15 June, 2015

What ‘What is Code’ is is a Masterpiece

Paul Ford’s incredible What is Code is one of those magazine pieces we’re going to remember as a master of the form. Yes, it’s a business magazine talking about how computers work, but like Gay Talese profiling Frank Sinatra, Hunter S. Thompson crashing the Kentucky Derby, or David Foster Wallace getting inside the mind of a right-wing radio host, it’s a story of how we live now1.

Like those other seminal pieces, it’s not just the story, but how it’s told. ‘What is Code’ weaves a fictional narrative with technical exposition that could be dry even in capable hands, yet Ford makes it understandable, relatable, and even funny. To be able to effortlessly drop in William Blake allusions, 50-year-old computer history, and internet memes requires a deft hand and uncommon mind.

If ‘What is Code’ were merely dropped into Bloomberg‘s standard web template, it would be a gift, but a team of bright and hilarious coders and designers built a custom site that is the perfect complement. Ford is showing and telling a story, the page itself is reinforcing it2.

By now, this — article? mini-book? tome? — has its own gravitational pull. There’s a Github repository, that, as of a few hours ago, is still being updated. That repo has a pull request arguing over the semantics of Javascript’s package manager (of course it does) as well as a very thoughtful request to update the attribution of a quote. There’s a Bloomberg podcast episode, an On the Media interview, and interviews with Vice’s Motherboard, Gawker, and Huffpo. At some point, ‘What is Code’ might achieve sentience itself — exactly the kind of ill-informed joke you might have made before reading ‘What is Code’.

It’s in a business magazine but this is absolutely required reading for journalists of all beats. Tech reporters, sure, but anyone who needs to report on anything that code touches, which is everyone. Reporting on labor issues? Read it to better understand Uber. Political reporter? Read it to understand net neutrality, cyber warfare, and modern campaigns. Entertainment? Celebrities are venture capitalists now!

What’s most impressive about ‘What is Code’, and this has been true of Ford’s writing for two decades, is his humanity. Lots of people could explain programming in a way that makes them look smart, it’s a rare talent that does it in a way that makes the reader smarter at the end. For all the talk out of Silicon Valley about code eating the world, it took a writer/programmer in Brooklyn, writing in a weekly east coast business magazine, to make code something to get excited about, not be afraid of. For that, we owe Paul Ford a bit of gratitude.


  1. Ford has his own, unmistakable voice, one he’s honed for years, yet I couldn’t help but hear echoes of David Foster Wallace. I mean this only as a compliment, the entire 38,000 word article could be a chapter (or, just as likely, a footnote) in a sprawling Wallace megaworld. 

  2. Of course, there’s an easter egg and, of course, it’s activated by the Konami code