the system

My friend and colleague Scott deLahunta suggested not so long ago that I might be interested in Ellen Ullman’s 1997 book Close to the Machine.1 It’s a great read, and surprisingly relevant given how much the internet and technology has changed since the late 90s.

Here she is talking about the system:

I remembered the first time I saw a system infect its owner. It was early in my career, at my first software company. I had just installed a new system at the offices of a small business in Central California. … The company’s employees had been there for ten and twenty years, particularly the women, mostly clerical workers. They were the ones who would be most affected by the new system, yet they went about learning it with a homey cheerfulness that surprised me.

The installation went smoothly. Later, after the women returned from training, I visited the office again. The business owner, an apparently good-natured Rotarian, was heartily pleased with his new computer. He insisted upon taking me out to dinner. … I thought I was going to get through the evening pleasantly. But just after we ordered dessert, Mr. Banner leaned over to me and asked, Can you keep track of keystrokes?”

To keep keystrokes? I don’t know off hand. But why? Why would you want to do that?” William Banner dug into his ice cream, which had just been put down before him. Well, take Mary. I’d like to know everything that Mary does in a day.” Mary was the receptionist and general office manager. She was William Banner’s oldest employee, twenty-six years. As I recalled, Mary knew everyone of the company’s clients by name. For the first several years of her employment, when Mr. Banner’s kids were small, she used to pick them up from school, take them home, and pour them milk. But why do you want to keep on eye on Mary? She’s doing very well with the system. I mean, is there a problem?” Oh, no. No problem,” said William Banner, but, you know.. .. Well, I’m just curious. All those years she’s been out there running things, and now I can find out exactly what she does.” So you want to know about Mary just because you can?” I asked. William Banner swirled his ice cream around like a kid, then licked a big wad off his spoon. Hmm. That’s it, I suppose. The way I look at it, I’ve just spent all this money on a system, and now I get to use it the way I’d like to.”

Keystroke monitoring. It’s a bad idea. The system is a tool to help people do their work, not a watchdog. If people feel they are being watched, they put their creative energies into hiding things.” Oh, well, that’s possible. But when I saw the system running, I thought to myself, I bet this thing can tell me what everyone is up to all day.’”

The system was installed, it ran, and it spoke to him: you can know every little thing you always wanted to know. You can keep an eye on the woman you trusted to pick up your kids from kindergarten. You can count every keystroke, and you want to count them simply because it’s possible. You own the system, it’s your data, you have power over it; and, once the system gives you this power, you suddenly can’t help yourself from wanting more.

I’d like to think that computers are neutral, a tool like any other, a hammer that can build a house or smash a skull. But there is something in the system itself, in the formal logic of programs and data, that recreates the world in its own image. Like the rock-and-roll culture, it forms an irresistible horizontal country that obliterates the long, slow, old cultures of place and custom, law and social life. We think we are creating the system for our own purposes. We believe we are making it in our own image. We call the microprocessor the brain”; we say the machine has memory.” But the computer is not really like us. It is a projection of a very slim part of ourselves: that portion devoted to logic, order, rule, and clarity. It is as if we took the game of chess and declared it the highest order of human existence.

We place this small projection of ourselves all around us, and we make ourselves reliant on it. To keep information, buy gas, save money, write a letter — we can’t live without it any longer. The only problem is this: the more we surround ourselves with a narrowed notion of existence, the more narrow existence becomes. 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.

  1. Ellen Ullman (1997). Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its Discontents. San Francisco: City Lights Books, pages 85-90 (abridged)↩︎

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