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Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents Paperback – January 1, 2001

4.0 out of 5 stars 41 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

If there is such a thing as a typical computer programmer, Ellen Ullman is not it. She's female, a former communist, bisexual, old enough to be a twentysomething's mom, and not a nerd. She runs her own computer-consulting business in San Francisco and in Close to the Machine explores a world in which "the real world and its uses no longer matter." This memoir examines the relationship between human and machine, between material and cyberworlds and reminds us that the body and soul exist before and after any machine. The wit Ullman brings to her National Public Radio commentaries shines through in the prose.

Review

This gem of a book manages to simultaneously be an insider's look at the computer industry, a rollicking collection of bawdy tales, a serious look at the social impact of computing, a comic description of industry mores and, most importantly, a clear and honest account of a woman's response to her professional and personal environment.

Author Ellen Ullman, an independent computer programmer, holds little back in recounting her experiences. She discusses her business career, her approach to software and her sexual adventures, all with the same frank detachment. And she writes with a clarity, style and wit rarely seen, especially in the murky wilds of technojournalism. She is sure of what she knows, humble about what she doesn't, never pretentious, frequently hilarious and occasionally eloquent. The book is worth buying for the sheer pleasure of reading it. But it also has something to say.

Ullman's main theme is technology's alienating effect. In its programming context, "getting close to the machine" means working with low-level code. Here, where the commands make no intuitive sense but are pure strings of 1s and 0s, the programmer loses touch with the program's purpose. The operation of the system becomes paramount; the needs of the users are forgotten. Ullman develops this theme effectively in a series of personal glimpses of her growth during two decades as a professional programmer and of her loss of a sense of purpose to what she was doing--beyond getting a system to work.

That sounds grim, but Ullman, a great storyteller, makes it into a funny and almost touching account. She takes you inside the corporate offices where she negotiates her contracts and tells you who was there, how they dressed and how they comported themselves. She also has fun mimicking the thought process of programmers as expressed in cryptic speech.

A large portion of the book is devoted to her relationship with a younger man who was among a new generation of cypherpunks out to seize control of the system of computer networks she had helped build. From him she learned how her world of spreadsheets and useful applications was being displaced by a global network of goodies dispensed by the Internet.

She realized much of her knowledge was obsolete because she didn't know new Internet languages such as Java. Now the game was not making useful products, but tweaking the system to generate money through Internet commerce or content. Compared with the programs that Ullman had written, the new interfaces (browsers) had vastly simplified controls that made users into passive acquirers.

Ullman is unnerved by the man's casual approach to sex as well as software. As she writes, "His lovemaking was tantric, algorithmic. The sex was formulaic, had steps and positions and durations, all tried and perfected, like a martial arts kata or a well-debugged program. My own role in it was like a user-exit subroutine, an odd branch where anything might happen but from which we must return, tracing back to the mainline procedure."

In the end, unable to connect with him, she moves on: to the next job, the next computer language and presumably to the next lover. In revealing her private life so honestly, Ullman shows a great deal about how humans operate, how computers are made to operate and why computers can't be expected to make human decisions. She is, in fact, in the business of translating between one and the other--human desire and computer execution--her worm's-eye point of view puts things in perspective.

The computer, Ullman points out, "cannot simultaneously do something and withhold for later something that remains unknown." Only a human can do 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."

As Ullman makes clear, she (like all of us) has more than logic, order, rule and clarity in her life, and this humanistic spirit infects her tales of tangled technology with a kind of subversive deadpan humor. Close to the Machine poses no problems, offers no solutions and urges no action. It offers a point of view--familiar yet somehow reassembled--described with a high degree of art. The book is sure to become a minor classic. -- Upside, Cliff Barney

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 189 pages
  • Publisher: City Lights Publishers; (2nd) edition (January 1, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780872863323
  • ISBN-13: 978-0872863323
  • ASIN: 0872863328
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,091,659 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Christopher Hefele on August 23, 1998
Format: Paperback
If you're fascinated by the impacts of computer technology in personal and human terms, then you'll enjoy this book. On the surface, Ullman gives us a glimpse into the life of a consulting software engineer musing about the meaning and impact of technology. Ullman's world is filled with machine-like programmers drawn to the supremely logical world of software development, as well as managers who don't truly understand the technology or programmers that they are managing. Like a true techie, Ullman can easily convey rush of excitement when a debugged system finally *works* -- but unlike a true techie, she can just as easily describe the quirky, mechanical personalities of the people working "close to the machine(s)." Throughout, she intersperses some thoughts about her career, ranging from the stress of keeping up techno-savvy hot-shots, to the risks of working for startups, to the real impact "virtual companies" on society. Ullman's style was witty, insightful, and a joy to read -- I easily devoured this book in one day. In the end, this book is more about people than it is about technology, so I'd recommend it to anyone who is interested in the human side of the technology equation.
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By A Customer on November 23, 1997
Format: Paperback
As I read this book I felt a keen sense of familiarity. I live this life as well, down to every detail but being Ellen Ullman. I've had the same experiences; the rush of programming on a great project, the hits and near misses on stock options, the empty cubicles, the rush of a new contract, the longing for the regularity of an old-fashioned company, etc. I also know first hand about the culture of the neighborhood she describes, since I too live in a loft down there, although I am married, male, and have a kid.
In fact, as I got my WSJ the other day, I saw hers stacked on top of mine. I have never met her, but because of the similarities in our lives as described in the excellent book, I do know that what she says is far far truer than any of the books that purport to tell everyone outside of the area about high tech here.

But the book resonates not because we're neighbors; her book is true, and well written. Two reasons enough to buy this book ASAP. Skip "Start-Up" and "Architects of the Web" (please). This is the real thing.
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Format: Paperback
I need to address the other reviewers complaining about too much about the sex content. Listen. She’s juxtaposing the physical, simple, imperfect, raw experience of being a human body with the complex abstraction of programming, logic, technology. Why does she go from from talking about sex to coding, from sex to coding over and over? It's not off topic. It's because her brief, disjointed connections to lovers (and people in general) are very similar to her connection to the machine and her career itself, hopping from one contract to the next. Actually, it’s one of her many examples that highlight the interaction of the human experience with the hard limits and possibilities of technology. It works to great effect; that metaphor illustrates what the entire book is about! It should be triggering other examples of human/computer relationship and differences while you are reading, if you like to think while you read. Overall, this is a poem about her industry and human relationships within it, and her relationship with her own mind and the machine. It’s a fantastic perspective. It goes from the thrill of technical tinkering in the details to the awe you get when you stand back and ask “what does this mean for humanity and society?” A+.
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By A Customer on December 7, 1998
Format: Paperback
This is a beautiful book, written by someone who not only understands how to work computers, but understands how the computer is working on her -- the seduction of the machine, the impact it has on her life, and the compromises she has to make around her choices.
The basic problem is that this book is probably completely incomprehensible to anyone who doesn't see computers in the same way. Ullman's commentary is all about the same subject: not about computers, but about people, and the kinds of people who are attracted and subverted by technology. If you're not a geek, you'll probably be mystified. If you are, you'll be riveted.
This is probably the same reason why I fall asleep reading the New Yorker, only in reverse.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I've thoroughly enjoyed reading "Close to the Machine" and am particularly fond of Ullman's honesty and approach in sharing these anecdotes and thoughts with the readers. While some of the programming notes are dated, the mentalities, approaches, and accuracy with which she paints the situations and scenes is timeless. I highly recommend this to any computer professional looking for proof they are not alone and anyone who loves one as a window into their mind.
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Surprising in its honesty and the intimacy it brings forth, this is indeed a very interesting, funny and enlightening read.
I recommend this book and am looking forward to read more of Ullman's works.
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Format: Paperback
This is amazing book that encapsulates the feeling of software, consulting, and life. Ellen Ullman is an amazing writer.

I loved her insights on becoming a programmer who isn't on the cutting edge for a time, and the implications for my own life.

Programmers might enjoy, most everyone else will.
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