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Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents by Ellen Ullman

1997; 189 pp. $12.95.

City Lights.

Like an adult entering a room of noisy, giddy children, Ullman brings the humor, perspective, and responsibility of a grownup to the largely juvenile world of passion for high-tech. That passion is remaking everyone's world, so her insight is priceless.

This is a textbook of how to live on the cruel edge of Schumpeter's "creative destruction." In her career as software engineer, begun in 1978, Ullman has had to teach herself "six higher-level programming languages, three assemblers, two data-retrieval languages, eight job-processing languages, seventeen scripting languages, ten types of macros, two object-definition languages, sixty-eight programming library interfaces, five varieties of networks, and eight operating environments." That's the rate of change in her business. That's the rate of change her business is bringing to all of us.

Ullman has a life, and it's in the book (a male programmer might have left that out). She was a Communist once. She has an affair with a younger programmer, warmly observant of his brittle oddness and his political theories. Migrating uncertainly from job to job, she honors confusion in herself, in life, like no writer I've ever read. A programmer's life is the same tragicomedy as all of us have, but sped up ten to a hundred times. It makes a new kind of hero, and heroine, in the world. She wouldn't say that, but her readers might.

 

ISBN: 0872863328

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