Dan Phiffer Dan Phiffer is an Internet enthusiast based in Troy, NY

Why you should learn to program your computer

This is an essay I wrote for a one-off newspaper published by the Trade School folks. I haven’t found any trace of it online, but I bet a PDF version will materialize at some point.

An unusual book was published in 1974 called Computer Lib/Dream Machines. It has an oversized magazine format and two front covers. The two sides read inward to the center page, each side rotated 180° to the other. On the Computer Lib side, above a crudely-drawn clenched fist, reads the subtitle: You can and must understand computers NOW. I like the imperative nature of the phrase, even all these years later.

The book isn’t written by a computer scientist. Its author, Ted Nelson, isn’t a “technical person” so to speak, he has degrees in sociology and philosophy. He is a kind of über-generalist:

People keep pretending they can make things deeply hierarchical, categorizable and sequential when they can’t. EVERYTHING IS DEEPLY INTERTWINGLED. In an important sense there are no “subjects” at all; there is only all knowledge, since the cross- connections among the myriad topics of this world simply cannot be divided up neatly.

Nelson also coined the term “hyptertext” and continues to work on Xanadu, an ambitious (but tragically unpopular) hypertext system technically still in competition with the World Wide Web. I think of him, fondly, as the web’s crazy uncle. I appreciate his open resistance to the conventions of the web, even if my own career building websites is largely based on those conventions.

It’s hard to overstate the ubiquitous role the web now plays in our lives. The undergraduates I teach have grown up with access to Facebook and Google, these things must feel timeless to them. However, the internet as a whole is a fairly recent creation. It’s the result of very deliberate choices reflected in infrastructure and code. It’s easy to overlook how that hardware and software actually operates on our data.

As Lawrence Lessig has argued in Code, “we can build, or architect, or code cyberspace to protect values that we believe are fundamental. Or we can build, or architect, or code cyberspace to allow those values to disappear.” Setting aside Lessig’s unfashionable use of the word cyberspace, his point is an important one. It’s echoed more recently by Douglas Rushkoff in Program or Be Programmed:

Throughout the twentieth century, we remained blissfully ignorant of the real biases of automotive transportation. We approached our cars as consumers, through ads, rather than as engineers or, better, civic planners. We gladly surrendered our public streetcars to private automobiles, unaware of the real expenses involved.

Like global warming and urban sprawl, the dangers of centralized, corporate control over our mediated lives might seem daunting, inevitable even. It’s tempting to simply make due with those tools already at hand, to let professionals make the hard decisions about the software we rely on. The principle of intertwingularity suggests otherwise—your individual preferences and knowledge are fundamentally connected to the technologies where they become manifested. The capacity to write code is deeply intertwingled with what that software can produce.

Granted, the progress you can expect to make learning to program computers will be slow. It may take years before you build anything close to useful. Even so, the patterns of thought developed through understanding code will help you better negotiate the strange currents of our hypermediated world. The important first step is understanding why so that you will want to find out how. The second step is deciding on a project to undertake. The rest is a cyclical process of typing, befuddlement, and exhilaration when you finally understand how it works.