You’ve Got the Wrong Guy: On Paul Ford’s “What Is Code?”

If you Twitter follow some of the more active scholars and writers focused on computers-and-writing, rhetoric, and/or the digital humanities, you’ve probably seen plenty of tweets and retweets with links to Paul Ford’s incredible web text: “What Is Code?” And if you’ve followed any of those links, and if you’re like me, you arrived at his text, started reading, and reading, and reading… Then, again if you’re like me, you checked the slider on the right side of your browser, and quickly realized that this was one damn long text (more than 28,000 words, if you must know). And again, if you’re like me, you quickly decided you didn’t have time to read it that moment, maybe bookmarked it or sent it to your Instapaper account, and maybe or maybe didn’t come back to it at some point.

Well, I did. Just finished reading the whole thing. And to be honest, I’m not sure it was worth it. For me. And that’s important. It might be a watershed text for you. Maybe for your students. But it wasn’t for me. Let me explain.

I think Ford’s goal is to offer a thorough and relatively nuanced understanding of what code actually is and what it actually does to an uninitiated—or in my case, a perpetually frustrated and neutered—audience. His project is ambitious in both his scope and generosity. I would argue that he is almost entirely successful. But not for me. It’s a question of audience, I think.

I respect people who can code. Really, I see them as sort of magicians. Conjurers. And often, I envy them. In the same way I envy the mechanic I know and trust to work on my Ford Ranger when it’s in need of some TLC. But it doesn’t mean that I want to be a mechanic. Don’t get me wrong. I have HUGE respect for mechanics. That’s just not the particular path I choose to pursue as a vocation. And sometimes it’s best for me to remember that programming and/or computer science isn’t the vocation I chose to pursue either.

I am a teacher. A storyteller. A scholar. A gadget-junkie. I think I make the most substantial and meaningful contributions to the world within those spheres of activity. It’s important to remind myself that, as attractive as the world of coding might be—with all its complexity, problem solving, and puzzles—I can’t do everything all the time.

So is Ford’s text of any value to me? Of course. It helped to expand my knowledge of what exactly programmers do, how they do it, and what pushes them to do it. But it doesn’t make me want to be a programmer. And at 28,000 words, Ford often indulges in making stories of coding-world rabbit holes. And I often lost patience. Not because he’s a bad writer. He’s actually a fantastic writer. But because it was down those rabbit holes that he most clearly defined his audience: possible, eventual coders, or even current coders who have an understanding of a few languages, but lack a context and/or history for understanding how they fit into the larger computing landscape.

Ford’s text would also make a fantastic reading for a course focused on introductory programming. But I am a writing teacher, with great respect for coders, but who is also someone who will likely never require my students to write actual code. It’s just not my particular strength or interest. So I’ll contribute to the worlds of Rhet/Comp, Computers-&-Writing, Digital Humanities in some other way.

For what it’s worth, here a few of my favorite quotes from the article:

  • “A computer is a clock with benefits.”
  • “The turn-of-last-century British artist William Morris once said you can’t have art without resistance in the materials. The computer and its multifarious peripherals are the materials. The code is the art.”
  • “The hardest work in programming is getting around things that aren’t computable, in finding ways to break impossible tasks into small, possible components, and then creating the impression that the computer is doing something it actually isn’t, like having a human conversation.”

And for those of you who are wondering if you should bother to read the whole article, I offer a few headings for sections I particularly liked:

  • “How Does Code Become Software?”
    • “What Is an Algorithm?”
    • “Why Are Programmers So Intense About Languages?”
    • “What Do Different Languages Do?”
    • “The Importance of C”
    • “The Corporate Object Revolution”
    • “Why Are There So Many Languages?”
    • “What Is the Relationship Between Code and Data?”
    • “What About JavaScript?”
    • “What’s the Absolute Minimum I Must Know About PHP?”
    • “How Are Apps Made?”
    • “The Framework: Wilder, Younger Cousin of the Software Development Kit”
    • “What Is Debugging?”
    • “How Do You Pick a Programming Language?”
    • “Should You Learn to Code?”

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