May 3, 2004

Must Programmers be Depressed Asocial Geeks?

by Michael Mateas · , 2:57 pm

Following the advice of Matt Kirschenbaum, I’ve recently read The Bug, Ellen Ullman’s tale of obsessive programming, and the deterioration of a programmer in his year-long quest to fix an elusive bug. Matt includes The Bug on his list of Software Studies readings, and suggested it during our earlier discussion of my class Computation as an Expressive Medium (aka programming for artists). The book does a great job describing how software systems consist of layer upon layer of abstraction, describing the debugging process, and providing a visceral feel for all the computational work that goes into maintaining the abstraction of a graphical interface, all within an engaging story. The book also encapsulates the two cultures battle within the microcosm of a 1980s software company, with highly educated humanists in low-status testing jobs on one side, and narrowly technical, often self-taught (or possessing mere bachelor’s degrees), high-status programmers on the other. The book could nicely complement The New Media Reader readings and Java programming we do within the class.

But what makes me nervous about using the book in my class is the consistently bleak portrayal of the subjective life of the programmer. The two main characters, the programmer Ethan, and the tester Berta, both have dysfunctional, lonely personal lives. Ethan actively drives people away, including destroying his romantic relationships, through his abrasive, unempathetic manner, his constant obsession with programming, and his inferiority complex (which of course manifests as geek hubris). Berta, starting as a non-technical tester (Ph.D. in linguistics from Yale), becomes a programmer through the course of the book, launching her on a successful career of high-tech consulting. But, from her musings in the present (20 years after the main story), we see, looking back on her successful career, that she feels empty and unfulfilled. In the context of a class where I’m introducing people with arts and humanities backgrounds to programming and trying to convey that code is a genuinely expressive medium, a book in which all the people who program lead unhappy, empty lives, disconnected from broader culture and from other people, seems demotivating to say the least. In working with code there is certainly the lure of retreating from the world into a hermetically sealed, private universe over which the programmer can execute almost perfect control. The approach to life depicted in The Bug is the same one that drives Joseph Weizenbaum to despair in Computer Power and Human Reason, as he reflects over the intellectual attitude of many of his MIT students (Weizenbaum is the author of Eliza – in Computer Power and Human Reason he repudiated AI as immoral). One could use the quality of the lives depicted in The Bug as a starting point for discussions about programming culture, different attitudes towards programming, Sherry Turkle’s studies of programmer psychology, and Joseph Weizenbaum’s early critique of computer culture. But I’m worried that, as students struggle with the inevitable frustrations of learning to program, the empty, joyless lives of Ethan and Berta will be far too salient – if that’s the subjective life of the programmer, why would anyone want to learn to program?

4 Responses to “Must Programmers be Depressed Asocial Geeks?”


  1. nick Says:

    Just when you thought the stereotypes of programmers couldn’t get any worse…

  2. Matt K. Says:

    I share those same reservations about the book. It’s a flawed novel–no question–and the skewed portrayal of the programmers (odd since Ullman is herself a long-time programmer) is only one issue. The narrative structure and point of view doesn’t make much sense either, though it’s perhaps obliquely accounted for by the trope of the memory leak. My students had mixed reactions to the book, largely because there were really no sympathetic or likeable characters (Ute, the German sysadmin is about the closest we get to that). Moreover, as Mark Bernstein and others have suggested, Ethan’s behavior bears a strong resemblance to Asperberger’s Syndrome, and if that’s the case then Ullman’s treatment of him borders on the perverse.

    That said, the novel provoked its share of lively discussions, especially in my grad class which is composed entirely of humanities students–some of whom have very deep experiential knowledge of tech culture, and some of whom don’t. The two cultures divide that gets played out through Berta and Ethan opened up a way for us to talk about code literarcy (the divide between those who can and can’t code) in what may have been the most useful and intensive session of the semester. I don’t believe a theoretical or historical reading would have provoked the same response.

    Finally, as Michael notes, the book is unusually eloquent on the minute particulars of coding. Despite the cloying, crushing unhappiness of the characters’ lives, Ullman captures the appeal of programming as world building. When I asked my grad students who wanted to go out and learn to code, I think every hand in the room went up. And I know at least one of them has followed through. Maybe some folks from ENGL 668 or 467, if they’re reading, can chime in.

  3. michael Says:

    I’m glad to hear that the book did provoke intense discussion. The appeal of world building, and crossing the two culture divide are two topics I’ve tried to engage in class discussion before using historical and theoretical readings – sounds like The Bug successfully sparked that discussion. If I wasn’t also trying to teach programming at the same time, I would definitely try it. But in the context of my class, I still need to think about it…

  4. rita r Says:

    [my first comment on gta]: i just finished reading the novel yesterday – just by chance – so i thought i would chime in. i agree with michael and matt’s comments about characterization and would add that the formal structure of the novel is often that of an instruction manual. her descriptions of conway, compilation et al are exceptionally lucid but the mode is very much that of _the pattern on the stone_. if you’ll pardon the old-fashioned critical judgment, the prose in _close to the machine_ is much more elegant. still, the insider look at a 1980s software company alone is worth the price of admission.

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