Ellen Ullman: Close to the Machine

May 21st, 1999 | Category: Interviews

Ellen UllmanEllen Ullman has been programming computers for over two decades, but her best writing isn’t her code: it’s her literary writing. Her 1997 book Close to the Machine is a haunting memoir from the front lines of the digital revolution. Whether it’s her many articles for Wired, The New York Times, her commentary on NPR or her books, Ellen’s grasp of the human condition through the ever-thickening haze of whiz-bang technology is her real strength.

Roy Christopher: There seems to be a dramatic change in the definition of the “American Dream,” or at least in how the ambitious members of my generation define success. Do you see the same shift in priorities?

Ellen Ullman: I’m not sure what generation you consider yourself a part of and what exact shifts you see. But I certainly do see changes in the definition of “success.”

When I was in my early twenties, the people I considered my friends defined success in terms of artistic or intellectual achievement. I mean, our most wildly desired dream was to be a something like a filmmaker — doing something risky and interesting, what would be called “indie” today, I suppose. Making a pile of money was never in the picture; money was something you had to raise to do a project.

The shift I see today is not so much an orientation toward accumulating wealth (you know, the whole stereotyped idea that everyone wants to get in early on a startup, ride through the IPO, retire at 35 with millions), but toward a vision of success that is so solitary. It seems to me that people want money these days not so much to be able to enjoy the press and excitement of life, but to get away from the social space.

My dreams of success always involved cities — parties full of strange and interesting people, a kind of Bohemian ideal of cosmopolitanism. But today’s success-dream seems to be about a house far away, not needing to be in crowded places, communicating with the world electronically. It’s a suburbanized ideal of happiness, I think. It seeks a privatized, frictionless life.

Maybe the world is indeed more crowded and unappealing than it was. Maybe this desire to get away from the urban space reflects decades of political neglect of the cities, which has made them less attractive places. But I don’t think that’s all of it. Some abandonment of the idea of civic life is at work here. For some reason, we believe less in the value of social existence, placing our hopes for happiness solely on the individual life.

RC: I found the picture you painted of the world through the pages of Close to the Machine disturbing, not so much for the technological versionitis, but more for its glimpses into love-life in the Digital Now. Did you mean for this book to be so emotionally tangible?

EU: What I wanted to do was write about the internal lives of the people living their lives in and with technology. There has been a great deal said and written about Silicon Valley, the techno-future, the gee-whiz gadgets, the impact of the computer chip on society, &c. But much less has been said about the effect of all of this on the people in the middle of it all.

I went through a great deal of sturm und drang over writing about such personal relationships, particularly about the “Brian” character. I was tempted, variously, to delete it from the book, keep it in but declare the book to be fiction, change it so everyone was beyond recognition, and so forth. But in the end, my publisher and editor, Nancy Peters at City Lights (who should be vastly more famous that she is; a brilliant, risk-taking editor in these days of the mega-bucks book biz) convinced me that these internal lives were important to telling the story.

RC: Computer Science and the World Wide Web have become pop sensations. Do you find the mainstreaming of CS and the corporate involvement in the Web disillusioning in the least?

EU: Yes, it’s enormously sad to see the Internet being turned into the world-wide infomercial. The scariest part is the way Web site owners speak unabashedly about blurring the lines between editorial content and advertising, eagerly looking forward to the Web as a giant product-placement opportunity.

The other side of the pop-ularization of the Web is the decline in the quality of the software that is being built for it. Here I’ll be an crusty old programmer and say that I’m dismayed to find a whole generation of developers coming to the Web with the idea that all the software that came before them is just boated old fatware that’s “over.” I wonder if they notice, while everyone is caught up in the buzzy heady sensational side of things, that the Web, as a programming space, offers a severely limited set of controls. (Widgets, to use the more generally known term). The Web constricts the sort of programs you can write. Due to the scarcity of bandwidth (and vision, I think) what is called “interactive” on the Web is a pale reflection of everything that had been developed on other platforms step by step over thirty years.

I understand that every platform has its disadvantages, and that those technical limitations may diminish over time. But I do wish that everyone would stop talking about the Web as if it were the greatest advance in everything. Yes, the connection to zillions of people is an advance. Yes, the access to great amounts of on-line data is astounding. But there has been a been a step backward as well: the diminished ability of a Web program to interact nimbly with the human user. I’d be happier if we all at least recognized that this has indeed happened.

RC: You’re involved in so many things. Is there any aspect of your work I didn’t mention or any new project you’d like to bring up?

EU: About the only technology that interests me these days is open source — Linux and compatriot operating systems like FreeBSD. I think the movement to reclaim access to source code is the sorely needed correction to the sensationalization of computing you mentioned in your previous question. It lets technical people take the covers off things, get rid of the splashy graphics and click-click wizards — all meant to dazzle — and look at the plumbing. Plumbing is what keeps programming honest.

Aside from that, I’m working on a novel. It’s about a man who’s been programming for years and then encounters a bug he can’t fix for a year — what happens to him when all the technology that’s been sustaining him stops working. It’s set in 1984, year of the first release of the Mac, which I suppose makes it a “historical” technical novel. But I don’t think anyone should wait around to read it. Novel writing takes even more time than software. And it’s much harder to tell when everything “works.”

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