September 24, 2002

On writing and writers

Category: Personal — Biella @ 6:49 pm

Yesterday, I had this flash of insight as to why I love the blog genre (despite, its well, less than flattering name). I have been in grad school for six years now, writing mostly in my private journal and for classes,fieldwork notes, or conference papers. Thus, the two main bodies of my writing were really separate in style, form and content, one of which, my private journal (which I have nearly stopped now), was well that exactly private, the center of attention being me! The later stuff was my analytical writing where the “I” is totally exorcised as if the I had nothing to do with the material being that the subject matter (in terms of my papers) is about culture, history, and politics. But really the I is always there at some level, I just get rid of myself for those pieces. The blog allows for that nice melding between the I and not-I. I have also enjoyed getting away from my private journal externalizing and exploring topics that I probably would not have either written about in either my public or private writings; they are thoughts that mostly sit in my head and until the blog they had no where, no place to go :) And then there is the fact that the blog is so perfect for the short attention span that I have, both in terms of reading other people’s blogs or writing for them. As much as I know that my entries are way longer than your traditional blog, they are a heck of a lot shorter than writing a conference paper, proposal, masters, dissertation, etc.

Speaking of writing, I met one of my favorite writers yesterday in the afternoon. Will and I talked with Ellen Ullman for over an hour about so many different topics that ranged from her new novel, “The Bug” to the dangers of identity politics, transformation of geek political orientations especially since the DMCA, and why we should treat computers like a notebook. We were talking to her to see if she would like to join one of the advisory boards of the Online Policy Group.

One of my favorite pieces ever written on Linux and the humanizing experience of having access to the source is “Programming Under the Wizard’s Spell” written by her for Harpers in August 1998:

“That this sudden movement to freeware and open source is our desire to revisit the idea that a professional engineer can and should be able to do the one thing that is most basic to our work; examine the source code, the actual program, the real and unvarnished presentation of the system. I exaggerate only a little if I say that it is a reassertion of our dignity as humans working with mere machine; a return quite literally, to the source.”

When I first read this, I probably had still not seen source code and was not really studying free software academically, just spending inordinate amount of time online reading about it. This little piece inspired me in part to have the confidence to pursue something that seemed so antithetical to my path at the time.

Las summer, I read her semi-autobiographical book Cose to the Machine which is an insider and very intimate account (and a female perspective) on the life of a software engineer in the Bay Area that neither lauds or rips at the industry/technology but offers amore subtle and complex narrative, sometimes being critical, other times passionate of technology and at time neither, leaving the reader to be the final judge. After reading it, I was like “wow, this Ellen Ullman, is quite a lady, very unconventional, racy…” and I always wondered what she was like in person!

It is always interesting to meet someone you have literally wondered about. She was quite charming and as complex as she paints herself in Close to the Machine, brimming with stories from the mundane, to the fantastic, to the political, most stemming from her own experiences. I could have stayed talking for hours. I look forward to her next book “The Bug’ which is about the software developer who spends an entire year trying to solve this one bug. Ha, sounds like somewhat of a horror story :) One thing that made me laugh a lot is that she treats laptops as literal notebooks, in that they have a beginning and end in terms of a project. So when she is done with a large project (which might span years), it then is time to retire her laptop and she puts it up on her bookshelves with her other books. It of course got me thinking “hmmmm, I just might need that new laptop for when I start to write my dissertation” :)

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