«Modern human beings have existed for two hundred thousand years; human beings who have used the modern web have existed for twenty years. There was a world before the internet, and there will be a world after it.» *
Ellen Ullman wrote her first computer program in 1978. Self-taught, she went on to have a twenty-year career as a programmer and software engineer living in San Franciscos South of Market district, the underground of the early internet and the engine of the modern start-up culture. As a writer, Ullman's booksthe memoir Close to the Machine and novels The Bug and By Blood have become landmark works describing the social, emotional, and personal effects of technology.
Ullman's new book, LIFE IN CODE: A Personal History of Technology, follows the changes in technology, and her own insights into those changes, in an evolving story told over seventeen stunning personal essays, beginning with the first chapter, written in 1994, through to the last, written in 2017.
The arc of Ullman's story begins just as the internet is about to enter our lives in the form of early personal computers like Ullmans' own TRS-80; continues on to the wild, heady days of the internet's first rise; the lead-up to Y2K when society realized the perils of its dependence upon technology; the quiet that followed the internets fall; and finally to our exuberance as we welcomed the launch of the first iPhone and apps. Throughout the book, we are reminded of how the internet has become our very atmosphere: our companion, our entertainment, our helper, as well as a tool for surveillance and political control.
What helps to give Ullman's work its depth and unique power is her dual stance as insider — as a software engineer — and outsider — as a woman in a world of young men. Ullman tells us that code can be expressive, that algorithms may possess a kind of beauty, a rare blend of creativity and precision. She explores the nature of memory, both human and digital. We follow her as she guides us into the intricacies of artificial intelligence, the complexities that are both technical and philosophical, which ask us to question the very definition of life.
Ullman lets us enter the closed culture where the future uses of technology are decided, one overwhelmingly populated by very wealthy men. She envisions a new army of programmers, coming from all economic strata, ethnicities, and fields of study, who will invade that closed world, demystify the algorithms that envelop us, understand that code is written by human beings and can be changed by human beings — who will «stick a needle into the shiny bubble of the technology world's received wisdom.»
Throughout LIFE IN CODE, Ullman lends her sharp mind, her wit, and her beautifully crafted prose to help us look back two decades and see the forces — technical, economic, political — that have led us to where we are now.
In conversation with Scott Rosenberg (Dreaming in Code). Join us!