Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology

Very much enjoyed Ullman’s essays about technology, life in SF during the boom/bust/boom, programming from a woman’s perspective. She’s an eloquent writer who blends the humanities with the sciences in a way that makes her story compelling to everyone, even if you don’t know how to program COBOL or BASIC. She rails against the prepackaged wizards that arrived to take the mystery out of coding, just three clicks of the mouse and you have the skeleton of a program up and running (“not content with infantilizing the end user, the purveyors of point-and-click seem determined to infantilize the programmer as well”).

I loved her reminisces about the Y2K bug and the ingenious solution of two men who worked for a railroad company—they simply reset the internal clock of the network to 1972 because the year 2000’s days of the week are the same as those in 1972, which “literally buys them time” to figure out a permanent solution. Y2K was pretty much a non-issue because of the concerted effort the world put into fixing it.

Ullman is also concerned with the migration of the internet to hyper-capitalist ends, convincing consumers that self-service is the way to go. “Whereas companies once vied for your business by telling you about their courteous people and how well they would serve you, their job now is to make you believe that only you can take care of yourself… In the internet age, under the pressure of globalized capitalism and its slimmed-down profit margins, only the very wealthy will be served by actual human beings. The rest of us must make do with web pages, and feel happy about it.” This is something I’ve been witnessing for years now, something I reassure a friend who works as an executive assistant about her job security—rich people need an actual PERSON to order around, it makes them feel more important than bossing around a robot. (Witness all those losers barking commands at their Alexas.)

More than just extreme capitalism, Ullman fears the bubble that the internet creates. “Physical reality put a natural break on the formation of cults, separatist colonies, underground groups, apocalyptic churches and extreme political parties.” But now you can reinforce your own beliefs from the comfort of your home. This focus on the individual’s desires and comforts decimates the civic space that props up democracy.

She talks about a programming gig she got in 1981 for a company that sounds a lot like Macy’s from her descriptions. Her job was bug fixing, and one of the remaining bugs was with a report that she presented each week to the buyers. Turns out the report had never provided accurate information so they buyers had never looked at it. “So this was my job: Go to a floor that did not exist as far as the elevator was concerned. Work on programs that were completely useless. Make sure they ran anyway.” (Spoiler alert: she fixed the bug, made the report actually mean something. The problem came down to an underscore instead of a dash in a file name.)

Ullman traces her route to programming by way of a media group at college that banded together to buy a Portapak. “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 light enough to sling over your shoulder and carry for awhile… I learned I had no fear of machines… 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… 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.”

The most depressing section of essays is about the current atmosphere in San Francisco—depressing because she describes accurately the hell-on-earth that it has become. After the first boom/bust of internet, startup culture has descended again, but this time with fratty finance bros flip-flopping their way through pitch decks. “The would-be CEOs can more accurately be called conformists. They want what they are supposed to want; they are the men in the gray flannel suits of our time: tee shirts and jeans, causal business khakis. They are not wild. They march down the startup alley of Second Street not as assemblies of punks but like a disciplined army on maneuvers—yet ever anxious. Their ventures are likely to fade away, as a fickle public disposes of both the soldiers and the code, app by app.”

A very satisfying part of her ridicule is reserved for the co-working spaces that have sprung up to accommodate this army. Ullman raises an eyebrow (as have I) at all the ridiculous slogans plastered between the free beer and the cramped open plan desks: Do what you love, Make life not just a living, If you don’t like your job create one, Change the world. “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.” She goes on to cite Uber, Amazon, FB as those companies that are changing the world for the worse. “The drive is to make a fortune, and it hardly matters what follows in its wake. ‘Change the world!’ is but an advertisement, a branding that obscures the little devil, disruption, that hides within the mantra, a slogan to rally the youth, tell them it’s fine, you are not here just to make money: You are noble.”