These days you no longer need a guitar to punish your mom. Armed with a laptop, you can hack into a bank, a credit card transaction, an identity, a government, all from the privacy of a bedroom you rarely, if ever, leave.
Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the above statement is, well, its failure to cause alarm. We’ve all become inured to the machine and what’s been programmed into it. Privacy has become quaint. Social media is all. Recently I read that high school reunions are on the demise, made archaic by Facebook.
Ellen Ullman saw all this coming long before most of us did. In the ‘70s, she was one of the earliest programmers commuting to the then-nascent Silicon Valley, working in computer languages now known to an aging few. She did all this as an anomaly: a woman in a man’s profession, a young man’s profession at that.
And then she wrote about it.
Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its Discontents is a memoir about the days before computers were common household items. She describes the rush of “seeing” a new program at its inception, an experience she likens to the high of crystal meth, to the hideously long hours of writing, testing, debugging, retesting, to finally booting up something a company can actually use, then getting well compensated for her efforts.
It’s also about what few of us saw coming: the way the machine, and the things programmed into it, wormed itself into our lives. Many of us are so dependent on computers that we carry them everywhere: computers smaller than wallets, hooking into wireless networks to tweet, text, email, or offer directions to the nearest hip coffee joint. Once home, we charge our smaller computers, turn to our desktop configurations, and stare intently into our screens. Ullman has a great deal to say about the ways computers have changed our lives. Most of it is not favorable.
Close to the Machine begins in a room where Ullman’s spent the past three days and nights working with two younger programmers. They have not left the building in all this time. Food and liquor have been ordered in and consumed. Time has become meaningless. What the program will actually do, once debugged, is ignored: “What are we working on?...The details escape me just now. I don’t care. I should care… later, perhaps when we emerge from this room full of computers—I will care… But just now: no. I have passed through a membrane where the real world and its uses no longer matter.”
Even in the earliest days of computing, programmers were renegades, a small group of socially inept young men (mostly men) who today would hold positions on the Autism spectrum. Back then, they were considered “impossible lunatics”, able to perform amazing, increasingly necessary feats of software creation. They worked 100 stretches uncomplainingly, existed on cheap take-out, then vanished until called upon again.
In the programming subculture, the end user is anathema, a know-nothing who pulls her chair up to the machine and boots up with no idea of how or why the machine is doing what it does. The chasm between programmers, end users, and the bridge linking them—the computer program—is an increasing source of anxiety for Ullman, whose work as a software engineer has morphed into consulting. She now calls upon two or three programmers to crunch out the work, joining them in darkened rooms for days on end, emerging to don sleek black outfits and drive to corporate headquarters, where she is forced to deal with end users.
The dichotomy makes her feel awkward and guilty; away from the machine’s comforting logic, she must try to interact with people like the end users meant to utilize a program designed for AIDS patients. The program already exists, having been created without input from the healthcare professionals and patients intended to use it. In a meeting with Ullman, they indignantly tear it apart. Ullman reassembles her programming team, three younger men, and with mixed guilt and relief, descends back into the machine.
A good programmer’s reward (beyond the all consuming work itself) is earning a lot of money, through work or stock options or both. What sort of program one creates is of little interest to the programmer—just making it work consumes all her attention. Ullman herself has managed to do well, earning enough for a down payment on a San Francisco loft and a “sweet” red sports car. But AIDS work is not income-generating. Further, it raises the nagging worry that the information entered into the program will be used to invade patient privacy or deny benefits. When Ullman brings this up, she is waved off, though her concern comes to pass.
Ullman works on another project involving a large bank. At a wine-tasting party with a corporate manager, she listens to the woman describe programmers as cogs in the wheel of “successful deployment”. The manager, who has never met the programmers, hired Ullman and said programmers to update the bank’s global automated processes. She admits to Ullman that the programmers are to accomplish this using an existing 15-year-old program grossly ill-suited to the project’s magnitude. Ullman, considering the consequences of system failure, becomes nauseated.
I was immediately reminded of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, written in 1985: the narrator first realizes something is seriously amiss when her automated pay card, a purely fictional object at the time, is denied at the local market. Women have been denied access to money, robbing them of freedom. Twelve years later, Ullman recognizes the reality of a bank system crashing, accidentally or not. Both writers were frighteningly prescient. In 2012, the idea of our ATM cards ceasing to work remains alarming, but the idea is no longer speculative. The question has become not if this could happen, but when it will happen.