#NonficNov Review: Life in Code

November 19, 2017 Uncategorized 3 ★★★★★

#NonficNov Review: Life in CodeTitle: Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology
Author: Ellen Ullman

Summary: I loved both learning about computer history from someone who lived it and hearing Ullman’s thoughts on the role of technology in society.

The sub-title of this book, ‘A Personal History of Technology’ describes the contents perfectly. This is a history of the computer science industry from someone who was part of many of the iconic moments of that history. The essays in this collection cover classic computer history and timeless meditations on the role of technology in our lives. Dates at the beginning of each essay indicating when they were written made them even more meaningful by providing context.

I can’t say enough good things about this collection of essays. I loved hearing Ullman’s first person accounts of seminal moments in computer science history . The introduction of linux, the dot com bubble burst, and the y2k panic made for particularly enjoyable reading. Her description of using a mainframe wasn’t tied to a specific event, but was also a cool glimpse into computer science history. Other essays were amazingly timely or prescient. Essays in this category include one focused on how the leveling power of the internet makes it harder to distinguish trustworthy sources Another talked about the way the internet can (for better or worse) take the vendor out of sales transactions.

I found the bits about the frat boy culture of tech interesting (and they certainly made me appreciate the welcoming culture at my company even more). However, I think reviews that focus on Ullman’s relation of the sexism she experienced do this book a disservice. These essays are, of course, grounded in Ullman’s experience as a woman in tech, but they’re also a brilliant, insightful survey of computer science history that’s largely independent of her gender. Her musings on AI, the role of technology in our lives, and our constant optimism about technology blew me away. She has clearly thought deeply about these topics and comes across as extremely knowledgeable.

I enjoyed the sections that included more of her personal perspective as well. Her personal experience of coding, which seems to involve more of an obsessive drive and desire to be left alone than I experience, was fascinating to read about. Her perspective on the relative valuation of engineers based on the type of coding they do was likewise interesting, despite being an imperfect match for my experiences. Her first experience with Linux was a particular pleasure to read about. The excitement she felt at being able to completely control her operating system showed a delightful sense of fun. Her complaints about how other operating systems and coding interfaces mean kids these days don’t even have to know html were equally delightful in a curmudgeonly way.

For anyone who is interested in computer science, this should be required reading. It was an incredible history of the field and a thought-provoking examination of the both the role of computer science in society and the social mores of computer scientists. Highly recommended.

3 Responses to “#NonficNov Review: Life in Code”

  1. Lou

    A lot of my good friends are computer scientists, and although I know relatively little about the subject, my interest has been piqued through conversations with them over the past few years. This sounds like a great book for me (this might also become a secondary Christmas gift for my mum, who trained as a computer scientist in the 70s before becoming a teacher). Thank you so much for your review!

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