NB. I was sent this book as a review copy.


From Princeton University Press

What a wonderful book! This book, made up of 26 chapters, is a look into the world of computer code, but more than that, about the interrelationship between people and code, from the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Each chapter is written by a different author, or pair of authors, and covers a massively wide range of subjects, from the first coders and programs, to the errors in code which have caused disaster, to the short lines of code which have had massive effects on society.

One thing to note is that people who are so often marginalised in modern computer science are given their voice and their rightful place. This includes the characters who are covered (including Jean Sammet, who I knew nothing about but who developed one of the most important and widely used programming languages to this day) to the LGBTQ+ community in Iran and how they used Telegram to get around the Revolutionary Guards. It also includes the authors themselves who make up a much more representative distribution of society than most computer science books would include.

This inclusion makes the book a far less one-dimensional affair than one might otherwise expect. We see the world of code from a broad set of perspectives and this allows us to see so much more than usual. The subjects themselves are so interesting that I think that it’s worth including the full chapter index here:

  1. The first line of code – by Elena Botella
  2. Monte Carlo Algorithms: Random numbers in computing from the H-bomb to today – by Benjamin Pope
  3. Jean Sammet and the code that runs the world – by Claire L. Evans
  4. Spacewar: Collaborative coding and the rise of gaming culture – by Arthur Daemmrich
  5. BASIC and the illusion of coding empowerment – by Joy Lisi Rankin
  6. The first email: The code that connected us online – by Margaret O’Mara
  7. The police beat algorithm: The code that launched computational policing and modern racial profiling – by Charlton MacIlwain
  8. “Apollo 11, Do Bailout” – by Ellen R. Stefan and Nick Partridge
  9. The most famous comment in Unix history: “You are not expected to understand this” – by David Cassel
  10. The accidental felon – by Katie Hafner
  11. Internet Relay Chat: From Fish-Slap to LOL – by Susan C. Herring
  12. Hyperlink: The idea that led to another, and another, and another – by Brian McCullough
  13. JPEG: The unsung hero in the digital revolution – by Hany Farid
  14. The viral internet image you’ve never seen – by Lily Hay Newman
  15. The pop-up ad: The code that made the internet worse – by Ethan Zuckerman
  16. Wear this code, Go to jail – by James Grimmelmann
  17. Needles in the world’s biggest haystack: The algorithm that ranked the internet – by John MacCormick
  18. A failure to interoperate: The lost mars climate orbiter – by Charles Duan
  19. The code that launched a million cat videos – by Lowen Liu
  20. Nakamoto’s prophecy: Bitcoin and the revolution in trust – by Quinn DuPont
  21. The curse of the awesome button – by Will Oremus
  22. The bug no one was responsible for – until everyone was – by Josephine Wolff
  23. The Volkswagen emissions scandal: How digital systems can be used to cheat – by Lee Vinsel
  24. The code that Brough a language online – by Syeda Gulshan Ferdous Jana
  25. Telegram: The platform that became The Internet” in Iran – by Mahsa Alimardani and Afsaneh Rigot
  26. Encoding Gender – by Meredith Broussard

As can be see – the topics are both massively wide-ranging and affect…well…everyone. There isn’t a single person who could read this who hasn’t in some way been affected by a good range of the subjects discussed in this book, and as such I would hugely recommend it to anyone who has an interest in why the modern digital world is the way it is, along with both the dangers and the opportunities that it gives us. The writing is clear, and you don’t need to know anything about computers to understand pretty much every line of this book. A must-read!

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