Code does not run the world.

I saw a post on Google+ about a homeless man who learned to code and wrote an Android app. It was a heartwarming story.

I ventured into the comments. People were thrilled at the possibilities for this man, and one commenter, who had some thoughtful things to say, ended with an obligatory Steve Jobs quote (any Steve Jobs quote will do) to prove his computer junkie cred: “As Steve Jobs once said, everybody should learn how to code.”

I thought that was a silly, unfinished statement. Perhaps it should have read: ”Everybody should learn how to code…if they want to work in the IT industry” or “everybody should learn how to code…if they want to earn a living creating apps.”

But “everybody should learn how to code”?

Everyone should not learn how to code. It is an illogical statement. Some people have a mind for which coding is a natural outlet, and others are gifted in caring for other human beings. We should not all learn to code anymore than we should all learn to be chemical engineers.

So I replied:

“Everyone should know how to write code.” — Interesting. My mother believed everyone should know how to play piano and the basics of music (hence all kids in the family learned to play the piano). We all have our priorities of what we think is universally necessary for life. Very happy for Leo, and hope he finds a positive turn in his life with his new skill.

And then I waited. Not for long. The reply I knew was coming popped up quickly.

+Julie R. Neidlinger coding is the basis of the modern world, like knowing tech, while piano playing isn’t.

I wanted tell him that even though coding might be the basis of his world, it isn’t the basis of the world. I responded:

It is a shame if you only view life through what is “useful” in practical terms. And, I would posit that music (which is math) is actually just a much a base for modern life. Or, at least, a life well lived.

I lost interest after that, though I’d admit I didn’t have much to start with. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this “everyone must learn to code” ideology. If you spend any time over at, you’ll find no shortage of bold, brazen developers insisting that what they do is the most important thing there is for a human to be doing.

Let me understand this: because this world relies heavily on technology of a certain type, and because I use it, I need to learn to code. Is this correct? I also use cars, fly in airplanes, use electricity…are we required to know how to build the technology we use? Am I weaker for not knowing how to build a car from the ground up?

So this is my bold statement: Code does not run the world.

Code runs the systems of the world, but they are the same systems the world has always had. Code is merely the current mechanism.

code runs the world

There was a time when steam was the mechanism.

The world, in fact, runs on basic needs such as water, food, shelter, safety, and access to sanitation. Electricity and a lot of unsexy combustion engine technology (among others) are part of the current mechanism, along with code. In our world of smartphones and nonsense we quickly forget that the app that helps us find the pizzeria isn’t the main thing. The grain, dairy, and labor that made the pizza is.

When there is a natural disaster, do people run to their apps for help? When everything is in disarray and the phone towers and the servers and the technology is down, it is very clear that code does not run the world. Clean water, food, security, and heat are much higher on the list.

The trouble with the idea that code is the basis for the modern world is that there is a semblance of truth, enough to confuse.

Code has changed so much so quickly that we’re blinded by the change. Big data, communication, entertainment, education, economic systems–these depend on that code, and these kinds of things change the world and, indeed, seem to run the world. But only on the surface. There was a time when the telegraph, or the railroads, seemed to run the world. When you only see the machine that keeps the matrix in place, and you place heightened importance on the building and feeding of it, you miss out on three truths:

  1. Basic human needs will always be the driving force in the world. This is true even when they are forgotten under a mask of prosperity and excess. Just because we don’t worry about our water and food and flush toilets makes the need for them no less real.
  2. Making a living is not to be confused with making a life. Coding is where the money is at, and that is a driving force. But the threads of music, art, literature, adventure, philosophy–they make life worth living. Not coding yet another database to sort some corporation’s billing system.
  3. People run the world. (August 29th, 1997 passed without a hitch.)

I cringe when I hear people say such glib things, that code runs the world, that code is the basis of the modern world. If coding is your thing, by all means do it. I encourage you to build the systems that make our life convenient and easy. But don’t assume that everyone must learn to code (which implies that those who don’t are in a state of failure) and that your coding is the equivalent of antediluvian bedrock.

The modern world is a myth. It is no different than the ancient world, except for the amenities.

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  1. says

    Julie, this is a wonderful article. It appears we who see life for LIFE are growing fewer. I wish I knew how to code… really! I think it would be awesome. But priority for me is taking care of the human needs of people… just not the coding side, yet… ;) Once again, I love your writing. I may not always comment or retweet but trust me when I say I am glad to read you.
    Find the wonder in today!

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