Reflections of a Marxist computer programmer

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Apr 9 18:33:49 MDT 2001


Ellen Ullman, "Close to the Machine", (City Lights Books, 1997):

Twenty years before my meeting with the vice president, I was a communist.
I joined an underground party. (I quit the party after one year—I was
expelled when I tried to leave. I then reviewed what I knew about computer
programming and got my first job in the industry. My employer was amazed at
my ability to work hundred-hour weeks without complaint, and I was promoted
rapidly. He did not know that my endurance came from my year in the party.
Being a cadre in an underground political party, as it turned out, was
excellent training for the life of a computer programmer.)

I took a nom de guerre. If I had been clever enough to write a bug fatal to
world banking, I would have been promoted to party leadership, hailed as a
heroine of the revolution. Nothing would have pleased me more than slipping
in a well-placed bit of mislogic and—crash!—down comes Transnational
Capitalism one Christmas Eve.

Now the thought terrifies me. The wave of nausea I felt in the vice
president’s office, the real fear of being responsible for her system,
followed me around for days. And still, try as I might, I can’t envision a
world where all the credit cards stop working. The life of normal people
—buying groceries, paying bills —would unravel into confusion overnight.
What has happened to me, and what has happened to the world? My old leftist
beliefs now seem as anomalous and faintly ridiculous as a masked
Subcommandante Marcos, Zapatista rebel, son of a furniture— store owner,
emerging from the Mexican jungles to post his demands on the Internet.

We are all hooked on the global network now, I tell myself, hooked to it
and hooked on it. The new drug: the instant, the now, the worldwide. A line
from an old Rolling Stones’ song and an ad for an on-line newspaper keep
running through my head:

War, children,
it’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away.
("Gimme Shelter," by the Rolling Stones.)

The entire world
is just a click away.
(Advertisement for "The Gate," an online service of the San Francisco
Chronicle and Examiner.)

The global network is only the newest form of revolution, I think. Maybe
it’s only revolution we’re addicted to. Maybe the form never
matters—socialism, rock and roll, drugs, market capitalism, electronic
commerce— who cares, as long as it’s the edgy thing that’s happening in
ones own time. Maybe every generation produces a certain number of people
who want change — change in its most drastic form. And socialism, with its
quaint decades of guerrilla war, its old-fashioned virtues of
steadfastness, its generation—long construction of a "new man"—is all too
hopelessly pokey for us now Everything goes faster these days. Electronic
product cycles are six months long; commerce thinks in quarters. Is
patience still a virtue? Why wait? Why not make ten million in five years
at a software company, then create your own personal, private world on a
hill atop Seattle? Then everything you want, the entire world, will be just
a click away.

And maybe, when I think of it, it’s not such a great distance from
communist cadre to software engineer. I may have joined the party to
further social justice, but a deeper attraction could have been to a
process, a system, a program. I’m inclined to think I always believed in
the machine. For what was Marx’s "dialectic" of history in all its
inevitability but a mechanism surely rolling toward the future? What were
his "stages" of capitalism but the algorithm of a program that no one could
ever quite get to run?

And who was Karl Marx but the original technophile? Wasn’t he the great
materialist— the man who believed that our thoughts are determined by our
machinery? Work in a factory on machines that divide the work into pieces,
and—voilà!—you are ready to see the social nature of labor, ready to be
converted from wage slave to proletarian soldier. Consciousness is
superstructure, we leftists used to say, and the machinery of economic life
is the "base." The machines decide where we are in history, and what we can
be.

During my days in the party, we used to say that Marxism—Leninism was a
"science." And the party was its "machine." And when the world did not
conform to our ideas of it—when we had to face the chaotic forces that made
people believe something or want something or do something—we behaved just
like programmers. We moved closer to the machine. Confronting the messiness
of human life, we tried to simplify it. Encountering the dark corners of
the mind, where all sorts of things lived in a jumble, we tightened the
rules, controlled our behavior, watched what we said. We were supposed to
want to be "cogs in a wheel." (Today’s techno-libertarians have a similar
idea about the mechanistic basis of human existence, but for very different
reasons. They see human thought and consciousness merely as the result of
many small, local processes in the body and brain, rather than as evidence
of some observing self. While we communists wanted to make good fighting
machines of ourselves ostensibly to further social equality,
techno-libertarians prefer to see human life as a collection of small,
local mechanisms because such mechanisms "prove" that controlling
superstructures, like governments, are not necessary.)

When the Soviet Union began to crumble, and the newspapers wrote about the
men who controlled the empire, I couldn’t help noticing how many of them
had been trained as engineers. Our country is ruled by lawyers, I thought,
theirs by engineers. Engineers. Of course. If socialism must be
"constructed" (as we said in the party), if history is a force as
irrefutable as gravity, if a new man" must be built over generations, if
the machine of state must be smashed and replaced with a better one, who
better to do the job than an engineer?

"I’m a software engineer," I reassured myself when I met the vice
president, "an engineer"

A week after seeing the vice president, I had lunch with the old friend who
had recruited me into the party. We were talking about grown-up
things—houses, relationships—when suddenly I couldn’t stand it anymore. I
reached across the table and asked her, "Did we ever really believe in the
dictatorship of the proletariat?"

She looked at me like I was crazy.

I drove home through a tunnel and over a bridge, thinking about San
Francisco earthquakes. I went home and thought about the gas line in the
old Victorian flat where I used to live. We can’t live without cash
machines the way we can’t live without natural gas, I thought. There is no
way back. This is the fragility of what passes for regular life in the
electronic era. We may surround that gas line with fancy moldings, all
decorated with curlicues, yet it remains what it is: a slim pipe full of
explosives.

What worried me, though, was that the failure of the global electronic
system will not need anything so dramatic as an earthquake, as diabolical
as a revolutionary. In fact, the failure will be built into the system in
the normal course of things. A bug. Every system has a bug. The more
complex the system, the more bugs. Transactions circling the earth, passing
through the computer systems of tens or hundreds of corporate entities,
thousands of network switches, millions of lines of code, trillions of
integrated— circuit logic gates. Somewhere there is a fault. Sometime the
fault will be activated. Now or next year, sooner or later, by design, by
hack, or by onslaught of complexity. It doesn’t matter. One day someone
will install ten new lines of assembler code, and it will all come down.

Louis Proyect
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