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Britannica.com
Technophilia and Its Discontents: An Interview with Ellen Ullman

by Pat Arnow, special to Britannica.com

Integrity and values are not the terms that generally dominate a conversation about technological innovations--unless it's an interview with programmer/writer Ellen Ullman. A San Franciscan, Ullman began programming in the late 1970s, when personal computing was a glimmer in IBM's eye. Just as she converted 1s and 0s into comprehensible computer programs, in her recent book, Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its Rewards (City Lights), she turns the esoterica of her profession into stories that forcefully demonstrate the consequences of the seemingly impersonal, disembodied lines of code.

Today, Ullman is working on another book from her home in San Francisco. Britannica.com talks with her about privacy, Napster, Microsoft, and values in these machine-driven times.

Britannica: Your stories vividly demonstrate the impact of technology on human life. The most direct one I remember from your book was about the department of health, which wanted to create a single database about AIDS patients that various agencies could use. It was supposed to be centralized so clients wouldn't have to fill out forms over and over as they went around the city for services. But it nearly got out of hand.

Ullman: The question was, should this data be linked to other data about the same population. Who owned this data? It was supposed to be for the convenience of individual patients, but was it the property of the federal government?

Britannica: Combining the data with data from the welfare department, for instance, or the DMV, that would create a more detailed picture of someone, and it might also show that someone is getting services who isn't supposed to.

Ullman: It isn't nefarious to want to catch cheaters. But something starts out for benefit of people using the system, and the ability to learn more than they are initially willing to say is what you can get when you cross-reference databases. That crosses a boundary.

Britannica: There's the notion that if you have nothing to hide, you shouldn't mind.

Ullman: All good and upright citizens shouldn't mind having their houses searched. What kind of society would that be? Privacy is about keeping one's own integrity.

The main thing I hope people took away from the story of the AIDS office is the idea that people change when they start using technology. It's not neutral. It's designed and built by individuals who have intentions conscious and unconscious. Assumptions about how people will use thetechnology have a way of percolating outward into the social arrangement of the people who use them.

As soon as people start collecting data, and they have data about the same people in two databases, somehow databases want to combine. It's something in the nature of the technology that as soon as people have the data to do what's called data mining, they will. It's almost irresistible.

Britannica: It can make it easier to make a transaction, conduct business.

Ullman: It's more efficient, but efficiency is a machine value, not necessarily a human value. Efficiency can be a fascist value. What was it everyone said about [Benito] Mussolini to make up for the fact he was so repressive? He made the trains run on time. There is a sense that requiring everything to be efficient runs roughshod over human values.

There's no serendipity that can happen. Accidents and unexpectedness and, the richer experiences of life are out of bounds.


Britannica: Are there more human ways to design systems?

Ullman: We had this notion of personal computing, very briefly, [that was] starting to end in 1994, when there was a possibility of human beings individually being empowered by a computer, a disconnected computer augmenting a person sitting, being alone. There also was a period when the Internet could augment human capabilities, but what has happened with frightening speed was that the Internet has turned into e-commerce, another way to buy sweaters and groceries and CDs and books and records.

Britannica: You wrote an essay about installing Linux on your own computer. (Linux is the free, open source, operating system that, like Windows or Mac's OS, provides a basic system for running the computer.) Is there some future in that—getting out from under totally business-oriented computing?

Ullman: Linux is involved in business too; there are several companies that have formed around Linux. I see open source movement as a revolt of programmers against the Microsoft regime. Microsoft—and Sun somewhat as well—but Microsoft especially is an extraordinarily closed system. There's more and more code that one is forced to use that you can't look at. You rely on these libraries they give you; they're not well documented. It's not clear how they work. It's not clear how well they work. In the case of Microsoft, they often don't work well at all.

I have to look at the code, so I know what's going on. It's like a doctor having to perform an operation through a little opening and not [being able to] see anything else that's going on inside the body.

I think that programmers have become frustrated at the dumbing down of their profession and felt a need to reassert professionalism and integrity as human beings. There's a big debate about whether Linux is a way to get out of the e-commerce thing.

Britannica: Will it at least cut into Microsoft's stranglehold on software?

Ullman: I'm heartened by what is going on in the Microsoft trial; I'm disheartened by the incredible consolidation going on in Web companies. The Time-Warner/AOL deal is a killer. All the Linux in the world is not going to overcome juggernauts like that. It's a huge corporation that suddenly has a big footprint in Internet and cable space. How quickly we have lost the idea of this place where many voices could be heard.

Originally, we saw the Internet as an antidote to broadcast television, and how quickly it has turned into broadcast television. Just two or three major outlets control 75 percent or 80 percent of click traffic on the Web, going through the top three sites. It's astounding. If you ever were afraid of ABC or NBC or CBS, it has come back again with remarkable rapidity.

Britannica: Yet there are all these listservs for small specialized groups, things like the Independent Press Association, that would have been newsletters on paper before. But it's a great way to disseminate the ideas of these small groups.

Ullman: E-mail is a wonderful thing. I'm exempting e-mail from this discussion. I think e-mail is the killer app. What I'm talking about is the Web itself.


Britannica: But specialized interests and small groups with ideas well outside the mainstream do have a presence on the Web.

Ullman: The majority of traffic on the Web is going through a very few sites. Whatever people are doing at the end of navigating, they are going through portals controlled by a couple of companies. These companies are getting larger, acquiring other media companies.

Britannica: Is it marginalizing these small concerns even more?

Ullman: It's getting harder to find with the combination of large portals being the main entryway and search engines—the nature of their algorithms are biased in favor of larger sites. It makes it harder to find smaller websites.

Britannica: It sounds like you were happy with the Microsoft decision.

Ullman: Essentially, their claim that "freedom to innovate will be stifled" is an insult to the public. And so is their complete misunderstanding of why they are popular. They are not popular because they create new good products, but because someone deep in IBM around 1980 made the decision that the hardware platform would be an open platform, that there would be clones.

Microsoft just happened to be one of the companies that had the contract to write for this platform. They rode with the platform's popularity. And then ensured their popularity by a lot of restrictive bundling agreements. They were successful not because the world wanted to run out and buy MS-DOS; they were successful because they got MS-DOS shipped on all these IBM clones.

Britannica: What would you say to someone who claims: "The best product always wins"?

Ullman: No. It's really not true [that] the best product always wins, especially when a company like Microsoft distorts the market. That was the point in the decision about Microsoft. They have distorted the market. They used their leverage to engage in very restrictive marketing agreements.

Britannica: Is there hope for the open exchange of ideas you envisioned in that brief window of time you mentioned in the early 1990s?

Ullman: I always have hope that when people are put in a corner, they will find their way out. There are all these mediums over the Web where people can exchange files. Right now, it's an arms war between people who want to have a free space and people imposing trademarks and copyrights. It's not clear where it will sort out.

There needs to be a way for people to freely exchange information and possessions. If I have a book and want to loan it out, why can't I do that over the Web if it's digital? If I own a CD, why can't I loan it?


Britannica: But isn't free downloading a problem for writers such as yourself who rely on royalties?

Ullman: Writers don't make any money anyway. When my book first came out and Salon wanted to publish excerpts, my publisher, City Lights, was horrified. But we did two excerpts, and it helped sell the book enormously. You really can't tell what the effect will be. In some ways it helps promulgate ideas, gets your name out there; it may mean you sell a few less copies, it may mean you sell hundreds more. On balance, I don't think we know yet.

Britannica: So you're pro-Napster?

Ullman: I'm not a fan of their technology, which is a centralized database, but the record companies have to go through the same process they went through when VCRs came out and tape recorders came out. There are new business opportunities for people to exchange these things. The market is creating a form of commerce ahead of them. There are new ways for them to make money. They're being too stupid to figure it out.

For awhile it will be very hard for them to find out who's doing what. It's in their interests to accept it. It's a new opportunity, and they have to figure out how to live with this, instead of trying to impose an old model on a new technology.

Britannica: For part of this conversation, you were sounding anti-big business, and here you're saying this is a business opportunity.

Ullman: I don't think commerce is going to disappear from the Earth. I'm not an anarchist. I don't think that property is theft and all that. People take in laundry. That's how the world goes around. While these companies have chosen this way to make money, they have to get with it. They're trying to hold back a phenomenon that will not be held back. It would be in their interest to learn how this works and to learn how their customers are thinking. [These are] their customers they're alienating.

Britannica: Are there some innovations you like?

Ullman: These innovations are all around the margins of large corporate interests. There are other ways of interacting that are not big business opportunities—Gnutella, Freenet, Napster, and MP3. The large corporations' interest is in directing traffic to their site and stickiness—they want to keep you there. That's a poor host, someone who grabs you by the lapels and won't let you leave. Whereas people are flocking to places like Napster; they're offering service people want and giving an experience people want.

When people use the Internet as a distributed space where power does not concentrate in a few sites—when there's a linking of a multipolar world—that's where innovation comes from.

Aug. 30, 2000

Pat Arnow is a former magazine editor for such publications as Southern Exposure (covering politics and culture in the South) and Now & Then: The Appalachian Magazine. She was also culture editor for In These Times, an independent biweekly. In the past year she has been freelancing for magazines and newspapers.

(c) 1999-2000 Britannica.com, Inc.
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