Close to the Machine

Ellen Ullman

I bought this book on the strength of the title—mentioned in Wired News’ coverage of a conference Ullman was speaking at—and general praise from readers at Amazon. The title’s style is ultimately, I think, misleading—for me it evoked a thoroughly engrossing survey of human-machine relations, perhaps journalistic, definitely non-personal. However, ‘non-personal’ is far from the book’s reality. Sure, it’s partly about the non-personal world you sink into when hooked on the abstracted rush of software coding. But in the end it’s a brave and successful attempt to reveal this world’s inevitable link back to the messy, human world of personal relationships.

A radical feminist and communist in the early 70’s, Ullman moved swiftly into the burgeoning world of computer programming later that decade. We join her, 20 years down the line, as she plies her trade—now advanced to ‘software engineer’—as an independent contractor in San Francisco’s booming tech-obsessed Bay Area. She vividly (and hilariously) describes that odd realm where people lose all sense of time, not due to dreamy mind-expansion, but because of hyper-focused mind-contraction. No daylight, humming machines, frantic colleagues who reach the pits of despair when their code crashes, the body’s energy thrown around by caffeine and sleep deprivation, unnaturally compressed into one’s cerebrum, eyes and fingers.

Her account of this world quickly mingles with her personal life, something one reader at Amazon found disconcerting:

Working as a technical writer within the technology industry, I related to a great deal of the story. That being said, a great deal of the story had nothing to do with what I thought the theme was to be. The book is marketed as a liberal arts major’s mis-adventures in techno-land. I was not interested in the author’s personal, sexual life. I wasn’t offended by it, just bored.

Boring it’s not, if you’re interested in both techno-land and the human heart. I quote the above reader to make it clear to anyone thinking of buying a copy that in the end you do need an interest in the human heart as well to fully get behind this unique tale. I mentioned the obsessive programmer’s world’s "inevitable link back" to the personal world because however much this link is ignored, missed, blanked out, neglected or not believed in, it persists. I’m worried by the extent to which this bond, which can’t be erased or deleted or archived, is neglected by the people who are moulding the culture of tomorrow. Which is why I find Ullman’s account, for all the perversity of the human-machine tangles it describes, courageous and encouraging in its honesty.

"In the end, this is a book about Ellen Ullman, not about technoculture." So says yet another disillusioned Amazon customer. Are they disillusioned just because they felt the book was marketed in a deceptive way? I thought the title implied an in-depth critique of technoculture—but was pleasantly surprised that it was in-depth in a different way, delving into someone’s actual experience of this culture’s massively complex innards. And yet there are still people out there blind enough to dimiss the book because of this, serving only to highlight Ullman’s still-timely cautionary tale.

No comments here for now, but if you want to you can chip in on Facebook or Twitter.