Life in Code by Ellen Ullman, review by Bruce Jacobs
With a Cornell undergraduate degree in English and a long career in computer coding, Ellen Ullman has written frequently and earnestly about the intersection of digital technology with the social, political and philosophical fabric of contemporary life (the memoir Close to the Machine and novel The Bug). Life in Code collects nine previous magazine pieces and eight new reflections on the logical discipline behind writing the algorithms that more and more rule the world--and the risky implications of failure that these sophisticated applications represent. Her 1999 article "What We Were Afraid of As We Feared Y2K" goes to the heart of this quandary. While the public was in panic mode (she notes, "Survivalism was going around like the flu"), those who were rewriting the background calendaring software had hands-on grounds for concern about this "epidemic of infection: the whole massively interlinked organism succumbing to sepsis." Ullman even hosts a New Year's Eve party on her San Francisco rooftop to watch the century roll across the globe. No airplanes fall from the sky and she observes that few recognized "what peril we were under and what my colleagues had done to keep us from it." They did what programmers do: "Fix. Test. Fix. Test. Make it work."
Covering the years of rapidly evolving technology between 1994 and today, Life in Code hits all the familiar touchstones of the digital juggernaut. It also clarifies some of the jargon, acronyms and programming language idiosyncrasies of the tech world. On a personal note, Ullman laments the gentrification of her once gritty SOMA (South of Market) San Francisco neighborhood as AT&T tears up streets to lay fiber optic cable for the tech start-ups flooding in--the "needle park for junkies... now a place to eat and picnic and talk on cell phones." She parties and gossips with Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page ("His intelligence is... at the far, far right end of the bell curve"). At an Internet security conference she runs into a political buzz saw on cryptography, with techno-libertarians and crypto-anarchists lining up against legislative activists. Ullman shares her bewilderment at the piles of money venture funds throw at tech start-ups, where the founders and money guys get stock rich but the companies have no profits to sustain the business or its programmers. These poor souls are crammed into former SOMA warehouses "side by side, shoulder to shoulder.... Software assembly line, stale air: sweatshops are the new garage."
An activist, Ullman wraps up her chronicle of two decades programming with a comment on the rise of President Trump through the now-ubiquitous disintermediation of the Internet. With Twitter blasts of this and that--either true or false--he bypassed the traditional news gatherers and arbiters of accuracy to send messages straight to his people. She concludes that this is where her years of coding have taken us: "The intermediaries were useless: you could trust only websites; go directly to the internet." It remains to be seen whether this is good or bad, but Ullman's reflections on how we got here are canny, personal, enlightening and pleasantly diverting.
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.