Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology

There are times when you read a book and it hits you in so many ways, it’s the perfect time to be reading the book and you tear through it and you love it. Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology by Ellen Ullman was this type of book for me. It’s composed of essays written over the course of several years telling the story of working in tech but also critiquing tech. Ullman spares no punches and her essays from twenty years ago are just as relevant today as the final essay written after Trump came into office.

Ullman’s writing style is fantastic and her sense of humor pitch perfect, but it was her story, her story of getting the job done when no one thought she could, of figuring out and seeing what tech could become, of worrying about what it would become that struck me so hard. I don’t know San Francisco well at all, but I think for any of us that have lived in cities that’ve gone through major change over the past twenty years, you can relate to how Ullman talks about the changes she witnesses in SOMA.

Ullman talks about her fear of what the internet would do to the world and in her final essay, as she relates what the world is now, what SOMA is like now, and what the world has become with tech driving so much awfulness, it was amazing to see how many of those fears were realized. I don’t even remember how I found this book or how it made it onto my list, but I’m very glad it did.

A senior engineer once asked me why I left full-time engineering for consulting. At the time, I had never really addressed the question, and I was surprised by my own answer. I muttered something about feeling out of place. “Excuse me,” I found myself saying, “but I’m afraid I find the engineering culture very teen-age boy puerile.” This engineer was a brilliant man, good-hearted, and unusually literate for a programmer. I had great respect for him, and I really did not mean to offend him. “That’s too bad,” he answered as if he meant it, “because we obviously lose talent that way.” (p 13)

Here is a suggested letter home from our journey closer to the machine: Software engineering is a meritocracy. Anyone with the talents and abilities can join the club. However, if rollerblading, Frisbee playing, and water-balloon wars are not your idea of fun—if you have friends you would like to see often, children you would like to raise—you are not likely to stay long. (p 14)

No one left who understands. Air-traffic control systems, bookkeeping, drafting, circuit design, spelling, assembly lines, ordering systems, network communications, rocket launchers, atom-bomb silos, electric generators, operating systems, fuel injectors, CAT scans—an exploding list of subjects, objects, and processes rushing into code, which eventually will be left running without anyone left who understands them. A world floating atop a sea of programs we’ve come to rely on but no longer truly control. Code and forget, code and forget: programming as a collective exercise in incremental forgetting. (p 52)

We were reminded that software engineering was not about right and wrong but only better and worse, solutions that solved some problems while ignoring or exacerbating others. That the machine the world wants to see as possessing some supreme power and intelligence was indeed intelligent, but only as we humans are: full of hedge and error, brilliance and backtrack and compromise. (p 54)

most of the veteran programmers are amazed to learn that their ancient code is still working somewhere. They were sure someone would replace it. (p 61)

But now, without leaving home, from the comfort of your easy chair, you can divorce yourself from the consensus on what constitutes “truth.” Each person can live in a private thought bubble, reading only those websites that reinforce his or her desired beliefs, joining only those online groups that give sustenance when the believer’s courage flags. (p 89)

It is a profoundly libertarian vision, and it is the message that underlies all the mythologizing about the web: the idea that the civic space is dead, useless, dangerous, and the only place of pleasure and satisfaction is your home. You, home, family; beyond that, the world. From the intensely private to the global, with little in between but an Intel processor and a search engine. (p 91)

But who exactly gets to stay at home? Only a certain class of knowledge worker can stay home and click. On the other side of this ideal of work-anywhere freedom (if indeed it is freedom never to be away from work) is the reality that somebody had to make the thing you ordered with a click. Somebody had to put it in a box, do the paperwork, carry it to you. The reality is a world divided not only between the haves and have-nots but between the ones who get to stay home and everyone else, the ones who deliver the goods to them. (p 92)

Other people are annoying interlopers. They stand between you and your experience, which is special, unique, for you and only you. (p 93)

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. And who is to say which piece of this history can be excised, separated, deemed “useless” as an essential part of our nature and being? (p 149)

And that’s what human sentience is: a hurricane—too complex to understand fully by rational means, something you observe, marvel at, fear with a sense of awe, what finally we give up and call “an act of God.” (p 159)

I knew years ago that technology would intrude into the intimacies of our lives. But I could not know that so many people would be delighted at that changed state of existence. I could not have imagined that they would simultaneously know they were being surveilled by massive corporations and the government, yet still suppress the thought and go on revealing themselves. This seemed to me a madness of our time. (p 206)

I had to get away from this man, I thought, I had to quit. But there was my résumé to think of: at least one year on the job. And what revenge I was extracting by staying and succeeding. (p 214)

Through it all, I embraced the new technologies as they emerged but looked at them with a gimlet eye. I could not succumb to believing in the ultimate goodness of technology; something kept me from the dizzy addiction. I was not surprised to find out the worst of what had happened to the internet. (p 236)

From then on, I knew I could be shamed and humiliated by others for my struggles and failures, but that was no reason to give up. (p 239)

The goal is for the general population to pierce the computing veil; to demystify algorithms; to know that code has biases, that programs are written by human beings and can be changed by human beings; to know the concepts, the patterns of thinking, the paths through which human thoughts get altered as they pass into the language of computers. (p 246)

Yet all vital cities must change. A city that does not extend its boundaries into underused areas is a dead city. The question is, into which boundaries and what sort of change? (p 279)

It occurs to me that most of the new inhabitants of the new SOMA don’t need a neighborhood as we once knew it. Maybe the city planners were right in their careless and unfeeling way. The new residents have a different idea of what a city is; their primary concern is finding comfortable, affordable quarters, not necessarily a community. They won’t miss the local dry cleaner or drugstore or convenience market. They do need places where the actual physical body must be present—the hair salons, yoga studios, and gyms. Otherwise, their needs will be satisfied by delivery people. (p 282)

The deliverers deposit the goods by the door and are gone, faceless servants. The recipients have no idea who has come by to fulfill their desires. They come home to see their wishes fulfilled as if by magic, materializing out of an ethereal, disembodied world. (p 284)

It is best to be the CEO; it is satisfactory to be an early employee, maybe the fifth or sixth or perhaps the tenth. Alternately, one may become an engineer devising precious algorithms in the cloisters of Google and its like. Otherwise one becomes a mere employee. A coder of websites at Facebook is no one in particular. A manager at Microsoft is no one. A person (think woman) working in customer relations is a particular type of no one, banished to the bottom, as always, for having spoken directly to a non-technical human being. (p 285)

“Do what you love,” as if that choice were possible for the vast vast majority of people on earth. (p 292)

The assumption is change for the better. But rarely have I met would-be founders who consider how the “better” world they envision may be entwined with one that is worse. Without that introspection, the motto of change devolves into an egoistic motive, a willful blindness to the contributions of the past, not realizing that with every advance there also comes some aspect of life that is diminished, or will vanish, for good or ill; and we are at least obliged to look back and recognize what was before and what may never be again. (p 292)

Uber is changing the world. Amazon is changing the world. Facebook is changing the world. In their wake follow struggling drivers and deliverers, disappearing opportunities for immigrants to join the middle class, fake news, echo chambers in which anyone can choose to believe anything … this list too long to continue here. (p 293)

When I read a tweet from Trump, I think back to 1998, to the coming of disintermediation, the process of removing the intermediaries who for centuries had been part of our economic and social relationships. We were witnessing a moment when the public was being coerced into believing that the brokers, jobbers, agents who traditionally had been involved in their transactions—even librarians and journalists—were incompetents, out for themselves, dishonest, the next thing to snake-oil salesmen and mustache twirlers. The intermediaries were useless; you could trust only websites; go directly to the internet. (p 297)

compared to the early hopes for the web, the internet is a god that failed. (p 304)