Ellen Ullman, Close To The Machine
I’M UPSET, SO I’M TAKING APART MY COMPUTERS. If I were a poet, I’d get drunk and yell at the people I love. As it is, I’m gutting my machines.
Ullman, a writer and a computer programmer, wrote this in 1997, back when the internet and start-up culture were brand new, but so much of it seems like it could’ve been written yesterday. As Jaron Lanier writes in the introduction, “Here was a computer nerd who could write.”
To see clearly you have to have the access of an insider, but also be an outsider. You have to be right there and still have enough distance to see. Ullman had just the right mix of there and not there when she wrote this book. She was attached to Silicon Valley, but at a bit of distance, living in San Francisco. And she is a grown-up woman in a culture favoring youth, in a world where women programmers were all too rare.
It’s no surprise that Lanier wrote the introduction for the rerelease — sections of the book feel like they could’ve come straight from You Are Not A Gadget. (Remember: this was written 15 years ago!)
[I]t would not be the “content makers”— the artists, writers, multimedia makers— who would be making the money. Of course, the ones making the money would be the owners of the transaction itself. The new breed of entrepreneur: Net landlord. Content is worthless, art is just an excuse to get someone to click; meanwhile, artists watch their work circumnavigate the globe while “value arbitrageurs,” the Brians of the world, pick off a fractional cent at every click, making a fortune.
We think we are creating the system for our own purposes. We believe we are making it in our own image. We call the microprocessor the “brain”; we say the machine has “memory.” But the computer is not really like us. It is a projection of a very slim part of ourselves: that portion devoted to logic, order, rule, and clarity. It is as if we took the game of chess and declared it the highest order of human existence. We place this small projection of ourselves all around us, and we make ourselves reliant on it. To keep information, buy gas, save money, write a letter— we can’t live without it any longer. The only problem is this: the more we surround ourselves with a narrowed notion of existence, the more narrow existence becomes. We conform to the range of motion the system allows. We must be more orderly, more logical. Answer the question, Yes or No, OK or Cancel.
When I watch the users try the Internet, it slowly becomes clear to me that the Net represents the ultimate dumbing-down of the computer… The spreadsheet and the word processor— two tools empty of information, two little programs sitting patiently and passively for their human owners to put something interesting into them. Now, fifteen years later, the Internet browser is the program creating the second generation of the personal computer. The browser—a click-click baby tool for searching the Web, where everything of interest already resides.
My favorite passages are about how weird it is to freelance. (I write while wearing sweatpants and typing frantically while my son takes a nap.)
How your sense of time gets lost:
As every artist knows, every 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.
How when you work where you live, your boundaries are destroyed:
My work hours have leaked into all parts of the day and week. Eight in the morning, ten at night, Saturday at noon, Sundays: I am never not working. Even when I’m not actually doing something that could be called work, I might get started any minute… Delivery guys love us: We’re the new housewives. We’re always home…. Am I earning a living, I wonder, or just trying to fill a very large, self-made solitude?
How your sense of space gets lost:
The sense that I am in the middle of the world and anything might happen to me here. How will all this happen to me, once I am safe at home, and everything has been flattened to two dimensions, a screen, a keyboard, and a mouse?
How weird it is to have a digital identity:
[H]aving a Web page has become the way we must prove our existence. We have a “presence” on the Web: we are therefore real. Click here to learn all about Project Jerry. Here are our hours and services. Come use us, we say. In the end, we simply do what everyone else does on the Net: we advertise.
And how you often dream about going back to the “security, routine, and camaraderie of the office”.
Really great read. Recommended.
(Thanks Robin Sloan and Paul Ford.)