Friday, June 19, 2015

#worthassigning: Paul Ford's What is Code?

Adam Whitehurst, a colleague at the Bedford/St. Martin's Imprint of Macmillan, shared this link with folks in house:

It's a long, funny, sane piece that posits an audience of people-in-charge of big things or departments approving or overseeing a project that involves coding, and spending a lot of money on coding, and not quite getting what the is meant by code and how coding and software design happens.
So it explains that, but in eminently readable prose, like this
This man makes a third less than you, and his education ended with a B.S. from a large, perfectly fine state university. But he has 500+ connections on LinkedIn. That plus sign after the "500" bothers you. How many more than  500 people does he know? Five? Five thousand?
In some mysterious way, he outranks you. Not within the company, not in restaurant reservations, not around lawyers. Still: He strokes his short beard; his hands are tanned; he hikes; his socks are embroidered with little ninja.

“Don’t forget,” he says, “we’ve got to budget for apps.”

This is real. A Scrum Master in ninja socks has come into your office and said, “We’ve got to budget for apps.” Should it all go pear-shaped, his career will be just fine.

You keep your work in perspective by thinking about barrels of cash. You once heard that a U.S. dry barrel can hold about $100,000 worth of singles. Next year, you’ll burn a little under a barrel of cash on Oracle. One barrel isn’t that bad. But it’s never one barrel. Is this a 5-barrel project or a 10-barreler? More? Too soon to tell. But you can definitely smell money burning.

At this stage in the meeting, you like to look supplicants in the eye and say, OK, you’ve given me a date and a budget. But when will it be done? Really, truly, top-line-revenue-reporting finished? Come to confession; unburden your soul.
The piece is multimodal, playfully so,  making a little sly fun of code and coding too as it goes. For example, when you get to the end, you're told how many words you "read" and how fast. (So yes, go to the link, read the first paragraph or two, then scroll to the bottom to see what I mean.)

The piece is worth assigning in writing courses with technology themes or issues, cultural study courses, technical communication courses, philosophy (yes, philosophy) courses, where any goal of the course is to understand humanity's relationship to machines. Turning again to Ford, he reminds us that the role of code in our lives, how we perceive ourselves and our world, is deep and vast:
What I’m saying is, I’m one of 18 million. So that’s what I’m writing: my view of software development, as an individual among millions. Code has been my life, and it has been your life, too. It is time to understand how it all works.

Every month it becomes easier to do things that have never been done before, to create new kinds of chaos and find new kinds of order. Even though my math skills will never catch up, I love the work. Every month, code changes the world in some

images illustrate words -- robot walking on bricks for interesting; child using technology to connect with another person for wonderful;  and 3-d printed gun for disturbing
Images come from Ford's piece, collected as a single image to here to fully quote the closing sentence, its use of images and its layout.
The idea that coders or programmers are the unacknowledged legislators of our world, a riff on Percy Bysshe Shelley's concluding sentence in "A Defence of Poetry," that Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, is not new observation. Ford, however, while never using that riff, explains in a sustained and detailed way, how that legislation-by-coders gets written and enacted, with far more nuance and as much mirth as School House Rock's "I'm Just a Bill."

Depending on your approach and what you want to emphasize, you might want to ask students to first read this short HP interview Ben Cosgrove had with Douglas Rushkoff about consumers increased need for media literacy. Ford's piece goes a long way to giving students the kinds of context and understanding useful for understanding the kinds of web literacy Rushkoff advocates. The interview is short too, serving as useful pre-reading activity that can activate the minds of students, giving them ideas to link to, play off from, and discuss with one another as they read Ford's longer work.

Ford's piece touches not just on coding, but too on coding culture, making connections to the culture at large or aspects of the culture at large most faculty (and many students in the age of *Cons) will recognize:
Technology conferences are where primate dynamics can be fully displayed, where relationships of power and hierarchy can be established. There are keynote speakers—often the people who created the technology at hand or crafted a given language. There are the regular speakers, often paid not at all or in airfare, who present some idea or technique or approach. Then there are the panels, where a group of people are lined up in a row and forced into some semblance of interaction while the audience checks its e-mail. 
I’m a little down on panels. They tend to drift. I’m not sure why they exist. 
Here’s the other thing about technology conferences: There has been much sexual harassment and much sexist content in conferences. Which is stupid, because computers are dumb rocks lacking genitalia, but there you have it.
Who among us has not noticed or remarked, if only has part of graduate school rites of passage in the academic realm, on the "primate dynamics" at our own academic, industry or company sales conferences (and yet not nearly so smartly as to use the phrase 'primate dynamics' when doing so)?

Ford's piece also serves as model of bravura writing, of multimodal composing, mixing in not just the usual elements of image and video, but also the coding element of the recurring bot I urged you to see by scrolling to the bottom of the text.

So there's a lot to work with in the piece, but I especially like it because of its length and range. I think too often we worry about student attention spans, about keeping readings short, and about the belief that long reading is serious and dense. This piece finds a sweet middle: its long and fun, requires time, but makes the time pass well enough. It's a good piece for helping readers develop the skills needed to stay with a longer text, giving them practice in doing so, and could be useful in setting up a later long reading that may not be delivered with as much joy.

There will be things, and this is a good thing, students may need to re-read, to look up, to ask questions about, to talk to classmates about to see how they're understanding the piece. But that kind of reading is needed in courses because it helps bring learners to conversation.

And as you can see from just the few snippets I've quoted above, Ford's piece can spur worth discussions, and thus is worth assigning.

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