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Life in Code

9780374711412 fc
Hardcover, MCD × FSG, 2017
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Ellen Ullman

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The never-more-necessary return of one of our most vital and eloquent voices on technology and culture, the author of the seminal Close to the Machine

The last twenty years have brought us the rise of the internet, the development of artificial intelligence, the ubiquity of once unimaginably powerful computers, and the thorough transformation of our economy and society. Through it all, Ellen Ullman lived and worked inside that rising culture of technology, and in Life in Code she tells the continuing story of the changes it wrought with a unique, expert perspective.

When Ellen Ullman moved to San Francisco in the early 1970s and went on to become a computer programmer, she was joining a small, idealistic, and almost exclusively male cadre that aspired to genuinely change the world. In 1997 Ullman wrote Close to the Machine, the now classic and still definitive account of life as a coder at the birth of what would be a sweeping technological, cultural, and financial revolution.

Twenty years later, the story Ullman recounts is neither one of unbridled triumph nor a nostalgic denial of progress. It is necessarily the story of digital technology’s loss of innocence as it entered the cultural mainstream, and it is a personal reckoning with all that has changed, and so much that hasn’t. Life in Code is an essential text toward our understanding of the last twenty years—and the next twenty.

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An excerpt from Life in Code

THE PARTY LINE
2015

In 1970, while I was a student at Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York, I moved away from campus and into an old farmhouse outside of town. It took about fifteen minutes to get there, a longer drive in bad weather, which Ithaca had plenty of, freezing winters and heavy snows. The area was rural, country roads laid out in perfect mile grids. It was dairy-farming country, some farms to my eyes appearing prosperous, others worn down, others abandoned.

I shared the farmhouse with a lumpy collection of people. I had known only one of them, a guy in my Romantic Poetry class. The others turned out to be my classmate’s sister, her excitable artist boyfriend with messianic tendencies, and an orange-haired guy who lived in a room off the back of the kitchen, whom I never got to know. A couple of others came and went, staying on the sofa in the otherwise empty living room. We didn’t exactly share the house. We took to putting our initials on the eggs in the fridge.

The house, on Halseyville Road, had occasional hot water and no heat to speak of. My room was upstairs, in an attic under a dormered roof. A small window overlooked the road, where there wasn’t much traffic. On clear nights, I could hear car wheels whispering on the macadam from miles away.

I had just returned to Ithaca after a wander year. I had left Cornell, and during that time away I got married and divorced and escaped commitment to a mental institution; drove across the country with a friend, sleeping in a pup tent, avoiding the threat of a creepy guy who kept asking where our camp was, picking up hitchhiking boys, taking up with one of them; later, my friend and I ditched the car and took a milk train into Mexico, where we smoked grass that was—zow!—the real drug, met more boys, and learned the subtleties of tequila; finally, I wound up in freezing Buffalo in the winter, to work as the switchboard receptionist at the Jewish Community Center. One day I picked up the switchboard phone, called the Cornell provost, and asked if I could come back—all of which peripatetic motion, I think, is what drove me out of town to the farmhouse.

It was by no means a rural idyll. During the winter, farm dogs would run off and pack up, and no sane person strayed far from the house. Our landlord had leased the surrounding acres to a nearby farmer, and an evening of sitting in the field to commune with a sunset could quickly turn into the experience of seeing a plow crest over the hill heading for you, its rotating disks chewing up the earth.

The area was sparsely populated. We had rural mail delivery, boxes at the end of the road, and several households had to share a phone number. This was called a party line, which was an antique even then. You knew the call was for your house by the number of rings. But since we were unused to the whole idea, anyone near the phone picked it up automatically, which made us supremely disliked in the neighborhood. A usual response from a fellow party-er was “Hang up, you darned hippies.” Making a call involved waiting for the party currently on the line to hang up, which led to all sorts of angry interchanges.

And there was always the suspicion that someone was listening in, and the endless temptation to do the same yourself. I have always been an eavesdropper; I gave in to temptation. I heard gossip about unknown people, but mostly it was just husbands and wives reminding each other to run errands.

One of the people I sometimes heard on the line was a woman with a soft voice and a British accent. Unlike our other shared parties, she was always polite, saying things like “Oh, if it is not too much bother, may I ask you if I may use the phone in ten minutes?” I learned very little about her by listening in, except that they probably didn’t have much money: we paid according to our time on the phone, and her calls were always practical, quick, under a minute.

Fall turned to winter. Despite our growing dislike of one another, my classmate, his sister, and her artist boyfriend would often sit together in the low-ceilinged kitchen, trying to stay warm, stove gas burners turned up high, and the oven running with its door open (precisely how you are not supposed to use gas stoves).

One morning, as we were finishing breakfast, there came a knock on the door. This was unusual—a shock, really, since no one ever had to knock. If there was a key to the house, I never knew about it. So someone called out “Who is it?” and in reply came a woman’s voice with a British accent saying, “Hallo, hallo. I am your neighbor from across and down the road.” I knew her at once as the woman from the party line. I felt a moment of panic over perhaps being discovered, and then, knowing I would never be caught unless I turned myself in, I yielded to the curiosity of seeing her in the flesh.

I was closest to the door and opened it. There stood a woman with peppered gray hair tied into a messy bun. She seemed to be in her fifties. She had on layers of well-worn men’s sweaters, stretched out, hanging, one over another, the last one a cardigan.

She put out her hand and introduced herself (I’ll call her Mrs. Richard). I waved her in. We told her our names, and as she looked from one of us to another she said, “I know others in this area do not think kindly about your being here, but, well, a neighbor is a neighbor.”

We offered her tea, coffee, juice (which must have been the property of the guy in the back room), but she declined everything, saying she just wanted to “pop in.” She relayed the simple directions to get to the dirt road that led up to their farm and said, “Please feel free to visit us anytime.” She demurred (perfectly Britishly) our further offers for her to join us at the table, then wished us goodbye and left.

I didn’t hear a car. She must have come the half-mile on foot.

“How weird!” said the sister.

“Oh wow,” said her brother.

Artist Boyfriend stood over the table, pronouncing in transcendent tones what a singular moment that had been.

I thought the visit was strange. Although there was nothing overt in it but kindness, there was also something of desperation. From overhearing her quick phone calls, and seeing the pile of old sweaters over her thin shoulders, I understood I’d just had my first real look at rural poverty.

*   *   *

Sometime later, we at our farmhouse (excluding the orange-haired guy) got involved in the Richards’ life. The Richards never asked for it, we never intended it, yet so it happened.

I think it must have begun in the early spring, after the evening when Mrs. Richard brought us a stainless-steel cylinder of milk just barely out of the udder. It had not been pasteurized, had not been homogenized. It was warm, frothy, rich, nutty, suffused with subtle flavors I could not name—clover? I knew I had just tasted milk as our ancestors had known it.

Mrs. Richard liked to tell the story of how she and her husband had come to live on Halseyville Road. Her husband had been a merchant seaman, she said, and when he retired, they affixed an anchor to the front bumper of their pickup and told themselves they would settle down wherever it fell off. This seemed an unlikely story. Did the anchor really fall off a half-mile down the road? Had that particular farm been for sale? Yet we listened and smiled as she told the tale multiple times. I could see it added a sense of glamour to their lives, of happy serendipity, of which they had very little.

It turned out that the family’s current situation was fairly dire. Their original farmhouse had burned down, and they were living in a converted outbuilding. It housed Mr. and Mrs. Richard, their ten-year-old son, and Mr. Richard’s mother, who occupied the only room that might have qualified as a true bedroom, where she lay slowly dying. Mr. Richard looked to be sixty but was probably ten years younger. He was cranky and pinch-faced, and it was hard to imagine he had ever been a lighthearted man. Their son was what was then called slow. It soon became clear that the boy would not be able to run the farm, and everything would fall to the weary Mr. Richard.

Soon we at the farmhouse were picking up items for them in town to save them the trips. As spring came on, we helped with the yearly thorough-clean of the house and barn. And as the summer ended, we joined the family in gathering the hay bales from the fields, then daisy-chaining them up into the loft of the barn.

Earlier in the summer, I had found myself driving a tractor to pull a hay rake, which turns the cut grass to help it dry. After a row or two, I somehow managed to clog the rake with wet hay. Mr. Richard arrived with a machete to hack away the tangle, all the while muttering, cursing, never turning up his creased face to look at me.

*   *   *

I was twenty years old then, and I still walked blindly from one experience to the next. Having had enough of the cold water and the crazy artist boyfriend, I left the farmhouse and moved into a cheap studio in Collegetown. I lost any connection with the Richards. I would see them again, months later, but not until I had become involved with a media group called the Ithaca Video Project.

The Ithaca Video Project was the conception of Philip Mallory Jones, then a graduate student at Cornell. (The cofounders were Phil, Fred Mangones, Tom Danforth, James Lee Sheldon, Susan Glowski Jones, Roy Fietelberg, Todd Hutchinson, and myself.) What bound us together was our desire to get our hands on the newly released Sony Portapak. You could describe it as a small piece of gear for making videos. But that does not begin to describe a machine that effected a change in the culture. Its introduction was one of those technology-driven moments that ruptured an established order of society, or so we believed—and rightly, I think.

We worked on a grant proposal, and, miraculously, received ten thousand dollars from the New York State Council on the Arts. That was a fortune in 1971, enough to buy us a Portapak (for fifteen hundred dollars—eight thousand in today’s dollars), an editing deck (yet more expensive), tapes, cables, accessories, all we needed to get to work.

Making videos before that moment involved equipment that cost tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars. What you could see on a television, that screen that beamed culture into homes across the world, was controlled by broadcasters and large corporate advertisers. Portapaks were expensive for an individual, but groups across the country were buying them through grants and collective funding. That small machine offered the opportunity to break the hold of the corporate controllers, a chance to redefine what one could see on a TV screen. What seems obvious now, video recording machines in the hands of the millions, began with the retail sales of a mass-produced media machine called the Portapak.

Here was the glory of it: One single person could make a video. People could have media-making machines in their own hands. No one could tell them what to produce or show to others. They were freed from the tyranny of censors. There were no limits on politics, on the arts, on porn. Indeed, a certain Frenchman smuggled in from Morocco a video of the fugitive Black Panthers Kathleen and Eldridge Cleaver. He also brought some porn. The action would be tame by current standards, but we in the Project, and others around town, enjoyed it with great gusto.

Film requires expertise, but anyone handed a Portapak learned how to use it within minutes. The reel-to-reel recording deck came in a leather case with a strap, and it was light enough to sling over your own shoulder and carry for a while (even over my shoulder, and I weighed 110 pounds). The camera had a zoom lens with a mike on the top. You connected a cable between the camera and the deck. Then all you had to do was press a button on the camera handle to start recording video and sound. You had to focus. You could zoom in and out as you wished. The machine did the exposures automatically. It even operated in low light. You could record political meetings held in dim rooms, people smoking cigarettes and dope and talking of revolution, the low-light exposure producing a peppering haze of black-and-white grain, adding to the sense of subterfuge, as in an underground movie. Protest, activism, art, guerrilla television—all was made possible (or dreamed of) by the coming of the Portapak.

I learned I had no fear of machines. I liked carrying coils of cables on my shoulder; it made me feel tough and cool. I enjoyed unrolling and snaking cables across a room: video out from the deck, video in to the screen; video out from that screen, video in to the next; etc. I liked pushing the buttons on the editing deck, rolling the tape back and forth to find the exact spot, cutting the tape at an angle and joining it to the next spot, cleanly, with dexterity, so the edit didn’t make a pop when the finished video played. I used the sync generator that made the video signal compatible with the one on televisions, so scan lines didn’t appear on the screen. I went off to a video workshop at Creighton University, in Omaha, which turned out to be a hotbed of art video. For my attempt, I pointed a camera at the screen of an oscilloscope and manipulated the sine waves, colorized the images, recorded my own voice, and added a deep echo. I had glorious fun.

*   *   *

Just up the road from the farmhouse on Halseyville Road, in the tidy town of Trumansburg, was the studio of Robert A. Moog, inventor of the first music synthesizer, the first new musical instrument created since the saxophone. I remember going to Moog’s studio with someone from the Video Project. There were keyboards in mahogany-wood cases topped with stacks of electronic metal boxes, all with dials controlling the electronics—wave form, amplitude, frequency; the sustain of the notes—and others I had no idea of. The synthesizers were half fine piano, half basement electronics.

Just when the Project received its Portapak, in 1971, Moog released the Minimoog, a cousin to our machine, one that was portable and could be operated by one musician. Portable visual media, portable new musical instrument; drugs, video, electronic music, media up for wild grabs: this was the charged atmosphere that surrounded us.

Among the works we produced was a video of a desperate addict shooting up, then showing it around town in the hope of dispelling any glamour that anyone might ascribe to heroin. We made one about the Onondaga Indians fighting to prevent the city of Syracuse from building a road through their land; it was shown to the New York State Assembly. On the local cable, then called Community Antenna, I did a piece trying (inevitably failing) to interpret visually a poem by the great A. R. Ammons, who lived in Ithaca and was later the recipient of a National Book Award. Phil did animations. We did photography. We held small classes on how to use the machine; I gave one for women. We were aware of being distantly related to Nam June Paik, the creator of video art, who was redefining the TV screen as an artist’s canvas, and to all the others experimenting with the medium, taking back control over that electronic eye that looked into every home, a change rippling through the culture. If this sounds like the coming of the personal computer and the internet—the machines in your hands, the heady dream of technology changing the world—it was.

But the best tape I worked on, I think, was a video about the Richards and the coming of the bulk tank.

*   *   *

In the four months since I had last seen the Richards, their situation had gone from dire to desperate. The local milk cooperative, the organization that sold the farmers’ milk into the marketplace, had decided it would no longer pick up the milk in the traditional cans. It would buy the milk only if a farmer installed what was called a bulk tank, which was what it sounded like, a big tank filled with the farmers’ milk production. The cooperative would then come around and pump it out.

The tank was expensive, tens of thousands of dollars. The Richards didn’t have the money and could not afford the debt. The coming of the tank affected not only their farm, but any small farm depending upon the collective. A farm had to have enough cows to fill the tank to a decent level—sixty, as I remember, double the number of cows on the Richards’ farm.

Bulk-tank collection was surely more efficient that picking up individual cans. Consumers might benefit from the lower costs of production. It was technology at what it does best: standardize and homogenize and monetize, create efficiencies in sales and markets and distribution chains.

It was also technology at its worst. The coming of the bulk tank was another of those ruptures in society. Yet this one did not widen the scope of individual freedoms. The tank would effectively drive the small family dairy farm out of existence.

*   *   *

One morning, Tod and I drove out to Halseyville Road to make a video about the Richards and their situation in the face of the bulk tank. Tod, with his billowing blond hair, was at the camera (and very ably), while Mrs. Richard and I walked around the farm, and I engaged her in conversation.

It was a bright early-spring day, and the light and shadows gave the stubble of the fields a bright sheen. In one particularly lovely moment, Mrs. Richard opened the barn door and the cows came galumphing out. “Oh, I love when they prance like that!” she called out. After a pause she added, “Well, of course it’s bad for the milk.”

She spoke of the bulk tank, the effect it would have on their farm. And the images of shining fields and happy cows fell into the emotional background.

Near the end of our recording, Mrs. Richard stood on a rise, saying nothing for several seconds. Then she rested her chin in the palm of her hand, looked out toward the fields, and said, “Oh, sometimes it is all so … hard.”

Tod had kept the camera on her as the pause went on for long seconds. I said nothing, to let the silence continue. Then Tod slowly panned the camera in the direction of Mrs. Richard’s gaze and gently zoomed out. There was Mrs. Richard, still standing chin in hand, as the farm and its fields and its barn surrounded her in the frame.

We showed the video around as widely as we could, even at a meeting of the farmers who were part of the collective. The meeting hall was a small room with a rough wooden floor. The showing was sparsely attended. The stern-faced farmers were impassive; they asked no questions afterward. We were culturally suspect creatures, hippies from the college, renting on the cheap the houses of failed farms. What did we know of their lives?

In the end, the result was what one might have expected. The milk collective prevailed; their big disruptive machine trumped our little Portapak; we were powerless to prevent the coming of the bulk tank.

*   *   *

Time went on; I graduated from Cornell and moved to San Francisco, where, one day in 1979, I walked past a Radio Shack store on Market Street and saw in the window a microcomputer called the TRS-80. Reader, I bought it.

I never would have considered such a move if it had not been for my experience in the Video Project, where I’d felt the deep pleasure of exploring machines. For me, there wasn’t anything scary about the TRS-80. The fact that I knew next to nothing about computers was actually a draw. I could fool around and see what happened, as with the Portapak. To me, the TRS-80 was another new piece of personal technology—personal—therefore promising adventures in electronics. What could you do with the TRS-80? Could you make art? All of it—the Portapak, the TRS-80, the exhilaration at getting my first computer code to run—led to my unexpected career as a programmer.

Ahead was the coming of the Mac and the PC, databases, networks, then the network of networks, the internet; soon the machine dreams, the belief that technology would change the world for the better. Then the corporations’ moves to control the net; the coming of commercial surveillance; the internet as a vast advertising-sales mechanism, a global retailer. Finally, the Edward Snowden revelations, when the populace finally understood that the United States government was spying on its own citizens and those around the globe—the internet as vast surveillance machine.

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.

As I began to recall the story of the Richards, I understood what indeed had held me back, kept me skeptical, wary, even afraid of what technology could do. The bulk tank; the bulk collection of records. The end of the small family farm; the end of privacy. The cautionary tale about technology had come from my knowing the Richards, and their desperation, and the folly of my youthful, dumb belief that our small machine could help them change their lives.

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Life in Machines

Ellen Ullman

  • "[Life in Code] manages to feel like both a prequel and a sequel to [Close to the Machine] . . . In addition to writing code in multiple computer languages, Ullman has an Ivy League degree in English and knows how to decode her tech-world adventures into accessible narratives for word people . . . The philosophical questions posed—like those on robotics and artificial intelligence—. . . resonate."

    J. D. Biersdorfer, The New York Times Book Review
  • “The fierce intelligence of Ellen Ullman's writing has reached cult-like status . . . What elevates [Ullman] and this new book, Life in Code, is its sense of timing . . . The book is remarkable in the way it illustrates how much has changed, but maybe more stunningly, how little has changed at all.”

    Kevin Nguyen, GQ.com
  • Life in Code is a consummate insider's take, rich with local color and anecdotes . . . Ullman has a pure passion for computing that doesn't stop her from recognizing all the ways it can isolate and intimidate . . . Like all great writers, she finds the universal in the specific, mixing memoir with industry gossip . . . Life in Code is illuminating and unfailingly clever, but above all it's a deeply human book: urgent, eloquent, and heartfelt.

    Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly