Ellen Ullman’s By Blood is a big book—big in scope (the Holocaust is involved), big in ambition, big in its publicity press.
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And yet it was her smaller books, languishing out of print for a while and now brought back thanks to the heft of By Blood, that I was interested in. In her memoir Close to the Machine and her novel The Bug, Ullman took a small corner of the literary universe and made it decidedly her own. She, a former programmer, wrote about technology and the world of software in a captivating, whip-smart and, dare I say, sexy way.
Never relying on the easy storyline—Close to the Machine could have turned into a fish-out-of-water, woman-in-man’s-world standard narrative, rather than focusing on what it’s like to have intimate relationships with a hard drive—Ullman takes a more philosophical angle on a life lived among machines. As a result, both books feel as though they could be brand new, despite how poorly technology ages in our ever-renewing culture.
I spoke with Ullman about rendering the tech bubble and bust into print, why the world of technology is at odds with the world of literature, and what The Social Network got wrong.
The Bug and Close to the Machine seem particularly prescient this year. With Machine, particularly, as these sorts of technology manifestos have been showing up. Yours seems like an older sibling to something like You Are Not a Gadget. How do you feel about these two books, from 1997 and the early 2000s, being reissued for a 2012 audience?
I am extraordinarily pleased that Picador brought the books back. Close to the Machine was written at the time just before this enormous wave of technology was about to wash over everyone. It was a distant early warning. Almost everyone alive now has some experience with programming, even if it’s just a little HTML or trying their hands at apps.
When the book came out in 1997, and I wrote it a year or two earlier, it was still a closed world. I was aware of giving readers a look inside that world. I’m happy that the world can look back at a time when all this had not happened yet. It is imperative that we look back and see what we gave up.
The Bug came out just as we were going to the war in Iraq and fiction had disappeared. It was after the tech bubble, and, well, the world’s attention was elsewhere. I had a wonderful experience the other night at an event at McNally Jackson in Soho where my editor Sean McDonald at FSG brought a young writer who works at Twitter. [The writer] said he always thought there should be a novel written about what it’s like to be a programmer, but look, there already was one.
As I was reading The Bug, I was thinking about it in contrast to something like Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which is typical of how programmers and hackers are portrayed in our culture—you know, a few taps on the keyboard and you’re in the Department of Defense database. You managed to make something that was really technical, or felt so to a layman, and yet completely readable. Was that a struggle?
Part of what I hoped to do with The Bug—in addition to showing how there is madness at the edge of programming, that the persistence that is absolutely required to write clean, good code can bleed into madness—I did hope to demystify what being a programmer was. So the book includes code samples. It wasn’t important that the reader being able to read them, but I just wanted a visual representation. At that point, in books and film code was being used as this metaphor for something else. But code doesn’t mean anything [else], it means what it does. To that extent, it was my explicit intent to demystify what code was. Also how it goes wrong, and the great difficulty in creating software that functions reliably.
The hard part was describing what caused the bug. That was arcane. That was based on a bug that happened to me. I spent eight months trying to figure out what was going wrong. And I did come to doubt that I knew anything about what I was doing. I talked to some programmers and they said to me, “That’s my life, that’s my life in a nutshell.” As a programmer you kind of have to put up a front to your client or your employer that you really have it under control, and you are good at what you’re doing. Your code has to be well written, maintainable, and you have to do it fast. It’s not like one programmer ever says to another, “Let’s go have a drink, I’m terrified, I don’t know what I’m doing.” Mostly, you don’t reveal that. I wanted to reveal the other side of, it’s so cool, it’s hip. Programming requires persistence and learning and the tolerance to spend most of your waking hours having a conversation with a machine, with a device driver.
I especially disliked the movie Social Network. How glamorous the programmers at Facebook were made to be. From a software engineering point of view, it’s not very impressive. It’s messy. The code is a mess. The interface is a mess. There is no elegant algorithm behind it all. To portray them as geniuses with these lines of code appearing out of their brain, it’s downright objectionable. There’s this complete mystification. There’s everybody else, and then there’s these few geniuses and with a few keystrokes they can do anything.
There has been so little great writing about technology, despite the fact that that is the world we all seem to live in these days. Is it particularly difficult to render that world of ever-changing technology into literature, or do you think it’s that the brain that suits the world of technology is not typically the brain that writes novels?
I’m a crossover person. I always was even when in engineering. I love literature, and I’m a gadget freak. I’m the one who makes sure the stereo works and all the wires are going where they are supposed to go. Some people like that, some people find that horrible. At work I always was the programmer who was trotted out to speak English to a customer. I do think it’s unusual for people to have both heads.
I think the problem may be that when talking about technology it’s so idea driven, but literature is character driven. That to me is what novel writing is about. I’m totally into the idea of literature, of giving your consciousness over to someone else. I think people today don’t want to give themselves to anyone. I’m the star. I’m the blogger. I’m broadcasting, I’m not sitting there saying let me receive. To me, reading makes me want to be like a kid, you know, once upon a time. Let the story take you over.
That’s a very different mode from wanting to explain technology. People want to talk about it in an abstract kind of way. Its social effects. Absolutely needs to be done. But there may be something about the subject matter itself that doesn’t naturally lend itself to storytelling. You have to drag it kicking and screaming into character and plot and suspense.
Both books, at least in part, deal with the money issues that led to the tech bubble and then the aftermath. A lot of people were rich on paper and then suddenly not—a lot of people were suddenly being funded by venture capitalists and thrilled...and then the company was taken over and gutted. It seems like we’re living in a similar way more and more—I have a retirement account, oh god, no I don’t. So many writers shy away from writing about money.
You cannot write about [that age of] technology without writing about the influence of the venture capitalists or without that drive to make money. Back then anything that went on the web had money thrown at it. I would ask what’s your financial plan, and they’d say, “Oh, to go IPO.” They had no way to make money. The first wave of the tech bubble was completely about money. I fear that’s come back in this rush to app-ness. Venture capitalists...give hundreds of thousands of dollars to guys who can develop a cute app.
I would like to comment on the return to the boy nerd with the return of the app world. The statements I’ve read from venture capitalists, these are young men with a lot of time on their hands. They can spend their lives messing with the iPad interface.
I think for a lot of women that’s not the case. I will stand up for my sisters. Also for adults in general. The world of programming is very much geared toward younger people. Once you have adult responsibilities—the children, family—you can’t just stay at work all day. Like my character [in The Bug] Ethan Levin, one more compile, one more compile, one more compile. It ruined his life. If you want to have a home life and true friends, and people you’re close to, you’ve got to get away from that. The necessities of programming war with the need for a deep human life.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.