Close to the Machine

The Computer Industry – specifically Software Development – is not at all a nostalgic profession; we regularly rebuild entire cities ignoring the lessons of past builders because the types of bricks have changed.

As part of a personal challenge to read a book a week this year I stumbled upon Ellen Ullman and Close to the Machine and found myself nodding my head with every page. The book was published in 1997 which was an age ago in my industry and her insight on working from home as a consultant rings quite true to my experience.

First, life as a remote worker:

In the afternoons, I see us virtuals emerge blinking into the sunlight. In the dead hours after 3 PM, we haunt cafes and local restaurants. We run into each other at the FedEx drop-box or the copy shop. They, like me, have a freshly laundered look, just come out of pajamas or sweat pants, just showered and dressed.

I recognize my virtual colleagues by their overattention to little interactions with waiters and cashiers, a supersensitivity that has come from too much time spent alone. We’ve been in a machine-mediated world—computers and e-mail, phones and faxes—and suddenly we’re in a world where people lumber up and down the steps of buses, walk in and out of stores, have actual in-person conversations. All this has been going on while I was in another universe: that’s what comes to us with a force like the too-bright sun or a stiff wind off the bay. We do our business, drop off the overnight packet, clip together the xeroxes, and hurry home.

On the day to day life of working alone:

Living a virtual life is an art. Like all arts, virtuality is neither consistent nor reliable. It takes a certain firmness of will, and a measure of inspiration, to get up each and every day and make up your existence from scratch. As every artist knows, every writer and homebound mother, if you are not careful, your day—without boundaries as it is—can just leak away. Sundown can find all your efforts puddled around you, everything underway, nothing accomplished.

And finally on the role of the programmer class in overall society:

In this sense, we virtual workers are everyone’s future. We wander from job to job, and now it’s hard for anyone to stay put anymore. Our job commitments are contractual, contingent, impermanent, and this model of insecure life is spreading outward from us. I may be wrong, but I have this idea that we programmers the world’s canaries. We spend our time alone in front of monitors; no look up at any office building, look into living-room windows at night: so many people sitting alone in front of monitors. We lead machine-centered lives; now everyone’s life is full of automated tellers, portable phones, pagers, keyboards, mice. We live in a contest of the fittest, where the most knowledgeable and skillful win and the rest are discarded; and this is the working life that waits for everybody. Everyone agrees: be a knowledge worker or be left behind. Technical people, consultants, contract programmers: we are going first. We fly down and down, closer and closer to the virtualized life, and where we go the world follows.

If the above sounds interesting I’d recommend Close to the Machine, but I believe that her true masterpiece is The Bug which is a wonderfully insightful look at the horror of debugging. and the darkest sides of team dynamics.