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.
The Far-Reaching Ramifications of the Programmer’s Creation
There are other unsettling moments in Close to the Machine. Hired to computerize a small business in California’s Central Valley, Ullman creates a system that the employees, women with ten and 20 years at the company, must learn. The office workers learn the program cheerfully, and the owner insists on talking Ullman to dinner. As Ullman gamely tries to eat, the owner suddenly asks her if the program can count keystrokes, essentially tracking what a given employee does in a day. He is specifically interested in his office manager, Mary.
What does Mary do all day? Mary has worked for the man for 26 years. When his children were school-aged, she picked them up from school and drive them home, where she served them glasses of milk. Now he wants to count her keystrokes. When Ullman asks why, the owner becomes almost childish. He has spent money upgrading to this system. “…and now I get to use it the way I’d like to.” Ullman advised him against it. He refused to listen. He was, she said “infected” by the system.
If Ullman is unusual in being a female programmer, her age also sets her apart: she is middle-aged in a youth-dominated field. Middle-aged programmers are viewed dubiously, as having lost the cutting edge. They’re tired; they aren’t interested in acquiring yet another computer language. A successful programmer is simultaneously arrogant, certain of his ability to acquire the latest computer language or make the new software work; he is also terrified at being found out as a nervous fraud. Lose the arrogance, lose the fear, game over. Ullman is also bisexual, two years out of an eight-year relationship with a woman when she becomes involved with a much younger male cryptographer, Brian.
“Maybe…I had not played enough Russian Roulette with my emotional life. Maybe I underestimated my own perversity.”
Brian is a “cypherpunk,” (Ullman’s spelling) a bright young man brimming with grandiose internet schemes that sounded insane in 1997 but are de rigueur now. A porn website with monies paid to a site outside the United States. Dealings in alternative currencies. Meetings with a group of fellow cypherpunks to figure the best ways to hack into various programs and “bring it all down.” Perhaps most telling are his ideas about art’s uneasy co-existence with the internet: “See, the content no longer has any value. Who would buy a book when you could pick it off the net for free?…the new value is in the transaction itself. The click. Every time someone clicks, someone makes money.”
At their first dinner together, Brian literally sniffs deeply at Ullman, then snorts in an obnoxious sexual gesture. Ullman is appalled, but admits she is flattered by the younger man’s attentions, by what she describes as the “night dark” pull of sex with men. And for all of Brian’s outlandish plans and inappropriate behaviors, he is touchingly aware of his social lacks. hen Ullman remarks he is a strange man, his ebullient mask falls away. “I used to think that was a compliment.”
Ullman’s age allows her to expand on the dichotomies of human and machine. Having come of age in the ’60s, she sees Brian and his fellow punks as modern versions of Jerry Rubin’s Yippies. Her brief membership in the Communist party left her well-trained for the rigors of programming. But even as she returns to her computers, comfortably descending into their comparative simplicity, humans and their needs intrude.
When her father dies, Ullman and her sister are left to sort out his finances, which include several real estate holdings in New York City. While these might sound like a wonderful cash cow, the truth is the buildings are a financial drain, partly to due to tenants like Morty, whose handbag shop, mere blocks from a discount emporium, is doing poorly. Morty is in his 70s, his son in his 50s. Ullman is stunned when Morty announces the real problem with his business is the “modems”, the online businesses sucking the life out of real storefronts. Ullman, who designs the very sites pulling customers from Morty to the comfort of online shopping, is culpable.
Later in the book Ullman will further remark on the ways computers have altered human interactions and behaviors: “…it (what she calls “the system”) forms an irresistible horizontal country that obliterates the long, slow, old cultures of place and custom, law and social life.”
She notices this during a trip to the bank. Like an increasing number of professionals, Ullman works from home, often in her pajamas, and is eager for human contact. A visit to the bank, an old, elegant building, recalls visits made in her youth with her mother, who considered going to the bank so important she wore cologne for the occasion. When Ullman sits on a bench, musing on the bank clientele, she draws the attention of the security guard. Chastened, she departs.
When lunching with her “virtual” company, a group she’s pulled together for a project, she notes the way they are friendly but wary, for after this particular assignment they may never work together again. Gone is the office camaraderie, the nasty gossip, the infighting, the god-awful holiday parties. Instead, everyone works from home, falling into odd working hours, hungering for the proverbial water cooler. At times Ullman fantasizes about getting a “real” job, the kind requiring a wardrobe and appearing at a set time and place to perform tasks among the same people. But lucrative freelance work continues to appear. Some companies do not survive, their contracts dying with them, leaving Ullman at loose ends. Inevitably another call comes, leading to another job.
Brian remains a provisional presence in Ullman’s life. When she shows him her treasured stash of computing language manuals, he laughs at them dismissively. Shown an original Unix manual, he suggests Ullman toss it. “It’s trash.” They made periodic contact, usually via email, talk a great deal, make love, then she walks him back to his bus stop. After a final meeting, they separate with promises to contact one another, both aware the relationship is over.
Despite her programming abilities, and the money they bring in, Ullman is also writing both articles and books. She mentions her writing only in passing, as if it has no bearing on programming. Yet she’s in engaging in what once was a critical aspect of long, slow, old cultures, placing herself in worlds old and new. Recently Ullman released a novel, By Blood, entirely unrelated to computers. While she hasn’t abandoned the machine, a perhaps impossible and undesirable act, she has moved beyond its blunt logic into the less quantifiable realm of the imagination.