Life in Code

Ellen Ullman

After reading Ellen Ullman’s novel By Blood, I’ve been meaning to get to her memoir Close to the Machine, but before I could get around to that, she published another book centered around her experiences as a programmer, from before and during the early years of the internet. These essays were written from that inchoate era of the 1990s to today and build on each other excellently. Ullman has both a personal and critical perspective on how technology has changed nearly every aspect of our lives, at least for those of us with access to the internet.

In “Programming for the Millions,” she digs into this question of accessibility, not just to get on the internet, but to understand exactly how it’s built and have any influence in contributing to its evolution.

I think of the one-third of humanity with access to the internet. And of the two-thirds living in an electronic darkness — largely in the poorest and politically most chaotic countries of the world — who are nonetheless subject to the workings of that same internet code. For the algorithms of the wealthy surround them as well, controlling trade, allocations of resources, economics, political actions, social interactions … life. If in 1994 the computer was poised to penetrate into the capillaries of being, and by 2000 society recognized the depth and perils of our dependence upon technology, then by now the penetration of technology into the interstices of human existence has become nearly complete. And the code that surrounds us is closed to public view: opaque, inescapable.

I appreciate her deconstruction of the concept of disruption, coming in the last essay “Boom Two: A Farewell,” examining the commonly touted mantra of startup culture: “Change the world!” As she breaks it down,

What makes money is smashing existing structures to replace them with new ones that can be owned by private investors. Wages earned across a wide spectrum of the existing order — small retailers, booksellers, taxi drivers, reporters, editors, schoolteachers, and more — are swept up like chips on a roulette table, everything going into the hands of the winner: the wealth of the many concentrated into the riches of the few.

While she ends on a hopeful note, that the tech dreamers of today “will find their way through the dazzle and disappointments of technology,” there’s a cautionary undercurrent of how much is at stake, the potential scope in exactly how technology could transform the world.

more from this author