ellen ullman, for price

Do nerds have sex? They have to remember to take their spectacles off first. Afterwards, they talk about programming projects, until they notice someone interrupting them. Here is a fragment of love among the programmers. Ellen Ullman, the author, is talking in bed to her new lover Brian, a younger man who dreams of inventing a new sort of money that would live only on the Internet and be quite impossible for governments to trace or tax. Technically the scheme is quite feasible; but he needs several million dollars in old money for the hardware that the new money will love on: he is trying to raise this by building a couple of computer porn factories in Mexico, where no one can bust them, no matter how repulsive their product.. A question occurs to her as he expounds his scheme:

"'Do you have morals?' I asked.


"I said, Do you have morals?"

"'Yeah,' said Brian. But he waved his hands at me. It was clear I was interrupting a brilliant train of thought. He seemed disappointed in me. He thought I was smart, that I understood him, that I was technical and analytical. I think he even respected me for seeing the little flaw in his anonymous banking scheme; it made me interesting, challenging, a worthy companion. But now, in bringing up morals, I'd gone and ruined it: I'd brought up some thing dull.

'Oh, yeah,' he said, still waving me off. 'I have morals. But I don't want to get into that right now.'"

The story comes from Close to the machine, an extraordinary book of autobiographical essays about life in Silicon Valley. Ullman is 47 now. Middle age, for her, is the time when you add up all your lovers and discover there are about the same numbers of men and women. She has other accomplishments; an outfit she helped start (and left after two years) has grown to be the sixth-largest software company in the world, and she is a virtual company in a loft in the most fashionable area of San Francisco. Yet she had a life before programming, as a communist, and as a radical in dungarees. She has moved from the almost completely introspective world of the dedicated radical to the world of unreflective surfaces that is Silicon Valley, and the contrast makes her a wonderful observer. Brian explains to her on their second date that he is a little distracted because he has had to sack his best friend that day: getting divorced had made him a liability to the company "but he's cool about it. He understand why we have to do it"

The terrifying thing, Ullman reflects, is that Brian may even have been telling the truth about his friend. The machines tend to encourage among their  programmers a habit of slicing the whole of life into programmes and sub-routines, which communicate with each other only according to the strictest protocols, so that the morality module never even sees the same data as the  money-making one. In programming languages, this is known as object orientation: in human beings it is moral imbecility  which before computers you could not attain without a public school education. In both cases, it promotes efficiency.

Ullman knows, and so far as it can be done, conveys, the particular pleasures of working with computers. What little has been written about programming tends to be both boastful and shallow. A book like Douglas Coupland's Microserfs gives a pretty good feel for what it is like to be young, confused, and working for Microsoft; but it has no sense of what the work itself is like, it's satisfactions and its failures.

Her story would be remarkable enough if she were simply a programmer who could write. They're rare enough. What makes it quite fascinating, and her unique, is that she is also a reformed communist. In theory there could be no gap wider than between the Marxist radicals of the late Sixties and the extreme techno-libertarians of Silicon Valley. One lot thought Universities were fascist institutions, and their successors think compulsory schooling of any sort is Stalinist. In practice, they have a lot more in common than a fondness for extremes. There is a faith in engineering as the solution to everything; above all, there is the belief that heavily armed nerds are destined by history to rule the world, and there is nothing the rest of us can do about it. There is a certain social uneasiness: Trotsky, if he were alive today, would back you into a corner at cocktail parties and talk about the Internet.

"The people who would have been trotskyists in the Sixties would be libertarians now." Says Ullman today. "I think about Marx as the original technophile, the great materialist: and the Marxist stages of capitalism were nothing but the algorithm of a program that no-one could ever quite get to run."

"We called the Party the machine," she said about her time as a communist, "and when the world didn't conform to our ideas of it, and we had to face how chaotic life was, then we behaved just like programmers: we just moved closer to the machine -- we just tightened the rules and controlled our behaviour and worked harder at becoming cogs in the wheel. there is a strangely small leap between that sort of thinking and believing that all humanity's problems can be solved with a computer and a network."

Now that all the Marxists are neutralised either in jail or in boardrooms, it is possible to see that Marxism was not just a completely evil waste of effort; it was also a system which allowed people to ask unfashionable questions about the effects of technology on consciousness. There is a certain irony in the way in which it was the unprecedented acceleration of change in both technology and consciousness in the last twenty years that finished Marxism off, as if the process itself was eager to stop us reflecting on it.

Like most Western communists, she came from a privileged background. Her father, the son of a Jewish immigrant,  was an accountant who managed to acquire an office building just off Wall Street as an investment in the heart of capitalist America. After his death, when she inherits the building, she discovered that all the little shops that rent space in it are failing, because Wall Street itself has been destroyed by computers. The might turn the stock exchange building into a theme park, she says, with a few traders shouting into voice-recognition systems; but the exchange itself is already a computer network that could be physically located anywhere.

These things are not magic, though: they are engineering, which is unlike magic in that it can stop working even when people go on believing in it not that we have any choice about trusting the technology. We already rely on it in ways that are so ubiquitous as to be invisible. One chilling story in her book is about a credit card company, which sends huge sums of money hurtling round the world with a program written in assembly language: this is the equivalent of building a fleet of jumbo jets whose wings are only held on with hand-chipped flints. And we're all flying in them.

These reflections don't make her a Luddite. She loves the machines she works with, and sometimes she hates them productively, too: when a poet would get drunk and swear at his friends, she says, she can simply rip her computers to bits (she has four in the office where she lives). But she can see their shadow too. She talks about the happy fat man who takes her out for a meal after she has finished computerising his little insurance brokerage. He asks her if she can modify the system so he can keep track of his employees' keystrokes. His secretary has worked for him for 26 years: she used to pick up his children from school, and she knows all the  company's clients by name. In fact the company has depended on her in all that time, but now her employer wants a program slipped into the system that will tell him every single key stroke she makes in the course of a day. "I'm just curious" he tells Ullman, "All these years she's been running things and now I can find out exactly what she does."

So the machine, which is supposed to free us and bring us closer, has introduced an entirely new layer of power and distrust into this company. When she refuses to install the program he wants, the employer ruminates that he can get some local kid to build it instead. .  

"I'd like to think that computers are neutral," she writes: "a tool like any other, a hammer that can build a house or smash a skull. But there is something in the system itself, in the formal logic of programs and data, that recreates the world in its own image. Like the rock-and-roll culture, it forms an irresistible horizontal country that obliterates the long, slow, old cultures of place and custom, law and social life."

"There is no intrinsic reason for civilians to be interested in cyberculture except for this   all the technology embodies a way we think we should understand our world and how we should interact with it: the computer is recreating the world in its own image  and we need to think about this."

The ways in which programmers interact are becoming the natural ways for people to understand the world, she says. The idea of virtual workgroups, in which people never need meet face to face, is heaven for programmers, because most of the time their work is far more compelling and demanding of concentration than humans could possibly be. Of course., theirs is not the only profession to encourage that kind of isolation and concentration. It is a human trait, and not something imposed by the machine. But it is one trait which the machines are amplifying at the expense of many other possible ways of being human.

"We think we are creating the system for our own pur-poses. We believe we are making it in our own image. We call the microprocessor the "brain"; we say the machine has "memory." But the computer is not really like us. It is a projection of a very slim part of ourselves: that portion devoted to logic, order, rule, and clarity. It is as if we took the game of chess and declared it the highest order of human existence."

Unlike all the other recent writers on computers and society, she thinks the World Wide Web is a giant step backwards. It is a way of using computers to make us stupider, and less responsible, since the "surfer" is a completely passive consumer of information that other people have supplied. With a spreadsheet or a word processor, the computer simply organises and processes our input. It can do so in increasingly sophisticated ways, but it is the user who defines the tool. But the whole trend of personal computing over the last few years, has been in the other direction., to make computers more and more like televisions, until finally the two are indistinguishable. It was bad enough when computers produced a race of clever nerds. The thought that they might produce couch potatoes instead is enough to make anyone a luddite for real.

Front Cuts Book Back