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Life in Code

A Personal History of Technology

Ellen Ullman


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ISBN10: 1250181690
ISBN13: 9781250181695

Trade Paperback

320 Pages



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The last twenty years have brought us the rise of the internet, the development of artificial intelligence, the ubiquity of once unimaginably powerful computers, and the thorough transformation of our economy and society. Through it all, Ellen Ullman lived and worked inside that rising culture of technology, and in Life in Codeshe tells the continuing story of the changes it wrought with a unique, expert perspective.

When Ellen Ullman moved to San Francisco in the early 1970s and went on to become a computer programmer, she was joining a small, idealistic, and almost exclusively male cadre that aspired to genuinely change the world. In 1997 Ullman wrote Close to the Machine, the now classic and still definitive account of life as a coder at the birth of what would be a sweeping technological, cultural, and financial revolution.

Twenty years later, the story Ullman recounts is neither one of unbridled triumph nor a nostalgic denial of progress. It is necessarily the story of digital technology’s loss of innocence as it entered the cultural mainstream, and it is a personal reckoning with all that has changed, and so much that hasn’t. Life in Code is an essential text toward our understanding of the last twenty years—and the next twenty.


Praise for Life in Code

"[Life in Code] manages to feel like both a prequel and a sequel to [Close to the Machine] . . . In addition to writing code in multiple computer languages, Ullman has an Ivy League degree in English and knows how to decode her tech-world adventures into accessible narratives for word people . . . The philosophical questions posed—like those on robotics and artificial intelligence— . . . resonate."—J. D. Biersdorfer, The New York Times Book Review

"Life in Code is a consummate insider's take, rich with local color and anecdotes . . . Ullman has a pure passion for computing that doesn't stop her from recognizing all the ways it can isolate and intimidate."—Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly

"What is most engaging about this collection is that Ullman, an expert in the field, allows readers access to sometimes highly technical material, never pandering to the most obvious topics. For example, she does talk about the struggles of women in tech, but doesn't generalize. It would be too simple, too expected to rehash that story line . . ."—Rebekah Miel, Bust

"[Ullman] offers a vivid, gripping window into what it is to be shaped by keyboard characters and machine . . . Ullman relishes tech's beauty while also fearing what it has created."—Jessica Bennett, Elle

“This book is an original. It reads like a memoir, personal and compelling. But it’s also a set of savvy reflections about the unfolding of digital culture as it became mainstream culture and we all learned to live with its aesthetic, values, and politics. Here, nothing about the inevitability or the virtue of these three are taken for granted. The question of our ‘post-humanity’ is tackled as just that, a question for human beings to discuss rather than a technical problem for programmers to dispense with.”—Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together and Reclaiming Conversation

"Ullman maintains a healthy skepticism regarding the notion that technology will cure all that ails us . . . she brilliantly questions the computer’s capacity for sentience."—Ben Segedin, Booklist

Reviews from Goodreads


Read an Excerpt

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About the author

Ellen Ullman

Ellen Ullman wrote her first computer program in 1978. She went on to have a twenty-year career as a programmer and software engineer. Her essays and books have become landmark works describing the social, emotional, and personal effects of technology. She is the author of two novels: By Blood, a New York TimesNotable Book; and The Bug, a runner-up for the Pen/Hemingway Award. Her memoir, Close to the Machine, about her life as a software engineer during the internet's first rise, became a cult classic. Her new book, Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology, tells a continuing story of the technical world as she experienced it while living in its midst for more than two decades. She is based in San Francisco.

Marion Ettlinger