Close to the Machine : Technophilia and its discontents by Ellen Ullman chronicles the dawn of the Internet from the point of view of a freelance programmer. I loved it intensely, partly because Ullman is so completely unapologetic about how she goes nosediving into complex technical issues. It’s as if she’s addressing fellow programmers rather than layman readers, and to me that’s exactly what creates a wonderfully strong feeling of presence; of getting the tastes and smells of life at ground zero of what would become a wave that swept everything off its feet for the coming decades.
I also like how Ullman fluidly transgresses the border between the private and the professional spheres. When she’s falling for the “cypherpunk” Brian even though she knows deep down that she ought not to, I’m as torn as she is. I feel like I’m in the room when her ageing father, practically at his deathbed, makes a belated attempt at establishing some kind of meaningful contact with the writer and her sister.
The two of them inherit a crumbling piece of real estate literally on Wall Street, which at the time of this story has just lost its nimbus, as traders no longer need to leave their suburban homes in order to go to work. This abrupt shift in center of gravity serves beautifully as a parable to what Ullman is probably one of the first to observe; the fact that it starting to matter less and less where you operate from, a phenomenon that she thinks of as “virtualisation of life itself”, a condition that is not without its challenges:
Living a virtual life is an art. Like all arts, virtuality is neither consistent nor reliable. It takes a certain firmness of will, and a measure of inspiration, to get up each and every day and make up your existence from scratch. As every artist knows, evert writer and homebound mother, if you are not careful, your day — without boundaries as it is — can just leak away. Sundown can find all your efforts puddled around you, everything underway, nothing accomplished.
The writer constantly shifts focus back and forth between the safe and ordered microcosm of code, and the social and cultural impact of the systems she helps build. Perhaps it’s her background as a political activist in a fringe Marxist group that does this to her (the activism in its turn a reaction to the business empire her Jewish father has been busy building). Perhaps it’s simply the fact that she never really saw herself as meant to become a programmer. Whatever her reasons, it’s a rich pleasure to listen in on the non-stop moral conversation she’s having with herself about what technology does to us.
It’s equally satisfying to take part of her pillow talk with Brian the cryptographer, a fascinating character who’s as clueless socially as he’s brilliant with tech (“…as ‘technical’ as I might appear to my clients, as close to the machine as I was from their point of view, that’s as far as I was from Brian.”) He falls for the writer because she’s probably the first person ever to hear him out as he rambles on about the concepts that would two decades later lead to the creation of crypto-currencies.
I’ll close with a final favourite paragraph. To put it in context, Ullman is in charge of developing the first system that allows AIDS patients to be tracked from one care-giver to another in the state of California. The system is coming along nicely until the point where the developers are confronted with end-users; “those contemptible, oblivious people who just want to use the stuff we write and don’t care how we did it.” We feel the instinct to retreat back into the comfort of the code, as the writer puts it:
Procedure calls. Relational database normalisation. Objects going in and out of scope. Though my mind is racing I feel calm. It’s the spacey calm of satellites speeding over the earth at a thousand miles per second: relative to each other, we float. The images of patients with AIDS recede, the beleaguered service providers are forgotten, the whole reality of the epidemic fades. We give ourselves over to the sheer fun of the technical, to the nearly sexual pleasure of the clicking thought-stream.
Some part of me mourns but I know there is no other way: human needs must cross the line into code. They must pass through the semipermeable membrane where urgency, fear and hope are filtered out, and only reason travel across. There is no other way. Real, death-inducing viruses do not travel here. Actual human confusion cannot live here. Everything we want accomplished, everything the system is to provide, must be denatured in its crossing to the machine, or else the system will die.