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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.

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.

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