“Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its Discontents” by Ellen Ullman (1997)

Close to the machine Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its DiscontentsEllen Ullman; City Lights Books 1997WorldCatRead OnlineLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder

Ten years ago I took my first real job as a computer programmer. Perhaps three weeks later I picked up a book, The Philosophical Programmer by Daniel Kohanski. Title notwithstanding, it is not a very philosophical book. Today I work as an IT Architect for a multinational corporation. There is still something that draws me toward technology, just as there is still discontent which I seek to understand. In 2002, I read a better book, Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its Discontents by Ellen Ullman. Written in 1997, it is a better book because Ullman tells a personal story of her seduction to technology, the swoon of power, the impact on her relationships, and her eventual disillusionment.

Computers offer a cool alternate reality. Programming takes one into a transcendental zone like mathematics, where reality is symbolic and gritty human particulars don’t matter. Programmers are seduced by complete creative control of their little worlds. Others admire and reward their activity. Occupying this virtual reality is not just tempting but probable since software systems require constant attention. A system is never finished. When I first started programming, I worried that it was putting people out of jobs. I was wrong. It changes their jobs. It is equally worrisome. Everyone winds up making concessions to the bugs and the system. Soon it becomes tautological — a new bigger system is required. The logic of the system is self-sustaining, sucking everyone in, changing them to suit its needs. “Our accommodations begin simply with small workarounds, just to avoid the bugs: ‘We just don’t put in those dates!’ … We conform to the range of motion the system allows. We must be more orderly, more logical. Answer the question, Yes or No, OK or Cancel.”

It is in Ullman’s account of users that I know she gets my angst. “The world as humans understand it and the world as it must be explained to computers come together in the programmer in a strange state of disjunction.” Every twist a user’s mind might invent must be anticipated. Other kinds of design, e.g., elevator design, must also anticipate user actions, but not for the purpose of replacing human thought. People want software so they don’t have to think through data processing tasks. The coder is building technology to replace human thought, and with little to no room for uncertainty. Where a user might generalize a concept or fudge the numbers, the code is exacting and demands precise resolution. Design analysis forces users to understand their thinking, perhaps for the first time. It is a painstaking process. Most often, the design documents blur over the dicult ideas, and it is finnally up to the programmer to resolve human thought.

Computer programming in a standard business application context has about five years of juice in it. There are many interesting nuances, but in the end it just comes down to data and rules for processing it. The technology keeps getting repackaged in new forms, and it is not a trivial matter to keep up with it. “It had to happen to me sometime: sooner or later I would have to lose sight of the cutting edge. That moment every technical person fears — the fall into knowledge exhaustion, obsolescence, techno-fuddy-duddyism — there was no reason to think I could escape it forever.” The fact that I cannot write code forever brings a smile to my face. To stay in the business one has to find new juice: the intellectual challenge of the problems, the intimacy of analyzing thought, the desire to make life genuinely better for others. As always, human relations trump the thrills of technology.

[Originally posted on this site on 2011-01-15]

Introverts have Psychic Powers, it Seems

Extroverts own the world, it seems. Natural talkers, they think out loud, enlisting the best minds and hearts to their cause. They may lead out of their depth but all adventure entails risk. Extroverts are comfortable in company and the world, fish in water, easily the centre of attention and recipients of loyalty. All people suffer anxiety but extroverts are not lost to it. The world belongs to all its inhabitants but extroverts are naturally sovereign.

Introverts have psychic powers, it seems. Introverts read people’s minds by attention to facial micro-expressions and body language, interpolating what people do not say. This data can be misread, but it works more often than not. Introverts know the future by orchestrating a complex model of cause and effect in their minds, bolstering it with a rich mental catalogue of similar past events. Be mindful of the secret powers of introverts.

Technology is a Pernicious Rabbit Hole

One rainy Sunday afternoon in 1983 my sister invited me to play a board game, Payday. I gruffly declined. A month earlier it might have been the perfect diversion but something new had clamped my interest, a Radio Shack TRS-80 MC-10. Smaller than other personal computers it was all I could afford on my newspaper route savings. A black and white television served as a monitor and a cassette recorder for data storage. With the 16KB memory expansion and reference book in hand, I was programming a digital Yahtzee. I had already programmed the rolling dice and was now feverishly working on the scoring. My sister chided me for spending all my time on the computer.

The expression, rabbit hole, comes from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Alice is bored until she spots a rabbit wearing a waistcoat and pocket watch, talking to itself. Curious, she follows it into a rabbit hole and falls into a fantasy world of strange creatures and twisted logic. In the end Alice grows in size and plucks up the courage to challenge the king and queen of hearts, calling them out as just playing cards. Alice’s sister wakes her up. It was a dream.

Carroll’s book was published in 1865. My modern rabbit hole is technology. Originally interested in language and literature, I was curious about the new phenomenon of the personal computer. I took high school computer courses. I played with them. I went to university for a psychology degree but in the late eighties computers were everywhere. The school computer lab had Apple IIe desktops and mainframe clients. I acquired a 14.4k modem with which I could submit statistics jobs, send email, and browse discussion boards. After graduating I worked in social services for a few years and managed to skip Windows 3.1 entirely. A later job in health research had me grinding numbers on spreadsheets, juicing my programming chops. One Visual Basic certification later I was qualified for nifty, good paying programming jobs. Scooped by IBM I began a lifelong career in information technology.

A corporate information technology department is a world of strange creatures. Alice (yes, like in Wonderland) was gifted with code but had no clue when to start or stop speaking. David was a well-adjusted college kid who could care less about code but liked the money. Helen was a middle-aged tester who resented our kind for taking her old job. I had an affinity for the book nerds. We liked reading, libraries, bicycles and public radio. Skilled with stories and a keyboard, most of us had tried our hand at creating a computer text adventure.

I had spells where I felt I had missed my original calling as a writer, librarian or psychologist. It was not that I disliked technology. Early on it was stimulating to learn the deep knowledge of how the computer world hung together. Analyzing software requirements was a bit like psychoanalysis, asking workers to explain behaviours they performed unconsciously. I enjoyed the zen state of coding, suspending the outside world, tracking a dozen variables in my head, coordinating the moving pieces as I wrote thousands of lines of code. I worked with teams that built four major software systems and dozens of smaller ones, still used worldwide today. It is likely that you have used my code. I still take pride in that. But I always expected to make an exit from the technology rabbit hole. It did not happen.

I became a strange creature. It was a daily battle, spending my best creative resources to increase the quarterly profits of banks, pharmaceuticals and manufacturers. We worked the mythical man month, too many people grinding out code too late at night and too long into the weekend. I smoked and drank. I ate badly and got no exercise. My theme song came from What’s Up by 4 Non Blondes, “And I try, oh my god do I try, I try all the time, in this institution. And I pray, oh my god do I pray, I pray every single day, for a revolution.” I suppose I was hoping for a political and economic revolution that would upend the necessity of my job, but the revolution I got was technological, the rise of cell phones and the Internet. At first, having a cell phone made me sleep better. If it was not ringing I knew everything was okay. The Internet made me smarter, no question, being able to google coding questions and learn new skills. But cell phones and the internet also meant I could be found anytime, and I could work from anywhere. Early adopters, we were assimilated into the borg.

Seven years into the rabbit hole there was a moment of light. Randy was the sort of manager who disillusioned young new employees. Forget innovation and invention, Randy would say. Business applications are meatball programming. Maybe Randy was struggling too. One day he said something unexpected, that an employee needs to be comfortable in his or her own skin to be of any real value to the company. A little harsh, a lot true. I had always been uncomfortable in my skin. I made a business case to fund a Master of Library and Information Science. I used technical terms, like usability and information architecture. Randy approved it.

I imagined that library school would lead to a comfortable job reading books, but the digital revolution was in full swing for libraries too. It may not be obvious, but librarians and technologists do the same thing, organize information. Databases, markup, boolean search: all old news in libraries but digital tools make them fast. Today’s libraries are fast places solving interesting problems; my technology skills were a hot commodity. It worked for everybody. I wrote open source code for libraries, published in technology journals, and patented an invention for IBM. I finished my part-time degree in 2010. There were good library prospects but now IBM upped the ante. Until this time, most technology required that its data be normalized, that is, structured into neat columns and tables for databases. Unstructured data was considered second class, the loose insides of documents and books, best left to librarians. This all changed when IBM faced off its Watson supercomputer against the world’s best Jeopardy players. Watson measured its data in books, unstructured data. It beat the human champs easily using natural language processing. It was the ultimate librarian. I was offered a job in IBM Watson Group and I took it.

Technology is a pernicious rabbit hole, with enough intellectual and economic rewards to keep me there. My final chapter with IBM came after a failed attempt to create a partnership between Watson Group and the Digital Humanist researchers. In library school I had become familiar with the Digital Humanists, academics who specialize in understanding the algorithms of reading. They only lacked computer resources. Watson Group had the resources but needed insight into machine reading challenges. A perfect match it seemed. As I mentioned, it is not always obvious to get two groups to see their shared concern. Had I succeeded I am sure I would have stayed with IBM for life, but the partnership failed, mostly around fears about intellectual property rights. There was nothing more I could do. There was nothing left to interest me. I was offered a pile of money to stay but I was done. Do not mistake this conclusion as my victory over the rabbit hole. I took another job at a small local firm. I work at a civilized pace, live healthy and teach a fitness class. I deliberately avoid writing code but I still work in technology. In the end, people are what they do, and I am technologist. I live in a rabbit hole. I suppose I am a rabbit.

When it comes to adventure a “rabbit-hole” has three things: falling, strangeness, and change

When it comes to adventure a “rabbit-hole” has three things: falling, strangeness, and change. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, Alice is bored when she spots the white rabbit and follows it. She then suddenly falls a long way down the rabbit-hole. The fall is unexpected. In The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, the wizard Gandalf invites Bilbo on a quest. Bilbo declines, “We don’t want any adventures here, thank you!”

We must fall into adventure because we are comfortable. A hobbit-hole has paneled walls and tiled floors and carpet. Comfy. Other holes are at best dry, bare and sandy. A rabbit-hole is often nasty, dirty and wet. To “go down a rabbit hole” means discomfort, a trip into the unknown and the strange. Alice encounters a world of talking animals and twisted logic. Bilbo faces hungry trolls, fierce wood-elves and a dragon. It takes a fall to dislodge the adventurer.

The strangeness of the rabbit-hole makes it difficult to get out. The adventurer must change. In the The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo’s nephew, Frodo, and his friends also go on epic adventures. Frodo and Sam set out to destroy a magic ring. Frodo returns home physically and psychologically injured but Sam grows strong. Sam musters the courage to propose to Rosie Cottonwood. Merry and Pippin rally the Ents against Saruman and enlist in the War of the Ring. They return taller and braver, rallying troops to restore their home. Alice too finds courage to stand up to the King and Queen.

Merry joins the army of Rohan as esquire to King Theodin. Pippin volunteers his service to Denethor, the Steward of Gondor. I have a personal story about joining the army, though not nearly so epic or brave as that of the hobbits. In 1985, my hobbit-hole was a little house with my parents in small-town Ontario. I was graduating with straight A’s in arts, maths and sciences. I was a prime target for the Canadian Armed Forces recruiters. They made a good pitch: travel, a university degree, all expenses paid. I fell for it.

I was sent to Chilliwack BC for Officer Training. Head shaved, I woke early every day for inspection and exercise. We marched between classes, saluting and following the chain of command. Now, this is not a story about the hazing of a new recruit, nor did I suffer any abuse at the hands of my trainers. I was in the Canadian Armed Forces, a civilized institution with decent beds and good food. I was in Officer Candidate School, and that meant some respect. This is a story about a young man out of his comfort zone.

The warrant officer was an old bear, the sergeant a weasel. While others seemed to be adapting I would stay up late to read and smoke and think. Exhausted I got strange. I recall dusting out the room’s heating vents for fear the sergeant would inspect them. Beneath the vent covers a heating pipe trailed away like a rabbit-hole. It was in weapons class one day that I realized I had to leave. Rifles mounted on our shoulders, the captain barked out a question, “The commies are coming over the hill, what do you do?” The assumed answer, “shoot,” galled me. The Berlin Wall would not fall for another four years but the Soviets were not our enemy. If I let this assumption breach my ethical walls I would lose myself, so I thought.

It was relatively easy to get out of the Armed Forces, but my rabbit-hole was more complicated. After requesting my exit, I returned to my quarters, went into the shower for privacy, and bawled my eyes out. Knowing I could leave, I had to face the fact that I had failed. I would later feel ashamed in front of my family. My mother had cried with my departure on the train as if I was going overseas to war, yet here I was back already. I felt small with my friends. “Couldn’t take it, huh?” For years I dreamed about it. At first I had nightmares that I was back in the Army, failing all over again. Later I dreamed that I was in the army but I was coping, even helping others. Finally, years later, I dreamed I was thriving. The dreams stopped. Like Alice, I awoke to find myself out of the rabbit-hole.

Some might say that Armed Forces training is implicitly harsh. I suppose that was true for me, a nineteen-year-old sheltered introvert, but I maintain no complaint. I met many fine people. There was the former Army Cadet who did everything so easily, quietly giving me tips — psst you have shaving cream on your ear. A kind army psychologist met with me to ensure I was not being mistreated. He encouraged me to continue but accepted my decision. I was given an honourable discharge. As I left a cute Dutch girl called to me from the barracks, grow your curly locks! I did. There was lasting positive change. I learned I could accomplish more in a day than I ever thought possible. I recommend the army experience for some, especially clever youths who are just a bit too comfortable.

After Reading is a Trip Down a Rabbit Hole

As a kid I raised rabbits. I liked to draw them too. The introvert in me has an affinity for rabbits. Rabbits are weak on earth, but fast to burrow down a hole and traverse the underworld, just like an introvert on a psychological journey.

As an adult I generally avoid rabbit holes. It is too easy to lose perspective. There are many kinds of rabbit holes: a programmer lost in code, a writer fumbling with words, a thinker tangling with ideas. Code, words, ideas: they are bottomless pits. The trap is detail. Fancy oneself an artist perfecting an offering and there is no end.

This work, After Reading, is a trip down a rabbit hole, a psychological journey. The trip begins with books, traces a way through the internet, and then deals with the subject of machine life. It is a strange journey, a rabbit hole, but there is a natural end. We travel to the end of books, and code, and language, and thought. At the end of thought there are no details left to perfect. At the end there is a gate, a way out of the rabbit hole. I hope you come along.

Books have Binding, but Reading Slips Through

Books try to bind knowledge but reading has never been fixed. Books are an assembly of numbered pages, bound and covered. You can hold a book in your hand, a prop in a play. Slide it into a slot on a shelf to sleep. Fixity has its merits. I can cite facts by page numbers that won’t change with the font size. The white space of a print page helps me remember the text. The white space of a web page is a spinning arrow as it loads, a status bar of an an email scan or a download in progress. A book has weight but open a million and we all can read. Open a million copies of a website and it crashes.

Yet reading itself has no binding. We imagine that we share the minds of writers and other readers but every reading is different. Reading has a history, says Robert Darnton, that is, it is not fixed. A reading of Ovid by the wife of a Roman patrician two thousand years ago is a different thing than a reading today. Reading served different purposes at different times. In the age of Luther it provided access to absolute truths. In the eighteenth century religious reading declined and people wanted to read novels, travel books and natural history. Today we read tweets. Even for one reader, a second reading is new. Re-reading a book gives the vertigo of time and perspective. Books have binding, but reading slips through.

“The born contemplative has to face the struggle for existence and social predominance without protection” — Huxley

The lack of a suitable vocabulary and an adequate frame of reference, and the absence of any strong and sustained desire to invent these necessary instruments of thought here are two sufficient reasons why so many of the almost endless potentialities of the human mind remained for so long unactualized. Another and, on its own level, equally cogent reason is this: much of the world’s most original and fruitful thinking is done by people of poor physique and of a thoroughly unpractical turn of mind. Because this is so, and because the value of pure thought, whether analytical or integral, has everywhere been more or less clearly recognized, provision was and still is made by every civilized society for giving thinkers a measure of protection from the ordinary strains and stresses of social life. The hermitage, the monastery, the college, the academy and the research laboratory; the begging bowl, the endowment, patronage and the grant of taxpayers’ money such are the principal devices that have been used by actives to conserve that rare bird, the religious, philosophical, artistic or scientific contemplative. In many primitive societies conditions are hard and there is no surplus wealth. The born contemplative has to face the struggle for existence and social predominance without protection. The result, in most cases, is that he either dies young or is too desperately busy merely keeping alive to be able to devote his attention to anything else. When this happens the prevailing philosophy will be that of the hardy, extraverted man of action.

— Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy

Are You a Reader-Seeker?

Are you a reader, bone and sinew? Do you read with a mission, seeking answers to difficult questions? Are you a Reader-Seeker?

Are you a pilgrim, a John Bunyan? Reading, it seems, saves you from terrible solitude. The reading does not save you. You must learn to read again, a second literacy. This second kind is not what a child learns, looking at letters, sounding out words. Still every pilgrim begins like a child, innocently, not knowing the dangers ahead. It will take you where you can look at words from the outside. It will break you. Broken, the signal gets in.

Are you an artist, gifted in some way, a poet or writer, a musician or painter? Herman Hesse or Ursula Le Guin? Reading is an art. You apply serious purpose to understand the world. You light up imagination to play with words. No artifact is produced, no painting or sculpture, but like all good art, the act of reading stretches our interiority, our psychological landscape. Maybe your gift is code. You bend the Internet. You are a pirate invading the gated garden to free knowledge for all. You are Aaron Swartz, the Internet’s Own Boy.

Are you Nicholas Carr, critical thinker and contrarian? An academic or digital humanist? A Reader-Seeker is a scientist is the original sense, a truth seeker, not beholden to a career or corporation. She asks questions for which she already knows an answer, testing the hardiness of her knowledge. Are you a librarian? Are you Pico, poet and librarian, forbidden to pursue your love because you do not have wings?

Are you a spiritual warrior, a Dali Lama without enlightenment? Reading is physical work, re-engineering the brain. A Reader-Seeker is aggressive, compelling books to bleed their meaning. She is murderer, killing the author. He is midwife, birthing the reader. The Reader-Seeker is suicidal with intention, sacrificing up the ego, born again a vampire, walking the earth a ghost with truth in hand. You are Jed McKenna.

Come, Reader-Seeker, you belong here for now, reading this work before you. Follow the wiseman’s words until you see what he saw. Mistake the finger for the moon, until you don’t. Your path will take you to the end of books. The answers will fail your questions. It is up to you then to step through the gate gateless. Be warned you may not read again. You will not be denied any book but why read on? Truth is after reading.

I Tried to Walk Away from Lila but Good Ideas are Persistent

Remember Lila? Did you think I had abandoned her? If you did not follow my earlier blog you might be a little confused. Lila is not a live person. Lila was a conceptual design for a “cognitive writing technology,” natural language processing software to aid with reading and writing. It was a complex and consuming project. I tried to walk away from Lila but good ideas are persistent. Below you see a screenshot of a more basic project, a tool for analyzing individual After Reading essays and comparing them to the whole work.

The user interface is comparable to Voyant Tools by Stéfan Sinclair & Geoffrey Rockwell. Lila 0.1 has unique functions:

  1. On a Home screen a user gets to enter an essay. Lila 0.1 is intended to accept the text of individual essays created by me for After Reading. An Analyze button begins the natural language processing that results in the screen above. The text is displayed, highlighting one paragraph at a time as the user scrolls down.
  2. The button set provides four functions. The Home button is for navigation back to the Home screen. The Save button allows the user to save an essay with analytics to a database to build an essay set or corpus. The Documents button navigates to a screen for managing the database. The Settings button navigates to a screen that can adjust configurations for the analytics.
  3. The graph shows the output of natural language processing and analytics for a “Feeling” metric, an aggregate measure based on sentiment, emotion and perhaps other measures. The light blue shows the variance in Feeling across paragraphs. The dark blue straight line shows the aggregate value for the document. The user can see how Feeling varies across paragraphs and in comparison to the whole essay. Another view will allow for comparison of single essays to the corpus.
  4. The user can choose one of several available metrics to be displayed on the graph.
    • Count. The straight count of words.
    • Frequency. The frequency of words.
    • Concreteness. The imagery and memorability of words. A personal favourite.
    • Complexity. Ambiguity or polysemy, i.e., words with multiple meanings. Synonymy or antonmy. A measure of the readability of the text. Complexity can also be measured for sentences, e.g., number of conjunctions, and for paragraphs, e.g, number of sentences.
    • Hyponymy. A measure of the abstraction of words.
    • Metaphor. I am evaluating algorithms that identify metaphors.
    • Form. Various measures are available to measure text quality, e.g., repetition.
    • Readability by grade level.
    • Thematic presence can be measured by dictionary tagging of selected words related to the work’s theme.
  5. All metrics are associated with individuals words. Numeric values will be listed for a subset of the words.
  6. Topic Cloud. A representation of topics in an essay will be shown.

The intention is to help a writer evaluate the literary quality of an essay and compare it to the corpus. A little bit like spell-check and grammar-check, but packed with literary smarts. Where it is helpful to be conscious of conformity and variance, e.g., author voice, Lila can help. It is a modest step in the direction of an artificial intelligence project that will emerge in time. Perhaps one day Lila will live.