Ellen Ullman: Life in Code: "A Personal History of Technology", Talks at Google, uploaded on September 22, 2017
On August 31, 2017, Ellen Ullman gave a fantastic interview at Google (the eagles' nest!), discussing everything that is wrong with technology in general and the Silicon Valley in particular: the ascent of algorithmic culture, computational logic, the effects of disintermediation, narcissism, ageism, exploitation... She did not spare Page and Brin.
Her latest book, Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology (2017), is sublime. [read an excerpt here] [read a second excerpt here]
My favorite chapter is an essay originally written in 1998, "The Museum of Me", an incredibly prescient tirade against the commercialization of the web and the impending death of San Francisco. Her piercing sentences mirror Rebecca Solnit's best writing on the same topic (unsurprisingly, Ullman's article is quoted in Hollow City. The Siege of San Francisco and the Crisis of American Urbanism, 2000). "The Museum of Me" was eventually published in the May 2000 issue of Harper's Magazine. You can read it here, if you are a subscriber.
Below are some of my favorite quotes:
On the death of the internet:
"What had happened between 1995, when I could still think of the Internet as a private dream, and the appearance of that billboard in 1998 was the near-complete commercialization of the Web. And that commercialization had proceeded in a very particular and single-minded way: by attempting to isolate the individual within a sea of economic activity. Through a process known as "disintermediation," producers have worked to remove the expert intermediaries, agents, brokers, middlemen, who until now have influenced our interactions with the commercial world."
Technology is a narcissistic tool. Its message?
"The world really does revolve around me. Who else but someone in the computer industry could make such a shameless appeal to individualism?"
What happened to the internet after 1998? Neoliberalism took over.
"The first task in this newly structured capitalism is to convince consumers that the services formerly performed by myriad intermediaries are useless or worse, that those commissioned brokers and agents are incompetent, out for themselves, dishonest. And the next task is to glorify the notion of self-service."
The internet is about "disintermediation". That is: the internet is about eliminating people.
"Removal of the intermediary. All those who stand in the middle of a transaction, whether financial or intellectual: gone! Brokers and agents and middlemen of every description: good-bye! Travel agents, real-estate agents, insurance agents, stockbrokers, mortgage brokers, consolidators, and jobbers, all the scrappy percentniks who troll the bywaters of capitalist exchange—who needs you? All those hard striving immigrants climbing their way into the lower middle class through the penny-ante deals of capitalism, the transfer points too small for the big guys to worry about—find yourself some other way to make a living. Small retailers and store clerks, salespeople of every kind—a hindrance, idiots, not to be trusted. Even the professional handlers of intellectual goods, anyone who sifts through information, books, paintings, knowledge, selecting and summing up: librarians, book reviewers, curators, disc jockeys, teachers, editors, analysts—why trust anyone but yourself to make judgments about what is more or less interesting, valuable, authentic, or worthy of your attention? No one, no professional interloper, is supposed to come between you and your desires, which, according to this idea, are nuanced, difficult to communicate, irreducible, unique.
"We are living through an amazing experiment: an attempt to construct a capitalism without salespeople, to take a system founded upon the need to sell ever greater numbers of goods to ever growing numbers of people, and to do this without the aid of professional distribution channels—without buildings, sidewalks, shops, luncheonettes, street vendors, buses, trams, taxis, other women in the fitting room to tell you how you look in something and to help you make up your mind, without street people panhandling, Santas ringing bells at Christmas, shop women with their perfect makeup and elegant clothes, fashionable men and women strolling by to show you the latest look—in short, an attempt to do away with the city in all its messy stimulation, to abandon the agora for home and hearth, where it is safe and everything can be controlled.
"The first task in this newly structured capitalism is to convince consumers that the services formerly performed by myriad intermediaries are useless or worse, that those commissioned brokers and agents are incompetent, out for themselves, dishonest. And the next task is to glorify the notion of self-service. Where companies once vied for your business by telling you about their courteous people and how well they would serve you—"Avis, We Try Harder"—their job now is to make you believe that only you can take care of yourself. The lure of personal service that was dangled before the middle classes, momentarily making us all feel almost as lucky as the rich, is being withdrawn. In the Internet age, under the pressure of globalized capitalism and its slimmed down profit margins, only the very wealthy will be served by actual human beings. The rest of us must make do with Web pages, and feel happy about it."
The web is a debilitating technology.
"There are several illusions about the web, foremost of which is that it makes you more powerful, releasing you from controlling forces. But the web also weakens your control over digital life."
On the illusion of endless choice on the net.
"People who have no choice are generally unhappy. But people with too many choices are almost as unhappy as those who have no choice at all."
Living in echo chambers and filter bubbles.
"Each person can live in a private thought bubble, reading only those websites that reinforce his or her desired beliefs, joining only those online groups that give sustenance when the believer’s courage flags."
The internet is the ultimate form of existential suburbanization.
"A worldview that reflects the ultimate suburbanization of existence: a retreat from the friction of the social space for the supposed idyll of private ease."
The libertarian ideology underlying the internet.
"It is a profoundly libertarian vision, and it is the message that underlies all the mythologizing about the web: the idea that the civic space is dead, useless, dangerous, and the only place of pleasure and satisfaction is your home."
The ideal of the internet is inherently anti-democratic.
"The ideal of the internet represents the very opposite of democracy, which is a method for resolving difference in a relatively orderly manner through the mediation of unavoidable civil associations."
On the "gig economy" circa 1998.
"The reality is a world divided not only between the haves and have-nots but between the ones who get to stay home and everyone else, the ones who deliver the goods to them."
The internet is anti-culture.
"The internet ideal represents a retreat not only from political life but also from culture— from that tumultuous conversation in which we try to talk to one another about our shared experiences."
Ellen Ullman on how "disintermediation" helped Donald Trump become President [from "Boom Two: A Farewell", January 2017 - this essay, written more than 20 years later after "The Museum of Me", perfectly summarizes the dystopian world we inhabit today].
"There are many reasons for Trump’s unexpected election. Among those reasons, I believe, is the role that technology has played in bringing us to this moment. I don’t mean just looking at how Trump is using Twitter right now. I mean the unspooling of a thread that started at least twenty-eight years ago. When I read a tweet from Trump, I think back to 1998, to the coming of disintermediation, the process of removing the intermediaries who for centuries had been part of our economic and social relationships."
On the "gig economy", circa 2017.
In 1998, I spoke of a society becoming divided between those who receive the goods of the world at their doorsteps and those who bring the goods to them. Then the goal for the receivers was to stay at home and connect to the world digitally, while other people, those in a different and lower social classes. [...]
Yet this moment of the chasm between the receivers and the deliverers is just a blip on the way to the complete peonization of the working class. Amazon wants to get rid of those guys with their flimsy dollies; the company is moving to replace them with drones. Uber drivers, the ultimate symbol of the sweep and penetration of the gig economy, are on their way to be supplanted by self-driving cars. The starkest and most terrifying description of this fulcrum moment comes from the media-and-technology critic Douglas Rushkoff, who wrote: “Uber’s drivers are the R&D for Uber’s driverless future. They are spending their labor and capital investments (cars) on their own future unemployment.”
Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology ends with another uncompromising verdict: "Compared to the early hopes for the web, the internet is a god that failed."
It's hard to disagree.