inkwell.vue.499 : Ellen Ullman, Life in Code
permalink #0 of 74: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sat 14 Oct 17 10:28
Inkwell welcomes Ellen Ullman, author of the new book _Life in Code:
A Personal History of Technology_, which traces her experieces in
the emerging technology culture from 1994 to 2017. Ellen, who
divides her time between New York and San Francisco, wrote her first
computer program in 1978. She went on to work as a programmer and
software engineer for over twenty years. Her essays and books
describe the social, emotional, and personal effects of technology.
She is the author of two novels: _By Blood_;, a New York Times
Notable Book; and _The Bug_, a runner-up for the PEN/Hemmingway
award for first fiction. Her memoir, Close to the Machine, about her
life as a software engineer during the internet's first rise, has
been called a cult classic.

We'll be discussing Ellen's life and work over the next two weeks.
Leading the discussion is Jon Lebkowsky, well-known digital culture
maven, co-operator, writer, activist, and enzyme. Jon was also part
of the technoculture of the 90s and 2000s, and currently leads a
technology cooperative called Polycot Associates.
inkwell.vue.499 : Ellen Ullman, Life in Code
permalink #1 of 74: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sat 14 Oct 17 10:30
Welcome to Inkwell, Ellen! Let's start our conversation with the
present: what are you curious about lately? Where have you been
focusing your attention?
inkwell.vue.499 : Ellen Ullman, Life in Code
permalink #2 of 74: Ellen Ullman (ullman) Sun 15 Oct 17 13:55
It's my pleasure to be here, Jon. I look forward to our

I can't say my attention has been exactly focused, but it has been
preoccupied with anger. I am annoyed that both the mainstream and
many online journalists are just discovering that the internet is
not offering us a route to a glorious future. I'm especially
disappointed by Farhad Manjoo, who is generally very smart and
perceptive. Also see the first article in today's New York Times
Sunday Review (October 15). It's titled, "Silicon Valley is Not Your
Friend." What a discovery!

There are many of us on the well who have been raising issues about
the internet, the web, and technology in general, their  effects on
our social, political -- and personal -- lives. We have been
sounding alarms for more than 20 years.

I wish that those discussing technology now would look back and see
the historical routes that led us to this unfortunate moment. 
inkwell.vue.499 : Ellen Ullman, Life in Code
permalink #3 of 74: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sun 15 Oct 17 14:21
Can you say more about what led us here? I'm thinking the downside
of pervasive Internet and all-things-digital was foreseen by authors
of cyberpunk fiction in the 1980s, and there've been waves of
cultural skepticism along the way. But the people I was hanging out
with in the early 90s experienced a rush of utopian idealism; we
were ignoring the dark side. Were you part of that, or have you been
skeptical all along?
inkwell.vue.499 : Ellen Ullman, Life in Code
permalink #4 of 74: Ellen Ullman (ullman) Sun 15 Oct 17 14:54
Jon, this is big question that pretty much encompasses the whole of
the book. 

First, I hope the book expresses my love for technology, for the
beauty that can reside in code, the elegance of algorithms, the
satisfaction I feel when I take a machine apart, and get it back
together (!). Most of all the delight I felt when I got my first
real program running. I was self-taught. And after much distress,
the exhilaration I felt when I sat back and said to myself, "It

Nonetheless, I have been skeptical all along. I hope the origins of
that skepticism are clear in the piece, "The Party Line." In that
story, I talk about my first -- and enduring -- lesson about the
limitations of the personal machines. This was in 1972. A group I
worked with, the Ithaca Video Project, managed to get its hands on
the first portable video machine, the Sony PortaPak. It was a
liberation from the behemoth corporations who controlled television.
There was a movement across the country of people who looked to the
PortaPak as a way to make art, to effect social and political
change. If this sounds like the coming of the PC, it was.

In one video, we worked with a dairy-farming family that was in
desperate economic straights. The immediate cause was the local milk
cooperative refusing to pick up milk unless the farms installed a
very expensive bulk tank. We showed our video around, even to the
farmers in the cooperative. We were true believers. We would save
the small dairy farm! The outcome, as you might have guessed, was
that we failed. I hope the readers will look at the story to see the
disillusionment I felt. From then on, I looked at technology as it
evolved with excitement and a sense of exploration. But always with
a gimlet eye.
inkwell.vue.499 : Ellen Ullman, Life in Code
permalink #5 of 74: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 16 Oct 17 08:49
I'm thinking you'd already been writing code for a while before the
Internet became more of a thing in the early 90s. What was your
first experience of the Internet? And how relevant was it to the
work you were doing? Were you quick to see the social and community
inkwell.vue.499 : Ellen Ullman, Life in Code
permalink #6 of 74: Administrivia (jonl) Tue 17 Oct 17 06:01
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inkwell.vue.499 : Ellen Ullman, Life in Code
permalink #7 of 74: J Matisse Enzer (matisse) Tue 17 Oct 17 07:43
Hello Ellen!

Long time reader first time poster (in this topic) :-)

I read Close to the Machine back when it was released and have given
several copies to people over the years. Along with Jon I too was part
of that early time of internet growth and craziness: I worked at The WELL
from 1991-1994 and was part of our connecting to the Internet, etc. etc.

For this conversation I'm one of the folks who got a copy of the new
book and I've read the whole book.

Some consistent flavors I get from the book (and I suppose your work
in general, The Bug, etc.) is this deep mixture of sadness, insight,
and empathy.

Tools, technology, instruments of power and change, these do present new
challenges to us humans as they and we co-evolve, and yet of course there
are things that remain the same, or at least evolve much more slowly:
what it is to be human, our bodies, our deeper instincts and desires, etc.
inkwell.vue.499 : Ellen Ullman, Life in Code
permalink #8 of 74: Ellen Ullman (ullman) Tue 17 Oct 17 10:18
Thanks for your post, matisse. I suppose you're right in your
identifying sadness as an emotional thread of the book. I hope you
can also see it as disappointment. I did, and still do, love what
computing technology is made of, meanwhile hating some of the uses
it has been put to.
inkwell.vue.499 : Ellen Ullman, Life in Code
permalink #9 of 74: Ellen Ullman (ullman) Tue 17 Oct 17 10:34
I should also address jonl's question. I was aware of the social
effects of technology when I worked with the Ithaca Video Project,
as I've said above. But when I thought about your question, I
examined my memories in more detail. 

I recalled that my first attraction to computers came with my
immersion in logic --- to get *away* from politics. I had been in
one of those 1970's lefty groups (a hilarious collection of
"Marxist, Leninist, Maoist thought," as the group described itself).
After one too many self-criticism sessions and Party rectification
campaigns, I quit the group. 

Somehow, I found myself with a stack of books about symbolic logic.
Even then, I was distantly aware that I needed to get to something
abstract, something that might be "clean" of political dogmas (ha!
then running right back into social issues as I went on to work as a
programmer). I spent days and hours doing logic proofs. The search
for solutions was additive. 

Looking back now, I see I was inadvertently preparing myself for the
solitary, maddening life as a programmer. Also for the rush of
pleasure when I got my first real program running: I works!
inkwell.vue.499 : Ellen Ullman, Life in Code
permalink #10 of 74: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 17 Oct 17 11:19
_Life in Code_ combines older, previously published material with
new writing. What was your original vision or 'spark' for the book,
that guided selection of existing pieces as well as the new writing?
inkwell.vue.499 : Ellen Ullman, Life in Code
permalink #11 of 74: Ari Davidow (ari) Tue 17 Oct 17 11:30
Let me take this opportunity to jump in and say that I am enjoying
the new book immensely. I also noticed that there are pieces from
late 1990s into the mid-2000s; then a jump until just a few years
ago. Did you take a break from writing about technology for a
decade, or were there just no pieces from that period that fit this
inkwell.vue.499 : Ellen Ullman, Life in Code
permalink #12 of 74: Ellen Ullman (ullman) Tue 17 Oct 17 12:15
As for the "missing years": I think the story "While I Was Away"
speaks to that. I was writing BY BLOOD. The idea was to tell a sort
of stop-motion personal history of the internet and programming as
they evolved over the decades.

Then there was this hole. I posed the problem to my editor, Sean
MacDonald, who replied, as he often does, "Is there an essay in
that?" And it turned out there was. The tension I felt between the
novel's story that had grabbed me and the wowing developments going
on outside. (Like, uh, the introduction of the iPhone.) Per the next
two stories in the section, I wanted to point out what we owe the
past,that we need to know that what is happening now had its roots
in prior decades of the development of computing technology.  

The spark for the book came from Sean. After I'd writing BY BLOOD, I
swore I would never write about technology again. Sean wrote to say
that he understood that, as a human being, I'd want to kiss goodbye
the identification of my writing with technology. Then he said that,
as a reader, he selfishly wanted to keep reading what I had to say.
The book is, in many ways, the outcome of a battle, both with Sean
and within myself.

I have to go back to Jon's question about my experiences in the ye
olde days of the internet. Mine began before that, with BBSs. To
read the best description of those experiences, I refer the readers
to an essay Laura Miller wrote in "Resisting the Virtual Life" (City
Lights Books, 1995). The title is "Women and Children Last." She
talks about how the general media portrayed women as being prey for
men, whereas Laura said, in essence, we gave as good as we got. She
also discusses the implication of the Electronic *Frontier*
Foundation, the portrayal of the net as the wild frontier, where
women, weak creatures, needed protection. I also love her
declaration that because online she did not have a body, she could
not be raped. A gauntlet!
inkwell.vue.499 : Ellen Ullman, Life in Code
permalink #13 of 74: Clarification (jonl) Tue 17 Oct 17 13:13
Ellen's in transit at the moment, but wanted to note that at the end
of her last post she meant gauntlet (gantlet) as in glove thrown
inkwell.vue.499 : Ellen Ullman, Life in Code
permalink #14 of 74: J Matisse Enzer (matisse) Tue 17 Oct 17 13:17
Ellen I do (also) feel the disappointement you mention, both in your work
an I vfeel it myself. Perhaps I feel it a bit les than you do because I
haven't had quite as high an expectation that any technology would quickly
change the ancient human qualities.

I do think that information technologies (writing, printing, mass
communications, digital communications, the Internet, etc.) are part of a
long long arc of the evolution of the technologies of collaboration, and
that as a species our ability to collaborate effectively in ever greater
numbers is gradually increasing across the centuries, and that in 200 years
we will be a lot better at it than we are now, just as (at a macro level)
we are better at it now than 200 years ago when only much smaller groups
could collaborate, and genally only when in very close proximity to each
inkwell.vue.499 : Ellen Ullman, Life in Code
permalink #15 of 74: J Matisse Enzer (matisse) Tue 17 Oct 17 13:18
jonl slipped in with a thrown gauntlet
inkwell.vue.499 : Ellen Ullman, Life in Code
permalink #16 of 74: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 17 Oct 17 13:27
Ellen, that's an interesting take on "Electronic Frontier," but I'm
pretty clear those of us who were involved at some level with EFF
never would have thought of "women, weak creatures, [needing]
protection." Rather, the idea of "frontier" was related to the lack
of policy relevant to the new realities of cyberspace. Policy and
enforcement needed help catching up. 

Wonder if Laura ever met Mr. Bungle, the LambdaMOO "rapist"
described by Julian Dibbel in "A Rape in Cyberspace." An
excerpt: "To participate, therefore, in this disembodied enactment
of life’s most body-centered activity is to risk the realization
that when it comes to sex, perhaps the body in question is not the
physical one at all, but its psychic double, the bodylike
self-representation we carry around in our heads — and that whether
we present that body to another as a meat puppet or a word puppet is
not nearly as significant a distinction as one might have thought."

When that was published, I thought it bizarre that anyone could be
so invested in a text-based virtuality. I suppose it was a hint of
damage to come...

(Matisse slipped in while I was typing.)
inkwell.vue.499 : Ellen Ullman, Life in Code
permalink #17 of 74: Virtual Sea Monkey (karish) Tue 17 Oct 17 13:43
I enjoyed the early stories tremendously. They evoked my own
feelings from those times, places, and situations. (And there was
the actual deja vu; I'd read at least the Y2K story before.) 
inkwell.vue.499 : Ellen Ullman, Life in Code
permalink #18 of 74: Ellen Ullman (ullman) Wed 18 Oct 17 10:56
The Y2K story is much changed from the Wired version, which was
editor-pissed-up to the point that I had asked to have my name
removed from the piece...

The argument about women-as-prey on the Web continues, and I think
some of Laura's bravery and dissention may have been tempered over
the years. Revenge porn --badly named, should be threats to destroy
one's life. Threats that come with "I have your address and know
where you are and I can come after you," accompanied by emojis of
knives and guns. These evoke real fear in the women receiving these

I asked Laura if she had updated her thinking on the issue. She
wrote back to say she thought that more damaging, on a general
level, is intellectual pile-ons. Barrages of nasty notes dissenting
the ideas people have added to conversations. Posts designed to
drive the person away, destroy her research, ideas, intellectual

I was going to include a piece about the subject but decided not to.
It would come near the end of the book, and I didn't want the
question of on-line sexual harassment to weight down the movement
toward the conclusion. I was going to write something like this
advice to women: Before you take off your clothes to be photographed
by anyone, demand first that you take a picture of the photographer
naked. If your partner is a man, I suggest a picture of his dick.
This is to be used only as a threat of retaliation about any
exposing you online.

I guess the advice has to go two ways, female photographer, naked
male subject. 

The thought came to me in the spirit of Laura Miller, give as good
as you get.
inkwell.vue.499 : Ellen Ullman, Life in Code
permalink #19 of 74: Paulina Borsook (loris) Wed 18 Oct 17 12:34
inkwell.vue.499 : Ellen Ullman, Life in Code
permalink #20 of 74: Craig Maudlin (clm) Wed 18 Oct 17 13:08
For me, the Y2K story was a great illustration of the deeply human
problem of dealing with complex technical issues that also have
complex high-level, or social consequences. However clear the events
of the Y2K (near) panic might be in retrospect, it seems we are still
prone to getting lost trying to reason through many layers of
abstraction. (And this is it's own form of coding probelm, isn't it?)
inkwell.vue.499 : Ellen Ullman, Life in Code
permalink #21 of 74: Ari Davidow (ari) Wed 18 Oct 17 13:45
One of the things that struck me about the Y2K story was that, of
course, programmers were blamed as though they prioritized what they
got to work on and were responsible for leaving that technical debt
untouched. We see the same level of discourse today: the
programmer's didn't deal with X, ignoring the fact that when issues
aren't addressed, it isn't because programmers didn't know or want
to deal with them, it is almost exclusively (exclusively?) because
nobody wanted to pay for them.
inkwell.vue.499 : Ellen Ullman, Life in Code
permalink #22 of 74: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 18 Oct 17 14:54
Yes, and you so often find usability issues because the cost of
improving the user experience can be substantial. 

I'd like to get back to the subject of online harassment. I think
the book mentions that SXSW had cancelled a panel on the subject,
but that wasn't the whole story. After a bit of furor, the
conference realized it was an important subject and scheduled an
full-day Online Harassment Summit. Engadget summarized:

"No one solution emerged as a silver bullet. But the day seemed more
about letting people speak frankly about the challenges they face
rather than walking away with a plan of action. That said, there was
one seemingly obvious solution endorsed on several panels: whether
it's online or in real life, if you see someone being harassed, do
the right thing and help them."

I think it's a hard problem to solve with so many voices, egos (and
ids), in play. Where do we start? I did note that, after the
Weinstein scandal blew apart recently, there was frank discussion on
platforms like Facebook, with many men admitting to bad behaviors
and agreeing to do better. Is there really a meaningful change,
though? Yale PhD Molly Crockett "believes new digital technologies
may be transforming the way we experience outrage, and limiting how
much we can actually change social realities." (Wired,  
inkwell.vue.499 : Ellen Ullman, Life in Code
permalink #23 of 74: J Matisse Enzer (matisse) Thu 19 Oct 17 07:19
Ellen: have you had any contact with the group ? If so what are your thoughts on it?
Can/should its approach be used more widely?
inkwell.vue.499 : Ellen Ullman, Life in Code
permalink #24 of 74: Ellen Ullman (ullman) Thu 19 Oct 17 12:00
Sorry all. I've been responding LIFO, so I'll try to address
questions in the order they came in.

Craig, yes, the underlying problems of Y2K are still operating, even
more than ever. Programmers exist is a constellation of code: the
programs they write, interactions with code within their companies
(often ancient and poorly understood), then interfaces with
black-boxed modules from vendors -- an expansion that reaches into a
global mesh of code.

The scarier problem for me is the power of the algorithms that drive
most of social media and decisions made for everything from medical
procedures to political allocations to the operation of stock
markets and financial interchanges to the person you're likely to go
to bed with. In machine learning, algorithms write algorithms write
algorithms, until even the original code writers don't know
precisely how the algorithms work. They see the results, not how the
code produced them. Human being are losing *agency*.

I'm asked now, "What can Facebook do to... prevent hate speech, fake
news, Russian interference, etc." All I can say is the Fbook is a
big ball of algorithms, and humans can't possibly curate billions of
postings. Someone usually says in replies, "That's terrifying." Uh
inkwell.vue.499 : Ellen Ullman, Life in Code
permalink #25 of 74: Ellen Ullman (ullman) Thu 19 Oct 17 12:11
To Ari: Funding is the ultimate driver of computing technology. And
funding decisions are made by a segregated group composed
overwhelmingly of very rich white men, younger and younger ones all
the time. We know this. My only thought is to bring in a wider
variety of people who understand coding, computers, the internet,
newcomers who will shake up the values of inner circles. This will
be hard. It will involve on-the-ground organizing. It will take a
deep social change (get off Fbook, meet with actual people). I'll
probably be pretty old when this happens.

(Oh, I am the bringer of gloom about technology, aren't I? Well, I
feel that I've been facing a culture of techno-true-believers for
decades now, and so I have had to push back even harder than I might
have liked to. As I said above, I love computing technology; hate
who controls it and what they do with it.)


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