual, the company assured us...that it’s making the world a better place.
TIM COOK: This developer conference continues to be the epicenter of change.
JIMMY IOVINE: A bigger and better ecosystem, with the elegance and simplicity that only Apple can do...
CRAIG FEDERIGHI: We don’t mine your email, your photos, or your contacts in the cloud to learn things about you. We honestly just don’t wanna know!
BROOKE: The products made by Apple, Google, and Facebook, in large part mediate our experience of the world, and yet most of us haven’t a clue about how they actually work. The choices and sensibilities that shape their programs. The code that animates them. Does that matter?
In fact, it does, says writer and programmer Paul Ford. This week, Bloomberg Businessweek is devoting an entire 72-page issue to his article, called “What is Code?” He says that when Businessweek first suggested he do a piece about code, he wrote six thousand words and turned it in, assuming it would be substantially cut. But no, they wanted more, so he added another six thousand words, And then another sixteen thousand. It was now the length of a short novel. Finally...
PAUL FORD: I turned in this 38,000 word draft and 50,000 is a short novel. They called me and they went, “You know, we’ll just do this as the whole issue.” I went and I hid under a blanket at that moment.
BROOKE: Well I have to say that when confronting your story, I also had to fight the impulse to hide under a blanket because it's math! To me it's math.
FORD: Right, and it's totally fair. You know how when you read a book, especially like some old volume from 1910 and they'll just drop Latin in the middle. And you're like ohhhh no no, not that, I don't know, and then you're kind of ashamed.
FORD: That is always the risk with this, but the point is, look, we're in a world in which trillions of dollars are being spent around these products in which Apple is essentially a nation state. So I feel like people are somewhat beholden to understand the things that have power in their lives because that makes them more powerful.
BROOKE: You wrote in your piece, "Increasingly software isn't something separate from life, but something omnipresent, familiar, and invisible." It's in everything, not just a computer, but as you say, your watch, your camera, your air conditioner. So, it helps combat magical thinking.
FORD: I mean I'm just looking around in this studio and we're surrounded by various kinds of computers, like the TV up there, and the clock and so on. There are computers everywhere, and so yes, you can assume that sort of elves are doing that, but the reality is, giant corporate processes and various choices around programming languages are what are going into making this reality that we all share.
BROOKE: You wrote that code is a way to learn about the world.
FORD: That is true for me. I wanted to learn how to create my own magazine, and so I learned QuarkXpress, which was a desktop publishing program that was very kind of the standard in the 90s. It taught me how to track and kern and deal with typography, it taught me about how little I knew. It taught me that I knew how to make a really ugly page, but not a good looking one, and that sent me to the library.
BROOKE: You said you learned a little bit about writing and editing from Microsoft Word?
FORD: I mean, Word has its own strong opinions about editing and crafting and track changes and where the font should go and how things should look. I don't know if those were the greatest lessons. I don't know if Clippy was the teacher I wanted. But at the same time there is -- culture is embodied in these tools. The metaphors inside of software creep into our lives.
BROOKE: I'm convinced, I'm ready to jump in. I've been thinking that On the Media's theme song maybe is due for a little freshening up, and you've got a program that may allow me to code a new one?
FORD: So there's a tool called "Sonic Pie." We're going to learn how to make some bleeps and boops, and do a little programming to see how we can repeat these bleeps and bloops, and then try to make just a little tiny - I wouldn't say a song, but a snippet. I'm not a very good musician, are you a very good musician?
BROOKE: I like to sing? I can play guitar.
FORD: Oh so this is exactly the opposite of what we're going to -- okay.
BROOKE: Okay, let's go to my office.
FORD: Okay, let's do it, let's learn to code.
BROOKE: Okay, here we go.
FORD: Let's see if I can make like...
BROOKE: A snap sound!
FORD: We made a snap! Now what we would really like it to repeat, so let me just...
FORD: This is a white screen, it says 4timesdoctsamplepercsnap, add a little tom tom, a little percussive snap.
BROOKE: More cowbell!
FORD: I know! I know. I don't think it has cowbell.
BROOKE: I know, I'm just kidding. Can you run it like twelve times?
FORD: Yeah, you want to?
BROOKE: Actually it needs to be sixteen times otherwise we won't get like four measures.
FORD: All right. You see how we're saying sixteen times, you see that CT?
BROOKE: Yeah. PutCT.
FORD: PutT. The put means "print" - watch over here. [snapping sound] zero...one...two...three..four...
BROOKE: Oh I see, it's counting 'em.
FORD: We can tell the tom tom which beat to play at.
BROOKE: Okay, make it on the 4th, the 8th, the 12th, and the 16th.
FORD: There we go, so we're going to do... [snapping and tom tom sound] Oh, it broke something.
BROOKE: Thread death!
FORD: Isn't that sad? Thread death? I think I fixed my bug.
BROOKE: Okay let's do another one with a slide. Can you add a slide? And then can we put it in a different place?
FORD: My goodness. I think we can... I'll do my very best. [snapping sound] Actually...
BROOKE: I kinda like that!
FORD: That could be...
BROOKE: What are these miscellaneous sounds?
FORD: Good question. Burp? [sounds] So we might just need to spend another month or two working on this. This is exactly the relationship between the media and the world of programming, right now, right? We're living it! [fade out talking]
BROOKE: I should say that obviously you couldn't tell from that whether or not I would be at all good at coding.
FORD: No I disagree entirely. So I work with tons of clients, and there is a certain temperament. You sat there, you got into it, you wanted to know the rules and the system and then you're like, let's put some music together. I mean, to bring it back to my article, that's what that's about. It's for the person who is code adjacent and just needs to understand what's going on in the world.
BROOKE: Let me ask a couple of quick business questions. Media organizations are rolling out these app based content models, is it fair to say that they pretty much have to think more like software companies now?
FORD: I think there truly is no choice. They have to build platforms and they have to be as good as they can at that because that's where the revenue is coming in.
BROOKE: So then let me ask you, how does the medium affect the message? The content: how does that change the kind of stuff that gets produced?
FORD: I think it changes in small ways at first. I think Vine is a great example. Vine is just video, but it also is six seconds long and it loops. And so, there's this element of form that is different and it has encouraged a totally different kind of content and expression, and also created a totally different kind of community. The structure of YouTube videos, especially ones where people are just sort of staring at the camera and talking - people pick up the norms. They teach each other as to what makes a good or a bad one of these.
BROOKE: But do you think that the culture of coding will ultimately affect the culture at large? You've written that software conferences increasingly deal with a climate of sexual harassment towards women, that the industry struggles to recruit female engineers, that actually there are fewer female engineers now than there were in the 80s --
FORD: I"ve talked to so many women who left the industry because they just didn't want to deal anymore. It's because they were bright and talented and they went, well I don't have to be treated like this. The thing that is really dangerous about that to me is that look at Apple and look at Facebook and look at the incredible cultural power they have. They are defining the forms that we use to communicate. Code itself is ultimately just going to run inside of the computer, right? But it changes how people communicate and it changes how people accept new ideas. Those ideas can be about how something looks, it could be about how something works. You know, just today or yesterday I believe Apple announced that it was going to support menstruation in Health Kit on its phones.
BROOKE: It's going to support it? Was it previously against it?
FORD: [Laughs] Yeah, it came out strong. No, they didn't get to that check box. Clearly somebody thought about it, right? Like I would just assume. But they were like, well for right now let's just focus on jogging.
BROOKE: They just came out this week with a menstruation tracker?
FORD: To be honest, menstruation probably hasn't been a priority for Apple in its long history, and so that's a step forward that we acknowledge that women menstruate in our iPhone apps.
BROOKE: Do you think that if we really understood how much code serves as an invisible filter in our lives, we might be a little less willing to share our data?
FORD: Oh I think so. The relationship the programmers have to the idea of say, metadata, from the NSA is very different than it might have been presented in the press.
BROOKE: That's phone numbers, and durations of calls.
FORD: They know everyone you've called, they know where you were and so on and so forth, that's the metadata. To me, that's the more interesting stuff than the substance of the call which is 90% of the time "Okay I'm going to 7-11" - all the other stuff is about the social relationships. Here's a great example of that: Facebook is a company built on metadata. I don't think they care too much about what you put in the box, but they care about who your friends are, they care about the things you like because they can sell ads based on that. It is a metadata driven company. And knowing what that means will make you rethink some of the relationships you have with these giant entities.
BROOKE: Let me end with one more of your quotes. "The industry is always promising to eat itself. To come up with a paradigm so perfect, that we can all stop wasting our time and enter a world of pure digital thought. It never happens."
FORD: There's always the idea that they're gonna make a programming language that is just super fast, and super capable. You'll be able to speak to the computer and it will do exactly what you want. And we never quite get there. It's a Zeno's paradox kind of situation where we're like, Oh wow this is great! Self driving cars! But then we're gonna have all these new issues that self-driving cars generate. As far as I can tell, there's going to be a very long term need for developers and coders who can make the computer do things.
BROOKE: Well we've had plumbing and electricity for a while, we still need plumbers and electricians.
FORD: That's exactly right.
BROOKE: Thank you so much.
FORD: It is great to be here!
BROOKE: Paul Ford wrote the latest edition of Businessweek called "What Is Code?"