Close to the Machine
by Ellen UllmanPublished 1997 189 pages
Interesting but weirdly not compelling. I understand that it's a memoir—that it's about Ellen Ullman, not about computing at the end of the millennium—and I don't mind that. Her work blends with her identity and it all sort of becomes a mishmash as one project spins down and another one begins.
The whole book, however, is underpinned by Ullman's conviction that software developers are a special breed of person: misunderstood geniuses, maybe a little socially awkward but leading more inwardly rich lives than the average bear. She looks down on marketers, entrepreneurs, and management. She disdains wealth but attended an Ivy League university and is more than happy to turn stock options into sports cars and fancy apartments. She watches in despair as capitalism starts turning computers into money, as salespeople move in to corner the market; but her despair is less at the commoditisation of tech than at the fact that she's not a part of the cool counterculture anymore.
You can trace a line directly from this way of thinking to the excesses in Uncanny Valley, to the exorbitant wealth of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs & dudebros, to the tech exceptionalism (techceptionalism!) that characterises the worst tendencies of the industry today.
I'm also not certain where else to put this, but her sometimes beau Brian gives me the serious creeps. I don't mind hearing about her romantic life—in fact, I think it gives a healthy colour to the narrative!—but Brian feels like an incel, and he sure acts like it. Two thumbs down, Brian.