The Lines of Code That Changed Everything

Future Tense:

Culturally, code exists in a nether zone. We can feel its gnostic effects on our everyday reality, but we rarely see it, and it’s quite inscrutable to non-initiates. (The folks in Silicon Valley like it that way; it helps them self-mythologize as wizards.) We construct top-10 lists for movies, games, TV—pieces of work that shape our souls. But we don’t sit around compiling lists of the world’s most consequential bits of code, even though they arguably inform the zeitgeist just as much.

So Slate decided to do precisely that. To shed light on the software that has tilted the world on its axis, the editors polled computer scientists, software developers, historians, policymakers, and journalists. They were asked to pick: Which pieces of code had a huge influence? Which ones warped our lives? About 75 responded with all sorts of ideas, and Slate has selected 36. It’s not a comprehensive list—it couldn’t be, given the massive welter of influential code that’s been written. (One fave of mine that didn’t make the cut: “Quicksort”! Or maybe Ada Lovelace’s Bernoulli algorithm.) Like all lists, it’s meant to provoke thought—to help us ponder anew how code undergirds our lives and how decisions made by programmers ripple into the future.