Reality Bytes

Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology BY Ellen Ullman. MCD. Hardcover, 320 pages. $27.

The cover of Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology

Flushing, Queens, early 1960s, Saturday nights. The boy next door’s name was Eugene; he was overweight, attended the Bronx High School of Science, and was an amateur radio enthusiast. Home alone, a young Ellen Ullman would be watching TV when, “suddenly, Eugene’s ham radio hijacked our television signal—invaded the set with the loud white noise of electronic snow.” In a poignant piece in her new essay collection, Life in Code, Ullman describes how she could hear his voice, and in the sine wave that pierced the on-screen static she could see him, too. His message became as familiar as his call sign: “‘CQ, CQ. Come in, CQ.’ Seek you. I seek you. ‘This is K3URS calling CQ. Come in, CQ.’ . . . Anyone out there, anyone at all, if you’re there, please respond.” The colder the night, the more likely Eugene was to reach other ham operators. They liked to enthuse about hardware and specs, but mostly they were just excited to make contact, grateful that their tinkering worked. Much later, in 1996, the first big instant-messaging app would be named ICQ. That year, Ullman, by then living in San Francisco, would write, “To this day nothing reminds me of engineering loneliness so much as that voice calling CQ through the snow.”

Ullman’s first compilation of memoiristic essays, 1997’s cult classic Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents, captured the febrile atmosphere of ’90s Silicon Valley, where she worked as a prominent (and rare) female software engineer. Take this deliciously visceral snapshot from a junk-food-and-terror-fueled late night:

Here, in that place, we have no shame. He has seen me sleeping on the floor, drooling. We have both seen Danny’s puffy white midsection—young as he is, it’s a pity—when he stripped to his underwear in the heat of the machine room. I have seen Joel’s dandruff, light coating of cat fur on his clothes, noticed things about his body I should not. And I’m sure he’s seen my sticky hair, noticed how dull I look without make-up, caught sight of other details too intimate to mention. Still, none of this matters anymore. . . . Our physical selves have been battered away. Now we know each other in one way and one way only: the code.

She told of struggling to reconcile her former beliefs with a new way of life. Once a communist and lesbian separatist, she was now immersed in tech’s particularly masculine, puerile culture, part of a young and brilliant and arrogant elite helping to forge new financial structures and systems of inequality. She catalogued bad-boy cryptographer lovers, socially inert colleagues, and venture capitalists slick with hair gel and greed. Unlike Eugene, who seemed blissfully unaware of the interference his radio created, these men prioritized and even fetishized hijacking—hacking, culture jamming, disrupting—both the signal and the wider society. Yet if Ullman felt alienated then, it came across as a momentary unease, like the flickering of overhead fluorescents: In the odd camaraderie of the programmers’ room, in the thrill of making the world anew, they were alone together.

In the decades that followed, Ullman left the programming grind to work as a consultant, essayist, and novelist, and the pieces in Life in Code, which span 1994 to 2017, reflect this more wide-screen perspective. Unlike today’s infinitely more sophisticated monitor displays, however, the images feel lower-res—we’re no longer there with her in the moment. The experience of being a woman who codes—we learn now that it was an acutely lonely path—remains central, but time and distance allow her to reframe a career’s worth of indignities in a couple of different ways.

In a piece written in 2016, she recounts a job interview in which she was explicitly told, “‘Your work is to translate between the extraordinarily intelligent [he meant himself and his team] and the ordinarily intelligent [the software engineers who would use what the superior intelligences were creating].’ The role they assigned to me, translator, is perhaps the most accurate description of everything I have done concerning technology.” On the one hand, Ullman now sees this in terms of a pervasive culture of misogyny—she and other women engineers were expected to act as midwives or babysitters, performing the emotional labor that would help the boy geniuses get the real work done. But hindsight also gives her another perspective on this kind of on- and off-line code-switching. Ullman sees that she herself became a kind of software interface, mediating between the tech, corporate, and nonprofit spheres—a role that, far from being merely ancillary, was central to the culture and has only grown more so in the intervening years. In the same essay, she goes on to advocate for a different kind of channel-crossing. “I dare to imagine the general public learning how to write code . . . that those with knowledge of the humanities will break into the closed society where code gets written: invade it.” And despite finding her brand of mechanical, Sherry Turkle–meets–pussyhat feminism rather trying, a few weeks after reading Life in Code I was convinced enough to begin teaching myself Python.

Dara Birnbaum, PM Magazine (detail), 1982, four-channel color video, speed-rail suspension system, two chromogenic prints, paint on two walls, dimensions variable. Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.
Dara Birnbaum, PM Magazine (detail), 1982, four-channel color video, speed-rail suspension system, two chromogenic prints, paint on two walls, dimensions variable. Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

It’s difficult not to think of Eugene and his inadvertent cross-channel trespass here, particularly in its staticky evocation of the opening of William Gibson’s Neuromancer: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” This line is one of my favorite examples of technology’s bleeding into daily life, where its metaphors percolate into language as a kind of time stamp—the way today we say, “I don’t have the emotional bandwidth for this right now” or “don’t @ me.” Ullman’s prose, which often has the concision of clean code, is most seductive in this mode—when, for example, she describes problems shoved to the back of her mind as “background processes,” or the programs she’s written as “altos in a chorus: they give the music structure, but you never leave humming their parts.”

Elsewhere, Ullman compares human bodies to archival databases:

We drag along inside us the brains of reptiles, the tails of tadpoles, the DNA of fungi and mice; our cells are permuted paramecia; our salty blood is what’s left of our birth in the sea. Genetically, we are barely more than roundworms. Evolution, dismissed as a sloppy programmer, has seen fit to create us as a wild amalgam of everything that came before us: except for the realm of insects, the whole history of life on earth is inscribed within our bodies.

It seems fitting, then, that insects—the class of life that might now be more alien to our makeup than the machines that surround us—are what we use to denote errors in the code. (An especially pernicious software iteration was the fulcrum of Ullman’s 2003 novel, The Bug.) The glitch in particular suggests a kind of machine expression of duende. It appears when the computer is at its rawest and most vulnerable, and trying its hardest, like Eugene’s plaintive, crackly CQ, to communicate with you, if you’ll only let it. And it is here, in Ullman’s rare ability to translate between the spheres of tech and literature, to act as an intermediary between human and machine, that Life in Code feels most necessary. The collection chronicles living with and through code, yes, but also explores what it means to grow old with code: to get buggy with age, or worse, become obsolete. Ullman’s generation of techies had a head start, and as the joke goes, old programmers never die. They just decompile, they just byte it, they just go to bits; they just lose their memory.

Reading the two collections side by side, I felt that their subtitles—Technophilia and Its Discontents and A Personal History of Technology—should have been swapped. Life in Code shares its predecessor’s emphasis on the fleshy politics that undergird the industry’s glib tech utopianism. Unfortunately, it often takes a turn for the pedantic, but while it lacks the thrill of Close to the Machine, the critiques it offers are more overtly political. Sometimes, the tech framing offers a new perspective on current events, as in Ullman’s discussion of disintermediation, the process of cutting out the middleman between producer and consumer (think Bitcoin, Uber, Netflix). In the book’s closing essay, she mobilizes this concept to reframe Trump’s P2P populism, use of Twitter, and attitudes toward the mainstream media.

Yet Ullman is best when her writing is in an intimate register: close to the skin, close to the machine. Take, for example, the way she evokes the gentrification of San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood via the recurring motif of a small park by her house and the changing demographics of its visitors. Or an especially lovely essay in which she explores the topic of AI and sentience via a robot dinner guest. How could a Julia Child recipe for a sauté de boeuf à la Parisienne even be programmed? How could a machine possibly be made to understand the semiotic minefield seeded in the casual phrase “a good red Bordeaux”? And how might a robot, which cannot eat or drink, experience pleasure?

San Francisco, 1994, and Ullman wrote, “The computer is about to enter our lives like blood into the capillaries.” Decades later, we have become so interpenetrated with technology that code structures our shopping, banking, eating, and sleeping habits. We are tethered to each other by our handles and, to borrow the memorable title of a 2012 talk by the British artist and writer James Bridle, we fall in love in a coded space. Even as we lose personal psychic space to the attention economy and its data-mining apparatuses, we are gaining disk space at an exponential rate. As Ullman points out in “Memory and Megabytes,” a particularly affecting essay from 2003, “each new computer has enough disk space to hold everything you’ve ever stored on all the computers you’ve ever owned in your life.” Of course, the historical arcs of technology that Life in Code covers have now similarly seeped into our cultural memory. At the time when many of these essays were published, the informed technopessimism of Ullman’s analyses and predictions would have been received as cogent, prescient, and even directional. Today they read as war stories from the data trenches of early Silicon Valley—something between an instructive parable and a “Previously on Technology” TV-recap sequence. We’re already living in the future Ullman cautioned about and, as the futurists like to say, it’s more unevenly distributed than ever before.

Rahel Aima is a writer based in Dubai and Brooklyn, the founding editor in chief of THE STATE, and a contributing editor at the New Inquiry.