I've been reading quite a range of books during my research for The Wild Surmise but I've especially enjoyed Ellen Ullman's 1997 Close to the Machine: technophilia and its discontents.
Eugene Miya at the Computer History Museum was keen I should read it as
a commentary on life in Silicon Valley in the 90s, and it is certainly
hugely informative about those early days of startups – the uncertainty
of tech companies rising and falling on a weekly basis, the role of
venture capitalist, and the nagging doubts of a generation who began as
left-wing idealists and ended up with stock options that made some of
them very rich.
But there is also a lot in there which feels eerily like today. Since
it was written, we have been through the dot.com crash, then Web 2.0,
and now we're going through a financial crisis which dwarfs the dot.com
event. But some of her observations – and it is beautifully written by
the way – are very relevant to the life many of us lead, working at
home on consulting or research, spending hours and hours in front of a
machine, feeling we are free because we have chosen that kind of
self-directed employment rather than being an office slave, and trying
to avoid thinking about the downside of it all. Some of the references
in this excerpt are now a little obsolete, but much of it will still
ring true for many people today, 12 years later:
virtuality, I realize. The building I live in – reconstructed lofts, a
kind of yuppie dorm without dining room (too bad about the dining room;
food service would have made this place close to perfect) – is full of
little one- and two-person companies. I'm told we home-based businesses
are the new engine of employment, the future of work. Delivery guys
love us. We're the new housewives. We're always home.
In the afternoons, I see us virtuals emerge blinking into the sunlight.
In the dead hours after 3pm, 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, having just come out of pyjamas or
sweat pants, just showered and dressed.
I recognize my virtual colleagues by their over-attention 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 email, 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.
Wonderful! There's also some fantastic writing in Close to the Machine describing the clicking thought-stream
of coding. I'm not a programmer but this is very similar to the
thought-stream of any kind of deep engagement with the machine, or of
being inside the web, or of simply writing for that matter. I
definitely recommend this book. It's a great treat. Thanks, Eugene!