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Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its Discontents

Author: Ellen Ullman
Publisher: San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books, 1997
Review Published: May 1999

 REVIEW 1: Edward J. Gallagher

Fairly early on in her autobiographical narrative, software engineer Ellen Ullman characterizes her affair with Brian -- a "boy," cypherpunk, anarchocapitalist programmer -- in almost religious terms. Brian, she says, "was sent into my life as some sort of strange messenger, and his mission was to test me on what I believe in now" (38). That's how I think about Ullman -- a strange messenger sent to test us. The "us," that is, who would visit a Web site like this one and who are no doubt, in one way or another, worker ants in the computer revolution.

What the mid-fortyish Ullman "believes in now" in her pat-on-the-back way is the special, absolutely vital, and almost heroic nature of living close to the machine. The opening pages are a kind of pep rally for programmers whom corporate vice presidents see as the bottom of the flowchart chain and thus who are conditioned to see themselves as "no one" (21). But the real world with its distant systems managers and its contemptible end users dissolves in the "pre-installation madness," Ullman rhapsodizes, when her team enters "that place" of passionate intimacy known only to programmers (3), engages the telepathic "code zone" (14), pursues "the sheer fun of the technical" (15), enjoys "the nearly sexual pleasure of the clicking thought stream" (15), and eradicates human confusion -- all on a mission to "save the system" (13). Whirr! Whirr! Rah! Rah! Huzza for those close to the machine!

But the sweet solipsism of this programmertopia cannot last. Even programmers cannot live forever on Fantasy Island. She who would live "inside" soon finds herself "in between" -- in between the fleshy presence of Brian's amoral revolution and the ghostly presence of her father's ethical tradition. A generation gap yawns on both sides. Ullman must confront the reality of social change, both her implication in it and her victimization by it. In "that place" she needs a philosophy of life. As do we all who live close to the machine.

Brian's dream is to scuttle in bug-like anonymity deep in the Internet to find those "tiny interstices" (45) from which to arbitrage everything from monetary law to police protection in order to amass great wealth and demonstrate great power. He's "the new breed of entrepreneur," the "Net landlord" (50), for whom the sound of money is not a rustle or a jingle but a click. He's a "bizarre hyperreality" (40) in a world where "content is worthless" (50) -- Ivan Boesky painted by Hieronymous Bosch.

Her father's dream, on the other hand, was the American Dream. He liked "centers," and his legacy to Ullman and her sister is "real" estate just off Wall Street, the center of Capitalism -- buildings that "represented everything of stable value in the material universe" (54). "Real" people inhabit those buildings -- bootstrappers who awaken yearnings for the hallowed mythos of America but who ultimately are really just "dying echoes of my father's old-fashioned burgher capitalism -- all doomed" (56).

The future is the life of Brian. The computer is not neutral, not, in the familiar polyannism, "a tool like any other" (89). No, "there is something in the system itself, in the formal logic of programs and data, that recreates the world in its own image" (89). And in what I think is the first of the two key images in the book, Ullman sees her breed of independent programmers "as everyone's future": "We programmers are the world's canaries. . . . We fly down and down, closer and closerto the virtualized life, and where we go the world is following" (146). If she can survive close to the machine, maybe the rest of us can too.

But awareness can be toxic. Morty's bag shop, the oldest tenant in her father's buildings, "reeked of failure." Why? Morty's answer is deliciously startling: "it's the modems" (58). His previous clientele -- the Wall Street executives -- now telecommute. In one of the many great sound bites in the book, an astonished Ullman describes "computing as a kind of neutron bomb, making all the people disappear, leaving the buildings" (59). And since her whole profession encourages clicking behavior, she shares societal responsibility: "I was implicated in the fate of Morty and the bag shop" (60).

Morty should set up on the Internet, why "even Wall Street wants to leave Wall Street now" (69). Centers disappear. "Home" offices disappear. And with them a certain sensuality. Ullman confesses to the lure of centers and registers the exquisite pleasure of a self-conscious trip to her bank's home office, her "downtown palace of money" (71): granite steps, marble pillars, gold ceilings, bronze teller gates, velvet ropes, Eucharistic transactions, memories of her mother's marble-clicking high heels, the scent of her perfume in the safe deposit vault, and -- the absolute coup de gras -- "the light voyeurism of watching other people transact with their money" (73). Though she indulges a delightful fantasy of online banks offering private virtual reality, something will always be lost. "The world," Ullman says with gritty elegiacness, "has no use for all this any more" (72).

A comparison between the Net and the spreadsheet, which Ullman sees as the technology that all but created the personal computer, shows that the world has no use for human ingenuity either. In the spreadsheet the end user is active, the repository of knowledge, the creator of knowledge. But on the Net information is pre-digested, and all the human being, taxed only to push buttons and learn the vocabulary of a five-year-old, can do is search. Isn't the Net the "ultimate dumbing-down of the computer?" (77). And through it the human being?

With dumbing-down comes what we might call dulling-down. In another great sound bite, Ullman laments that there is something in computer systems "like a suburban development." "Both take places -- real, particular places -- and turn them into anyplace" (80). For what is the end result of her work but "only a system." Now her clients can "sit in the office like programmers and send e-mail. Now they can stay where they are like stock analysts and connect by modems" (82).

If there is any energy in the system, moreover, it is destructive, like a "fever." For Ullman describes how the owner of a small business in a "sleepy place" was "infected" (85) by the desire to spy on his most trusted employee simply because the system now gave him that power. "Would he risk upsetting twenty-six years of loyal service?" (88). Yes. The system was installed, and it spoke to him. You have power, and you can have more: "You can keep an eye on the woman you trusted to pick up your kids from kindergarten" (88).

And the energy in the creators of the system is the inevitable prey of self-destruction. Burnout beckons. In yet another memorable sound bite, Ullman has a glimpse of "the great, elusive cutting edge of technology" like a "giant cosmic Frisbee" slicing away from her (100). Life chasing the incessant "load of newness" ends in premature dotage: "remembering technologies is a little like trying to remember all your lovers" (101); ends in chilling superannuation: "an old programmer is like an old Mick Jagger" (105). "I didn't want my experience to be useless" (115), Ullman laments, but she cannot make peace with her obsolescence like the systems manager who makes it a "point of honor" to be "the last human being on earth who knows how to program in 1401 Autocoder" (119).

She runs a virtual company; she's supposed to have the perfect life. "Virtual," she points out, used to have a "not-ness" and is now "supposed to be grand" (127). But virtual companies menace relationships and for that reason have precipitated a profound cultural anxiety crisis. "Families scatter, marriages end, yet the office and factory have hung on a bit longer as staple human gathering places." But "the final village is dissolving," she observes startlingly, and people without "real" jobs are wondering, "where will we meet each other now?" There is no solace in the answer: "On line, I suppose, as virtualized creatures swimming alone in private pools of time" (145).

Which brings us back to "the" relationship in the book. Was it possible to have the "unnegotiated intimacy" with Brian that would serve as an antidote to a world already too full of unconnected and evanescent bits, however spectacular they might be? (179). No. Brian, "representative of everything my profession admires" (38), applies precisely the wrong word to their relationship -- "casual" (181) -- and it's over. They are no Ferdinand and Miranda in a Brave New World: "I felt sorry for both of us. We weren't very brave. Surely we were missing something essential if our idea of other people was a program downloaded from the Internet" (181).

There is more than enough darkness in Ullman's book and vision, then, to qualify her for the presidency of the Jacques Ellul fan club. In an uncanny way, moreover, Ellul -- the granddaddy of Despair, whose Technological Society (1964) is the dystopian bible -- actually appears inside her name: ELLen ULlman! But ultimately Close to the Machine is no Ellulish dirge of despair. Her essence is "me and my machines" (125), and when upset she can take them apart and make them work again, asserting her mastery (65). And, in fact, the phrase "it works" serves further as a soothing mantra silencing discomfiting voices (24, 66, e.g.).

Moreover, Ullman's no fuzzy-headed romantic: she herself senses some value in casual relationships; reflects on her own indifferent "shrug" at Brian's immoral plans (62); learns her father was a Brian-like "financial wildman" (162); recognizes that the Brian's of this world will not necessarily succeed; realizes that parts of her homey bank fantasy may just be something "I've seen in an old movie" (74); understands that we can't go back and probably wouldn't want to; and ripples orgasmically at the final successful "audition" of her professional skill (187).

So, where does Ullman leave herself? And where does this "strange messenger" leave us? What philosophy of life can inform "that place" she inhabits close to the machine? That brings us to the second key image in the book. No canary in a cage now, she's Woman-behind-the-Wheel! Heading to a job interview on the freeway, "a line of semis merges from the left": "They're like a wall moving toward me, fifty thousand pounds of roaring diesel momentum on a downhill ride to Central California. My car isn't as high as their wheels. It's not at all clear that they see me. As I slip through them, moving left and left again as they move right, I remember why I bought this fast car: when trouble comes, I have the choice of yielding or accelerating. I accelerate" (185).

Then, later, on the same freeway, and acutely aware of life's innate ups and downs, she chooses to give herself up to the "rocket-takeoff learning curve" of the new job (188): "I race past the trucks, the hills shine deep green in the clear light, and, for the moment, I'm just where I'm supposed to be: driving a fast car to a place I don't know yet, where anything can happen" (189). (Shades of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance!) When in trouble, accelerate. In a complex world, live for the moment. Tattoo "I begin, therefore I am" on the bumper.

I don't know, I just don't know. Maybe I overfed on Ellul at some point. But maybe, too, Chef Ullman has dished out too dark a diet to digest as well. But I don't find this end place satisfactory or even consistent with the narrative itself. In fact, it conjures the spectre she herself raises of an old Mick Jagger singing "Satisfaction" (105). To paraphrase what Ullman says about Jagger: past a certain awareness, it just won't do to keep strapping on the seat belt, sliding on the moral horse blinders, putting the pedal to the metal, and crooning "satisfaction." To reverse the "j'accuse" she aims at Brian, the ending verges on masturbatory fantasy. Nothing like a spin on the Amnesia Freeway.

This may be how one has to live in a bad world. To me, though, it is not the way to build a better one. Ullman surrenders to technological determinism. I can't get no satisfaction in "that place."

Edward J. Gallagher:
Edward J. Gallagher teaches American literature at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. He coordinates the teaching page for the Society of Early Americanists, and he is the new editor of SiteScene, a review of Web sites, for the American Studies Crossroads Project. 

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