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Old and New Thoughts on “Close to the Machine”

From, my blog, January, 2003

I just finished Ellen Ullman's Close to the Machine (City Lights Books, 1997). It's one of the best books ever written about computing, with the exception of Tracy Kidder's Soul of a New Machine, and certainly the most personal. Ullman's prose is lucid, and her narrative of romancing a cypherpunk, coding big applications, and trying to resolve her feelings concerning her father's death, are described with a sort in a tone that oscillates between involvement and detachment, between the real and virtual that anyone who uses computers seriously will find resonant. Much of Ullman's life, we find, happens in gray areas: she is partial, sexually, to women and men alike; she does not go to an office, but puts together teams, and when a project ends, she loses track of her employees. She does not feel she fits in when she meets the polished vice-presidents of banking firms, their lives uncomplicated and their daily paths oiled by wealth. Ullman is an outsider, not a resentful one, but a 46-year-old woman conscious of how she fits in with a larger social order, grateful for her comforts and safety, but aware that, while she is brilliant, funny, and attractive, her passions, her excitements, keep her out of the mainstream. For her, the logical space of the computer is not an alternative or a refuge, exactly, but a place where she does not have to explain herself, where external standards and judgements are irrelevant. The world is ambiguous, but the world inside a computer is neutral, pliable, full of wonders. With one mind, she explores them both.

Here on, January 2013

I was 28 when I wrote that. I was full of big thoughts about books and computers. I lived in an apartment inversely proportionate to the size of my thoughts. Meaning it was a very small apartment. Were they good thoughts? They weren’t the worst. Part of it is me going: Look! Me! Books! Another part is going, as I was always going, “this is real.” Meaning, computers are real. This seems so weird to say now, but that was inevitably where the discussion went. Books were real; computers were not. Journalism was real; blogging was not. C was a real computer language; Perl was not, because it was too easy, or somesuch.

What strikes me after ten years—ten years that include a few weird jobs, marriage, kids, buying things—is that the basic story is the same. Not just Ullman’s story, but my own reactions.

I keep having this reaction to older things. When the perpetual narrative is everything is changing so quickly, it’s strange to go back and see that, nah, even though the computers were much less powerful, the Internet unimaginably small compared to now—that basic sense of the machine is still the same. An unambiguous place.

I was talking about that with a coworker today. Sometimes I go into these meetings—meetings with bankers, say—and I get lost. And afterwards I realize, I knew what these people were talking about. I sometimes know better than they do. But I’m always operating at the wrong level of abstraction. They’re talking about advertising and I’m talking about banner ads. They’re talking about user experience and I’m talking about databases. That’s something that happens with computers. It’s hard to level up. You’d rather create a dashboard than use one.

That’s why this is still such a weird book. Because it describes what it’s like to program. To really get into a computer and think about the sequences in which events will transpire. Very short sequences in which a billion things happen, and do. I mean do you know how many individual decisions went into you reading this? There are hundreds of thousands of people were involved in getting these words over to you.

What’s weirder is that not much has changed. The essence of making things happen on a machine is the same. If you read old manuals (I do), they were the same in the punch-card era. They’re the same now. What’s changed is, of course, the total penetration of the computer and Internet into society, and the way that this way of organizing the world has started to prevail, so much so that we sometimes fantasize about life five or six years ago. “How would I organize this meal,” we think? “How would I have found the garage.” The simple detective tasks of life—wherein one would do things like ask around or check the phone book—belong to an era passed.

This book is of such an era. Reading Close to the Machine turns my memory into a sort of Seinfeld set: I remember khaki slacks and Einstürzende Neubaten songs, and bookstores, so many awesome bookstores. Big heavy cathode-ray tubes, impossibly large at 19 inches diagonally, huge hard drives at two gigs. It all seemed new then; dramatic; not particularly threatening. It certainly wasn’t going to ruin publishing or violate the cultural authority of our most cherished organizations. So. The past.

But it still seems new. That’s what I can’t quite capture. Things have moved so fast but it still seems weirdly new. When you read computer history even the past seems new. We’re still using monospaced fonts on terminals. It’s still a process of invention. What’s odd is that this book has had so few imitators. Which points to just how strange it is that it came into existence in the first place.