Tag Archives: the bug

The persistance of the bug

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.

Human Technology Interaction

In the Salon article that Rachel mentioned in her previous post, Ellen Eullman says at the end of the interview in reference to the way humans treats machines that, “We’ve given these electronic records the aura of infallibility and truth.” Just because a technology becomes a part of our lives through the machine form, does not mean we should treat these machines as flawless and foolproof. I think that because new machine technologies increasingly appear in user friendly formats, we are blinded through design and interface of what actual code built the technology. And, as Katherine Hayles reminds us, we do not realize the origins of the technology until it breaks down:

“These banal events signify that the everyday human-machine communications integrating us into a world in which virtuality and actuality seamlessly merge have been disrupted; somewhere, somehow, the interfaces connecting human action, intention, and language with code have momentarily broken down” (Hayles 136).

Ultimately, humans create the code that runs the machine. Our interactions with a machine only operate previous code written by the programmer and instead of interacting with an infallible machine, we are actually interacting with a fellow human through our machine manipulation. If you visualize an interaction with a machine as an interaction with a fellow human, you are actually interacting with a human in the past. It is this aspect of the machine that creates many of the problems that we encounter. As users of machines grow and require new and advanced technologies, the technologies that are part of our lives remain stagnant, with software written in the past. Updates try to solve this problem, but alas, new additions may never keep up with our unnerving ability to create a list of new tasks and abilities we demand of our technologies.

Ellen Ullman, in her novel The Bug, reveals the underlying relationship that humans have with programmable code. As Levin’s life falls a part around him, literally with the earthquake and figuratively with his love life, we also see how human emotion and action affect the development and tracking of computational bugs. Even though Levin created the code in which the bug derived, he is unable to locate the place in the software that the bug originated in. Ullman tells the parallel story of Levin’s relationship with Joanna to show the complexity and depth behind the computer software. By intertwining stories of code with love, Ullman brings light to the life of computer programmers as well as insight into the inter-workings of software development. I am curious to see how these themes play out and resolve within the second half of the novel.

Ellen Ullman interview and some thoughts on object-oriented fiction

There’s a really nice, extensive Salon interview with Ellen Ullman about The Bug and her life as an English major-turned-computer programmer in the mid-80s. Apparently, the novel started out as nonfiction, a novella-length essay about her own experience with a persistent, elusive bug, not unlike the titular bug that Roberta and Ethan encounter in the novel.

The interview is full of interesting insights about Ullman’s writing process, including this thought-provoking comment about her choice to give the novel a historical setting:

…trying to write about new computer things, if you’re going to spend years on it, like you do on a novel, it’s pretty hopeless. By the time you’re done with it, it won’t be new anymore. It’s not journalism. This book took me five years. If you tried to write it about breaking developments, it’s going to look old no matter what. You can’t keep updating; it’s too integral a story. You can’t just flip pieces in and out of it — it’s not object-oriented.

What would a novel look like if it were “object-oriented”? What if there was a piece of fiction out there somewhere being continually updated and retooled to reflect changing conditions in the scenario it describes? Of course, it would be impossible to write a story that perfectly kept pace with current events: it’s the old Tristram Shandy problem. A writer can never “catch up” to the present moment. But I’m interested in the idea of a story that a reader can see growing and adapting in more-or-less real time, something that none of the hypercybertextufictions (what are we supposed to call them again?) we’ve studied thus far are actually capable of doing. Many of the examples we’ve studied do contain elements of randomness that generate many programmed permutations, but none to my knowledge are being actively rewritten or updated by their authors. What if the process of writing electronic literature was more like developing software? What if Michael Joyce were still writing Afternoon and released an updated version every few months? Would that be totally insane, or an exciting new paradigm for fiction? Isn’t that kind of modularity and seriality more or less what a blog does? And if so, whither the fiction-bloggers?

They exist! According to Wikipedia, “blog fiction” is a thing. It’s a tricky literary category, however, partly because of the strong associations we have between blogging and non-fiction (journalistic or diary-style blogs), and partly because even ostensibly non-fiction blogs contain fictionalized elements. Fascinating stuff!