How many novels are there about computer programmers? I can think of quite a few about futuristic cyberpunk sci-fi hackers, but almost none about the real lives of programmers in the present day (or the recent past, as in Ellen Ullman’s The Bug), and even fewer that really delve in to the daily frustrations and messy private lives of their characters in quite the same depth as Ullman’s novel. Spending all day in front of a computer terminal doesn’t exactly seem like the stuff of punchy, action-packed prose. But it is precisely by taking a long hard look at daily slog of programming, from the perspective of characters just on the verge of the cultural shift towards a computer-ubiquitous ‘society of the screen,’ that Ullman succeeds in breaking through the surface mundanity of computing to reveal the deeper cultural and philosophical issues at stake.
The first part of the novel follows the parallel stories of Roberta Walton, a linguist-turned-software product tester, and Ethan Levin, an insecure computer programmer, as they become absorbed in the obsessive pursuit of a ‘bug’ in Ethan’s code in the face of personal lives spiraling out of control. Ethan, especially, turns to programming to regain the sense of order and control he has lost in his crumbling marriage. However, programming fails to yield the sense of order he desires. We learn that Ethan’s interest in computer programming arose from his fascination with The Game of Life, a simulation program that generates elaborate, unpredictable patterns of ‘cells’ based on simple rules. He begins designing his own version of the Game of Life, inspired by the notion that “if he could just work his way down and down into the heart of living molecules, he would find something simple and clean.” (29) However, as Ethan is eventually forced to set aside his pet project to get a job in the high-pressure world of business programming, he discovers a life much messier than the one he idealistically envisioned. The life of a programmer isn’t one of mastery and control, but of continual frustration, the obsessive reworking of the same small problems in an attempt to ‘debug’ the mechanism and keep the endless permutations of human error at bay.
In a thought-provoking passage early in the novel, Ullman writes:
“Bug: supposedly name for an actual moth that found its was into an early computer, an insect invader attracted to the light of glowing vacuum tubes, a moth that flapped about in the circuitry and brought down a machine. But the term surely has an older, deeper origin. Fly in the ointment, shoo fly, bug-infested, bug-ridden, buggin’ out, don’t bug me–the whole human uneasiness with the vast, separate branch of evolution that produced the teeming creatures who outnumber us, plague us, and will likely survive our disappearance from the earth. Their mindless success humbles us. A parallel universe without reason. From the Welsh: a hobgoblin, a specter.” (71)
The spectral “bug” comes to stand for the universal chaos and messiness of life–that which, despite our efforts to the contrary, continues to evade our control.
As Katherine Hayles points out in Electronic Literature, the more reliant we become on computers, the more essential it is to recognize “the bug” as a fact of life. Code both conveys and disrupts the sense of continuity in our engagement with the digital world: “One one hand, code is essential for the computer-mediated communication of contemporary narratives; on the other hand, code is an infectious agent transforming, mutating, and perhaps fatally distorting narrative so that it can no longer be read and recognized as such.” (137) Ullman ends her Salon interview on a similarly cautionary note: as American society grew increasingly paranoid and increasingly dependent on computer-mediated information in the early ’00s, we somehow arrived at a moment when Total Information Awareness seemed less like a terrifying Orwellian pipe-dream and more like a perfectly reasonable, plausible use of government resources. (Arguably, a “bug” in the voting mechanism got George W. Bush elected in the first place. Think about it.) Computer-mediated communication, and the fallability thereof, has serious political implications.