The Soullessness of Our New Machines

My fellow-blogger at Inside Higher Ed and an insatiable consumer of books, Joshua Kim, reviewed Tracy Kidder’s new book, A Truck Full of Money, and I’m glad he did because I found the book frustrating and wasn’t sure how to review it. Reflecting on why made me think better of the book and Kidder’s possible purpose. Here’s how I responded to Joshua’s request to “please disagree with this critical review.”

3537cd8d13edd96597563796e41437641414141I’ve finished the book (I got a review copy) and have been struggling to review it because I have the very same reservations Joshua expresses here. I love Kidder’s work. The Soul of a New Machine got at a certain culture with a lot of focus and depth. Home Town looked at lives in a college town – not a single culture at all, but exploring its many sides. Mountains Beyond Mountains was a portrait of a man driven to make the world a healthier, more just place. The trouble for this reader started when Kidder says he wanted to bookend his Soul of a New Machine to show the world of people who write software. As in his other books, he finds someone who can give him a close third person view, a shoulder to peer over. But while he does a good job of telling us about this person, in the end we never know much about the experience of (or the culture of) coding, which makes it hard to find the book’s soul, it’s motivation. It does bear out Anil Dash’s claim that “there is no technology industry” in the way we usually think of it.

Instead, this guy built a business because he could code, made a lot of money, and thinks about how to spend it. Some of his thinking leads to trying new start ups, some is about how to benefit the poor (which, it turns out, is complicated. Homeless people don’t need big schemes as much as they need a pair of socks, and thinking about how to get people socks doesn’t jazz up tech entrepreneurs much).

Maybe Kidder’s point is that this *is* what bookends the soul of the new machine – a kind of grandiose, meandering, but also highly self-absorbed and often wasteful quest to turn software into money, and what that does to a person.

Thanks for asking, Joshua. I wanted more context from Kidder, plus more about how it feels to code but now I’m beginning to think Kidder knew exactly what he was doing. It felt soulless, though I did get to know a smart kid who grew up without many advantages in Boston, made a lot of money, and wanted to do something cool with it. Maybe the whole point is that being hit by a truck full of money can be painful. And when we think of software, it’s not about code, it’s about money.

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