October 14, 2003
Personal accounts of technology
I'd like to open the blog discussion to a question that prof. Fitzpatrick has asked twice in class: why don't we see more of the kinds of first-person accounts that Ullman writes? You may cite a variety of reasons (ie programmers are bad writers). However, I see one important concern: these kind of accounts shatter our society's blind faith in technology. In order to believe in our computer systems, Ullman suggests that we might have to ignore their workings. How unsettling to learn of how programs are actually written, of the messiness of post-its, of how the needs of the system are privileged over those of users, of how our credit card system might actually be supported by 15 year old technology.
What seemed disturbing for Ullman (who seems to believe in machine logic) is the possibility that human error may be written into supposedly "infallible" technology. This situation seems in a way comparable to Calvino's portrayal of Ludmilla, whose faith in textuality hinges on the absence of the human author. She feels that se couldn't believe in the authority of texts if she were to experience the actual chaos of writing. Or, using another example from the same novel, consider Mohammed's scribe who loses faith in Allah after completing the prophet's sentence. Perhaps our nervousness about programming lies in the near religious status that we've given technology. Or perhaps we just don't have enough faith in the process of writing.
Posted by ascott at October 14, 2003 10:31 PM
Much of Ullman's anxiety exists in the odd division between end-users and programmers. It seems as though programmers are becoming the elite in today's society (note Ullman's discomfort with her political / socioeconomic status). Compared to the number of end-users, programmers are very few (I think), giving programmers a lot of power. (Remember only three programmers maintained the banks' network, which served 15,000 people). Programmers speak a language end-users can hardly understand- I can't help but think of the height of ecclesiastical power, when services were given in Latin (which the masses couldn't understand)...
Sorry for getting off track- my point was that Ullman does seem to be aware of "the near religious status that we've given technology" and seems very uncomfortable with her position of responsibility and power... with the influence of technology on the structure of society. Perhaps Close to the Machine is an attempt to translate some of the "Latin" of programming into the language of end-users, or at least an attempt to demystify programming. In contrast, perhaps most programmers enjoy their newly elevated status and would prefer to elucidate as little as possible (hence a lack of first-hand accounts from this group of people)... think Brian.
Well, there’s a very long-winded thought for you!
One of the reasons that first-person accounts about technology are so rare might be because technology is so often seen as other. It is easier to create another world in which technology interacts with human characters than to offer a reflection on technology from the inside. It is easier to treat technology as an external, knowable subject than to admit that humans create, use, and participate in technology.
So part of the problem is that we see technology as separate; the chasm between human and machine is wide and unbreachable. In film, literature, and other media, machines are often represented as either malevolent agents (e.g., Terminator, The Matrix) or contributors to an anti-human world order (e.g., Player Piano). Although the latter category usually offers a more interesting and subtle reflection on technology, this kind of account is difficult to write in first-person. After all, how can one criticize technology and a technological order without succumbing to blatant hypocrisy?
To her credit, Ullman is a great example of a writer who does not get bogged down by the problem of hypocrisy. She participates in and criticizes technology. She admits the problems with calling oneself an "anarchocapitalist," while accepting that such a position is possible. Throughout the book, she does not force broad distinctions and oppositions. Instead, she attempts to represent the complexity of human and machine systems.
Powers gives us the second first-person (fictional) account that we have read in class thus far. However, I am not sure that Galatea 2.2 is an account about technology as much as it is an attempt for Powers to understand his personal life and past. Nevertheless, the theme of machine intelligence is central to the novel. As in Ullman's Close to the Machine, Powers blurs simple boundaries and attempts to undermine his own assumptions. Even at the start, Powers tells us that we are in the age of the web where, in public panels, people "disguised their sexes, their ages, their names" (9). Thus, divisions of gender, race, sexuality, and so on are not as pronounced. Powers does not face the charge of hypocrisy as he does not criticize technology per se. Nevertheless, his book raises the questions and anxieties associated with the human/machine divide. As we finish reading this novel I would be curious to see how you think Powers handles that divide.