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Information, Technology, and Innovation: Resources for Growth in a Connected World by John M. Jordan

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CHAPTER 22

Code

In any world, the current situation is not inevitable; “It might have been otherwise,” in the words of the American poet Jane Kenyon. Nowhere is this more true than in the world of computer code, which embeds past history, deeply buried assumptions and decisions, and future possibilities (or lack thereof). The ways in which the world is captured in code, and in which code is embedded in the world, are important to recognize if not fully comprehend.

“Code” is a wonderful word, one with many interweaving meanings. As Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig brilliantly pointed out in his analysis of the Internet, the first meaning of the word relates to law and jurisprudence. Codes can also be systems of rules outside the law: a code of ethics. Most every child at some point gets fascinated with backward writing, letters to numbers (A=1, B=2, etc.), and other ways of transmitting secret messages: code as symbol, as in The Da Vinci Code. The genetic code is something else again. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, however, the relevant definition for our purposes is straightforward: “Any system of symbols and rules for expressing information or instructions in a form usable by a computer or other machine for processing or transmitting information.” Note how rules, representation, and a system are common to all meanings of the term.

It would be impossible to discuss all the changes wrought by our digital world without talking about code itself. Doing so, however, ...

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