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Paul Ford on ‘What Is Code?’ and why we should care

Molly Wood Jun 12, 2015
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We are surrounded with computer code every day. It has built the hardware and software we interact with, from our computers and mobile devices to social networks. It’s changed the way we communicate, do business and conduct our work. But most of us don’t know what code is, really. If the code works, you don’t even know it’s there — and that’s by design. Paul Ford says it shouldn’t be that way. His argument and explainer is laid out in a more than 30,000-word piece for the latest issue of Bloomberg Businessweek. Marketplace Tech Host Ben Johnson sat down with Ford to talk about why he wrote the piece and why we should care enough to read it, top to bottom. 

Here are some highlights from the interview: 

Do you think the average user needs to understand code? 

You know, I really honestly do. And obviously, you know, part of me is going like, “Read the article.” Because that’s who this is written for: it’s for the educated civilian who is surrounded by software.

If you want to understand why there’s so much happening in that world, and why suddenly this fairly small cohort has such unbelievable cultural power, it’s worth knowing about the fundamental structures. 

Can code “save” us? 

No. People are responsible for saving people. 

Do you think code is powerful enough to answer some of the big questions and the big problems we have? 

Let’s just throw something out, that, you know, we wanted to distribute income in a very different way in our country. Software could help with that. Software could help with the optimization problems. It could help with issues related to cost of living and so on. And now, the thing that we just threw out, you can see has tremendous ethical issues. And so to me, I look at this stuff and this world — I just think it’s so omnipresent, and so understanding of the pieces of it and writing all that down was actually kind of therapeutic. It was wonderful to just sit here and type out what I know about being a programmer so that people can understand that there’s no magic here — it’s just systems, and it’s just people making things. 

Click the audio player above to listen to the full interview. 

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