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Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents

3.76 of 5 stars 3.76  ·  rating details  ·  332 ratings  ·  41 reviews
With a New Introduction by Jaron Lanier

A Salon Best Book of the Year

In 1997, the computer was still a relatively new tool---a sleek and unforgiving machine that was beyond the grasp of most users. With intimate and unflinching detail, software engineer Ellen Ullman examines the strange ecstasy of being at the forefront of the predominantly male technological revolution, a
Paperback, 208 pages
Published February 28th 2012 by Picador (first published January 1st 1997)
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Ellen Ullman perfectly describes how a programmer relates to the world in this book. That's not to say only programmers should read this. Instead, I recommend non-programmers who ever have to work with programmers read this book because it describes why we're always cranky: half the time, nothing is working and the other half, we have no idea what we're doing.

She writes:

The corollary of constant change is ignorance. This is not often talked about: we computer experts barely know what we're doin
This is less like a Jaron Lanier manifesto or a Kevin Kelly treatise or Neal Stephenson's uber-nerdy Linux book than a well-written personal memoir by a woman who happened to be a computer programmer. (I bet some technogeeks were horrified by Ullman's honest accounts of her sex life - "why the hell is she telling me this?" Ha.)

The book is dated, of course, but I see many reasons it has stayed in print (even before all the recent acclaim for By Blood if I'm not mistaken), despite the similarity i
I was expecting something quite different from this book. Not knowing much about Ellen Ullman and going simply from the blurbs, I thought this would be the kind of optimistic corporate memoir that sets a person up nicely for a career as a management consultant or a high-powered executive role. (I have no idea why I thought this; I guess I don’t actually read a lot of this kind of thing?) But it was a pleasant surprise to find that this is pretty much the polar opposite: a highly personal, wide-r ...more
This was pretty enjoyable overall. I agree with Louise that the bits about her sex life were a bit irrelevant (at best), and kind of gross (at worst), but I guess that's one way to try to make a book about programming more interesting.

It was a quick read. I'm not sure why it was reissued now; while most of the content seems to be from the original 1997 printing, it does seem like some of the footnotes are newer.
Ellen Ullman's novel The Bug is one of my favorite books, and I was excited to read Close to the Machine, her memoirs about working in Silicon Valley. Ullman's take on the tech world is uniquely refreshing and mirrors my own in some key ways, and I think she offers a unique insight on the industry that is valuable for any software developer.

Close to the Machine did not disappoint. It was a fabulously interesting read, and while it only covers a short swath of Silicon Valley history, it is rich
A powerful and personal story about life in the tech world of mid-90s San Francisco, told so well by Ellen Ullman. She's got such a clear voice and such a plain and thorough understanding of the things she's discussing that even as the text wanders through her various jobs and relationships and family stories, you have no trouble following the thread.

This book was also written at an interesting time in computer history, right before a major boom but when it was visible on the horizon. I'm not an
I picked this book up at Citylights on a whim - as a non-programmer living in San Francisco it was great to read about the programmer's work world. The book reads like a conversation with a friend - flowing from work stories to love life and self reflection - with a consistent tone and set of questions. I really enjoyed hearing her thoughts on the impact of technology and computer programming on physical space and human interactions, a subject very near and dear to my heart. I also enjoyed learn ...more
An honest memoir/essay that on surface is about being a developer. The story bounced around, she at times talked about her family, her work, her love life, her personal history. I find a lot of subtle take-aways from the book, though I must admit that after working in technology for decades these take-aways felt very familiar. Virtual work can make you feel alone -- true enough. The previous generations invested to own things, while technophiles invest to own ideas -- also true in some sense, bu ...more
This was fun!

Ullman gives us glimpses into her life (work and personal) as a software engineer and software consultant. The stories are interlaced with her musings on the technology in our lives, the lure of money and success, the global network, its the underlying machinery and the simplicity and allure of code in comparison to the messiness of real life.

Her anecdotes are highly entertaining and feel very familiar. She talks about the sexiness of shared minds when programming towards a softwar
Ellen Ullman's Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents is autobiographical, yet is written in a erudite, breezy style that comes off the page as though she is actually sitting there, on the couch with the reader, who just happens to be her best friend. I'd almost say stream of consciousness. Her manner is personable and although much of the information given is technical, it does not come across as technobabble. The author does not wear her brilliance on her sleeve, she glows from ...more
Christopher Litsinger
This book is pretty well reviewed, but I just didn't connect with it at all. I'm sort of curious how it ended up on my reading list: maybe NPR, maybe a recommendation?
The book sort of jumps about between details of her programming career, her privileged upbringing, and her attempts at a love life. Occasionally it mingles them uncomfortably: "We give ourselves over to the sheer fun of the technical, to the nearly sexual pleasure of the clicking thought-stream." Um, no.
At her best, she nails the t
Ellen Ullman creates a vivid portrait of being a software consultant in San Francisco during the mid-90's. Apart from seeing myself reflected back in this portrait of a software engineer, it's a great snapshot of where technology was at that point in time. The internet was still young-ish. We were at the tipping point of ubiquitous computing. Social networking was just a gleam on the silvery surface of the cd-roms we all collected.

So much of Ullman's experience plays into my own stereotype of a
A memoir of the life of a computer programmer, complete with techie-talk (perhaps not heavy for some, but challenging enough for me when it appeared), might not have been the best choice for an impulse library check-out, but it worked ... mostly. Ullman had a way of hooking me in being both honest, and never condescending: keep up, or move on, dear reader. I found the details of her personal life veered into Too Much Information at times, though there's not any explicit sex present; more that it ...more
Kyla Squires
A quick and slightly random peek into the life of a software engineer. I was overjoyed to find I'm not the only one who constantly hits the insert button by accident when I'm aiming for backspace.
True technologists are so smart and yet so different. This author has been a consultant for 20 years and persevered through several languages, operating systems, and software revolutions. Most of her book is an intelligent commentary on the nature of the technical career; occasionally interrupted with the nature of the technical fringe and her own sexual exploits. Her thesis is that technologically-oriented people grow closer to the technology because it is easier, "safer," and more productive f ...more
This is an account of the author's time spent as a software engineer in the Bay Area, her ex-commie past & her relationships with pretty loser-ish men & women from all accounts (no one in this book came off with any beauty or spark -- a bunch came off as awkward & esoteric wanna-bee though) . It was pretty boring. I'm not sure what one would gain from this. There are no revelations & once I realized this was not fiction, I could tell the author had nothing so compelling in her li ...more
This book is fantastic on so many levels. I read it because it was recommended to me as a book that captures the emotions behind programming, and as the wife of a programmer, this is an insight I'd be grateful to have. The writing was excellent, but what amazed me the most is that this book is almost 15 years old and although some of the technology it talks about is obviously grossly outdated, the book as a whole seems SUPER contemporary and relevant to today. This staying power is what bumps my ...more
Jeff Phillips
An odyssey of sorts as Ellen Ullman progresses her career as a software engineer, but also examines her own ability to relate to the human experience. Here it takes on the feel of a love story stripped of cliches and mushiness. Yes, there are bits about her relationships with men, and women. And parents. But the thread of love gravitates toward a love of career, and takes it deeper than anything else that focuses on the story of one's occupation.

More on:
Maya Rock
It's about coding, but it's really about life :) I almost gave this five stars because it sucked me in, but something held me back. Bleak. I think the cold atmosphere inevitably created by all the technolanguage made a great case for the alienating qualities of technology, more than any outright stated argument for those qualities would have.

Whoa, I don't know if I've ever read a City Lights book!
Suzan Bond
This is quite a different kind of memoir. Maybe in part that's because it talks more about work than personal like most memoirs. What's also different about this book from genre is the lack of emotion. This works largely as the real juice of this book is when she talks about the world of programmers. It's also disturbingly accurate in its depiction of the future. A solid read.
This is one of my favorite books. The author describes the emotions of life in the technological world better than anything I have ever read. The joy of synergy with the computer, the strain for connection with other programmers, the chasm between how technology works and how it is perceived, all of these things are discussed with sensitivity and style.
Although written in the 1990's this book is still relevant today. Ullman is that rare breed of person who lives in both the world of technology and logic, and the world of words and passion. She is spot on in describing the ways technology has altered our way of life in subtle but profound ways.
Mike Ivanov
Short little book, but very good. It describes how programmers relate to computers, to other people, the world, in words more lucid than I could have expected. Programmers just don't write about this kind of stuff. Probably because they'd rather be writing programs.
Vasil Kolev
I loved it. It gives a very interesting view of what we do, a very close and still somewhat different one - not because of the difference in time (although there are some archaisms in the book, everything else holds), but because of the author itself.
Christa Van
Liked the author's new book (By Blood) so much that I went back to see about this one. Interesting nerd talk about programming but so much more with a good perspective on how rapid change can be a good thing and a bad thing.
Not much plot here. Musings on what it feels like to be a programmer in the 21st century. Not even that much "gender" topics persay. I still liked it.
Darian Patrick
Oct 17, 2009 Darian Patrick rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: tech consultants feeling a bit stir-crazy/alienated
Shelves: tech
I love this book. I read it every few years. Ellen Ullman chronicles here life as a software consultant. A unique work, I think.
Dec 27, 2007 Al marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: you if you live near programmers
Bought this on the strength of Matthew Fuller's recommendation.

Upon arrival it has a blurb from Andrei Codrescu.

Oct 25, 2014 Mark marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Mark by: John Miedema
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Ellen Ullman is the author of By Blood, The Bug, a New York Times Notable Book and runner-up for the PEN/Hemingway Award, and the cult classic memoir Close to the Machine, based on her years as a rare female computer programmer in the early years of the personal computer era. She lives in San Francisco.
More about Ellen Ullman...
By Blood The Bug The Eloquent Essay: An Anthology of Classic & Creative Nonfiction Story Behind the Book : Volume 2 (Essays on Writing Speculative Fiction) Story Behind the Book : Volume 2 (Essays on Writing Speculative Fiction)

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“The corollary of constant change is ignorance. This is not often talked about: we computer experts barely know what we're doing. We're good at fussing and figuring out. We function well in a sea of unknowns. Our experience has only prepared us to deal with confusion. A programmer who denies this is probably lying, or else is densely unaware of himself.” 1 likes
“The nerd flavor of masculinity has overwhelmed the macho kind in real-life power dynamics, and therefore in popular culture.” 1 likes
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