If data is the new oil and information is power, then what the heck is code?
disclaimer: the following is a personal journey into code and data from a recent recruit to the Fastdev family, a content guy, NOT a coder ;)
What is code? This bugged me (sorry) from the first moment I arrived at the IT consultancy company, Fastdev, in Stockholm. Recently parachuted in, I landed, began onboarding, and realised I had a lot to learn.
At Fastdev they live and breathe code. I, however, do not. I am sure-footed IRL, conversant in a couple of spoken languages, but I sure as hell don’t read, write, or think code. So what the heck is it? And, frankly, what role does it play in our day-to-day lives?
“If Kindle is upgraded with face recognition and biometric sensors, it can know what made you laugh, what made you sad, and what made you angry. Soon, books will read you while you are reading them.”
Backstory: Data, data everywhere…
I like to think I nailed the data thing a couple of years ago.
While working alongside a leading European, now global, data agency I interrogated myself and the company, “what the hell is data?” I mean exactly.
The fog of ‘big data’ and its promise swirled around boardrooms and the media.
My job was to clarify the issue. It led to articles such as “Impossible to I’m Possible — Data-Driven Decision Making”, “You Know Nothing- Living in an Era of Noise” and, “In Data We Trust? The Power of Data for Good”.
I referenced everyone and everything from Florence Nightingale to Richard Feynmen, from Yuval Noah Harari to Hannibal of Carthage, and from Elon Musk to bongo drums, mozzarella, and the Titanic.
Data is…the game changer?
Ultimately, my time up-close and personal with data led to a report on the next decade of data. I dealt with whether we’re ready for it or not and whether it will live up to the hype.
During my research, I stumbled across a bold statement regarding the value of data “The world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data”. I won’t lie, it made for good copy.
Ultimately, I learnt that data is basically information, which I guess I already knew. But importantly I learnt that now we just have access to, and the ability to use, masses more of it. That’s that game-changer. We can use data in ways never before thought possible. We can make things happen that were either previously unimaginable or, only existed in the pages of science fiction comics.
A third of one percent are… enabling data
Pretty much everything you touch today has been influenced by coders and developers. Somewhere along the line coders and developers have influenced the hours, minutes, and seconds of your day. Lines and lines of code.
From the way you listen to your music, to how you travel, from the energy you consume to the clothes you wear and the food you eat- little is uninfluenced by code.
Code stitches together the fabric of our modern society. Yet very few of us have any clue how this contemporary world of ours, with code at its core, operates.
What makes an autonomous truck autonomous? An algorithm — a set of instructions in code leverage computational power to digest data in quantities previously not possible. How is your bank loan request being assessed? You guessed it — algorithms written by coders.
Basically today, it’s code all the way down. The building blocks and foundation of our contemporary society. However, the fact is, less than one percent of us have any clue how to build with the new material.
Today’s world — a coder’s world?
In many ways, our world is now divided into two. The digital and the material. However, as we are increasingly aware, the boundaries are shifting and blurring.
The contrast between the digital world and ‘us’ is becoming less and less clear.
Computers, for example, are no longer locked away in company vaults or just sitting on desktops in offices or homes.
We no longer switch on or login just to work or play. We no longer really switch or log off. We’re integrated.
The ‘matrix’ or the ‘metaverse’, coders, programmers and developers have been living between the lines and creating new worlds in a serious way for at least 50 years. Now the rest of us are also beginning to live between the lines.
A step back to the future… the first computer, the first programmer
The first computers were human. That is to say those extraordinary mathematicians during the industrial revolution, tasked with complex mathematical equations were known as “computers”.
Algorithms, or instructions in ‘code’ (on punch cards) were designed for the mass looms of the industrial revolution they helped produce the fashionable and intricate patterns demanded by the best dressed.
The British inventor Charles Babbage saw beyond the punch cards to begin work on what was to become his famous ‘analytical machine’. Later recognised as the ‘father of the computer’, Babbage aimed to develop the first machine to analyse numerous mathematical problems.
However, it was his assistant, the daughter of a poet who saw beyond the mathematics and the looms. A brilliant mathematician and writer she saw a the possibility for a whole new world in code.
She saw music, she saw type, she saw that code or maths and algorithms could enable a whole new way of life. It was Ada Lovelace, daughter of the famous romantic writer Lord Byron, who wrote the first computer programme.
Lovelace saw glimpses of a whole new way of life. The way of life which, in many ways, we lead today.
So, it’s certainly no great eye-opener to talk of coders and developers being the builders of our ‘brave’ new world. Code is the invisible presence that augments and enables so much.
By using code and modern computational power we can access and harness specific amounts of mass data previously impossible to manage. Now owing to the technological leaps made over the past 50 years we have realised dreams surrounding, for example, autonomous driving. Although, in the case of autonomous driving, we knew in principle how to make it happen, it was only relatively recently that we could, by combining computational power and access to data allied to the correct algorithms, make it possible. And this is the case in so many fields whether it is entertainment or construction, fashion or food.
Code is the thread that builds and binds the technologies, it speeds and scales them and allows the industries to reach new heights.
Ultimately, code allows the framework for a world of possibilities that would have been barely imaginable by those brought up in Lovelace and Babbage’s age of steam.
Finally, code for good..?
We know coders are only human. Perhaps all too human for the power they have. We talk of scalability all the time but remember, as products and services become larger and potentially more powerful so the responsibility of those building these services and products also increases.
In a world of apparently anonymous algorithms, considered to be neutral and unbiased, often going unquestioned and projecting greater authority than human expertise, we can often forget that the human element existed from the very start.
In some cases, reliance on algorithms can displace human responsibility for their outcomes. Bias can enter into algorithmic systems as a result of cultural, social, or institutional expectations. Additionally, if algorithms are used in contexts which were not anticipated, or by audiences who are not considered in the software’s initial design there can be disastrous consequences.
Will we, just as any aspiring healthy society, be able to bring an appreciation of cultural differences, backgrounds, gender, and all the variables that make up humanity and a healthy planet into consideration as we code?
If the future is written in code, if code augments our power far beyond anything previously imaginable, how can we best ensure that it’s a destiny fit for us all and not only a third of one percent?