Before my wife gifted me a copy of her book Life in Code for Christmas, I’d never heard of Ellen Ullman despite her long, impressive career as a programmer, software engineer, and author. Turns out, I’ve been missing out on one our the sharpest and most insightful writers on tech, culture, and feminism. Ullman is witty and broadly experienced, and has a terrific voice that flits between amusing and professionally rich without batting an eye. I know who Ullman is now, and, boy am I sorry it took me so long to find her.
(And major thanks to my wife for putting in work and research to find an absolute GEM of a book.)
Life in Code is a collection of Ullman’s essays ranging from the late ’90s to days after the 2017 US presidential inauguration. Posited as an auto-biographical account of her experience as a woman in a male-dominated industry and culture, Life is Code is also a biography of technology and web culture over the past 20 years. It’s a detailed, real-time look at all the mistakes we’ve made as we’ve chased the ghost in the machine and the allure of fast, endless capital at the expense of privacy and social safety nets.
Ullman is a gifted writer and storyteller who ably weaves her personal experiences into larger cultural narratives. She turns insightful and complex examinations of feminism, tech, culture, and politics into narratives with a definable heartbeat, full of heart and sharp intelligence. It’s rare to find such a combination of knowledge, experience, opinion, and pure readability from an author, but Ullman has it all. Not only is Life in Code fascinating for its perspective, it’s also impossible to put down.
I couldn’t help myself, and quoted the book quite extensively on Twitter, and I’m going to do the same here:
(Click the tweet above to find a thread with several passages from Life in Code. They’re well worth reading.)
Ullman was discussing ideas that most mainstream tech writers weren’t talking about until after the 2016 US presidential election and the subsequent blowback from Christopher Wylie’s whistleblowing on Cambridge Analytica’s data collection and manipulation. Though the essays span over 20 years, Ullman’s older essays are not out-of-date in any way. Rather, they’re prescient and damming indictments that if only we’d listened to her 20 years ago we might not be in our current mess.
Life in Code covers a history of modern technology, from the early days of programming in the late ’70s to the abuse of technology and surveillance by bad faith governments to manipulate the news we consume, the votes we cast, and the cultural movements we live within. Ullman explores these vast complexities in a relatively slim volume with a personal perspective that comes from her experience across many facets of the industry that has changed the world in the 20th century. Life in Code is a must-read for anyone interested in how technology has shaped our lives, and Ullman is one of the sharpest and most predictive writers on the subject.
I didn’t know who Ellen Ullman was before I picked up her book, but now I do, and she’s changed the way I think about technology and the web.