Paucity of Art in the Age of Big Data: A Dispatch from San Francisco

April 9, 2013 | 12 books mentioned 32 15 min read

Dolores Park

1. San Francisco
coverLast October, under-employed and back in San Francisco after three years’ absence, I was early for a weekday appointment in the Mission District. I decided to spend an hour in Dolores Park, open up my copy of Tender is the Night, and try to have thoughts about it (read these thoughts–and more–in the most recent installment of the Modern Library Revue!). It’s a truism in San Francisco that summer starts in September and peaks in October, when Dolores Park traditionally writhes with tattooed flesh, and there is a pervading smell of pot and damp feet removed sockless from kicky little shoes, and the throng of people outside the caddy-corner Bi-Rite Creamery causes an encumbrance to the thoroughfare.

On this balmy Wednesday, I found a spot on the grass and opened my book to the white sands of Gausse’s beach, the romping ground of Fitzgerald’s idle rich. I had been having trouble with Tender is the Night. How should I think about Fitzgerald’s leisure class and their intrigues? I wasn’t really connecting with them, in the parlance of our times. I was distracted by Dolores Park’s famous vista: the palm trees, the dome of Second Church of Christ, Scientist, the churriqueresque facade of Mission High. The park was oddly crowded. I watched the male half of an attractive couple pull a bottle of wine from a basket and look out at the serene Bay while he poured. Their Boston Terrier lolled; an elegant blonde reclined on a blanket. I removed my aged cardigan and broiled in the October sun. What a classy, languid Wednesday everyone seemed to be having!

Then, there among the lotus eaters, I had a moment of clarity. I was on Gausse’s beach. It was high summer on The Riviera.

2. San Diego
The next month, November, I went with my husband to San Diego, where I fretted through the presidential election while he attended a conference. The conference was given by Tableau, a data visualization software used to sculpt and prune immense amounts of information into cheerful graphs and dashboards — a product that promises to let its user “tell stories with data on the web” and elsewhere. The conference was three days, which were for me days of aforementioned fretting and trips to a place called Taco Express (which, although it’s not pertinent to my story, is one of the best places, of any kind, that I have been).

On the last evening, I attended the Tableau customer party. My experience with conferences is limited to the California Antiquarian Book Fair, at which there is a be-curtained vendor area with candies and apples and plastic cups frosty from the water cooler. At Tableau, Malcolm Gladwell delivered the keynote speech. The customer party was held on the field of Petco Park, which is where the San Diego Padres play Major League Baseball. There were buffets and bars and a lighting scheme, and elevated platforms strewn about the turf. In keeping with the general “stadium” vibe, caterers ranged around with bucket-sized lemonades. Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings had been engaged; the dance floor was mere feet from the spangled edges of her dress. If one wanted to visualize them from some broader vantage, there was the Jumbotron. On the heels of my wedding, I was inclined to see things in terms of head counts and catering costs; long before the fireworks display, the mind had boggled.

While an astounding number and variety of organizations are anxious to plumb big data’s secrets, my husband and his colleague seemed like the lone civil servants in a phalanx of people from trendier sectors. I had watched Obama accept the presidency in the hotel lobby with two women from Facebook, who were using the software not to track users, but as an internal tool, I believe having to do with HR. Not only, it would seem, is Facebook visualizing my clicks on your wedding album; they are turning the glass inward. Our data, ourselves.

At the party, I clasped my lemonade bucket in two hands and gazed.  In front of Sharon Jones were slender men and women in high quality outerwear that kept the chill away and yet revealed sculpted pecs; they danced and Instagrammed and exuded, to an outsider with nothing but the crudest anecdotal data from which to draw, a certain marathoner, waxed-ass aspect that seems to characterize the beautiful people of the tech sector. Are they the marketers? The money? Outside the dance floor stood less kempt bunches, many of them visually corresponding to the old-fashioned techie stereotypes: lurky men, not a lot of women.

I have since learned that baseball diamonds and Sharon Jones are small potatoes, as tech conferences go. At “Google/IO,” people fell from the sky, landed on the top of Moscone center in downtown San Francisco, biked to the edge, and rappelled down while wearing Google Glass[es]. Tech reporters and bloggers pepper their reports of “disruptive” technologies with the good shit, i.e., parties featuring jungle creatures and nude women and Snoop Dogg hired out by twenty-something millionaires. There on the field of Petco Stadium, though, I was stunned by the spectacle.  I wondered if everyone present felt totally normal, as if they belonged at a party in a major sporting venue in a major American city, listening to a pretty major band, all of which had been laid out to express the gratitude of one corporate entity for their collective skill and patronage. I wondered whether any carpet will be left furled, any expense spared, to amaze and delight this new class of data wranglers.

Then I wondered, “Is anybody writing this down?”

3. San Francisco
Back in San Francisco, it is impossible not to feel that the Tableau customer appreciation party is linked in some fundamental way to the extreme late fanciness of Dolores Park, the velvet rope outside of the Bi-Rite Market, or other developments in the vicinity. One stretch of Valencia Street is now a kind of Pinterest stripmall, where a line of shops with suspiciously complementary old-timey signs display our new symbols of opulence in deranged little installations: an ancient push-pedal sewing machine, a distressed birdcage, a shoe. Down the street you can buy a refurbished Danish lamp like something from the Nautilus, retailing at fifteen hundred dollars. I recognize the pretty people from the Tableau party spilling out the doors onto the sidewalks before a legion of pricey yet aggressively casual restaurants, where there are no reservations and infinite waits and the waiters have tattooed knuckles, brilliantined side-parts, and an encyclopedic knowledge of pasta kinds.

4. Anecdotes
People who lived in San Francisco during the tech boom of the 1990s have already stopped reading, so tired are they of the perennial griping about rent, the lament of the great exodus of minorities and artists and assorted non-artistic poor. Even the costly preciousness of Valencia Street is in its second release. I’m sure, too, that people who live in Brooklyn, or Austin — or any other place where food trucks and mid-century furniture are ascendant — probably feel there is nothing new under the San Francisco sun. But there have to be things peculiar to every boom — some special intersection of place and catalyst. There was coal dust on the dickies of the Pittsburgh industrialists.

Booms have their characteristics. San Francisco has its own kind of miner. One night not long ago I met two; one man works for a company that has an algorithm that knows, for example, when your industry-specific LinkedIn contacts have a life change, and sends an alert so that you can sell them things accordingly. Another man made a searchable database of accomplished programmers; it gathers up all the breadcrumbs they leave on the Internet so that you can then hire them away from their existing jobs, the better to implement your various algorithms.

Booms have their characteristics. I have a friend who is friends with a person who invented an Internet thing you’ve heard of. She spent her Labor Day weekend with this friend and several other people in a rented vacation house having something called a “Teach-up:” every attendee gave an hour-long presentation about a topic of their choice for their friends’ edification. It was a country house weekend with a side of data. My friend enjoyed the experience, but I don’t mind telling you (or her) that I found this practice to be insane, and also insanely interesting. Such an improving way to spend a holiday weekend! I was desperate to visualize the vibe in the house. How do people pull something like that off without being self-conscious, if they haven’t evolved to some new social state?

I began collecting these snippets almost without realizing. The more I hear, the weirder it all seems. A culture is forming, one born of big data and what Evgeny Morozov calls solutionism. But there are some old-fashioned boom hallmarks — extreme wealth, frantic enterprise — and traditional prestige moves, new takes on the salon. I have another friend who until very recently worked at Facebook. When I asked her about “culture” my eyes grew wide at her tales of love and treachery down on the “campus,” even wider when she mentioned the ballet lessons and chamber music group she and her colleagues get into in their free time.

Someone must be writing this down.

5. Bibliography
There is plenty to read. Every day about the molten San Francisco housing market, the $2,700-per-month one-bedrooms, the Google buses, the tax breaks for Twitter. Rebecca Solnit and David Talbot had what could have been the last words on the matter in the London Review of Books and San Francisco Magazine, respectively, but the hits keep coming. As Solnit points out, using the Gold Rush as her example, in a boom time you get boom towns. When Industry arrives; shit gets expensive. You hear yourself talking about rent prices every time you see your friends and you wish you could shut your mouth, because it’s such a hashed-over, boring old topic.

Truly, there’s an orgy of written evidence of the formation of culture. Talbot evoked the salon in reference to a socialite named Susan MacTavish Best, who

…became so exasperated with everyone being glued to computer screens and smart-phones that she turned her rented Pacific Heights Victorian into an old-fashioned salon, where her friends and acquaintances engage in face-to-face conversation. Best, 38, who runs a public relations firm for tech clients such as Craigslist and Klout, moonlights as something of an alternative Martha Stewart, hosting eclectic dinner parties, growing kilos of kale and other nutritious vegetables in her backyard, and producing a cookbook that combines her maternal kitchen wisdom with the organic consciousness she picked up while living on a hippie farm in Mendocino. The Chronicle has anointed her as “the hippest party hostess in the history of Silicon Valley’s pocket pen-protector set.”

At TechCrunch, I read a first-hand account of Square, the company that allows you to run a credit card on your iPhone: “As I’m learning more about how Square operates as a company, or family if you will, the team showed me a neat internal app that they use to communicate with one another and maintain a ‘closeness,’ even when people are out of the office.” A New York Times article on corporate tax breaks quoted a Tweet from a Twitter employee: “Tanned on Twitter’s new roof deck this morning as some dude served me smoothie shots. This is real life?” And one more: SFist recently reported on a new trend item, The Quantified Self Movement, an army of individual data visualizers who visualize themselves. (Against this, what’s one woman’s meager effort to keep a Google calendar of her period?)

coverThere is plenty to read, but very little of it fiction. As my collection of anecdotes grew, I began to to wonder: where is The Bonfire of the Vanities for this new Gilded Age, this data mining, this excess, these Teach-Ups?

6. Where are the Novels?
I was in a newish bar in the financial district, which, when I last lived in San Francisco, you might have reasonably expected to be full of finance types in voluminous pleated slacks. Now, there are more hoodies. Waiting for my drink, I overheard two young men, mid-twenties, talking about the starting salary of a third-party acquaintance.

“110,” said one in neutral tones, and the other one looked askance: “What, you think that’s low or high?,” he asked. The friend seemed to parry. “Low,” he finally said.

coverThey were good-natured about it when I fixed my several-sheets-to-the-wind lazy eye upon them and interrogated them about their lives. Yes, they were Tech People. They worked at Glass Door, the online aggregator of salary information. Who were the chroniclers of their ilk, I asked, trying not to sound like a loon and sounding like one. There was TechCrunch, they said, or Gizmodo. “What about novels?” I asked, and they drew a blank. I asked if they liked novels, and they did. One of them told me his favorite novel was The Life of Pi.

7. Disclaimers 
I just got an iPhone for the first time and I think it actually makes my life better. I use an app to visualize my finances. I am bitter about the Tech People because they live in the trendy neighborhoods and make them too expensive for me, even though I am grotesquely sanguine about the prospect of making my neighborhood too expensive for someone else. I sometimes wish that popular, unmissable restaurants that don’t take reservations will burn down in a searing fire, after I get a chance to eat at them. I find myself embodying a kind of bumbling, solutionist fascism at work, wondering why we can’t just streamline all our systems, but not knowing exactly what the new tools are or how to use them. I hate that a Jack Spade is going to move into the former space of beloved, priced-out Adobe Books, but I also want its owner to have not hired so many feckless youths, and not persisted in using a notebook to record purchases when the dapper wolf was so patently at the door.

In every place except my chaotic home, I feel entitled to efficiency. In fact, my quest to find the great tech novel — something sprawling and social and occurring inside the Teach-Up and outside the restaurant and around the home of the displaced shopowner and the H1B-visa programmer — is in itself a kind of solutionism. Novels are captured social data. You want a snapshot of nineteenth-century French provincial bourgeois life? There’s an app for that: it’s called Flaubert.  And that’s before we consider the novel as an aggregator of human data of the biggest, most nebulous kind. You want a map of the human heart? Whose heart? What century? There’s an app for that too.

I’ve been to school and I know that if a novel says something is one way, it does not mean it is that way. The cemeteries are full, undoubtedly, of French apothecaries who died cursing Flaubert. Novels are often places for satisfying vendettas, mythologizing, and righting the wrongs of reality. But so are blogs. So, probably, is TechCrunch.

People will point out, quite sensibly, that “Tech” cannot fit in one novel. There are people who think of the technology, people who make it, people who sell it, people who finance it, people who sue the people who made it for patent infringement, people who hack it and make it better or different, people who use it the normal way, people who live in the city where the restaurants open to feed the people who make the technology. For my purposes, here in San Francisco, we are all Tech People now.

(Although, of course, tech cannot be said to live in one place; it is not exclusively the province of San Francisco, or even California. Aaron Swartz, the young man who developed the RSS feed and liberated academic journals and recently committed suicide, is an Ur-Tech figure, and lived in San Francisco only briefly. Estonia has some of the best technology infrastructure in the world. But in a great tech novel, I think California would come up.)

8. Bibliography II
coverI took to TechCrunch and Quora in search of this great tech novel. I asked the Tech People I came across whether there were books about what they did and where they lived. I looked on Amazon. There is an overwhelming number of books about Silicon Valley, overwhelmingly nonfiction. They have titles like The Silicon Boys: And Their Valley of Dreams; The PayPal Wars; and so forth. Many of them are about the 1990s tech boom, which does not feel directly relevant to the hotness of a restaurant called Flour + Water — which is listed, incidentally, with GoodReads in the portfolio of a seed venture fund — but is certainly not irrelevant in the scheme of things. There are also instructional texts: one of the startup men I spoke with told me that The Lean Startup is a current hot title among entrepreneurs.

covercoverThere do not, however, seem to be many novels. Finally, through a Quora search and the recommendations of two Book People who are also kind of Tech People, in funny ways, I read three: Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, a young adult novel; Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, a young adult novel masquerading as an adult novel; and Andy Kessler’s Grumby, a young adult novel where the young adult is 35. Taken together, these novels sort of approached what I was looking for: Grumby (2010) — a light-hearted tale of ingenuity, entrepreneurship, and Furbies — is the most explicitly about the business end of software programming and the high adrenaline, strange ideas, and crazy money of Silicon Valley. Little Brother, written in 2007, is also about programming, but weighted heavily to human and civil rights to privacy in an age of big data. Mr. Penumbra, the newest novel, is a very cheerful bibliothriller, if that is a word, that imagines a world where the printing press lies down with the e-reader; the Google woman with the book-selling man (as long as he can program too).

Mr. Penumbra and Little Brother, although they take place in a present-that-is-not-quite-the-present, get geographically closer than Grumby to the heart of what I am looking for: they take place in San Francisco, and they are explicit about how changes in industry and technology shape society. If I squint at all these novels from the right angle, I can see evidence of the outsize effects of these changes in the industrial epicenter, i.e., the Bay Area. Sloan’s Googlers correspond to the overachieving Tech People I hear and wonder about, and both he and Doctorow root their novels in place to an extent that really drove home what a small town this is and how fast it is changing.

That said, the fact that Doctorow’s novel satisfied some of my parameters seems almost accidental: true Tech People — hackers and gamers and people who can build computers from thin air — are not constrained by any 49-square-mile plot of land or housing market. In the case of Little Brother, which sometimes reads like a San Francisco guidebook (one with some rapidly outdating cultural references), the city is less important to the narrative for its tech history than for its tradition of social protest.

These are three perfectly reasonable novels, all of which I enjoyed. Between them, they come up with a lot of good, strong, important themes: Kessler concludes that “technology, for all its benefits, [is] no substitute for people’s own judgments.” Sloan arrives at something similar, with individual smarts, friendship, and the printing press beating an army of Google code-breakers. Doctorow, injecting philosophy at every possible juncture, cautions us against selling our rights, our control over our own data, for the illusion of safety or efficiency. All of these are important, and all of them are communicated in competent writing.

In spite of their themes, however, these novels are strongly plot-driven; they don’t explore inner lives or relationships in any profound way. They have some good data, in terms of telling us what buildings in San Francisco look like, or the ways programmers think about problems and solutions. But really great novels need the human factor to be relevant, both to present-day readers who don’t share the author’s world, and to the readers of the future. People dismiss Tom Wolfe for not always knowing what he is talking about vis-à-vis college sex (or Miami), but Tom Wolfe knows how to transmit capitalist anxieties and weirdness from the top to the bottom.

It is worth noting, too, that the three novels are remarkably similar in voice.  They are first-person accounts narrated by smart, affable males, a little goofy, but fundamentally loyal, moral beings, proud nerds all. If these guys weren’t too busy putting themselves in real or financial harm through their devotion to solving problems and meeting challenges, they would be great boyfriends. If it’s not Rule One of the MFA, it should be: Great boyfriends do not make great literature.

These are not meant to be social novels, and I don’t think any of the novelists were setting out to write Pulitzer prize winners, so I feel like a jerk for picking on them (especially Doctorow, who was writing for young adults). These novels had the misfortune of being my representative texts from an evidently rather small body of work about a particular milieu. But I was looking for a work of art for the ages, so I am compelled to report that these are not it. In the future, if the present is any basis from which to judge; pretty-good-not-spectacular novels are for the academics or the antiquarians (unless Google, or the Internet Archive, are planning to change all that).

Novels do not have to be worldbeaters to be worth writing and reading. But one can still hope, and wait, for that big work of literature.

9. Theories

A novel of this kind has been written, I just don’t know about it because it hasn’t been published or I didn’t look hard enough.  

I am eager to read anything, including short fiction, that explores technology and society in industrial centers in a meaningful way. Please avail yourself of the comments section.

We are not at the proper remove from time for a novel of this kind to be written (or appreciated).

The literary theorists have even started mining big data. A recent New York Times article described the tools we have to treat books as huge deposits of data; novels can be scanned and parsed by machines instead of people. The machines are confirming what most novelists know already: enduring novelists are not always appreciated in their time, nor do they reflect the current trends. This has a couple of alternate implications. One: I am or will be too constrained by my temporal reality to know the great tech novel when I see it. Two: it will not come through traditional publishing channels, because publishers will suffer from the same constraints.

covercoverMore obviously, great social literature (or social protest literature) of the kind I’m looking for — a Germinal, a Sister Carrie, a Bonfire of the Vanities — takes time and perspective to write, so it stands to reason that the novel I want won’t emerge fully-formed from the mind of the creator the minute her apartment becomes too expensive.

Furthermore, I suspect that the immediate present — particularly of  a place that considers itself at the forefront of something — lends itself more to satire and near-futurecasting than measured reflection of the moment. Little Brother describes Homeland Security on steroids; Robin Sloan chortles over a Google program powered by hubris. New developments seem so ludicrous we can’t yet describe them without getting a little hysterical. Aldous Huxley and Evelyn Waugh did a lot of this kind of writing, specifically, Vile Bodies or Antic Hay — novels that are good data about their times and place, but are too facetious to feel like serious novels. I don’t know if I’m comfortable calling Robin Sloan the Huxley of the future, but I could buy Mr. Penumbra as fun footnote in a great career.

Another word about time, though: it’s been ten years since the last tech boom. That’s plenty of time to produce something important.

There is something about tech and literature that makes them inimical to one another.

Let no woman say that Tech People — and here I mean the real architects of technological progress–can’t express themselves. Reading Larissa MacFarquhar’s epistolary article about Aaron Swartz in The New Yorker, I was struck, and moved, by how open Swartz and his friends were in their public and private writing. Swartz wrote raw, intensely personal things on his blog; Reddit is full of people expressing themselves in ways that are often shocking. But a novel requires something a little different.

It is my understanding that most writers feel some sense of being outside of things looking in. A good social novel requires a particular balance of alienation and access to be successful. (Tom Wolfe had to get invited to all those dinner parties; the tech novelist has to get invited to the Teach-Up.) Tech, the way it happens in San Francisco at least, seems to present some real deterrents to the access part of the equation. Tech companies, even when they are in the city proper, seem like compounds evoking non-disclosure agreements and badges and loyalty. The buses that ferry the workers from their San Francisco neighborhoods to their Peninsula offices are unmarked. I think these are insular, fortified environments in which it would be hard to achieve the balance of outside and inside status. And when you work twelve hours a day, how would you find the time?

Then there are the career novelists and the people who read them. Allison K. Gibson described for The Millions the uneasy way that fiction-writers engage with technological realities in their work. Jonathan Franzen, whom I consider to be the star novelist most capable of writing an old-fashioned social novel, is famously technology averse, and writes on a computer stripped down to a fancy typewriter. And really, how can you write something huge when you are Instagramming? But how can you be in the culture when you aren’t? Technology is fast; novels are slow. We’re still talking about Jennifer Egan’s PowerPoint chapter, when offices don’t even want to use PowerPoint anymore.

The social novel — or the novel generally — is getting phased out of culture.

Perish the thought. Alexander Nazaryan asked whither the novel and made a depressing but brilliant analogy: “A big social novel is like a great old train station; a nice thought, but impractical in this day and age. Who will go there, anyway? A bus shelter will do.” I hope that’s not the case, but if it is, all I can do is thank the creator for allowing me to live during even the scraggly, flea-bitten tail-end of the age of the social novel.

Please prove me wrong on all accounts. Show me the great things I’ve missed. And if you’re writing fiction about today, taking notes on your iPhone, stealing time for art on the Facebook bus, keep at it. The people of today are waiting. The people of tomorrow are waiting.

Image via calmenda/Flickr

is a contributing editor at The Millions and the author of The Golden State. You can read more of her writing at


  1. I hear you on your needs…I think. But, if you’re saying you want an “old-fashioned social novel” about technology and culture, isn’t that kind of impossible? We do not live in old-fashioned times. Wouldn’t it be better to look for something that is on the edge of the new frontier of media, technology, and our collective incompetent mass psychosis?

    The funny thing about life on the edge (if you believe there is an edge) is that few people see or understand what’s going on. The periphery is the periphery because it is undefinable and hard to see. And in the case of all this new technology and how we use it, things move so fast (so freakin’ insanely fast!) it’s impossible to understand what it all means and what the implications are.

    We live in the belly of a new beast.

  2. Wow. Thanks for that. What a well-written and interesting piece. I have read Little Brother and Penumbra, and while I enjoyed them both, neither are truly “great books”. One suggestion I have (even though it’s now a bit dated, published in 2006!) is Douglas Coupland’s “J Pod”. I think it nailed a certain time and place in tech/workplace culture. Plus, it’s incredibly funny.

  3. I feel like a lot of the most interesting fiction related to this world you’re describing came out of the cyberpunk novels of the 80s and 90s. Neal Stephenson comes to mind. But that was more Jules Verne than Flaubert.

  4. I wonder if technology’s unrelenting advancement has led to a concurrent demolition of form, and also if the pace has simply sped up with each passing year.

    In the past, a book — say, specifically, a social novel — was the be-all-end-all of related human/emotional experience. As you say, it was a snapshot of a slice of life for a certain class of people. You want to see how 19th century upper-crust Russians lived? Here’s ANNA KARENINA. Want to see how 20th century upper-crust Americans lived? Here’s THE GREAT GATSBY. I agree with you that (to my knowledge) there isn’t a book of that sort for “contemporary West Coast techies.” I would offer that there isn’t a book of that sort of “contemporary young people,” too, and perhaps the Venn Diagram of the two categories looks more like a circle than anything else.

    I find your example of FREEDOM interesting because of its generational failings. It may well have represented the social norms of its older characters like Walter and Patty Berglund, for example, but the whole time I read that book, I kept thinking, “Joey and this girlfriend are in a long distance college relationship… but they’re not texting each other?” In BACK TO BLOOD, Tom Wolfe — despite all his failings w/r/t depicting Miami itself and its characters — did accurately depict a world rife with Instagrams and tweets. In both cases, the authors gave us part of the picture but not the whole thing. This makes me wonder two things: 1) if 19th century Russians felt the same way about Tolstoy in ANNA KARENINA — “oh, come on, everybody knows you don’t harvest wheat that way!” — or if Jazz Age Americans felt the same way about Fitzgerald in GATSBY — “oh, come on, kids didn’t listen to Fletcher Henderson!” and 2) if the world was simply smaller and the classes more rigid back then, and therefore there were smaller slices of pie needing description. I imagine the leisure life subsection of people depicted by Fitzgerald was nominally smaller than all the people loosely affiliated with today’s tech scene on the West Coast — perhaps that’s why it’s easier to holistically explain the former and not the latter?

    But that takes me back to form. So if the novel is too rigid of a form to put in all of these dynamic parts, then why even try? Perhaps when taken together, a Twitter stream coupled with an Instagram stream coupled with a general sense of somebody’s Facebook photograph albums is able to convey a more accurate, complex and altogether true idea of someone’s life than any novel? Perhaps we may yet see an age wherein fiction writers operate by crafting entire fake identities of their characters online. It’s not strictly literary, but it may well turn into art if done well.

  5. Just a thought here, as to whether novels really are, or have ever been “captured social data.” Sometimes, I suppose they are — having been raised in the 1960s, I’ve always thought that John Updike’s “Rabbit Redux” is a reasonably good time capsule of that particular American experience. Other people can easily offer other examples of novels that they know to be true.

    I’m a little leery, though, of assuming novels from the past to be accurate snapshots of their world. Remember, they’re fiction — imaginative explorations with little responsibility to the facts.

    Peter Gay published an excellent book a few years ago titled “Savage Reprisals” that warned of the dangers of taking great novels too seriously. The authors he examined — Dickens, Flaubert, and Mann — all had particular axes to grind against their societies. “Madame Bovary” is an assault on French society, just as “Bleak House” waged war on English bureaucracy by tackling a court system that was already past history.

    I don’t accept the worlds created by Shakespeare, Austen or even Proust as unstintingly honest snapshots of the world they lived in — or at least, that’s not what I look for. They’re stories, you know?

  6. I think Nick’s point is interesting that the novel may not be able to accurately encompass social interactions as well as it used to. In the golden age of the form, there were only two ways to interact with someone – in person or via letter – and the novel could easily handle that. Then we added the telephone, and the novel adapted accordingly. Then we added blogs, facebook, twitter, instagram, and the like. But, as Nick said above, would a novel have to incorporate all of these in order to form a realistic characterization of someone? I wouldn’t want to read that novel.

    But, it reminded me of The Lizzie Benet Diaries, the recently-completed, modernized web adaptation of Pride & Prejudice, in which the story is told through Lizzie Bennet’s vlogs. Most of the characters in the story also maintain facebook, twitter, and tumblr accounts, as well as a few on pinterest or lookbook. So, while you were watching the vlog episodes (2 per week), you could also follow the characters’ online “lives” in between. It was an interesting experiment, and made a lot of sense, because of course Lizzie and Darcy would be facebook stalking each other.

    But the reason it worked was because it was serialized. You had to be following along in real time in order for the different layers of storytelling – video, text, photos, and social media – to fit together. This is something the novel can’t do, or can’t do well.

    I’m not ready to claim that interactive online storytelling will produce the great social novels of the future, but it has distinct advantages.

  7. You know, the so-called “feckless youths” at Adobe Books did successfully raise $60,000 to cover the expected rent hike. The landlord then moved the goalposts by hiking the rent again after that money was in the bank. Suggesting that the plight of the store is somehow connected to the kind of people behind the counter is pretty disingenuous in this context.

  8. Isn’t there an entire genre of fiction exploring these ideas? I think it’s called called science fiction?

  9. In 2000, I published a book of short stories with Red Hen Press — I had been a programming teacher and computer trainer — in which I tried to deal with some of these issues, “The Silicon Valley Diet.”

    I know The Millions will delete comments with unrelated links will be deleted, and I am not trying to sell any books (most of the stories in the book were published in the 1990s in webzines and are available to look at for free), but here’s a link to the book:

    Of course, it is very outdated, based on my experiences in Silicon Valley and elsewhere in the late 1990s, which is like ancient history by now.

  10. A friend forwarded me this link. And I feel compelled to respond.

    Here in Brooklyn, It is fairly effortless to reject and rebel against technology and its social hold on culture. Especially tonight, when we were given grand sunshine and allowed to sit on patios for the first time in months. The smartphone is not a sword and one cannot live or die by it. As a guy who has recently embarked on several 21+ mile walks, I can assure you that there are plentiful pockets of living and breathing souls who care not a whit about Facebook likes and Twitter followers, and this truth is probably something of a shock to the Google People who are now trying to kill what remains of San Francisco’s spirit with the no quarter pestilence of a fruit fly epidemic.

    I will say this much. Nazaryan — and I dig him — is wrong about the social novel. Techcrunch and Quora are more often than not dead ends. One’s innate curiosity is more reliable than tastemakers. It sounds to me, Ms. Kiesling, that you are collecting snippets in the wrong places. I would urge you to trust instinct over proscription. These so-called solutionists don’t necessarily have what it takes to survive a bar brawl, to make mad spontaneous love on Sunset or Stinson Beach, or to embark on a bona-fide real world adventure that does not involve logarithms or side quests.

    In short, your own muse is more trustworthy than the nostalgic cowbell. And stop reading Solnit. She’s great. But it’s more important to live a few unpredictable evenings. And if you’re ever in Brooklyn, let me know. Happy to help.

  11. As a fellow San Francisco resident and dabbler in tech, I have to say that I’ve found many members of the tech community rather boring, and overly preoccupied with money. I think that access to the power of technology–and money–has essentially removed conflict for members of this group, making them relatively uninteresting if not impossible to write about. The worst thing that could happen to any of them might be, indeed, to drop an iPhone, or spend a few hours frustrated about a coding problem. Neither of these things is interesting. And if something deeper–something human–that’s worth writing about should occur, the relevance of the money and technology fades. That in itself might be worth a story.

  12. I am gratified by these thoughtful comments (and feel daunted at the prospect of answering them with the care they deserve).

    This essay is built on problems, starting with “What is tech?” and ranging all the way to “What is the novel?” To address a point that both Rodney and Nick make in some form– novels are absolutely not captured social data in the sense that they are not guide books or history books (although neither are guide books or history books, if we are going to really get into it). My own enjoyment of novels is not based on any perception that they are thus. For the purposes of this essay, I was primarily trying to position the social novel in a way that would appeal to our increasingly data-driven world, as a sort of, if-you-like-Tableau-you’ll-love-Flaubert proposition. (Although, posited in such a specious way, I feel like I’ve sort of solved my own conundrum: if you are in the business of parsing the world through statistical data–which people increasingly perceive as the building blocks of reality–you obviously won’t be compelled the same way by the extremely muddled, emotional terrain of the novels that I consider great. They are just not the same thing.)

    All that said, even if we take as a given that every novelist ever has woefully misrepresented his or her place and time and cohort, I don’t think we have any better way of transmitting the feeling of being human in another place and time. (Which is evidence of the injustice of life, since none of the novelists I reference in the essay were themselves in the thick of any race of class struggle–I don’t have a solution for that problem, except more novels, by more people, from more places and stations.)

    I take the point of several comments that the novel may not be the way forward for communicating information about the high-tech and increasingly fragmented way that things are now. But, like Janet, I don’t want to read a novel that feels obligated to incorporate every technological advancement of the moment. I can feel how old-fashioned and immovable I am on this issue, but I just don’t think we can approach a sense of how life is without the help of some high art; I am not yet prepared to accept a multi-platform social media diary as a replacement, even if I really like it.

    Re: Freedom–I also felt jarred by a lot of references (and, for the record, I think The Corrections is the superior novel). But I think that a novel with that kind of detail and ambition is important, not always for what it gets right, but for the way it provokes you with things it gets wrong. Whats-his-name the son was in my same year at school, and while his experience in the novel seemed off-key to me, nothing else has caused me to immerse myself and remember that magical September 11 time to quite the same extent.

    What I find striking about the tech landscape is how little here-and-now fiction there seems to be. I truly love Neuromancer, but it’s a different kind of book.

    Okay, that’s my riff.

    SDA, you’ve pricked my conscience, although I did intentionally place my comments about Adobe in a paragraph where I mock myself for being a jerk. That said, I have been buying books at Adobe for a fairly long time–and the last time the till was manned by a youth who was undoubtedly a delightful person and an asset to the community, but seemed entirely befuddled by the transactional nature of selling a book. I am not the first person to observe that this has been to some extent characteristic of the whole enterprise. But still, I loved that book shop, and you’re right that everyone tried hard to save it, and I’m sorry for being savage about it.

    Richard, I expressly asked for titles, so I believe the edict will be eased in this case. Thank you for the link.

    Edward, I always appreciate your perspective on things.

    Suzanne, please.

  13. I’m surprised it hasn’t been mentioned yet, but perhaps what you are looking for can be found in Shteyngart’s “Super Sad True Love Story?” Certainly dystopic, but also certainly tackling the social future of data head on.

  14. It really is a shame that Jennifer Egan hasn’t risen to this challenge. Her experience in these sectors puts her in a unique position to be able to discuss them. Also in the Jobs web would be Mona Simpson. Maybe the fact that two women so close to the action w/r/t the West Coast tech scene (or at least significant players therein) is significant, and maybe it all relates back to what Kerry says above: the West Coast tech scene just isn’t the stuff of novels. But, then again, you could say the same about a lot of things people have written fantastic novels about. And so I’m now officially lost. I nominate you to write this novel, Lydia.

  15. I think Blueprints of the Afterlife, by Ryan Boudinot, might just be your revolutionary work-of-art novel about the intersection of tech and society. I think it is our generation’s White Noise, and either way is is completely genius.

  16. As an acting “west coast techie”, your last theory wears pretty well from here. Maybe in the past, we could count on literary fiction to act as an important lens into social developments, but society has shrunken “literary fiction”‘s role so far, that it’s not really able to act as our go-to tool for understanding or documenting social changes anymore.

    In my career, I’ve worked as a software developer for both Microsoft and Apple, on some of their largest and most visible products. I’ve worked both at their main West Coast headquarters and from home offices. I’m not oblivious to tech people and their/our culture; working from home in a flyover state, I can see some differences between the society tech people create for themselves, and an American mainstream that’s indifferent to both the tech culture you describe and the lit culture you embody.

    It’s difficult to watch “tech” people and “lit’ people off in their own silos, frustratingly unable to interact. It takes many years of focused study and practice to gain competence in each field, and each field starts from some very different premises. It’s not surprising that, the more practiced we get in one field, the less capable we are in communicating with people from the other.

    I at least have to give “lit people” the credit for trying. I’m always excited when I get my new copy of n+1 and there’s a new essay about some element of the technological world that I take for granted, but written by someone coming from a literary mindset ( I’m thinking of examples like and ). It helps salve over the sad diatribes from the same group ( e.g., ). To our discredit, I don’t remember the last time I saw a programmer tried to use software to study some part of contemporary literature or lit crit. (Maybe Amazon’s recommendation engine? Hardly a disinterested attempt to bridge the gap between the coders and the writers of the world.)

    I don’t think there is a problem with what you’re asking for, but I wonder if you’re not specifying yourself out of an answer? You ask where the great literature is about the software world, but while not being rude to Kidder, Morozov, Stephenson, Rosenberg, Coupland and Lanier, you kind of… discount them. They may be manifesto-ists, essayists, journalists or speakers — or in Stephenson’s case, a novelist, and in Coupland’s case, a fictional non-science-fiction novelist — and that’s art, you allow, but not literary fiction, and so it doesn’t count.

    At the risk of sounding defensive, it seems like “lit” people often lionize “literary fiction”. If literary fiction is just another genre, and it has its own pet style and themes and topics that resonate with the BA/MFA set, as Stephenson has repeatedly argued — then it’s no surprise no one’s written the Great Software Lit Fic Novel. No one’s written the Great Software Western or the Great Software Romance, either.

    And for that matter, where’s the Great Housing Construction Contractor Lit Fic Novel, or the Great CIA Intelligence Analyst Lit Fic Novel? Or drone pilot literary novel, or SuperPAC chairwoman novel? Those are equally important parts of our contemporary world, and they may lend themselves even more to a literary fiction masterpiece, but they’re not out there. However, there has been excellent journalist, essays, nonfiction, and film made about those professions and the people who take to them.

    The ideas and the criticism are out there, they’re just not in the packaging you’re looking for.

  17. I immediately thought of Super Sad True Love Story after reading this — more specifically, how the book brought out the idea of quantifying people into data and making more allegedly efficient decisions based on that data. I don’t think it fits perfectly into what you’re talking about and I don’t think it can be called a big social novel (I’ll leave defining that up to you), but it feels related.

  18. “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?”, Lauren Myracle’s TTL (or OMG – those anagram titled middle grade books) & “Reconstructing Amelia” – all written by women and recently released utilize “tech” techniques in the text while both im / explicitly critiquing tech “culture.” The problem with the people who occupy this world is that they are fundamentally mediocre, so lacking in imagination, they cannot see beyond getting “funded” or their gimmicky million dollar ideas. There’s no novel there because how could one possibly mine the soul of the soulless? Didn’t the late, not so great – yet “Brilliant” – Michael Crichton write these sort of now-but-futuristic wanks? I’d look more to Michel Houellebecq but his end point vision of SF “tech” is so spot-on as to make one reach for “The Colossus,” tape all the doors / window, turn up the gas to broil and stick my head in the oven.

  19. The fact that the author completely ignores science fiction, and genre fiction, and imagines that only the social novel (of a Dreiser, or Wolfe) will suffice says a great deal about how blinkered the MFA set is to the role of fiction over the past 40 years. Neal Stephenson’s REAMDE and Cryptonomicon, say a great deal about the entrepreneurial culture of the Internet age, and provide a larger context for the “hacker” mentality that anyone with a social or historicist viewpoint would find deeply appealing. Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story is a vivid near future that shows the path that our current tech visionaries might take us. Charles Stross’ Halting State, and the complete works of William Gibson, might also be of interest to someone who wondered what people actually read who care about technology and our collective future. The whole notion that no one is “writing it all down” demands that a framework from an earlier era be placed on a new landscape. It is a reactionary viewpoint, and one we should all try to avoid.

  20. Cahr and “A Programmer” have said much of what I would have liked to say, but I’ll add a little more, from the perspective of someone who lives in the Bay Area, works in science, but also reads literary fiction.

    Perhaps the greatest problems with this essay (which is fascinating more as a description of what a certain kind of person thinks about the tech world than it is as an actual description of the tech world) are the degree to which it a) has contradictory premises and b) refuses the take the denizens of the tech world seriously. One cannot ask for a ‘social novel’ about the tech world while simultaneously intoning from the 30,000 foot perch of the resolutely ‘pure’ literary novelist that “[one cannot] write something huge when you are Instagramming”. This treats the Instagrammer as a necessarily shallow being, someone who must necessarily not have the moral fortitude to think deeply because they happen to like sharing photos with their friends. There are literary novelists with impeccable stylistic credentials who tweet, the use of one means of communication does not obviate the use of another. Similarly, I can’t help but think that to a certain extent the author specifies herself out of ever finding an answer.

    To second the view of several of the commenters here, you cannot conclude that no such novel exists without considering (with an open mind) the vast amount of science fiction out there. Read Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, and tell me if it doesn’t speak to you about the cloistered nature of academia, read Charles Stross’s near-future fiction (Halting State or Rule 34), and tell me it doesn’t talk about how we interact with omnipresent communication and knowledge. Yes these are what you might call a “different kind of book”, but recognize that this in of itself an extremely subjective value judgement that you impose on the fiction. (And also profoundly ahistorical judgement, much of what we now consider to be classics of the literary fiction genre were science fiction novels of their time (Frankenstein being the canonical example)). To condemn these novels because they have plots is very short-sighted (but sadly all too common).

    I also think that this essay lets what I’ll stereotypically call ‘literary types’ off too easily. One cannot expect the Google or Facebook programmer to write deeply and well without also demanding that the literary author forsake technological Luddism and math phobia and embrace the innovations of our modern world. There is a veneer of condescension in statements like “stood less kempt bunches, many of them visually corresponding to the old-fashioned techie stereotypes: lurky men, not a lot of women” that refuses to accept that these are people too, and their inner lives are equivalently worthy of appreciation.

    This is a largely negative comment, so to close on a positive note, I’d recommend you read Vikram Seth’s masterful novel in verse ‘The Golden Gate’. It’s set in the first tech boom of the 80s and 90s, so it might not match your desire for current novels, but it is an excellent description of people who live in the tech world, and might go some way to changing your mind.

  21. The biggest problem is that tech culture is *boring*. It’s all about making money, hacking code, and making money. There’s no dramatic tension, nobody is ever in any danger of anything other than losing a fortune and having to start over again, and lives are never at the line… let’s face it, the amount of dramatic tension in a typical product introduction is zilch. There are no greater questions of life or death to be answered there.

    I’m a member of tech culture. I also write novels. My novels are not, however, about tech culture because frankly it bores me silly. That said, one thing that amazes me is how my protagonists use technology, not because I try to insert technology into my novels, but because it is such a part of daily life today for many people. If I write a novel with a twenty-something protagonist foiling the Big Bad, she organizes the campaign against the Big Bad by holding a half-dozen simultaneous IM conversations at once on her smartphone, she doesn’t spend hours tracking down people and gathering them into a secret clubhouse somewhere to plot . That’s because young twenty-somethings do things that way. It occurs to me, reading the rough draft of my latest novel, that sixty years from now this will seem as anachronistic as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s flapper girls and people like you will be reading similar novels to figure out things about the times of today, just as we read F. Scott Fitzgerald to get clues about his times. So it goes.

  22. Have you tried the near future (now past) novels of William Gibson? Or the later fiction of Neal Stephenson (less character driven).

  23. The context is a little different and the language too… But I think you can call it “a big social novel about tech-culture”: La théorie de l’information by Aurélien Bellanger (Gallimard 2012).

  24. “Novels are often places for satisfying vendettas, mythologizing, and righting the wrongs of reality. But so are blogs. So, probably, is TechCrunch.”

    TechCrunch most definitely is:

    Have you read any of the rest of William Gibson’s three trilogies? He started very strong with “Neuromancer”, the first of the nine, although as you say it’s nothing like a reflection of real life in the San Francisco tech scene, and anyway he’s arguably now interested in media and fashion and government but no longer tech. He also definitely started out writing science fiction (cyberpunk, to be exact) and definitely now writes thrillers instead, so there seems to have been a subtle shift somewhere in the middle, but they’re all novels. Maybe too pulpy and simplistic and not emtionally interesting enough for you, but maybe not.

    I like Rodney Welch’s comment, although it would have been a lot stronger without the last paragraph. Maybe Bret Easton Ellis is our Flaubert?

    Or maybe J.G. Ballard?

    I think Kerry’s incorrect; Wired magazine and the rest of the news are full of Bay Area techies who have interesting conflicts, like the schmuck who lost a prototype iPhone at a bar, and convicted murderer Hans Reiser, and criminal spammers and “search engine optimization” scammers and “computer security researchers” like Miami’s Albert Gonzalez, and techies who wind up in federal prison after their adventures with polyamory, BDSM, and most of all psychedelics go wrong:

    If you want to see geeks at their most interesting, and their most emotional, follow the sex and drugs. Reading about Burning Man would be a reasonable start, and will also show you a lot of magnificent sculpture, painting, dance, and clothing, since it is after all an art festival. It does tend to wind up in magazine pieces and coffee table books more than novels, though.

    “none of the novelists I reference in the essay were themselves in the thick of any race of class struggle”

    Few were, but Dickens had personal struggles with class, Dumas with race, and Wilde with nationality, although novels were not Wilde’s form.

    “A Programmer” makes some good points. Maybe film and big TV like Game of Thrones are more likely to immortalize 2013 San Francisco than a novel? But are there really any films that address it, except maybe The Social Network?

    Personally I think the popularity of Neal Stephenson is some of the most damning evidence that techies may just be inherently tasteless about literature. “Snow Crash” was basically a fun light action flick like “Die Hard”, and since then each of his works has been more ponderous than the last, and just as witless. If a typical programmer decided as a perverse and boring and unprofitable experiment to write novels instead of code, and ploddingly and methodically engineered up some novels despite having a totally tin ear for them, “Cryptonomicon” and “Anathem” are exactly what you’d expect to be produced. Reading those made me pine for the humble fun and vivid characters of “Zodiac” and “The Big U”.

  25. I’ve been inside the “tech culture” for a while, much less centrally than I was during the last boom. There is a lot of non-fiction writing within it. Or there was: Paulina Borsook’s Cyberselfish and Ellen Ullman’s writing come to mind. As does Thomas Scoville’s Silicon Follies. Tom was definitely of the culture not just from far away peering down his nose at “uninteresting” people. Also: good non-fiction by Nora Spark (The Virtual Self) and forthcoming by Clive Thompson about how we will think differently. These are all folk I know who are coming from “within” the culture to some degree.

    I’ve found plenty of these tech folks interesting. And there’s plenty that’s difficult too. I can’t say that I know about a Fitzgerald-level novel per se. I can say that, from my own experience, I’ve seen the immersive and interactive elements of the culture affect my own performance work, Improv Everywhere and lots and lots of Social Practice stuff in the arts world.

    I’m not entirely sure if you’re looking for something *about* how technology impacts our culture or about the people who were/are part of this changing time and economy and and how they understand themselves (or don’t)? I don’t know that these are the same things.

    One act of culture which is growing and continuing is a live event: Burning Man. It’s not a novel. It’s not a play. It’s not a painting. It may have nothing “classic” about it. But it is a living thing you can’t pin down that involves a lot of people who contribute to it. It is definitely connected to these past 2 tech booms. Like those “learning” weekends it is a platform not a static piece of work. It is now at 50,000 people and 25 years old and many regional events. It can easily seem to be stupid from the outside of it 9it did once to me). It sort of needs to be experienced to make any sense (whether it’s good sense or not is another question).

    Novels are important and I’d love to read good ones about what all this has been about and means. But culture itself is probably changing. Our experience of narrative is changing. Rushkoff is laying some of that down in Present Shock. A novel will take much more time than these non-fiction books. If you are participating in making a star-up you do not have that kind of time. Even if you are part of the culture for a while it will take more time. And it would have to be the form someone would want to choose to express it in.

  26. So…maybe this should be the last comment here. Today’s TM gives us the first page of Thomas Pynchon’s new novel The Bleeding Edge. Here is the description from Amazon where, yes, you can pre-order now for the Sept 17 2013 release:

    “Thomas Pynchon brings us to New York in the early days of the internet

    It is 2001 in New York City, in the lull between the collapse of the dot-com boom and the terrible events of September 11th. Silicon Alley is a ghost town, Web 1.0 is having adolescent angst, Google has yet to IPO, Microsoft is still considered the Evil Empire. There may not be quite as much money around as there was at the height of the tech bubble, but there’s no shortage of swindlers looking to grab a piece of what’s left.

    Maxine Tarnow is running a nice little fraud investigation business on the Upper West Side, chasing down different kinds of small-scale con artists. She used to be legally certified but her license got pulled a while back, which has actually turned out to be a blessing because now she can follow her own code of ethics—carry a Beretta, do business with sleazebags, hack into people’s bank accounts—without having too much guilt about any of it. Otherwise, just your average working mom—two boys in elementary school, an off-and-on situation with her sort of semi-ex-husband Horst, life as normal as it ever gets in the neighborhood—till Maxine starts looking into the finances of a computer-security firm and its billionaire geek CEO, whereupon things begin rapidly to jam onto the subway and head downtown. She soon finds herself mixed up with a drug runner in an art deco motorboat, a professional nose obsessed with Hitler’s aftershave, a neoliberal enforcer with footwear issues, plus elements of the Russian mob and various bloggers, hackers, code monkeys, and entrepreneurs, some of whom begin to show up mysteriously dead. Foul play, of course.

    With occasional excursions into the DeepWeb and out to Long Island, Thomas Pynchon, channeling his inner Jewish mother, brings us a historical romance of New York in the early days of the internet, not that distant in calendar time but galactically remote from where we’ve journeyed to since.

    Will perpetrators be revealed, forget about brought to justice? Will Maxine have to take the handgun out of her purse? Will she and Horst get back together? Will Jerry Seinfeld make an unscheduled guest appearance? Will accounts secular and karmic be brought into balance?

    Hey. Who wants to know?”

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.