Close to the Machine Technophilia and Its Discontents

Ellen Ullman




Trade Paperback

208 Pages



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In 1997, the computer was still a relatively new tool—a sleek and unforgiving machine that was beyond the grasp of most users. With intimate and unflinching detail, software engineer Ellen Ullman examines the strange ecstasy of being at the forefront of the predominantly male technological revolution, and the difficulty of translating the inherent messiness of human life into artful and efficient code. Close to the Machine is an elegant and revelatory mediation on the dawn of the digital era.


Praise for Close to the Machine

"Part memoir, part techie mantra, part observation on the ever-changing world of computer science . . . [Ullman is] a strong woman standing up to, and facing down, ‘obsolescence’ in two different, particularly unforgiving worlds—modern technology and modern society."—The New York Times Book Review
Astonishing . . . Impossible to put down."—San Francisco Chronicle

"Fascinating . . . Chock-full of delicately profound insights into work, money, love, and the search for a life that matters."—Newsweek
"Close to the Machine may be the best—it’s certainly the most human—book to have emerged thus far from the culture of Silicon Valley. Ullman is that rarity, a computer programmer with a poet’s feeling for language."—Laura Miller, Salon

"Ullman comes with her tech bona fides intact (she is, after all, a seasoned software engineer). But she also comes with novel material . . . We see the seduction at the heart of programming: embedded in the hijinks and hieroglyphics are the esoteric mysteries of the human mind."—Wired

"This book is a little masterpiece . . . I have never read anything like it."—Andrei Codrescu

"For someone sitting so close to the machine, Ellen Ullman possesses a remarkably wide-angle perspective on the technology culture she inhabits."—The Village Voice

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt



I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT TIME IT IS. There are no windows in this office and no clock, only the blinking red LED display of a microwave, which flashes 12:00, 12:00, 12:00, 12:00. Joel and I have been programming for days. We have a bug, a stubborn demon of a bug. So the red pulse no-time feels right, like a read-out of our brains, which have somehow synchronized themselves at the same blink rate.

But what if they select all the text and

hit Delete.

Damn! The NULL case!

And if not were out of the text field and they

Read the full excerpt


  • Ellen Ullman

  • Ellen Ullman is an American computer programmer and author. She has written novels as well as articles for various publications, including Harper's Magazine, Wired, The New York Times, and Salon. Her essays and novels analyze the human side of the world of computer programming. Ullman earned a bachelor’s degree  in English at Cornell University in the early 1970s. She then turned to business programming in the following years. She eventually began writing about her experiences as a programmer in 1995 when she wrote an essay titled "Out of Time: Reflections on the Programming Life." She lives in San Francisco.


  • Ellen Ullman Marion Ettlinger