Doubt and Disruption: Ellen Ullman’s Life in Code

Ellen Ullman has long cast a skeptical eye over the tech world from the inside, spurning the Kool-Aid of start-up culture and questioning the industry’s obsession with disruption. Author of the cult classic Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents, she tumbled into the programming world accidentally. In 1979, fresh out of studying literature at Cornell University, Ullman was strolling through her San Francisco neighborhood when she saw a TRS-80 in the window of Radio Shack. Nicknamed the “Trash-80,” it was one of the first mass-marketed PCs. Reader, she bought it.

“I didn’t know it was the next cool thing. I just found great satisfaction in getting something to work,” Ullman tells me by phone from New York, where she has returned to live part-time after decades in San Francisco. Ullman parlayed her passion for tinkering with machines into a career as a programmer, but the written word’s allure never left her. She eventually turned to chronicling the transformation of the tech world and, in turn, the world’s transformation by tech.

Ullman began writing the linked essays in her riveting new book, Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology, in 1994. It was the year Amazon and Yahoo were born, and the moment web browsers first came to mainstream attention. One of the few women toiling in the coding coalmines, she documented the puerility of programming culture, where obnoxious behavior was not just accepted but admired in the young white men who dominated the industry.

In Life in Code, Ullman describes a software vendor developers’ conference where self-proclaimed “barbarian” engineers project slides of themselves dressed in animal skins, holding spears. When a man at the event asks Ullman why she has decided to leave engineering for consulting, she begins to explain her frustrations with the “the cult of the boy engineer” — only to be interrupted by a massive, organized water balloon fight.

There’s blatant sexism, too: at one company, her boss rubs her back while she codes. At another, she’s excluded from meetings even after being promoted to manager.

“I didn’t manage my anger well, and I felt I had to leave the company because of that,” Ullman admits with sigh. “I’ve learned over the years that angry dignity is the key: you have to learn to just stare it in the face, find a place inside you where you believe: I belong here.” She points out that she was just an ordinary programmer doing “the nitty-gritty to make things work,” not some revolutionary innovator. Yet, she says, “What kept me going was the fascination and wonder — with coding and understanding systems in a deeper and deeper way. It was not to prove that I could be the woman who broke the ceiling.”

Ullman vividly evokes a milieu of young men sealed inside their own mental bubbles, alienated from their bodies and disdainful of real-world interactions and responsibilities. They prefer communicating by email rather than by telephone or in the flesh. Those observations may seem commonplace now — but Ullman’s prescience was seeing how they created a system that facilitates these preferences. In doing so, they’ve remade the world in their image. As Ullman accurately predicted in the 1994 essay that kicks off this book, “Soon we may all be living the programming life,” each of us staring deep into our own machines.

In Life in Code, she follows human threads that sometimes get lost in discussions of technology’s grand tapestry. Ullman charmingly chronicles an email romance with a colleague that doesn’t survive their attempts to translate it into the flesh, and she wrangles with her doubts about Artificial Intelligence via a lovely ode to her elderly cat, Sadie. Pondering the idea that even organisms as complex as mammals can be understood purely in terms of genetically encoded logic and reflexes, she asks, “Was Sadie a trick? Was all that life — from acrobat to purring companion to arthritic old lady . . . just part of her hardwiring?”

This new book serves as a kind of sequel to 1997’s Close to the Machine. Like her chance collision with the TRS-80, Ullman’s first book was a result of serendipity. She says City Lights editor Nancy Peters mentioned at a dinner party that she was considering publishing Resisting the Virtual Life, an essay collection about the “information superhighway”; a mutual friend suggested that Ullman could supply an insider’s perspective. She followed her contribution to that book with Close to the Machine, an elegant swan dive into the tech boom that hit the zeitgeist perfectly.

“It was just at that time where people were intuiting that this wave was about to come over them and they didn’t know precisely what it was,” Ullman says. She continued gathering material for another nonfiction book but along the way veered into writing novels: The Bug, a thriller set at a Silicon Valley start-up, and By Blood, a psychological labyrinth of Hitchcockian twists that enfold both the legacy of the Holocaust and the social chaos of 1970s San Francisco.

For Life in Code, she gathered two decades’ worth of writing and added 100 pages of new material that confronts our tech-saturated present. Ullman describes the fever dream of the Internet — from utopian fantasia to financial hysteria to commercial dystopia — as it unfolds in real time. Some of the contemporaneous narratives, like the reported story about the Y2K panic from 1999, vibrate with the uncertainty of the moment. Interviewing tech people, she detects a kind of “animal insecurity, as if they’re sniffing something scary upwind.” Ullman herself is horrified by the potential for disaster built into our new, invisible infrastructure; as a programmer, she understands how haphazardly it is all constructed, layers on top of layers that were never built to last and that have been stretched and twisted far beyond their original purposes.

“It wasn’t this abstract dream, it was made of wires and networks and software, and the people who wrote these programs, they never thought they would still be running!” Ullman says with amazement. “They thought new technology would come along and it would all be rewritten.”

Asked if there are things she didn’t foresee, Ullman takes a long pause. “I thought we’d all be staring into computer screens, but I didn’t know we would all be walking around with the screens in front of us all the time,” she finally replies. “I also didn’t expect the discrimination against women to last. Not only that it would last this long but that it would even get more grueling for women.”

She did anticipate some of the contemporary problems the Internet has wrought. In a chapter of Life in Code written in 1998, she writes of disintermediation — the way technology is eliminating middlemen (salespeople, travel agents) in the name of efficiency. She mourns the human toll it took on her San Francisco neighborhood. “I watched the way that all of these little people were being put out of a job,” she says. “When I hear the word disruption, in my mind, I think of all these people in the middle who were earning a living. We will sweep away all that money they were earning and we will move that to the people at the top.”

Writing fiction has allowed Ullman to consider how our forerunners lived, in very specific ways. What did the streets smell like when cars were first invented? Did women’s shoes hurt back then? Although she remains excited by the wonders of new technology, Ullmann feels more than ever the need to remain grounded in the past. She says crisply, “All things change, but we always have to think: what are we leaving behind?”


The post Doubt and Disruption: Ellen Ullman’s Life in Code appeared first on The Barnes & Noble Review.

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