Writers, geeks – and economists

I very much enjoyed reading Vikram Chandra’s Geek Sublime: Writing Fiction, Coding Software. It’s just what it says, the reflections of somebody who writes novels and has made a living along the way out of programming software. There isn’t a big message, unless it’s the conclusion that the two activities are – despite some tantalising similarities – ultimately very different. (This is my terminology, but I would describe fiction-writing as art and coding as craft, both highly skilled but distinct.)

Geek Sublime: Writing Fiction, Coding Software

Along the way, Chandra makes a series of extremely interesting observations. One extended section is about Sanskrit and Hindu literature. The book describes Sanskrit as a fundamentally algorithmic language, with a given number of phonemes and rules for combining them, and yet the literature is as sublime and transcendent as any. I have no basis on which to comment on this but it was interesting.

Another fascinating section is about how strongly macho American (and I would add British) computer science has become, in contrast to the profession (or vocation) in India. The book traces this to the frontier spirit of early computer science (it refers to Nathan Ensmenger’s The Computer Boys, which I reviewed here a while ago.). The macho, cowboy attitude – “no bullshit” becoming simply rude and anti-social – was progressively reinforced by the sociology of the venture capital industry, and by the wider stereotyping so pervasive in American culture. The book cites figures suggesting that white, North American-born women are even less likely than African-American, Hispanic or Asian North American women, or European-born women, to study as computer scientists. American geekiness is particularly solitary and aggressive.

I found this section fascinating because it carries such strong echoes of the way American economics developed and subsequently imposed its social and cultural norms elsewhere. Economists are wannabee geeks, too, but we’re not nearly as fashionable as computer science geeks (for good reason).

The Computer Boys Take Over: Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise (History of Computing)

The book has lots of other nuggets. I love the illustrations of Lego models of logic gates and the point they make that there’s nothing inherently electronic about the digital. There’s a cracking explanation of logic gates too – the very basics of how computers work. This cites one of the books I learned about such things from, Charles Petzold’s Code. The book compares the iPhone’s computing power to ENIAC: to get the same capability with ENIAC-era technology would cost $50 trillion (roughly world GDP) and weigh the same as 2,500 Nimitz-class aircraft carriers. You could break the Enigma code with your smartphone.

All in all, a real pleasure to read, and a must for anybody interested in what computing is doing to culture and society. Maybe I’ll now have to try Chandra’s novels.

Red Earth and Pouring Rain

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