Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents

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A Year in Reading: Anna Wiener


I spent a lot of this year trying to write a book: lying on the floor, making spaghetti, chewing on my fingernails, staring at the wall, reading. I wanted to figure some things out, and surrounded myself with books that I thought would help. Instead of reading them, I got distracted. I read an endless number of articles and essays about politics, technology, politics and technology. I stuffed my brain with information. Wikipedia. I was thinking about Yelp culture and V.C. culture, so I read a lot of Yelp reviews, and a lot of tweets from venture capitalists and nascent venture capitalists. Medium posts. Hacker News.

After a while, this became boring, and I remembered how to read for pleasure. I read, or reread: Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay; Things I Don’t Want to Know; Stone Arabia; Asymmetry; Housekeeping; Fierce Attachments; The Maples Stories; Twilight of the Superheroes; Talk Stories; To the Lighthouse; Mating; Imperial San Francisco; The Book of Daniel; White Noise; The Fire Next Time; Close to the Machine. Essays from Happiness, and The Essential Ellen Willis, and The White Album, and Discontent and Its Civilizations, and The Earth Dies Streaming. This Boy’s Life and Stop-Time. I meant to reread Leaving the Atocha Station, but it fell into the bathtub; fine. 10:04. A stack of books about Silicon Valley history, many of which I did not finish; a lot of them told the same stories.

I read a 1971 edition of the Whole Earth Catalog, and the free e-book preview of The Devil Wears Prada, and some, but not all, of The Odyssey, the Emily Wilson translation. I got stoned before bed and read What Was the Hipster?––? I read Eileen and The Recovering and And Now We Have Everything and The Golden State and Chemistry and The Boatbuilder and Normal People and Breaking and Entering and Notes of a Native Son and Bright Lights, Big City and Heartburn and That Kind of Mother and How Fiction Works and Motherhood and Early Work and My Duck Is Your Duck and The Cost of Living and Who Is Rich? and The Mars Room. Some more pleasurable than others but all, or most, satisfying in their own ways.

I read the Amazon reviews for popular memoirs and regretted doing that. I did not read much poetry, and I regret that, too.

A few weeks ago, I read What We Should Have Known: Two Discussions, and No Regrets: Three Discussions. Five discussions! Not enough. I was very grateful for No Regrets, which felt both incomplete and expansive. Reading it was clarifying across multiple axes.

I wish I’d read more this year, or read with more direction, or at the very least kept track. I wish I’d read fewer books published within my lifetime. I wish I’d had more conversations. Staring at the wall is a solitary pursuit. I didn’t really figure out what I hoped to understand, namely: time. Time? I asked everyone. Time??? (Structure? Ha-ha.) Whatever. It’s fine. Not everything has to be a puzzle, and not everything has a solution. Time did pass.

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A Year in Reading: Robin Sloan

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It’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.

Ellen 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.

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