# 111: Crossing the Line to Code

Ullman, Ellen (1997). Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents, 15.

Story behind the Passage

This week something happened to me. I cannot really explain it but it feels as if the REAL dimension of the digital world has finally exploded inside of me. I mean this in a positive way — like an explosion that sets you free. I started teaching about startups about 7 years ago, I started working closely with them about 2.5 years ago but only now do I feel that I am getting sucked into tech deeper than ever. Before, I was more of an observer. Now, I have crossed the tech line. I have this urge to actually dive into the next layer of tech. I am not satisfied with knowing the general stuff about functions and purpose of this or that technology anymore. I really want to speak the language of tech — I want to immediately solve problems with tech skills.

I also know why this happened. Even though I am a chronical learner and autodidact, I never really felt the impulse of learning how to code. I thought about it and I looked at stuff but I never had the goal in front of me. My hackers, I mean the tech people around me in the startup environment, they usually learned coding because they wanted to build some game or some other fun app in their teens. Later, they moved to solving other problems which they were more or less excited about and which they ended up making money with. But I just never saw the point of building an app for a company.

This has changed now — at least partly.

I still do not want to code for companies but I want to help those institutions and people who I think can really gain from the new technology. These people are found in the public sector, if you want to use that very general term. Now you might think like “hey, is she starting some advertising for her services now?” No, I am just being honest; I am sharing what is happening. When you are still a one-woman company, you cannot separate your inner growth from your company growth. This shift towards seeing the problems of the public sector and actually helping with tech solutions has really changed everything now — I mean, at least concerning my tech plans. Now, I know which problems I can solve with what technology. Hacking will never be my biggest strength, but at least, I am lot closer to actually doing it instead of just observing, understanding, and writing about it.

When I say “hacking” now, of course, there is a difference between coding and hacking. But I will write more about that difference some other time. What struck me when I first started working in the tech scene, and this has never left me sinc, is the feeling of community. I know that this is the case for many people in the startup crowd, that the first thing that got them hooked up was this feeling to finally have found a “home” in which they feel comfortable among like-minded ‘weirdos.’ It was kind of the same thing for me but still different because I saw myself as a tech-interested person but not a “techie” myself. I think, what I am describing here now is that this is actually changing. It feels quite awesome because I have no idea where this is taking me but I am excited it is happening.

All this made me think of Ullman’s book today. I think, I read it many years ago because I wanted to write a research proposal about it. I never did so but I still read the book and also taught it a while ago. Close to the Machine really is the impression I got from the book. You read about someone who is closer to machines than to humans at times. This might sound quite weird but it is not weird at all. Even back then when I read it I could immediately identify with her. After all, as a writer, the thing that I identify most with, among the many other roles I sometimes take on, is this almost physical relationship with my laptop and the keyboard. I love touching the keys and listening to the sound. I remember I already loved this when I got my first computer at the age of 12 or so.

So, tech women like Ullman share this “intimate” relationship with technology and the excitement that goes along with it. It is a calm excitement, I would say, of being in flow. Of course, the fact that Ullman is a woman also plays a role why I bought it. I had the intention back then to write more about women in IT but then I somehow got sick of all the talking about women’s issues and simply decided to act and become a woman entrepreneur myself to implement the solutions that others only talk about. Still, now that so much has changed with respect to my own identification with the tech world, I might give it another try to look more closely in some of the difficulties women are facing in tech. But let us look at Ullman now.

My Learnings

“Some part of me mourns but I know there is no other way: human needs must cross the line into code.” This line is so powerful to me right now, I cannot even describe it properly. Well, since this is a blog, I will try. The point is: The book is from 1997 — are you getting it? Almost one generation ago, Ullman wrote this (probably a lot earlier because books take time to get published). So, at the time, it was even less common for women to be part of the tech scene but it was even less common to link human needs to code. This is exactly the powerful thing that you start seeing when you get into tech.

Ullman’s book talks a lot about the supposed dichotomy of human versus machine. But really, at least this is how I remember her story, you start understanding how the two start blending as soon as you really start understanding tech; even managing code. After all, tech is about human needs — the technology is what makes human life easier. All inventions of history were made with this goal in mind. Unfortunately, destructive weapon technology, of course, misses that point. And I am not even saying that every programmer has “humanity” on his radar all the time. But when you read a book like this, by someone with tech expertise, you slowly start getting how the two — humans and machines — actually need each other. Without the needs of the human, there would be no point in building tech.

Of course, if you love tech, I mean, on a personal level, there is also this other meaning of “needs.” Just think of the things you love doing — if someone took them away from you (writing, reading, handicrafts, whatever…) you would end up with unsatisfied needs. Hence, building tech can turn into a need and this is also how you gradually feel closer and closer to machines. Obviously, the narrative also describes how “boundary-crossing” this process is; to leave the territory of human emotion and whatever “disorder” there is in order to end up with clean code. But you know what? I can totally understand it, I share it, it feels great.

This is also the aspect that I think is one of the biggest obstacles in the digital revolution right now. We still have this barrier between techies and non-techies. I myself was very frustrated at times when I did not understand how tech-minded people were communicating with “us,” the more emotional and socially-focused people. It is not that tech people are not seeing all these human needs. The point is: They have already transcended seeing them by moving towards building a solution for human suffering in code. For sure, this does not apply to everyone but it is something that you have to understand if you want to understand tech and the people that build it.

Of course, when looking at the entire passage above from today’s perspective, it is so striking to read that Ullman wrote about an “epidemic” already. In her case, she referred to a software they were building to help AIDS patients. But is it not so telling that now, more than 20 years after, we are in the middle of a global pandemic and again, it is a new technology that is at least signaling a way out? mRNA, the technology that the vaccine developed in Germany is based on, was just discovered or rather described for the first time a few years before Ullman’s book came out. Nobody would have thought that a new global pandemic (after AIDS) would hit the world in just a few decades. Still, it is technology that is saving us now. And this is what technology is all about — helping humanity move forward, even saving humanity in a way.

Actually, as a “good” scholar, I should have defined the term technology at the very outset. But I am not writing as a scholar on this blog. I am writing as a writer, as a thinking human being on her way to discovering a world that was formerly hidden from my sight, at least largely. So, obviously, I have not written much about the fact that Ullman is a woman in tech in this post, mostly because I do not even remember that much about this particular issue from her book. What I do want to point out today is that I have come to realize one thing fairly recently that I simply had not seen before: (digital) technology, i.e., “the application of science” (American Heritage Dictionary) is power. Women need it in order to advance in this world — everywhere in the world. And if I happen to master more of this art myself, I feel it is my duty to pass it on — in writing and other deeds. I want to be able to turn needs into code. As Ullman writes:

“There is no other way.”

Reflection Questions

1) Did you ever think of becoming a technologist when you were a child? What was the motive?

2) Would you ever read a book about technology because it was written by a woman? Why?

3) Do you usually trust new technologies or are you rather a “wait and see” person?

Founder & CEO of Companypoets