Books

Welcome to the Machine: 'Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its Discontents'

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.


Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its Discontents

Publisher: Picador
Length: 189 pages
Author: Ellen Ullman
Price: $15.00
Format: paperback
Amazon

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.

Next Page
8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image