A Year in Reading: Robin Sloan

December 17, 2012 | 2 2 min read

coverIt’s 2012 and a lot of people are talking seriously about programming as a new literacy. Program or be programmed, Douglas Rushkoff says, and there are more and better ways to learn than ever before.

But there are still vanishingly few places where you can learn what it feels like to code.

This summer I reread Close to the Machine by Ellen Ullman, and I don’t know if it’s strange or perfectly reasonable that this is the case, but: Ullman’s 15-year-old memoir is still the best rendering of our new relationship with code that anyone has produced. It is in no way historical; it could have been written yesterday. In fact, I think it fits our world better than it does the world of 1997. Back then, the accelerating dot-com boom was, for most people, strange and remote. Today, who hasn’t at some point copied and pasted a fragment of JavaScript? If we don’t all have a relationship with code, we have, most of us, at least flirted with it.

Okay, so one counterargument might go: Why read about what it feels like to code when you can just learn to code and feel it yourself? But come on. We cook, and we also consume great writing about cooking. We watch movies, but we also read movie reviews. A great rendering of an experience makes the experience better; it drives it deeper. It helps us (see things, feel things) we wouldn’t otherwise have (seen, felt).

Here’s Ellen Ullman, for instance, on messy programmers:

Requirements muddle up; changes are needed immediately. Meanwhile, no one has changed the system deadline. The programmer, who needs clarity, who must talk all day to a machine that demands declarations, hunkers down into a low-grade annoyance. It is here that the stereotype of the programmer, sitting in a dim room, growling from behind Coke cans, has its origins. 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.

I look across my desk and I say: Ohhh.

coverEllen Ullman won’t hold this throne forever. There’s a wave of dual citizens rolling in, a whole generation of liberal artsy writer/programmers, and certainly a few of them will pause in their labors long enough to render the experience in words. It might take a while. I myself tried to put a bit of the feeling of code into my novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore — but I’m only a so-so programmer, only a citizen and a half. The extremes of these new feelings are not accessible or really even comprehensible to me.

So for now, I’m waiting, and while I’m waiting, I’m rereading Close to the Machine.

More from A Year in Reading 2012

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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is the author of two novels, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore and Sourdough. Penumbra was a New York Times bestseller translated into more than 20 languages and Sourdough just came out, so give it a minute. Robin lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where he tinkers with technology. You can learn more at his website.