A sharply written, politically charged memoir of life in the data trenches by computer pioneer Ullman (By Blood, 2012, etc.).
“I once had a job where I didn’t talk to anyone for two years,” writes the author, who is known in computing circles for many things, not least her work on one of the graphical forerunners to Windows. As Ullman notes, programmers live in “mind-time” and not the ordinary time-space continuum the rest of us inhabit, and in any event they’re poorly socialized; one early boss had intended to hire her simply to inflict a woman on an underling (“evidently, Peterson was some manager he wished ill, and I was the ill”), then was demoted to the underling’s position and grudgingly had to supervise her himself. Early on, by her account, Ullman brought ethical considerations to bear on her work, reminding teammates on a project that veered into epidemiology that the best solution was not the Nazi one of killing off carriers of a particular disease, which earned her the sneer of a male colleague: “This is how I know you’re not a real techie.” More than a personal account, Ullman’s narrative is a you-are-here chronicle of the evolution of things we take for granted, from the early AI research of the 1970s and the first flickerings of the personal computer to the founding of Google—and now, to a decidedly dystopian present that is the real thrust of a sometimes-rueful confession. As Ullman writes without hyperbole, all the liberatory promise of the personal computer has been swallowed up by corporations. Corporate leaders may promise that they’re changing the world, but that proclamation is “but an advertisement, a branding that obscures the little devil, disruption, that hides within the mantra” and threatens to destroy what little civilization we have left.
What Anthony Bourdain did for chefs, Ullman does for computer geeks. A fine rejoinder and update to Doug Coupland’s Microserfs and of great interest to any computer user.