Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #21: Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its Discontents by Ellen Ullman

I came to this short and savvy book because of two things: my favourite reading experience of last year was Andrew Smith’s Totally Wired: On the Trail of the Great Dotcom Swindle, an excellent book which was unjustly slept on after its release, and that led me to the documentary Coderush. Smith’s book is about how the internet was nurtured and embraced and exploited in the heady days of the late 90s, particularly focusing on New York’s Silicon Alley scene and visionary-nutbag-entrepreneur Josh Harris, and it got me started on the fascinating roaring 20s-like vibe of that era. Passionate weirdos making stuff that would ultimately change the way the world works, all funded by a precarious financial system where you could get very wealthy and very poor in the blink of an eye.

Browsing Metafiler I came across Coderush, which is another insight into that weird, wired world. There’s still surprisingly little cultural content about this time – someone at HBO, make a TV series about young idealists in the Bay area coding all night to make a new utopia/billion dollars, circa 1998 – and Coderush is fascinating. Some of the best bits come from Ellen Ullman, a former software engineer who worked for twenty years with computers and came to understand just how radical the changes they would bring could be.

Written in 1997, Close to the Machine is astounding to read today. Back then, computers and the internet were a niche interest. Now, they’re our interests, and shape our lives and identities. Ullman’s book is a memoir of her time adjusting to the changing tech landscape as an insider, and her reflections on things like work and systems (I know I’m being annoyingly vague here) are insightful and sometimes scary.

There’s more to it than that – this is not a diatribe against connectivity or the dangers of sexting; Ullman is an aging ex-Communist woman who starts sleeping with a young male ‘anarchocapatalist’, and their relationship is beautifully drawn.

I can’t recommend it enough – if you’re reading this on a computer, if you use one at work, if you’ve lived with the huge economic and social shifts of the last twenty years – this is a great read.


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