Writing the Interface

This week, in The Literary Machine, we’re reading Ellen Ullman’s Close to the Machine, which has led me to think a bit about the course’s subtitle, “Writing in the Human/Computer Interface.” Originally, I imagined that interface functioning differently in the different types of texts we read — some traditional novels that contain representations of computers (in which case the novel and its representations become the interface), some more properly cybernetic fictions that appropriate systems principles to literary ends (in which systems theory becomes a sort of interface), some electronic fictions that use the computer itself as a mode of representation (in which the interface becomes, well, the interface). So as I built the syllabus, I thought a lot about the varying ways that “interface” in my subtitle might be defined, and about the varying kinds of “writing” that might be done with respect to that interface.

But I didn’t think very much about my choice of preposition — “in.” Re-reading Ullman has, more than any other text we’ve read thus far this semester, highlighted for me the question of “in-ness” w/r/t the interface. Crossing disciplinary and professional boundaries between computers and readers, between programming and the literary, between “end users” and code, Ullman has a very different relationship to the interface than do the other writers and theorists we’ve studied. She is the means of translation from human purpose to machine commands; she is our means of understanding a technoverse that many of us can never inhabit. Despite her rhetorical insistence on moving “close to” (and, by implication, away from) the machine, if an interface is something one can be “in,” Ullman is truly in it, rather than existing to one side or the other of it; one might even argue that she in fact is that interface.

This begs, for me, a question that Noah, my summer research assistant, raised as we were planning the course, and as he argued for Ullman’s inclusion on the syllabus: where are the other such memoirs of technology? If there is something about the first-person memoir of the programming life that allows the writer/programmer to find her way in, what other texts might similarly be imagined to inhabit the interface?


  1. The question about first-person memoirs is a good one. You might have a look at both Sandy Stone’s _War of Desire and Technology_, which has some autobiographical sections, and Brenda Laurel’s _Computers as Theatre_ (not so autobiographical, but a classic on interface theory and I think an excellent match with Ullman). Jon Katz’s _Geeks_ isn’t first-person either but teaches extremely well.

    Ullman, incidentally, just published a novel, _The Bug_.

  2. I read The Bug over the summer — right about the same time you were reading it, judging from the post you wrote — and really liked it, overall. But there’s something about the memoir that I find more affecting, and I guess I’m trying to puzzle out why.

    I did read the Stone, as well as Paige Baty’s e-mail Trouble, which I might add to the list. Is there something to the fact that all the titles we’ve come up with so far are written by women? Or is that coincidence?

  3. Not relevant since it’s fiction, but what did you think of the portrayal of the code writers in Mark Costello’s _Big If_? I thought Jens’ defense of code-as-poetry could’ve come from a memoir as easily as a novel.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.