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.

When it comes to technology, the city has always seemed 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 runs south to north. Start way down in Santa Clara and Cupertino with Intel and Apple: hardware. Head north to Mountain View (Google) and Menlo Park (Facebook): software. Then, finally, make your way up to San Francisco for Goodby and AKQA: the ad agencies.

In other words: Silicon Valley is where you make things. San Francisco is where they’re sold.

But that sketch dates itself. Things are changing. These days, when it comes to technology, San Francisco does a lot more than orbit. More and more, the Bay Area seems like a star system with two poles, both bright. And in the city’s resurgence, there’s 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’s 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. If I could, I’d set up a checkpoint at SFO, and whenever a new migrant appeared—any of the thousands of twenty-somethings streaming in to claim a desk at Twitter or Airbnb or their cousin’s roommate’s as-yet-unnamed startup—I’d press a copy into her hands.

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.