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Close to the Machine:
An Interview with Ellen Ullman

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As a programmer, writer, technology commentator for National Public Radio, and consultant, Ullman uses her experiences to show the many contradictions that can arise from technology. In Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents (City Lights), Ullman discusses how technology has affected not only the workplace but the workspace. What happens when our workplaces and communities become mediated more and more by computers, email, cell phones, and beepers? Close to the Machine is chock full of anecdotes that explore the intersections between humanity and technology. Her conscience and memories of work experiences create a memoir that works as a critique of technology but also as evidence of her love for it. Her struggles resonate with anyone who has wondered about the impact technology has had on how we see each other. --Amy Wan

Stay Free!: As a programmer, how did you get into writing?
Ellen Ullman: I've always written. I'm from an older generation of programmers. For the most part, we did not come out of engineering (which was a much later development). When business computing was exploding in the late '70s, the need for programmers far outstripped the supply of engineers so all sorts of people were drawn in from the social sciences and humanities. Whenever there's a new profession, this occurs--like there weren't certified web designers at first. People come to it from different areas. In the next round, people who have studied web design in school will do it. And I think that's a different kind of person.

A lot of my peers just sort of fell into web design. Liberal arts programs are under pressure to help students specialize and develop marketable skills.
Exactly. It's unfortunate that universities focus so much on making it a discipline because whatever skills you learn will very soon become obsolete. So the most valuable thing is to learn how to teach yourself.

How do you do stay motivated? I work at a record label and there's that same feeling of constantly trying to keep up with younger people. And I'm 26.
My god. We're going to have three year olds running the world next we know.

(laughs) Well, this is a particularly youth-oriented industry.
So is computing, so there's the sense of the younger person who's got a lot of drive, but has very little patience for the older technology, of its wisdom. When I started out in programming, I remember taking an interface manual with me when I went to pick up my sweetie from the airport once. . . .There are appropriate moments to be engaged in something and to let that take you over. The problem is if you don't come out of it. I've worked with programmers who will just plug away and I'll say, "no, I will not let you work on this anymore, you're just making more bugs." It's very easy to lose the sense that you're just getting obsessed and not necessarily inspired.

You talk about this in your book. You don't think about the consequences of what you're doing or what the larger project is. We're not computers--if you keep us running day in and day out, we won't crank away and solve a detractable problem. It disturbs me very much this whole work ethos that started in technology is spreading outward into other professions, this sort of driven, sort of work-driven life.

Bosses expect that.
Yes, that's always been true. But it's even become cool to work ninety hours a week. When I was coming up, that was the most staid, reactionary, bourgeois, boring way to spend your life.

It's "I worked until 10" and then "oh really, I worked until midnight"!
Exactly--competitive late night working.

How did that happen?
That is a really good question. That is THE question, I think. I think it has to do with the privatization of pleasure and security, the knowledge that you're never really going to get social security, that Medicare won't last, the notion of the public space having disintegrated. Aside from the workplace, we don't have many social structures left.

Do you create your boundaries between life and work? With cell phones, beepers, and laptops, you can be reached for work at any time.
I don't carry a beeper and usually keep my cell phone off. For the most part, I know very few people who really need those things.

Having them is like working long hours. If you have these things, you're really into your job. Having your cell phone ring while at dinner is a status symbol.
You think so?

I don't, but I think people feel like "I'm being so bothered when I'm trying to eat but I'm so important because someone needs to speak with me so urgently."
Every person is a mogul.

Two instances in your book come to mind regarding morality--the boss who used technology to monitor his devoted receptionist and your work with the system that catalogued AIDS patients. You seemed to imply the necessity of pushing moral qualms aside.
All work requires moral compromises. What makes the issue more acute in technology is the breadth of effect a system can have. It's one thing if you disagree with your boss's handling of one particular customer, for example. But when you build a computer system, you are changing the way every customer is handled.

You write that the "computer is not really like us. It is a projection of a very slim part of ourselves; that portion devoted to logic, order, rule and clarity." Do you think working with computers encourages people to think of themselves as machines? What are some other dangers of identifying so strongly with machines and computers?
We have a dialectical relationship with our machines: We create systems and they recreate us. We create computers first as complements to ourselves, to do the tasks we're not particularly good at, things involving precision: long calculations, for example, and simple, repetitive tasks. All this is fine when we are using, say, a calculator. But as computers become ubiquitous, we find ourselves surrounded with these things based on precision. So more and more of the things we need to accomplish are tasks defined by computers more rigidly than we as humans would define them for ourselves. We are forced to become more precise in our actions to satisfy the needs of our own systems, which we built initially as helpers and which eventually gain a kind of power over us.

The people who hired you to create the AIDS database seemed to believe that any data is good if it's possible to know it. Are there certain types of knowledge that we just shouldn't know?
We have eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge. I don't see us ever putting the apple back on the tree. The enormous difficulty is what to do with the knowledge once you have it. In the Jewish daily service, we thank G-d every day for "the gift of intelligence." Maybe we need to see our intelligence as a gift, not a right or a destiny.