Close to the city

I’m writing this using software made in San Francisco. Not Cupertino or Mountain View or Menlo Park, but San Francisco.

For a long time, the city seemed, in terms of technology, to orbit Silicon Valley at a distance: a small bright moon lending grace to the proceedings but never quite participating. The way I heard it when I first arrived in the Bay Area, circa 2005, was that the value chain ran south to north. Start down in Santa Clara and Cupertino with Intel and Apple: hardware. Tromp north to Mountain View (Google) and Menlo Park (Facebook): software. Finally, make your way up to San Francisco for Goodby and AKQA: the ad agencies.

In other words: Silicon Valley was where things were made. San Francisco was where they were sold.

That sketch dates itself. These days, the Bay Area seems more like a star system, binary or better, all the components growing brighter. In San Francisco’s resurgent position, there is a chance to realize: it’s been part of this story from the beginning.

That’s why Ellen Ullman’s Close to the Machine is an essential record — as essential as Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City or Jack London’s Tales of the Fish Patrol. In her memoir, Ullman captures the San Francisco of the mid-90s, with the first dot-com boom just clearing its throat, preparing to roar. It is a story not only of machines and their programmers (though both are brilliantly rendered here) but also of loneliness and personal reinvention and sex with awkward geniuses.

In other words: It is such a San Francisco story.

Many different kinds of readers will enjoy Close to the Machine, including those who don’t know or care much about San Francisco. But for those who do, this book is — I’ll say it again — essential. There ought to be a checkpoint at SFO for all the new migrants streaming in to claim a desk at Twitter or Airbnb or their brother’s roommate’s as-yet-unnamed startup. I’d sit there an hour every week. I’d press a copy into every hand.

Why? Because you read Ellen Ullman’s Close to the Machine and you realize: I am not the first. Then you realize: I guess I’m not the last, either. And so finally you think: Maybe I ought to be writing this down…

Read Ullman. Then look around and write it down. I hear there’s some good software for that, made right here in San Francisco.