Nanette Donohue | Learn about the technology that has shaped our lives

Nanette Donohue | Learn about the technology that has shaped our lives


For many of us, technology is a pervasive part of daily life, and the pace of change is extraordinary. Two recent books, "Coders" by Clive Thompson and "We Are the Nerds" by Christine Lagorio-Chafkin, examine the people behind the innovations that we've grown dependent on in so many ways.

"Coders" is a thoughtful examination of the history of computer programming, starting with the earliest programmers: the women who wrote programs in the days of vacuum-tube computers in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

During that era, programming was viewed as a support task and often served as a career path for women with degrees in mathematics or philosophy. This changed in the early 1970s, as computers became smaller and computer labs opened at universities.

The hackers of the 1970s were soon joined by the kids of the 1980s, who grew up with personal computers in the home and who often learned coding by tinkering with programs on their VIC-20 or Apple IIe.

The fourth wave of coders arose in the mid-1990s, when internet use grew commonplace and teens who grew up exploring the web were able to parlay their hobby into a lucrative career — like Mike Krieger, who started playing with HTML as an 11-year-old and years later co-founded the popular app Instagram.

But what makes a good coder? It's about how your mind works. The ability to cope with failure is essential, since coding involves a great deal of trial and error in the form of debugging. An aptitude for logical thinking is key, as is a curiosity about how things work.

Throughout the book, Thompson examines both the act of coding and the results of coding, with explorations of some of the stereotypes of coders, which range from the solitary, unwashed, socially awkward young man who stays awake in front of his computer, fueled by energy drinks and junk food, to the "brogrammers" who entered the field as a get-rich-quick scheme.

He provides thoughtful accounts of social and political issues related to technology, speaking with privacy advocates, AI developers, women who push back against online harassment and the founder of a coding school for out-of-work coal miners in Appalachia.

Understanding technology is key to understanding our modern world, and "Coders" is a fine introduction to the past, present and future of computers and computing.

"We Are the Nerds" is a deep-dive into the founding of Reddit, one of the most popular sites on the web. Founded during the summer of 2005 as part of the inaugural class of the Y Combinator startup accelerator, Reddit started as a simple link-sharing/social news website, but with a twist: registered users could upvote or downvote submitted links, with the highest-scoring links appearing at the top of Reddit's front page.

Growth was rapid, and Reddit caught the attention of magazine publisher Conde Nast in early 2006. Conde Nast was hoping to transition into the lucrative world of online publishing, and Reddit seemed to be the ideal framework. The acquisition, finalized in October of 2006, made Reddit's founders — Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman — instant millionaires.

Lagorio-Chafkin's account of Reddit's rise reads like a business adventure. Unlike similar tech-related corporate histories, such as the popular (and engrossing) "Bad Blood" by John Carreyrou, the focus isn't on tech people behaving badly, but on a couple of likeable people doing the best they can in the midst of instant success.

Ohanian is the charismatic, affable businessman, Huffman is the independent-thinking, bureaucracy-hating programmer who just wants to develop a great product that people want to use. Their skills complement each other, but they also cause conflict and tension in both their professional and their personal relationships. Their decision-making is what you expect from young, college-educated nerds who hit the jackpot on their first try. There are missteps and mistakes, but there are also high-flying triumphs.

Several fascinating chapters are devoted to Reddit's corporate response to the proliferation of harassment, conspiracy theories and disinformation that spread like wildfire through the site.

The pseudonymous nature of posting on Reddit emboldened trolls, racists and other unsavory types, until Huffman, who returned to Reddit as CEO in 2015, moved to crack down on what the company described as "offensive and obscene content," removing some of the most egregiously offensive subreddits.

Reddit isn't perfect — it's prone to the same issues as any other social sharing site — but there's progress. Ohanian and Huffman represent the "fourth generation" of coders that Clive Thompson describes in his book — the kids who grew up online and used that knowledge to reshape the way people live, think and interact.

It behooves us all to understand how technology works.

Nanette Donohue is the technical services manager at the Champaign Public Library.

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