Ellen Ullman, software engineer
and author, gives a brilliant description of the coding urge in the opening
chapter of her autobiographical book Close to the Machine:Technophilia
and its Discontents:
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 te red pulse no-time feels
right, like a read-out of our brains, which have somehow sychronized themselves
at the same blink rate.
"But what if they select all the text and-"
"Damn! The NULL Case!"
"And if weíre not out of the text field and they hit space-"
"yeah, like for-"
"So what if we space-pad?"
"I donít knowÖ. Wait a minute!"
"Yeah, we could space-pad-"
"-and do space as numeric."
"Yes! Weíll call SendKey(space) to-?"
"-the numeric object."
"My God! That fixes it!"
"Yeah! Thatíll work if-"
"-space is numeric!"
"-if space is numeric!"
We lock eyes. We barely breathe. For a slim moment we are together
in a universe where two human beings can understand the statement "if space
is numeric!" (Ullman, 1-2)
There are obviously many differences between this account and Joseph
Weizenbaum's theories of the compulsive programmer.
Most significantly, Ullman is not describing programming as a solitary
act. Rather, it is a transcendant experience, one which allows people to
connect consciousness on levels that are not otherwise possible. This joining,
this union is obviously a strength to the programmer. Not only can programmers
in a team solve things collectively, but they can serve as a system of
checks and balances to make sure none of Weizenbaum's sweeping frantic
last-second revisions happen. Still, like all things it has a downside.
Ullman quickly points out the price people pay for these incredible connections:
Here, in that place, we have no shame. He has seen me sleeping
on the floor, drooling. Weíve both seen Dannyís puffy white midsectionóyoung
as he is, itís a pityówhen he stripped to his underwear in the heat of
the machine room. I have seen Joelís dandruff, light coating of cat fur
on his clothes, noticed things about his body I should not. And Iím sure
heís seen my sticky hair, noticed how dull I look without make-up, caught
sight of other details too intimate to mention. Still, none of this matters
anymore. Our bodies were abandoned long ago, reduced to hunger and sleeplessness
and the ravages of sitting for hours at a keyboard and a mouse. Our physical
selves have been battered away. Now we no each other in one way and one
way only: the code. (Ullman, 3-4)
This attitude is eerily reminiscent of that of Gibson's character Case.
Gibson, however, also portrays programming as a solitary activity with
an emphasis on self-accomplishment and competition. To Ullman, programming
is not addictive because she can force her will on the computer, but rather
because of the connections and relationships it allows her to form with
other people. The machine is just a medium for a achieving this goal, a
hub to bring experts at a similar trade together. In fact, I'm pretty sure
the same thing could happen any time a group of plumbers with true expertise
got together to work on a tricky project, or chemists, or mathematicians,
or any number of experts in just about any field. Yet Ullman has an answer
for everything, and later in the book points this out:
In the middle of the demo I realized how fortunate we were to be
engineers. How lucky for us to be people who built things and took satisfaction
from humming machines and running programs. We certainly wouldn't mind
if the company went public and we all got fabulously rich. But the important
thing was right in front of us. We had strate the with some scratchings
on a whiteboard and built this: this operational program, this functional
thing. (Ullman, 173)
Ullman has hit the nail right on the head: there is something different
about machines. They are entirely our creation, crafted to our molds, honed
to our standards of precision. Through them we exercise a sort of control
on the universe. They make sense, and probably will continue to make sense
indefinitely. They are predicable and controllable, and our mutual abilities
to predict and control them bring us together on an equal footing in a
way few things can. They're not perfect, of course, not by any means. But,
then again, neither is the world, and maybe through machines we can bring
a little more perfection into it. Don't these sound like motivations we
can all understand?
authored by firstname.lastname@example.org