Silicon Valley ambition is laid bare by big tech writers

Former executives turn to writing fiction to portray the ego and infantilism
© Brian Saffer/Pau Segarra Segarra

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Sex. Drugs. Tech. Silicon Valley — the new Wall Street. So reads the strapline to The Show, a novel by Filip Syta, a former account director at Google, which was published a few weeks ago.

It describes a crop of Ivy League graduate hires at Show, a fictional search engine giant. Vic, the protagonist, becomes disillusioned by the emptiness of the tech corporate life, jaded by the drugs, sex and partying that come as after-hours perks. The employee “drug overlords”sell cocaine and weed to an eager market.

Mr Syta, who lives in Stockholm and had been based in Dublin when working at Google, underlines that this is an imagined account of life at a big tech company. Yet he wanted to convey the peculiarity of a workplace that is full of young, bright people fixated on the future. “It’s like university but you have a salary,” he tells me.

The flipside of office-based gyms, dry-cleaning and fine food is infantilisation, says Mr Syta. “After a while, you want more and more. You don’t feel satisfied. You become too spoilt. Today, you want steak; tomorrow, it’s lobster.”

In 2007, Sir Howard Davies lamented the lack of novelists tackling the subject of banks. “Most of our novelists are more preoccupied with life after working hours and below the waist,” wrote the former head of the Financial Services Authority, who chaired the judging panel for the Man Booker Prize for fiction that year. That statement was eclipsed when a host of novels, dubbed “crunch lit”, came out in the wake of the financial crisis (these include John Lanchester’s Capital, Sebastian Faulks’s A Week in December, Jonathan Dee’s The Privileges, and Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett).

Tech can claim to have been better served than banking. A genre of novels has emerged describing the working lives of tech employees, notably Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs, Dave Eggers’s The Circle and Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers.

Tech dystopias and utopias have long been staples of science fiction, in such writers as Aldous Huxley, Isaac Asimov and JG Ballard. More recently, social media has played an essential role in stories, including Meatspace (by Nikesh Shukla), Kiss Me First (Lottie Moggach) and You (Caroline Kepnes), in which a stalker learns everything about his victim from Facebook and Twitter.

However, former tech workers such as Mr Syta have turned their hand to fiction, making their former workplaces the material.

Robin Sloan, author of Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, worked at Twitter for two years from 2010. There he found many novelistic characters beyond the “brogrammer” (a macho programmer) archetype. One sticks in his mind especially: the “programmer philosopher”.

If it was not for Silicon Valley’s gold rush, he says, they might have devoted their big brains to philosophy not code. “The truth is a lot of them are too busy building systems and making money to write books.” In his book, Google is working on a form of renewable energy that runs on hubris.

He says the intoxicating tech-utopianism that pervades Silicon Valley is inspiring for a novelist because it is so different from other workplaces. That it is driven by “young people who don’t have lives and are willing to surrender their time” to big tech makes it even more fascinating.

He liked The Circle’s vision of an “all-encompassing totalitarian life” because it conveyed the essence of the workplaces. “These compounds, you could never leave and still be happier than 99 per cent of humans.”

Ellen Ullman was a programmer in the 1980s, who learnt to code on a Radio Shack TRS-80 computer. After working in Silicon Valley, she quit to write essays and nonfiction. Her first novel, The Bug was published in 2003 and told the tale of Ethan Levin, a programmer at a start-up who tries to fix an elusive bug. Programming was a good foundation for writing, she says. “Code can be elegant, in a mathematical sense.”

There are parallels between writing code and text, she says. Like an editor working with an author, so programmers leave “notes for the ones who will follow, since no code that works in the world is ever read just once or written just once”.

She says: “The most eloquent expression of code is how it works,” but with literature, what works and what does not is subjective and often intangible. Mr Sloan agrees: tech is about “problem-solving”, whereas “art makes new problems”.

Kim Malone Scott, formerly a senior executive at Google, Twitter, Apple and Dropbox, wrote and self-published Virtual Love about a Google employee.

Like Mr Sloan, she finds the tech workplace to be a source of inspiration. “It is a fascinating blend of ego, ambition and idealism . . . it is palpable. People really do want to change the world. It is the stuff of great literature and human drama.”

Silicon Valley is also a source of big ideas that are better explored in a “literary way than an analytical way”, she says. There is a degree of social engineering in the way that everything is arranged, she says.

Like Ms Ullman, she believes that programmers’ precision about language is a useful education for writers. One of the problems for any writer on technology is how quickly it dates. Mr Sloan thinks the trade-off is worth it.

“The upside is that there is something electric about reading something that is [contemporary].” He is not, however, such a tech enthusiast that he is willing to write stories through tweets, like novelist David Mitchell’s The Right Sort.

When Mr Sloan, who is finishing a book on the Silicon Valley food scene, wrote his tech novel, he was juggling his Twitter day job with writing. It was described as “The Year of No Fun” by his friends, although he sees it now as energising.

Ms Scott used to schedule writing time into her work day so no one could disturb her. “I treated it as the most important meeting in the day,” she says. “People thought I was seeing the chief executive.”

emma.jacobs@ft.com
Twitter: @emmavj

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