Ellen Ullman's latest book, A Life in Code, relays her experience through many of our major cultural tech moments: Y2K, the rise (and fall, and rise, and fall) of artificial intelligence, the emergence of the Internet, and the runaway growth of Silicon Valley over the past two decades. Ullman insists she is only a programmer, but she is also a sharp observer of Silicon Valley culture. Ullman's view as a woman on the inside of tech is incredibly rare, but her ability to remain within the system for decades without letting it consume her is still rarer.
While Silicon Valley abhors pessimism, Ullman reminds us that sometimes positivity about new possibilities is the result of an incredibly narrow view. It takes an expansive imagination or even just a willingness to explore different perspectives and walks of life, to see how good intentions can actually hurt without consideration for people who may lead different lives than the standard white, male tech-company founder. Ullman possesses both the imagination and willingness, and as events in our lives like the 2016 election and the carriage of justice and racial violence become inextricable from the bleeding technological edges, her perspective will only become more crucial.
Casey Johnston: You talk a lot about disintermediation, or the notion that people come to distrust "middlemen" in all kinds of transactions, including informational middlemen like journalists. The greatest example of someone who discredits middlemen, including the media, is our current president. The Internet provides a lot of access to information, but it doesn't tell you who is right or who is worth listening to. How do you think this phase ends? Do you think society has to collapse first?
Ellen Ullman: I saw this happening as early as 1998. So it's not like this is brand new. Once the web came on, it's like, Well, you don't need any intermediary. It's like this arrow that got shot in the air, and rose very high, and fell right at the feet of Donald Trump. Whatever you think about Donald Trump, one must look at the fact that one of the most powerful people on earth has a tool that he uses to go over the head of everybody: his assistants, his aides, the entire structure of the government. He mistrusts all of the security administrations: the NSA, the FBI, never mind the news. So it is a scary tool in this instance.
But in general, that's what it can be used for. It's not evil. People start these conversations, and that's fine, they're good, they're fun. I mean, technology can give you a lot of fun; programming is an art, and I'm still excited about it. But I try to have a balanced view. This love should be complicated. After the election of Trump, subscriptions to the New York Times digital edition went way up, so it shows you that there exists a great number of people who are hungry for the truth. The Washington Post has now on its masthead: "Democracy dies in darkness." The New York Times just had "Trump's Lies". His supporters believe him. They believe that mainstream media is fake news. Now you just get on the web and anything you want to believe, you can find support for. It breaks down the notion of culture.
Are we going to go back to something else? I can't tell you that. The Internet is a tool, and it has great power at this point. It has an existence of its own that human beings have adopted in certain ways, but millions of users on the Internet, billions, change the situation.