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

3.83  ·  Rating details ·  767 ratings  ·  98 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 Books (first published 1997)
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Feb 02, 2013 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 03, 2012 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 do
Aug 30, 2012 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.
Oct 11, 2013 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
Rara Rizal
Jan 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: women, memoirs
I read this as a sort of warmup for the highly anticipated Uncanny Valley: A Memoir, which is also a memoir of a #womanintech. I wanted to compare their experiences and writing styles, and perhaps gain a better understanding of how the tech landscape has changed in the last two decades (Close to the Machine was first published in 1997).

I haven't read Uncanny Valley when I'm writing this review, but as someone who once dabbled in tech myself, here's something I learned: TECHBROS IN THE 90s ARE J
Greg Williams
Apr 07, 2019 rated it it was amazing
In "Close to the Machine", Ellen Ullman writes about what it was like to be a software engineer/consultant in the 90's. But I think this is really a book about relationships: our relationships with people and our relationships with machines in the modern age. In many ways, her relationships with software projects mirrored her relationships with the people in her life. Or maybe it's the other way around. Regardless, as an old software engineer who started working in the 80's, I really enjoyed thi ...more
Jan 16, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Written before 1997, this is part musings on contract work and ad-hoc teams, part breakdown of the phases of a project, and mostly memoir. That last bit is the least readable, with little direction or focus. I think she tries to connect her relationship arc with Brian to a project phase arc - but it isn't convincing.

There are interesting nuggets here, and she does capture the frenzy of contract work and venture capital and startups from twenty years ago.

Like a few other reviewers, I'm not sure h
May 16, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I first read Ellen Ullman as an 18-year-old and I subsequently wrote a personal statement on how her essays as an early woman software engineer had an impression on me as a software student (for the record, I did NOT get in).

Two years later, reading Close to the Machine had no less an effect on me. I think it’s very important for all of us to understand just how tech culture started, and what it was like before all of the rapid developments we’re now used to. I have no doubt this book will be b
Sep 29, 2013 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
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 ri
Jan 28, 2013 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
Laura Stone
Sep 18, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
There were multiple times while I was reading this book that I was so enthused by the author's words that I stopped, grabbed my spouse, and said, "Hold on...I have to read you this".

The book gives a well-written, thoughtful look into the day-to-day life of a female software engineer turned consultant. She navigates corporate and startup life, gives the reader a poignant look at the cultural phenomenon that is Silicon Valley, and doesn't spare her own thoughts, emotions, and insecurities along t
Apr 19, 2008 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. ...more
Jan 11, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: my team at work
Recommended to Vicky by: because I started reading Ullman's Life in Code and heard about this one
You might think reading a book about technology that was published in 1997 would already be "outdated" to read now, but it is still so resonating for 2019 because it's not about whatever programming language but more a reflection on how we interact with machines and each other.

Throughout Ellen Ullman's chapters, there are recurring individuals like Brian who will say things like, "[Classical music] is not in my data banks yet." and projects like the AIDS one that became politically pressured an
Maria Longley
Dec 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Ellen Ullman started work as a professional programmer in the 70s and she writes about her life as a software engineer in field. This was not what I was expecting and it was much better for it! It is a memoir of a very specific point in time, and from such a fascinating point of view. Her memoir has an astonishing description of the mindsets of programming and getting close to the machine. But it also comes out of that space to explore the personal and the impact of what was a swirling swoosh of ...more
Mar 20, 2020 rated it really liked it
The next time someone cocks an eyebrow asks me why I was crazy enough to be an engineer at startups in San Francisco, or why I found the actual experience of programming to be thrilling, exasperating, soul crushing, incredibly satisfying, mysteriously absorbing—I will wholeheartedly urge them to pick up this book. Ullman is an engaging writer and dramatist of her own journey through the mostly male world of Silicon Valley, and with a prescient eye chronicles technology’s atomizing effect on her ...more
Manu Hortet
Mar 22, 2021 rated it it was amazing
If you found out about Ellen Ullman after reading some of her shorter pieces online, this will live up to your expectations. The book is a memoir about her life as a software contractor in the dot-com bubble era. More specifically, about her relationship with code, the culture that was being solidified around it and its contextualized creation process. Her ramblings about programming and the experiences and feelings you get from it are just so engaging, and the personas she brings up across the ...more
I read "Life in Code" a few years ago. It's one of the reasons I started learning, well, to write code.

I finally got my hands on Ullman's first book, and it is far more personal than "Life in Code." She talks about the questions she learns to ask when building software, and there is a fascinating common thread between (what I read as) her eventual disillusion with the tech industry and her eventual disillusion with the communist party (I was not expecting that one).

For all she does to bare her
Many of today’s humdrum horrors—tech surveillance, the dark web, the gig economy, the transformation of creative work into content (and that content’s devaluation), minimalism masking nihilism, the internet and virtual work eating everything—are at the top of Ullman’s mind in this memoir of Silicon Valley before the tech industry ate up civil society and media and most everything else. It’s not an alarmist account of the industry, but instead helps explain how these changes that have been so dra ...more
John Wood
Dec 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I recently read "Life in Code" by Ellen Ullman and was so fascinated by her insights and adventures into the early internet and being a female in a male-dominated world, I was eager for more. I definitely was not disappointed. A very relatable and nostalgic story, she made it real by not just spewing a bunch of technical details but also revealing her personality with her other life experiences including her sexuality. My review for the other book: ...more
Jul 07, 2018 rated it really liked it
Given she wrote this prior to the internet hitting the fan, it's an amazing book. I was involved with computers at a fairly early stage of their development (wish I had been coding) and it's amazing how well she remembers it you can zone out into a binary world and minutes become hours. She writes like a dream. I've read other books by her. It is still very much a man's world, even after all of these years later. An excellent book about coming in on the ground floor of today's tech wo ...more
Michael Tang
May 30, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I read this book years ago and used it in my technology and culture class on the impact of the Internet and World Wide Web of society. Years later Ullman remains true to form. She is one of the few persons who understand the scientific/engineering world and the humanist/secular world and able to cast a jaundiced eye at what it means to be among the New Masters of the Universe, the coders and their billionaire bosses in Silicon Valley. Ullman is also a rarity in that she's a techie who can write ...more
Apr 13, 2020 rated it really liked it
this is the novel that uncanny valley thought it was - an excellent time capsule into the San Francisco of the 90s, a mindset that we now see manifested in the likes of musty musk, narrated by a very interesting (albeit frustrating) person. the insights on programming were excellent. as much as I didnt agree with the authors ex-commie present-lib mess, I was also compelled by it. the voice and the world matched perfectly. overall I recommend it if you're looking for something left-field. ...more
Austin Pierce
Aug 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Man, what a masterpiece.

This is one of the fastest reads I have ever had. I kept coming back to it throughout my days until I made it all the way through.

Some will say this is dated. To me, it is perfect. It aged instead of decayed. It captures something far more enduring.

And it delivered until the very last line.
Jon-Paul Dyson
Sep 01, 2017 rated it liked it
I enjoyed this, though reading it in 2017 at times it was a little dated--I probably would have given it 4 stars if I read it when it was first published. Still, it was prescient in many ways about the way technology is shaping business and society. It's essentially a memoir, and like many memoirs it danced along the line between self-reflection and self-involvement. ...more
Alex Salamakha
Jan 28, 2018 rated it liked it
It’s an enjoyable and easy read about people in IT industry. I didn’t rate it higher because I didn’t quite learn anything from the book since I’m working in the same field as the author, doing pretty much the same. It was good to relate to some aspects of her life, but that’s about it.
Perhaps, it’d be of more use to people outside of IT to understand IT industry and people who make it tick.
Supriyo Chaudhuri
Dec 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Loved it. Read it in one sitting. Instantly connected with the Communist-turned-software developer persona. The bygone world of programming in the early days of Internet evoked nostalgia. The existential questions of alienation, meaning and love are all too real, presented beautifully in breezy style.
Jun 14, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I am biased on this, but I loved the book, however weird or wrong may it sound. This book is a deep insight into head of a programmer. All range of emotions are included. Ellen exposes realistic and sobering view on the nature of software and the process of making it. Most of the time programmers have no clue what they are doing. They just like programming.
Jason Franks
Jan 16, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This book is set right about when I was starting my career in software, at which time Ullman was about the age I am now, and I wish I had read it then.... but it really resonates for me now as an experienced practitioner with a sideline in writing, who has been through many of the same experiences.
It's brilliant and terrifying and moving and I loved every page of it.
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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.

Articles featuring this book

San Francisco is a gold rush town. There aren’t many books about people in their 20s who move to Silicon Valley with dreams of earning a living...
33 likes · 1 comments
“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.” 8 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.” 3 likes
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