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?