Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its discontents

Aug 22, 2023  │  m. Aug 22, 2023 by manuhortet  │  #ellen   #ullman  

(These are some notes and quotes on Ellen Ullman’s memoir Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its discontents )


“The project begins in the programmer’s mind with the beauty of a crystal. The knowledge I am to represent in code seems lovely in its structuredness. For a time, the world is a calm, mathematical place. […] Yes, I understand. Yes, it can be done. Yes, how straightforward. Oh yes. I see. […] Then something happens. The irregularities of human thinking start to emerge. Now begins a process of frustration.”


If you found out about Ellen Ullman after reading some of her shorter pieces online, this will live up to your expectations. The book is a memoir about her life as a software contractor in the dot-com bubble era. More specifically, about her relationship with code, the culture that was being solidified around it and its contextualized creation process. Her ramblings about programming and the experiences and feelings you get from it are just so engaging, and the personas she describes across the stories are surprisingly similar to what you would find nowadays. In fact, her full portrait of “computer culture” felt uncannily atemporal when I realized the book was written before I was born.

I also love the openness and sincerity with which she discusses most topics, as the moral inconsistencies she finds on herself and her job. She feels eloquent but close and real, and that’s refreshing in this world. Can’t wait to read everything else from her.