[Marxism] Ellen Ullman’s New Book Tackles Tech’s Woman Problem

Louis N. Proyect lnp3 at columbia.edu
Sun Aug 20 10:27:17 MDT 2017

(Ellen Ullman's 1997 book "Close to the Machine" was really good. She
started out as a Cobol programmer just like me back when a college
degree was all you needed. I should have written something like this
long ago but it would take time away from film reviews, critique of
the Brenner thesis and a hundred other topics.)

NY Times Sunday Book Review, August 20 2017
Ellen Ullman’s New Book Tackles Tech’s Woman Problem

A Personal History of Technology
By Ellen Ullman
Illustrated. 306 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $27

As milestone years go, 1997 was a pretty good one. The computers may
have been mostly beige and balky, but certain developments were
destined to pay off down the road. Steve Jobs returned to a
floundering Apple after years of corporate exile, IBM’s Deep Blue
computer finally nailed the world-champion chess master Garry Kasparov
with a checkmate, and a couple of Stanford students registered the
domain name for a new website called google.com. Nineteen ninety-seven
also happened to be the year that the software engineer Ellen Ullman
published “Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents,”
her first book about working as a programmer in a massively
male-dominated field.

That slender volume became a classic of 20th-century digital culture
literature and was critically praised for its sharp look at the
industry, presented in a literary voice that ignored the biz-whiz
braggadocio of the early dot-com era. The book had obvious appeal to
technically inclined women — desktop-support people like myself then,
computer-science majors, admirers of Donna J. Haraway’s feminist
cyborg manifesto, those finding work in the newish world of website
building — and served as a reminder that someone had already been
through it all and took notes for the future.

Then Ullman retired as a programmer, logging out to go write two
intense character-driven thriller novels and the occasional nonfiction
essay. The digital economy bounced back after the Epic Fail of 2000
and two decades later, those techno-seeds planted back in 1997 have
bloomed. Just look at all those smartphones, constantly buzzing with
news alerts and calendar notifications as we tell the virtual
assistant to find us Google Maps directions to the new rice-bowl
place. What would Ullman think of all this? We can now find out, as
she’s written a new book, “Life in Code: A Personal History of
Technology,” which manages to feel like both a prequel and a sequel to
her first book.

Don’t panic, non-nerds. 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: “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.”

Her work as an active programmer spanned about 20 years, ending in the
1990s, but some experiences stay with you forever. “The role they
assigned to me, translator, is perhaps the most accurate description
of everything I have ever done concerning technology,” she writes of
one gig. As I’ve found in my own scribbling about tech, language
skills and accurate translation are essential to understanding in both
human and computer systems. The most useful bit of prep I had for that
came from the two years of Attic Greek I once took to fulfill a
curriculum requirement for a theater degree. Converting text into
plain language for the inquiring masses is vital, whether it be
wrestling Xenophon’s “Anabasis” or Linux engineer notes into English.

The first three-fifths of “Life in Code” is primarily composed of
essays published elsewhere between 1994 and 2004, while newer material
from 2012 to early 2017 fills out the rest. The technology mentioned
within those early chapters often recalls quaint discovery, like
finding a chunky, clunky Nokia cellphone in the back of the junk
drawer. The piece on preparing computers for the Year 2000 has a musty
time-capsule feel, but the philosophical questions posed in other
chapters — like those on robotics and artificial intelligence — still

While the electrified economy had yet to complete its first dramatic
cycle of boom and bust when her first book came out, a 1998 essay in
“Life in Code” shows Ullman, Cassandra-like and ever the pragmatic
pessimist, already bracing for the coming storm. “I fear for the world
the internet is creating,” she wrote. “Before the advent of the Web,
if you wanted to sustain a belief in far-fetched ideas, you had to go
out into the desert, or live on a compound in the mountains, or move
from one badly furnished room to another in a series of safe houses.”
These days, she’s still concerned about the damage the internet is
doing to culture, privacy and civility.

What hasn’t changed in the past 20 years is the dominant demographic
of the technology industry and its overall lack of diversity. Ullman
addresses these topics in the latter part of the book, as she observes
online classes for newer programming languages like Python and feels
put off by the “underlying assumption of male, white, geeky American
culture” with science fiction TV shows woven into the course material.
She worries that this approach may alienate people who aren’t familiar
with it, and imagines a time when the general public is writing their
own code for the world they need. “What I hope is that those with the
knowledge of the humanities break into the closed society where code
gets written: invade it,” Ullman writes. But, she warns, be prepared
for an environment of “boyish men who bristle at the idea of anyone
unlike them invading their territory.”

She has many stories of her own to share on the topic of gender
relations in the office and points out that not all of them were bad.
In one case, she tolerates frequent comments about her hair from one
addled man in order to learn more about various aspects of computing
from him. “I did have pretty hair; I went on to become a software

As then, not all men today are hostile to women and many are quite
accepting, but the misogyny Ullman experienced in her programming days
seems to have escalated in some places. Perhaps this is because of the
antler-whacking nature of today’s hyper-driven culture, as illustrated
in the situations of women like Susan J. Fowler, who set the executive
dominoes cascading at Uber earlier this year with a blog post
detailing overt and unchecked sexual harassment by her male manager. A
recent 10-page internal memo (by a male Google engineer) that
lambasted the company’s diversity efforts also shined a light on
workplace culture for some. The abuse of women, the L.G.B.T. community
and racial, religious and ethnic minorities on social media is also
well-documented — and much more vitriolic than flare-ups like the
recent bout of androcentric caterwaulingover the casting of a woman in
the lead role on “Doctor Who.”

As noted by Anna Wiener in an interview with Ullman for The New
Republic, Twitter “would look a lot different today if it had been
built by people for whom online harassment was a real-life concern.”
When reading “Life in Code” later, I thought of Ullman’s musings about
interface design in general: “To build such a crash-resistant system,
the designer must be able to imagine — and disallow — the dumbest
action.” Let’s face it, a queer female gamer of color is going to have
a very different idea of “the dumbest action” than a 23-year-old white
brogrammer and we need that perspective. (As for Twitter, Ullman
considers the service a broadcaster of “thought farts.”)

It may take a generation, but progress to find balance and
representation in the tech and tech-driven world is happening. And the
invasion is underway, with women-in-tech groups like Girls Who Code,
Project Include and the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing
(the latter named for the Navy rear admiral, herself a programming
pioneer) striving for diversification on multiple fronts. Because, as
Ullman observes, “the world of programmers is not going to change on
its own.” One hopes she’ll check back in 20 years to comment on how
it’s going.

J. D. Biersdorfer is the production editor for the Book Review and
writes the Tech Tip column for The Times.

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