Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents” as Want to Read:
Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents

3.82  ·  Rating details ·  580 Ratings  ·  68 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 January 1st 1997)
More Details... edit details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Community Reviews

(showing 1-30)
Rating details
Sort: Default
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 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.
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 doin
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
Mar 31, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This book is a must-read for anyone working near or in tech today. I can't believe it doesn't have more press.
rien va
Un memoir interessante e di facile e rapida lettura, scritto da una programmatrice con un passato da militante comunista e un presente da operatrice essenziale del cybercapitalismo globale.
Il libro contiene riflessioni interessanti, ma è un'autobiografia con osservazioni sparse qua e là.
Mi aspettavo qualcosa in più, perché di non fiction sui temi di web e informatica ne stanno uscendo molti, ultimamente.
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
Jul 26, 2012 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 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.
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:
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
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.
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.
Dec 17, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2017
An interesting read, basically a short window into what feels like a long time ago (1997) with a lot of descriptions of programmers/work/companies that could easily be applied today and a few that are startlingly historic.
TJ Wilson
Jan 19, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Such a fantastic writer and observer and weaver. There is definitely an awesomeness to a writer who has spent so much time in a different field of work. But she could do without her past and write equally well. Such a good writer.
May 29, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: technology
I love, love, LOVED this book. Ullman so perfectly encapsulated my feelings on much of technology... 20 years after publication and to a tech-savvy-non-programmer. A must-read for my fellow technophiles-turned-discontents.
Julie Moronuki
Feb 23, 2018 rated it really liked it
read this after reading The Bug: A Novel by the same author. her perspective on technology and how it controls us is insightful, particularly in the ways it's informed by her history in the industry.
Aug 21, 2017 rated it liked it
"Do they not teach labor history in schools anymore?" Nope.
Dale Lane
Hard to describe... Reading this felt a bit like meeting someone really interesting at a party and hearing their life story. But in a good way.
Oct 10, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
The trait of solving the system, rather than the user's problem, is very familiar. Ultimately not a whole lot to this book.
Apr 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
I read Ullman's books out of order, and I think that makes a difference when two of them are memoirs. She keeps asking the question, "What is the meaning of work?" Sometimes she's asking about the pleasures of doing something difficult, sometimes she's asking about the role of money or wealth as compensation, and sometimes she's asking about how a particular kind of work is affecting society.
Jan 11, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Quick read, her story living and working in the tech world towards the mid/end of her career and her thoughts surrounding this experience and other aspects of life coalesced beautifully over time. Brilliant with metaphors, good mix of dialogue to emphasize her telling.

In particular:
- The imposter syndrome and need to prove one's tech knowledge/credibility is FOREVER.
- How we build systems then by adhering to them they create us right back as we perpetuate each other in increasingly narrowed cycl
Jun 17, 2013 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
Nov 13, 2013 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 12, 2013 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
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 next »
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »
  • The Nudist on the Late Shift: And Other True Tales of Silicon Valley
  • Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking
  • The Cult of Information: A Neo-Luddite Treatise on High-Tech, Artificial Intelligence, and the True Art of Thinking
  • Dreaming in Code: Two Dozen Programmers, Three Years, 4,732 Bugs, and One Quest for Transcendent Software
  • The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information
  • We Feel Fine: An Almanac of Human Emotion
  • To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism
  • Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences
  • The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900
  • Go To: The Story of the Math Majors, Bridge Players, Engineers, Chess Wizards, Maverick Scientists, and Iconoclasts-- the Programmers Who Created the Software Revolution
  • Fumbling the Future: How Xerox Invented, Then Ignored, the First Personal Computer
  • Too Late to Die Young: Nearly True Tales from a Life
  • A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players
  • Nothing to Hide: The False Tradeoff between Privacy and Security
  • Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming
  • A Short History of Nuclear Folly
  • How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken
  • Vaclav Havel: Or Living in Truth

Goodreads is hiring!

If you like books and love to build cool products, we may be looking for you.
Learn more »
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

Nonfiction Deals

  • Masters of the Air: America's Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany
    $15.99 $3.99
  • The Monster of Florence
    $10.99 $2.99
  • The Westies: Inside New York's Irish Mob
    $9.99 $1.99
  • April 1865 (P.S.)
    $11.74 $1.99
  • Jesus Is ______: Find a New Way to Be Human
    $7.99 $0.99
  • Scent of the Missing: Love and Partnership with a Search-and-Rescue Dog
    $17.99 $1.99
  • Lab 257
    $8.74 $1.99
  • How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids
    $9.99 $2.99
  • Girl in the Woods: A Memoir
    $11.99 $1.99
  • The Power of When: Discover Your Chronotype--and the Best Time to Eat Lunch, Ask for a Raise, Have Sex, Write a Novel, Take Your Meds, and More
    $14.99 $2.99
  • The Last Lecture
    $10.99 $2.99
  • Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived
    $12.74 $1.99
  • Not Tonight, Honey: Wait 'Til I'm A Size 6
    $10.99 $1.99
  • Dog Years
    $13.74 $1.99
  • The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter--And How to Make the Most of Them Now
    $11.99 $2.99
  • Heroes, Gods and Monsters of the Greek Myths
    $9.99 $1.99
  • Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation
    $5.99 $1.99
  • The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth's Past Mass Extinctions
    $12.99 $1.99
  • Feast: True Love in and out of the Kitchen
    $4.99 $1.99
  • The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War
    $15.99 $1.99
  • Vaccinated: One Man's Quest to Defeat the World's Deadliest Diseases
    $10.99 $1.99
  • Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology
    $12.99 $2.99
  • An Appetite For Wonder: The Making Of A Scientist
    $7.99 $1.99
  • Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience
    $27.99 $2.99
  • Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip-Confessions of a Cynical Waiter
    $8.74 $1.99
  • Sex Object
    $9.74 $2.99
  • Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (Dakotas)
    $13.99 $1.99
  • Restless: Because You Were Made for More
    $7.49 $1.99
  • Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and The Dawn of the Modern Woman
    $10.24 $1.99
  • The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions
    $16.99 $2.99
  • Happiness: The Crooked Little Road to Semi-Ever After
    $13.99 $3.99
  • Man-Eater: The Life and Legend of an American Cannibal
    $5.99 $2.99
  • Pukka: The Pup After Merle
    $17.99 $1.99
  • The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For?
    $9.99 $2.99
  • Arctic Dreams
    $17.99 $1.99
  • Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors
    $19.99 $1.99
  • Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life
    $10.99 $2.99
  • Buddhist Boot Camp
    $11.99 $1.99
  • Flour: A Baker's Collection of Spectacular Recipes
    $21.99 $3.99
  • The Longest Day: The Classic Epic of D-Day
    $12.99 $3.99
  • The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change
    $5.99 $1.99
  • Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book
    $9.99 $1.99
  • Moving Beyond Words: Essays on Age, Rage, Sex, Power, Money, Muscles: Breaking the Boundaries of Gender
    $17.99 $1.99
  • Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet
    $5.99 $1.99
  • Do the Work
    $4.99 $1.49
  • The Lost Tribe of Coney Island: Headhunters, Luna Park, and the Man Who Pulled Off the Spectacle of the Century
    $4.99 $1.99
  • I Suck at Girls
    $10.74 $1.99
  • The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women
    $14.99 $2.99
  • A Mind of Your Own: The Truth About Depression and How Women Can Heal Their Bodies to Reclaim Their Lives
    $18.99 $1.99
  • Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler's Eagle's Nest
    $12.99 $3.99
  • Peace Is Every Breath: A Practice for Our Busy Lives
    $9.49 $1.99
  • Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller's Tragic Quest for Primitive Art
    $14.99 $1.99
  • Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now--As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It, and Long for It
    $7.24 $1.99
  • The World's Last Night: And Other Essays
    $7.99 $1.99
  • Tracks: One Woman's Journey Across 1,700 Miles of Australian Outback
    $17.99 $1.99
  • Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman's Awakening
    $13.99 $1.99
  • Hell's Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men
    $5.99 $2.99
  • Life
    $11.99 $2.99
  • Seeing Further: The Story of Science and the Royal Society
    $13.24 $2.99
  • Grace, Not Perfection (with Bonus Content): Celebrating Simplicity, Embracing Joy
    $8.99 $1.99
  • The Promise and the Dream: The Untold Story of Martin Luther King, Jr. And Robert F. Kennedy
    $9.99 $1.99
  • Through the Eyes of a Lion: Facing Impossible Pain, Finding Incredible Power
    $9.99 $1.99
  • Why We Run: A Natural History
    $9.49 $1.99
  • Edgar Allan Poe: The Fever Called Living
    $5.99 $2.99
  • The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple
    $12.99 $2.99
“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.” 4 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.” 2 likes
More quotes…