How did we humans manage to build a global civilization on the cusp of colonizing other planets? It seems like such an unlikely outcome. After all, we were prone to cycles of war and famine for millennia, and have a meager capacity for society-wide planning and coordination—among other problems.
Maybe it’s our unique capacity for complex language and story-telling, which allow us to learn in groups; or our ability to extend our capabilities through technology; or political and religious institutions we have created. However, perhaps the most significant answer is something else entirely: code. Humanity has survived, and thrived, by developing productive activities that evolve into regular routines and standardized platforms—which is to say we have survived, and thrived, by creating and advancing code.
The word “code” derives from the Latin codex, meaning “a system of laws.” Today “code” is used in various distinct contexts—computer code, genetic code, cryptologic code (such as Morse code), ethical code, building code, and so forth—each of which has a common feature: They all contain instructions that describe a process. Computer code requires the action of a compiler, energy, and (usually) inputs in order to become a useful program. Genetic code requires expression through the selective action of enzymes to produce proteins or RNA, ultimately producing a unique phenotype. Cryptologic code requires decryption. Ethical codes, legal codes, and building codes all require processes of interpretation in order to be converted into action.