Posted on | December 4, 2013 | 1 Comment
On Katherine Losse’s The Boy Kings: A Journey into the Heart of the Social Network, Free Press (2012) and Dave Eggers’ The Circle, Knopf (2013)
Even before opening the books, you can see why Losse is annoyed with Eggers. It’s not that the content is the same, exactly – although there are overlaps that lead us to ponder. To be generous, the fact that the female protagonist works in customer service in each case is as much a reflection of the gendered distribution of labor in engineering firms as it is of Losse’s previous writing. I’d also offer – having written about compulsory workplace sociality – that Eggers’ satire merely extends cliches that are already widely available. It does strike me as odd that he would choose not to read ‘any books about any internet companies, or about the experiences of anyone working at any of these companies’ before writing a manuscript on such things, but then, maybe that’s his creative process.
The broader issue is that given the likely audience, the books are similar enough that people won’t make time to read both. Comparing Eggers’ existing profile and marketing budget relative to Losse’s, there is less of a chance that people will hear about the earlier book, let alone read it. This is, after all, the generation that spawned the acronym TL;DR (too long; didn’t read). And it is to every potential reader’s detriment that they would choose Eggers’ book over Losse’s.
Anyone who wants to understand how technology companies operate internally should read The Boy Kings. Since it is explicitly a memoir about working at Facebook, it is hard to imagine a better blow-by-blow account of the contradictions that characterize the company dedicated to ‘transparency’. The goals of the founder and visionary Mark Zuckerberg are admirable enough, to a point. But as a humanities graduate in a world of engineers, Losse is unprepared to accept the cultural insensitivity Zuckerberg’s ambition requires. The book calls out what is simple colonial zeal dressed up as technological revolution.
The longer she spends at Facebook, Losse learns that the only way to succeed is to give over to the pleasure of domination. This is a patriarchal conquest narrative at its purest. It is hardly camouflaged by Harvard insignia.
Losse finds her respite from the firm’s hypermasculinity in the desert: in the anonymous glow of Las Vegas, playing sidekick to her queer hacker friends; in the slower rhythms and ritual of her trips to Coachella. In each case, it is lyricism that keeps her afloat – the wit of an IM, a smart fiction reference (“You look pale”), the chorus of a song. It’s no coincidence that the coders love Daft Punk (“Harder, better, faster, stronger”) while she prefers Frank Ocean. “Super Rich Kids” provides the soundtrack to this memoir.
As a non-native Californian, Losse finds a poetry of sorts in the suburban instrumentality of Safeway and In-N-Out Burger. Describing these ordinary journeys gives us further insight into her worklife, as she she finds herself shopping for groceries at midnight with an overpaid hacker obsessing over bologna prices. Embracing California’s mall culture symbolizes her growing implication in a larger territorial battle, too, as Facebook fends off competitors to command a monopoly over virtual social space. The clean aesthetics of the Silicon Valley tech campus are echoed in the platform’s smooth blue and white boxes, especially in the early years. As success beckoned, and Facebook’s competitors faded, ads and apps quickly encroached upon the original page layout like so many Chipotle and Carl’s Jnr branches on Californian arterials.
The vulnerability at the heart of Losse’s story marks its urgency. For one thing, we feel every banality and inequity of the job itself. Consider that in Facebook’s early years, ‘customer service’ included the reality of answering endless email queries asking what a ‘poke’ is. I’ve yet to read anything quite so effective in conveying the mundane experience of employment in an adhoc start-up workplace. The sheer volume of work, the grind that is the email-heavy job, the endlessness, the thanklessness, the displacement of emotion and any sense of value that the work entails: this aspect of the book is unflinching.
Additionally, Losse writes of a job in which every interaction is better if it is performed to a public. Intimacy is only genuine when it is mediated and witnessed in text and image. The effect of this permanent audience is to turn every relationship into a kind of frieze or tableaux. ‘Becoming screen,’ we are robbed of the chance to register progress or duration. The cues we had for developing depth, nuance and meaning are strangely muted. This makes us doubt what we are feeling because we are never quite sure what is real, reciprocal, appropriate. On this score, if Eggers’ book entertains similar concerns, it does so in a less compelling way. Its hyperbole cannot grant empathy with the millions of users who use social media in spite of – and often precisely to fight – this ontological flatness.
What is most remarkable about Losse’s book is the love story. The friendship she shares with Thrax, a star recruit who hacks his way to employment, is the intriguing subplot that lingers. Together, they develop a cocoon that suits the strangeness of the world they are building. It is a conspiracy of care that typifies a prophylactic atmosphere.
For several years, we slept this way on work trips or social ones – they were one and the same: connected, but not quite, like the physical enactment of the AIM messages we tossed back and forth just to show each other that we are here, online, simultaneously together and apart. In retrospect it seems that this, a tangential state of connection, never total, never lost, always there at midnight when you are bored or lonely and need a slight, subtle reminder that you are loved, was one of the things Facebook was about, and it was our job as employees to embody it. Thrax’s and my insistence on a noncommittal proximity was the perfect manifestation of what we were creating for the whole world: a system devoted to potential connection, a way of being always near but never with the ones you love, a technology of forestalling choice in favor of the endless option, forever.
What does it mean for a group of people to grow up thinking they can’t risk being physically intimate? What is the sensibility that led to this? Granted, there are plenty of examples that would question this as the dominant register for online intimacy – within queer lifeworlds, in particular. But the passage above is troubling not least because it describes an even more intense notion of work’s intimacy. Here the subjectivity imagined by the employer-platform is inhabited by an employee whose personal life is compromised but not compensated.
Losse’s friendship brought to mind the hundreds of students I taught in gender studies courses in Australia: young people who saw their love lives reflected in Illana Gershon’s studies, whose relationships had only ever been experienced through technology. The Boy Kings makes me worry about the emergence of a permanently anticipatory sexual identity, one in which the precarious college student meets the inarticulate programmer.
In the move to a prophylactic culture, philosophers see a world that is isolated and protected by comforting interiors or bubbles. Screen culture is a means for us to create safer worlds to protect us from our passions so that we don’t hurt or break. Meanwhile engineers often imagine we can avoid social glitches and problems by designing them out of existence. This vision makes it possible to develop a world in which there are no dislikes.
Losse’s voice, by contrast, communicates affect. She adopts the <3 sign in her online interactions as a way to break protocol. <3 marks the emptiness that is the ultimate hangover from the stunning range of emotion expressed through social media: the panopoly of aches, anxieties, crises and crushes. These are disregarded, distracted and disowned desires that, even as they accumulate in server space, rarely materialize as profitable reflections of our own speculative thinking.
Facebook turns out to be a way to live the lives we aren’t able to enact, a repository for the necessary projections, fantasies and displacements that ease the here and now. But as Adam Philips shows, we avoid acknowledging these wishes at our peril. Fantasy’s function is to stand in for the lives we think we are avoiding, but to the extent that it succeeds, we lose the option of exploring our potential.
What remains instructive about Losse’s book is the historical curoisity that we have allowed ourselves to share so much affect in such a way that it both escapes our recognition and becomes the basis for a proprietorial cloud. This is the definitive affective economy: using social media, our fantasies are suspended out of reach, are owned by others, and become subject to algorithmic inspection.
The risk that Losse takes, in leaving Facebook and daring to explain why, illustrates the kind of courage she would like to see in more of us. She urges her readers to find other ways to touch each other beyond the convenience of the click. The decision to write a book about Facebook becomes a refusal of the very forms of attention embodied in the platform; of unthinking, anti-humanist, short-termist, superficial, unimaginative, unsubtle connection. In these accelerated times, Losse reminds us why writing at length is, as ever, a political act.