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Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents
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Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents

3.76  ·  Rating Details  ·  410 Ratings  ·  46 Reviews
Here is a candid account of the life of a software engineer who runs her own computer consulting business out of a live-work loft in San Francisco’s Multimedia Gulch. Immersed in the abstract world of information, algorithms, and networks, she would like to give in to the seductions of the programmer’s world, where “weird logic dreamers” like herself live “close to the mac ...more
Paperback, 189 pages
Published January 1st 2001 by City Lights Publishers (first published January 1st 1997)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 1,136)
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Mar 01, 2015 Holly rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2013-reads
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
Aug 27, 2012 Louise rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
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
Oct 21, 2013 Patrick rated it it was amazing
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
Aug 30, 2012 Will rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Mar 03, 2014 Michael rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
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
Jan 28, 2013 Parker rated it really liked it
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
Sep 29, 2013 Cateline rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Apr 19, 2008 Kearstin rated it it was amazing
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
Charlotte Dann
Close to the Machine was excellent; it was powerful and moving and as a programmer-of-sorts I found it extremely relatable. I made a video about it, exploring obselescence and the future as the past.
Jul 20, 2013 Jay rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: business
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
Nov 24, 2013 E rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: tech-bibles
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
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
Jul 20, 2013 Marlena rated it liked it
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.
May 18, 2013 JP rated it liked it
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
Jun 24, 2013 Jen rated it did not like it
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
Jul 30, 2016 kim rated it really liked it
enjoyed this a little too much -- the perfect combination of In-Jokes About Life As A Software Engineer, philosophical musings on technology, and mr-robot-vibing (aka that one part where ellen briefly reflects on how, in her ex-communist youth, she could have totally broken the increasingly digital financial system with a bit of code.)
Peter Tillman
Jul 31, 2016 Peter Tillman rated it it was ok
Shelves: memoirs
C+, memoir of a software engineer, dull.
Aug 03, 2012 Shannon rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2012
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
Aug 25, 2013 Jeff Phillips rated it really liked it
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:
Apr 02, 2014 Isabella rated it it was amazing
Just excellent.
Jon Mann
Nov 14, 2015 Jon Mann rated it really liked it
Authentic, poetic reflections on the life of a programmer.
Maya Rock
Oct 09, 2013 Maya Rock rated it really liked it
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
Jun 17, 2013 Suzan Bond rated it really liked it
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.
Feb 22, 2012 Penny rated it it was amazing
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.
Mar 01, 2013 Chris rated it it was amazing
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
Aug 13, 2013 Mike Ivanov rated it really liked it
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
Feb 22, 2013 Vasil Kolev rated it it was amazing
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
Feb 21, 2013 Christa Van rated it liked it
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.
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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.
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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.” 2 likes
“The disorder of the desk, the floor; the yellow Post-it notes everywhere; the whiteboards covered with scrawl: all this is the outward manifestation of the messiness of human thought. The messiness cannot go into the program; it piles up around the programmer.” 1 likes
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