You don’t have to be a techie to appreciate computer programmer Ellen Ullman’s new book, Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology, which our reviewer calls, in a starred review, “a sharply written, politically charged memoir of life in the data trenches.” Indeed, Ullman, author of the pioneering book Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents (1997), is equally adept probing philosophical and ethical (and even semispiritual) questions as she is the extremely complex data that make up her professional world.
Beginning as a programmer in the late 1970s, Ullman was integral to the creation of a graphical forerunner to Microsoft Windows and was a significant figure in the burgeoning tech landscape of the 1980s and ’90s—and beyond. “More than a personal account,” writes our reviewer, “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.”
In a series of finely wrought, literary essays that were written across more than two decades—not to worry, the book coheres nicely—computer geeks will find plenty of technical matters to ponder as well as lively appearances by some of the most visible tech-world leaders of the past 25 years, including Phil Zimmerman, Larry Page, Ray Kurzweil, Neal Stephenson, and Tim Berners-Lee.
However, what makes this book special is the wider appeal it offers for those of us who may not be coders but who nonetheless have an interest in peeking behind the scenes and thinking about the interrelations among coding, the STEM arena, and more humanities-focused disciplines. Eric Liebetrau is the nonfiction and managing editor.