Close to the Machine

Author(s): Ellen Ullman


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Life in Code

Author(s): Ellen Ullman


Finished: March 05, 2019

My takeaways

Ullman starts the book with the following quote,

People imagine that programming is logical, a process like fixing a clock. Nothing could be further from the truth. Programming is more like an illness, a fever, an obsession. It’s like riding a train and never being able to get off.

She goes on to describe her interactions with technologies of the times and her experiences as a female software engineer in a male-dominated industry. She discusses this notion of “being close to the machine” — writing code that is less abstracted from machine-readable code — and how that the individuals that write less abstracted code are respected because they are quirkier. Ellen mentions the biases and culture that are assumed; the optimizations in every part of life, as if life is a piece of software (e.g., reducing time spent cooking, etc.).

The internet further polarizes the thoughts of individuals, because now, they can dive deeper into the parts of the web that they choose.

Before the advent of the web, if you wanted to sustain a belief in far-fetched ideas, you had to go out into the desert, or live on a compound in the mountains… But now, without leaving home, from the comfort of your easy chair, you can divorce yourself from the consensus of what constitutes “truth”.

Even the founders of the internet were upset with how it evolved into something very different from what it was intended.

… we must find our way back to the technologists’ dream of the internet, the free exchange among millions of equals; the following of links to links, unobserved…

The internet had become not a celebration of computing, but a stock-market event, as Tim Berners-Lee had feared it would.

She discusses an inner battle with the infamous imposter syndrome, when she was offered a job from her friend’s brother, Larry Page of Google. And how she convinced herself that her self-taught knowledge was not adequate and that she would be revealed as as fraud.

She considers “programming the post-human” and what it truly means to be a fleshy human. The post-human will not appreciate deceptively simple things such as chairs that provide comfort for a tired human.

Intelligence, then, is a consequence of our having this particular fleshly form…

Ullman alludes to the software that makes the pieces of our lives such as dinner and meals seem like an inconvenience. We are constantly trying to optimize away these important parts of life that define us as humans.

Our appetites have given way to theirs. Robots aren’t becoming us, …we are becoming them.

Finally, she calls to the general public to learn how to program, not to become professional programmers, but to loosen the stranglehold of code that surrounds us to,

pierce the computing veil; to demystify algorithms; to know that code has biases, [and] that programs are written by human beings…

For the world of programmers is not going to change on its own. Many who enter are going to find themselves in the company of …men who want to humiliate the newcomers, …men who will not or cannot communicate.

But, Ullman urges “outsiders” to penetrate the bubble because there is so much to be found in yourself and with those encouraging you when you are working toward getting a piece of software to “just work”.

Yet I must force myself to see the good the young dreamers might do. I must hope that those who barely remember life before the internet, or never knew it at all, will find their way through the dazzle and disappointments of technology, the seductions and the traps.

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