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What is Code? For Lawyers, in Well Under 38,000 Words

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

If you've been watching your Facesnaps, Twitbooks or NSA data collection feeds lately, you've probably seen more than one share of writer and programmer Paul Ford's "What is Code?" article. The immersive, experience-based feature attempts to lay out the basics of code for a lay audience, in just around 38,000 words.

But what does code mean for lawyers?

It's All Just Rules, Really

Before getting to what code is, why would lawyers even need to understand it? Understanding the basics of code, like understanding the basics of accounting, is part of operating a functional practice. As more and more legal practices take up electronic discovery, Internet marketing, cloud-based document sharing and the like, understanding code will help you know just what goes on under the hood. You don't need to be an expert, but a bit of familiarity won't hurt.

So, quid est code? Ford, in 38,000 words, refuses to answer the question. (How very postmodern.) In the simplest form, code is just rules. Like the law governs financial disclosures, or who is responsible when you crash your car into someone else's, code is simply a set of rules that govern and control behavior, without the free will to break those rules. That's what sets the United States Code apart from computer code -- that and the sad fact that the U.S.C. can't stream photos of cats to you all day.

The Ghost in the Machine

Code is the rules that govern our computers, watches, home thermostats. Programmers use different languages to convert inputs, typing, temperature and what not, into discernible instructions that cause them to do things. According to Ford, at the most basic, this looks like:

Tick, take a number and put it in box one. Tick, take another number, put it in box two. Tick, operate (an operation might be addition or subtraction) on those two numbers and put the resulting number in box one. Tick, check if the result is zero, and if it is, go to some other box and follow a new set of instructions.

Repeat, ad naseum, billions of times a second. Making sense of those inputs can be done in one of any number of languages, each suited to a different task. When your web designer or e-discovery guru says something about Python or C or Java, he's taking about which language would be best for getting through a particular task.

Ford originally began the article to explain to code to his editor at Bloomberg Businessweek. The piece provides not just an explanation of code, but a survey of how coders obsess on different programming languages, misogyny in tech, and the fashion choices of social media consultants. All of this is accompanied by a many interactive features and one quite ugly blue mascot fashioned along the lines of Word's ill-fated "Clippy."

We've narrowed Ford's explanation down 37,000+ words, but have barely scratched the surface. You should still read the original. Plus, that's the only way to earn the article's "Certification of Completion."


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