“After On:” Excerpt 3 of 12
This is the third excerpt from AFTER ON: A Novel of Silicon Valley, which will be published August 1st. The series begins right here.
Man, is Mitchell dragging the next morning! Triumphing in an honest- to-God bar brawl called for some celebratory rounds that none of them really needed. He’s definitely hungover from that. Plus, perhaps, from the neurological glitch he suffered outside the bar. Those things can sometimes leave a faint next-day shadow. His condition is called Falkenberg’s disease, and its attacks are provoked by odd clusters of sensory and emotional events. The sensory triggers are abrupt surprises — like a flash, a jolt, or the unexpected siren he heard when he was standing at the bar’s intercom. Strong feelings of embarrassment or frustration (both also experienced outside the bar) are the emotional triggers. Falkenberg’s is part of the broad family of “cataplectic” conditions, in which emotions and other stimuli induce the sudden loss of muscular control (narcolepsy being a famous cousin). It was manageable during the decade-plus when Mitchell’s triggers had to clear high thresholds before he got into trouble. Attacks were rare back then, and mild. They also took minutes to build, leaving ample time to pull over if he happened to be driving. But those days are gone. Now, a single strong factor can provoke an attack, or two weak ones together. And he long since traded in his car for a Lyft account.
Bad as things are now, it’s nothing compared to the disease’s third phase, which could start tomorrow, next year, or ten years hence. A persistent tingling in his extremities will herald the start. This will then spread inward for months, until tingling suffuses his body. Then, as one chilling source has it:
The tingling escalates to either numbness or a burning feeling. This is accompanied by a gradual loss of motor control, which limits, then eclipses the use of all limbs and digits. Patients then gradually suffer increasing difficulty with speech, respiration, and swallowing. Most Falkenberg’s sufferers die as a result of losing the ability to breathe.
Uncertainty is one of the disease’s cruelest aspects. During the indeterminate lag before its third phase, many victims survey themselves obsessively for hints of tingling — some to the point of madness. But the giant unknown is what’s in store after the tingling is body-wide. When it “escalates to either numbness or a burning feeling.” More “fortunate” Falkenberg’s victims merely feel an icy nothingness toward the end. The unlucky ones suffer dreadful scorching sensations, which permeate their every cell and never once dim.
That’s the term victims have coined for this unspeakable phase. And when he contemplates what lies ahead, this terrifies Mitchell far more than the certainty of dying. The possibility of being . . . unlucky. Of being suffused with Hellfire for months on end and lacking the motor control necessary to end it by taking his own life.
At least Dr. Martha is still fighting for him. There could be something publishable going on here, after all! And so she has scanned, assayed, irradiated, sequenced, sampled, genotyped, biopsied, urinalysized, and all but vivisected Mitchell, while reaching out to the thin (and ever-thinning) ranks of his fellow sufferers across the globe; seeking DNA, tissue, blood, sperm (yes, really), and interviews. The oddest part of Mitchell’s own regimen is the frequent assignment of ghastly yoghurty goos to gag down. This, because Dr. Martha suspects his disease may be connected to the microbiome (Marthaspeak for bacteria that live in the gut and are in some way connected to horrid yoghurts).
And then came a bizarre and unexpected ray of light just three days ago. During an exam, Dr. Martha mentioned a possible connection between Falkenberg’s and the research Kuba’s wife Ellie is doing — the very research behind Giftish.ly’s technology! Of course, Ellie was at a conference just then, and Dr. Martha was leaving to trek the Amazon (of all places) with her geologist husband for twelve days. She asked Mitchell to keep things to himself until her return because she doesn’t want to put the lab through a fire drill unless she can better verify the link. This seemed reasonable at the time. But less so now, in light of Kuba’s and Danna’s pessimism about the company’s surviving today’s board meeting. Because if Animotion has even the faintest link to Falkenberg’s, he simply cannot lose control of it, Mitchell wants to scream!
Further darkening his mood, the office’s fog-choked neighborhood has an especially gloomy cast today. Far removed from tech-hip SoMa, from nearly-as-chic Potrero Hill, from the Mission’s gritty cool, and even from the bland-but-serviceable financial district; it lies many zip codes to the west; beyond even Arguello Boulevard (where explorers are known to fall off the planet’s edge); in a distant region known only for fog, raw ocean winds, numbered avenues, and competitively priced Chinese food.
Home to two endodontists before Mitchell rented it, the office is amenity-free, lacking even a foosball table. Which is so countercultural as to verge on being a statement. Elsewhere, tech companies dish up free Michelin-grade grub in their cafeterias, drive in staffers on fancy complimentary shuttles, and dole out on-premise handouts like massages, yoga classes, oil changes, grocery deliveries, childcare, nail care, pet care, gyms, and naptime in “crash pods”; as well as concierges to handle irksome tasks like ATM runs.
This dishing-up/driving-in/doling-out arms race is fodder in the industry’s never-ending talent auction — in which another common currency is vacation time. The stingy American two-week standard was largely out by the end of the first Internet bubble. Three weeks then became four, then gradually more. When Netflix announced unlimited time off, you’d’ve thought the bidding was over! Then Evernote topped it by throwing in free vacation spending money. Cynics questioned how many of those infinite holidays were actually taken, given the peer pressure to stick around and perpetually add value in Type-A pressure cookers (while noting that the policy eliminated the need to pay departing employees for accrued vacation time). So enter “pre-cations,” or paid vacations taken by new hires before the first day on the job.
The arms race recently spread to parental leave. In a nation that legislates precisely zero paid maternity days, Yahoo started giving Scandinavia a run for its money, with four months off for biological moms, plus seven weeks for dads, adoptive parents, and others who don’t actually bear their young. To this, Google added five hundred “Baby Bonding Bucks.” Facebook then octupled the cash, while granting the full four months of leave to fathers, adopters, foster parents, same-sex couples, and folks who come by their children by way of surrogacy. All this generosity surely delights employees. But in a sign that it’s also straining budgets, Apple and others now offer to freeze the eggs of aging female workers (as well as those of the aging wives and nonwife female partners of company men and company lesbians), thereby enabling people to punt on the whole pricey issue indefinitely.
None other than Phluttr brought this particular bidding war to an awkward and headline-seizing finale, by offering six months of leave, plus IVF with mitochondrial transfer to employees in FMF amorous triads, thereby raising the provocative specter of high-tech newborns with three extremely well rested genetic parents. The company followed this up with a series of contradictory apologies, denials, retractions, and amplifications that were ingeniously choreographed to provoke thunderous denunciations from both the left and the right. App downloads and website registrations soared during the ensuing wave of front-page revulsion, and the company’s founder (or Phoundr, as he’s inevitably called) achieved the distinction of being condemned by both MoveOn.org and the Sheikh of Al-Azhar in independent fatwas issued on the exact same day.
As for Giftish.ly, its lack of anything to entice perk junkies has been fine, up to a point. Infant startups have an inherent mystique, Mitchell’s a charismatic recruiter, and Kuba has a magnetic reputation, both as a developer and an engineering manager. All of this drew solid talent — particularly before their service’s debut (pre-launch companies having a special allure to some). But as the months dragged by with no perceptible traffic spike, the bloom drained slowly from the rose. Canny recruits troll sites like Alexa to gauge a startup’s user traction, and Crunchbase to track its fundraising. So just a few momentum-free months will lend a certain odor to a startup in the eyes of potential hires.
Not that Giftish.ly’s hiring just now. Indeed, they’ve been losing good people since September. Danna’s right-hand designer started the exodus, and she’s been covering for him ever since. Next, two not-bad engineers took off. Then in December, a software architect named Jimbo left for a LinkedIn spin-off. He was a quarrelsome twit whose facial topiary placed well in the annual World Beard and Moustache Championships; who painted his left fingernails black, cut his own hair, and refused to accept direct deposit for paranoid reasons he’d lay out in five-page rants larded with ENTIRE PARAGRAPHS IN ALL CAPS! (which Mitchell dutifully read but never quite fathomed). But he was one hell of a programmer. Coding is a dark art, whose greats excel in logarithmic ways. So while superb accountants might grind out the output of two, or even 2.6 average accountants; and likewise the best plumbers, lawyers, and bartenders; stupendous developers routinely do the work of five, ten, or even (Steve Jobs famously claimed) twenty-five mere mortals. Jimbo was one of those edge cases, and they’re in no position to hire another like him.
Now January finds Team Giftish.ly sheltering from foggy Farallon winds in an office whose low-rent vibe has gone from feeling scrappy and virtuous to desperate and mandatory. The sole benefit of this no-budget drudgery is its undeniable appeal to tight-fisted investors. This may just help a smidgen this morning, when #GreenSprout C@pital’s M@naging P@rtner, Founder, C:\>iefInvestmentOfficer, sole LTD.partner, and solitary employee arrives for the board meeting. No doubt the jackass’ll be exactly seventeen minutes late. It’s like his trademark. He adopted it after reading that this interval optimally heralds the latecomer’s importance, on a blog called Persuadifi.er, which promotes techniques for dominating beta males and females.
Sure enough, Mitchell and Kuba are twiddling their thumbs at 9:10. And at 9:12. And 9:14. Then at 9:15, Kuba flatly says, “Of course it was them.”
Kuba’s a habitual spouter of non sequiturs. Having decoded them for years, Mitchell instinctively scans his memory for topics to connect to this one. Last night’s discussion about who created the magic glasses in the bar, for instance. “You mean Phluttr?” he assays.
“Those people give me the creeps,” Kuba confirms. He’s generally averse to social networks. Enough so that he absented himself from them entirely for years, until co-founding a social-gifting company made this professionally untenable. It’s not moral distaste but personal skittishness. As he often states, he just doesn’t like being surveilled. Early childhood behind the rusted Iron Curtain seeded this aversion. Kuba was then surveilled more meticulously still as a teen — here, in the land of the free! As a direct result, he was then exiled (yes, exiled!). Remarkably, this never soured him on the US (intimacy with Soviet rot being a strong inoculant against anti-Americanism). But he shrinks from sites that track user preferences and histories too comprehensively, and no site is more invasive than Phluttr.
“The creeps,” Kuba reaffirms at 9:16.
At precisely 9:17, Harold Pugwash waddles in. Chubby and rather beady-eyed, he’s a full head shorter than Mitchell. He’s just “Pugwash” to everyone, including immediate family — and also non-immediate family, which is to say Mitchell, who is one of his many cousins.
“Your email said we’ll be doing some kind of technology review,” he grumbles, thunking down across the table from them. “What’s the point? You guys’re fucked, you’re an acquihire! No one cares about tech in an acquihire. They only care about the team! So why don’t you just give me a roster of your engineers and let me get on with my day?”
Kuba shoots Mitchell a seething look, making zero effort to hide his scorn for Pugwash. Kuba was still in high school when they first met, and Pugwash gave him the worst career advice ever proffered from one human being to another (and I do mean that quite literally in dollar terms, as we’ll see). More recently, he’d heard countless anti-Pugwash screeds at Google. Pugwash had preceded him there by many years, but though long gone, his name still rang out in its hallways. You see, Fortune’s a bitch with a great sense of humor — and so she made Pugwash a ridiculously early Google hire, which scored him a commensurately ridiculous stock package. Of course, all companies make hiring boo-boos. But when the true greats make them really early on, some real knuckleheads can get moronically rich. This effect produces plenty of accidental tech millionaires. Some accidental gazillionaires, too — but only a smattering of Pugwashes, and the man is rather famous. Some take his exquisite luck almost personally. Not merely those who worked far harder for far lesser bonanzai (although to be clear, those folks’re plenty pissed). But also those who are even richer still through their own godsends of timing, genetics, or happenstance, and have since fetishized a vision of the industry as an immaculate meritocracy. Those who fancy that they earned every dime of their tech fortunes through talent, toil, and daring (which is almost everyone who has one) regard any whiff of the lottery (Pugwash, for instance) as a PR liability.
Mitchell starts the meeting. “We’d like to begin by taking you on a deeper tour of our technology, as we think this’ll prove that an acquihire would be a terrible mistake. Because as you’ll see, we may be on the cusp of a massive breakthrough.”
“I hope that doesn’t mean you think you’re getting another dime out of me,” Pugwash snips. “Because Giftish.ly is already the biggest capital investment I’ve ever made.” This is no exaggeration. Pugwash’s industry nickname is Fiddy — as in Fiddy-K, in honor of the fifty-thousand-dollar investments he tries to foist on any Google alum who starts a company. Enough have said yes over the years (along with graduates of Facebook, PayPal, LinkedIn, and the other companies he stalks) that his portfolio is a bit like an index fund of startups from 2004 to the present. This could well be the greatest vintage in the history of entrepreneurial equity. So if Pugwash’s initial fortune annoyed his early cohorts, his current one must be robbing them of the will to live.
But Pugwash blew way past his standard fiddy-K for Giftish.ly, offering them ten times that sum the moment he got wind of the company’s formation. It was indeed the scale of this bet that prompted Mitchell to resist his better instincts and accept his cousin’s capital. From a sheer logistics and brain-damage standpoint, one big check is always better than lots of teeny ones; and most of the angel money on offer to them was in small denominations. Pugwash’s relative generosity at the time had everything to do with Kuba’s reputation within Google and nothing to do with family loyalty. Indeed, it had nothing to do with generosity, as his true agenda was connected to #GreenSprout C@pital. With hopes of turning it into a proper fund, Pugwash was then making bigger bets on fewer companies while also taking his first board seats. This turned out to be a brief phase, as nobody he called on had the faintest interest in backing #GreenSprout. Which was a catastrophic mistake for them, as his one other large investment from that phase will soon become the single most lucrative angel investment of all time (and again, we can blame that cosmic bitch with the great sense of humor). More on that in a bit.
Mitchell launches his first slide — a simple visual representation of how their Animotion technology works. “We briefly discussed Animotion when we first pitched the company to you. I’d like to go into some more depth today.”
“How ’bout the thirty-second version?” Pugwash asks, shunning Mitchell’s PowerPoint for his new phone, which is the size of a serving platter.
“Well, the basic concept is rooted in evolutionary psychology.”
“I said seconds, not eons,” Pugwash grumbles, but pulls his eyes from his screen.
“It all starts with the fact that thinking is expensive from the standpoint of natural selection,” Mitchell continues. “The brain consumes 20 percent of the calories that humans eat. And while intelligence enabled humanity’s survival, our ancestors were in a constant race against starvation, too. So their brains only got so big.”
Pugwash gets it. “Being smarter gets you more to eat but only up to a point,” he says. “Then there’s diminishing returns.”
Mitchell nods. “And if human brains devoured double the calories, grandma and grandpa wouldn’t have found twice the nuts and berries. So our ancestors’ brains grew until they hit a certain equilibrium.”
“Which means humans are a lot stupider than maybe they could be. Which explains Republicans.”
Mitchell gives this thigh-slapper a courtesy chuckle. His cousin is the most relentlessly politically correct person he knows and misses no opportunity to denounce the right (as well as the center, and for that matter, the center-left). This posture is so safe and common among tech elites that it’s dictated by conformity as often as principle. Pugwash himself is about as idealistic and committed to empowering the vulnerable as an Abu Dhabi housewife with three Filipina slaves staffing her kitchen.
“As a result,” Mitchell continues, “human thought is full of shortcuts, patches, and hacks. It has to be. Because it runs on a fixed budget, and we face countless mental challenges that cavemen never dealt with. Brain MRIs are now so sensitive that researchers can actually see some of these shortcuts in action. And many are driven by emotions we evolved over eons on the savannah. For instance: you don’t compute the number of calories that an enemy caveman stole when he swiped your brontosaurus burger. You just get mad and bash his head in. Then the other cavemen don’t derive the expected value of grabbing your next burger. They’re just scared of you and don’t dare. Meanwhile, you don’t quantify the benefits of your newborn cave-son living long enough to help you hunt, eat, and conquer enemies. You just love your kid and do everything you can to help him survive.”
“Unless I’m a Tea Party douchebag. Those people just aren’t human!” His catcalls aside, Pugwash is now fully engaged. Though lazy, his intellect is also robust, and Mitchell has perfected a concise yet chatty style that really draws him in. As dumbest guy in the room, he has to come up with ways to be useful, and this one’s a biggie.
“The point is that millions of years of natural selection baked these emotions into us. But we never built them into computers. Which didn’t matter when computers were just adding up columns and transferring data. But now we want them to find our soulmates. Decide who should live or die on a battlefield. Or allocate scarce resources amongst deserving people.”
“Or, in the case of Giftish.ly’s noble purpose, figure out which MP3in your catalog’ll get the hot chick down the hall to cock a leg,” Pugwash says. “If you’re like, some sexist, rapey frat boy.”
“That’s one way of putting it,” Mitchell says, managing to sound like he’s savoring an astute and subtle point. “Anyway, Kuba’s wife’s research seems to show that emotions run much deeper in analytical processes than anyone previously imagined. And that an emotional substrate is actually essential for all sorts of analysis.”
“So then why don’t I burst into tears whenever I do a jigsaw puzzle, or whatever?” Pugwash snorts.
“Because that requires raw linear cognition rather than oblique reasoning,” Kuba says, sincerely trying to help. He then clams up, as if this is a complete explanation.
“Sure, a cat can’t do a jigsaw puzzle,” Mitchell expands, as if Kuba’s non sequitur was part of a carefully rehearsed spiel. “Nor a toddler. But just grind away at it, and you’ll eventually complete it.”
“Then what’s this substrate of yours actually good for?” Pugwash snaps.
“Well,” Mitchell says, “imagine I spend an hour trying to figure out how America should fix its relations with Russia. I’m a foreign affairs novice and don’t get anywhere. And I won’t get any further if I spend ten more hours at it. Or a hundred. Because certain problems are completely resistant to increased rumination. But things are different for a diplomat who has spent years engaged in Russian-American relations. Not because he knows more facts and figures, because that stuff’s available to all of us via Google, now. But because his framework includes lots of intuition. Educated guesses. Vague rules of thumb that have just kind of worked over the years — that sort of thing. This much has been known for a while.”
“Which is why motes can be viewed as nucleic particles of analysis,” Kuba adds obtusely.
“Exactly!” Mitchell says, deftly nudging things along. “What we’re now learning is that this thought framework is powered by a wildly complex undercurrent of emotions. Emotions connected to personal experiences and values. To the diplomat’s visceral reactions to events as they unfold in real time, or to new facts as they emerge. Most of these emotions are minuscule and fleeting. So much so that they aren’t even experienced consciously! Kuba’s wife’s lab is doing a ton of research into these feelings and their function. And as Kuba just mentioned, she named them ‘motes.’ ”
“Like something you dig around a castle? That’s stupid.”
Masking a familiar urge to belt his cousin, Mitchell says, “No, it’s spelled M-O-T-E. It’s short for ‘emote.’ Also, they’re tiny — like dust motes.”
“Got it. And how do they help our Russia expert?”
“The mosaic of motes he’s affixed to various facts, ideas, and personal experiences over the years will supercharge his thought processes,” Mitchell says. “By enabling those gut shortcuts. By creating conviction when pure analysis would lead to indecision, and more. It’s as if he’s now speed-skating around a rink instead of running around a field.”
“So he’s thinking faster?”
“Not exactly. It’s that he’s thinking more deftly. He’s moving around the same geography as a novice, but that hard-earned emotional substrate gives him the ice. It gives him the skates, as well as speed, power, and grace. And it lets him pull off moves no one could manage on solid ground! This sort of thing happens in any domain that’s intractable to raw rumination, or raw computing.”
“Like figuring out what songs the chick I’m banging will like.”
Earlier, I said that while Mitchell usually invokes his “dumbest guy in the room” mantra metaphorically, it’s sometimes literally true. This is one of those times — because Pugwash is quite bright, much as we all hate to admit it. And hats off to Mitchell because it’s good for a founder to be the dim bulb at the office! Since your own IQ is fixed, pulling this off means recruiting a brilliant team, which is a huge part of your job. It also means that you’re almost always learning. And when you’re not learning, you can fix that by changing the subject. When surrounded by engineers, Mitchell steers away from MBA topics, preferring to discuss software architecture, say. Or if in a discussion of hockey (he’s the smartest guy in the city about this), he might bring up string theory (of which he has a sub-Neanderthal grasp). He figures the more you learn, the better you teach — which is quite useful in circumstances like today’s.
Pugwash is now firmly under the conversational spell, despite himself. “So assuming you can port all of this into software,” he asks, “what could it enable? Besides what you’re trying to do with it now. Because I’m pretty sure that’ll never make a dime.”
“There may not be any commercial application for it,” Kuba blurts cheerfully, and Mitchell deftly masks an urge to strangle him. “But there could be radical applications from a pure-science standpoint!”
Mercantile to his core, Pugwash is about as drawn to pure science as a ravenous, horny lion is to something he can neither eat nor fuck. “Like . . . what?” he asks, with something verging on disgust.
“Well . . .” Kuba begins. He then goes somewhere entirely new to Mitchell. “Quite possibly consciousness.” He says this very, very quietly. “Because my wife’s research indicates that human consciousness is in some way enabled by motes.”
Pugwash gives a low whistle, then falls silent. Then, “Holy crap!” Then more silence.
And Mitchell allows himself a moment of hope. Yes, his cousin is more a lover of money than of ideas. But he is smart! And he does care about his reputation. Perhaps even his legacy! And the radical significance of Animotion is clearly dawning on him (on both of them, frankly, as this is the first Mitchell has heard about this consciousness angle).
More silence. Then, more still. Then, finally, Pugwash speaks.
“This is the most incredible technology I’ve had a personal hand in creating since me and Larry invented the Page Rank algorithm at Google,” he begins grotesquely. “And — ”
Still more silence.
Then: “There’s not a fucking chance I’m putting another dime into it.”
“But — ” Mitchell begins, his calm fraying.
Pugwash cuts him off. “NO, Mitchell! It’d be way too expensive. You couldn’t even take a baby step down this path with just a few weeks of financing. Which, let’s face it, is the best you could hope to claw out of a tightwad prick like me.”
“But we can’t just let it die,” Mitchell says, as this might just be tantamount to letting him die — for reasons that Dr. Martha will hopefully elucidate whenever she gets back from the damned Amazon!
“Who said anything about it dying?” Pugwash asks. “There’s no way we’re letting that happen.” And Mitchell is overcome with relief.
“Not a chance!” Kuba agrees. “I’m convinced this could be monumental. Historic. Epoch-defining! And I’d leave the commercial world entirely to push it forward. Who cares if we ever see a dime from it?”
“What?” Pugwash asks.
Deaf as he can be to the most blaring social signals, Kuba mistakes horror for shocked admiration. “Seriously! Who cares about the economics? In fact, everything that’s done in this area should probably be open-source. Put in the public domain. This could be as fundamental as Newton’s laws! Could you imagine if those had been private property?”
Pugwash — who would’ve leveraged a medieval patent on gravity into the papacy and half of Prussia — nods wildly.
Clumsily mistaking this for support, Kuba plows on. “Obviously, the neuroscience is coming out of my wife’s lab at UCSF. So that would be a logical home for my work, too. But there’re also some amazing assets we should consider at Stanford.”
Pugwash finally detonates. “Nothing that I sank a half million dollars into is going into the public domain!”
Stunned silence. Then, “Well, it’s common in academia — ”
“Academia! Do I look like the National fucking Science Foundation?”
“But . . . well, the maximum potential of this stuff — ”
“Is economic, not academic! Do you think we’d have . . . penicillin, if we relied on schools to invent shit? Pacemakers? Seatbelts? Search engines?”
By rather awesome coincidence, all of these things actually did emerge from university labs. But before Kuba can point this out, Mitchell jumps in.
“Wait!” All eyes look his way. “I just thought of the perfect buyer.” A lowly generalist among brilliant experts will sometimes see patterns that elude the specialists. Pugwash is a luminary when it comes to making money for Pugwash; and Kuba, an eminence in the realm of bits and bytes. Yet Mitchell’s the first to detect the clear point of intersection between these domains. It’s another reason why every room needs a dummy.
“Google,” Mitchell continues. “You’re both alumni. So they’ll definitely take your call. And they do lots of pure R&D. The flying windmills, the broadband balloons, all that crazy life-science stuff!” It really is a perfect fit, and Mitchell’s heart is racing. Unlike most acquihirers, Google could easily fathom Animotion’s maximum promise. Which means the team might stay together there and keep on developing the technology! Charming as Mitchell finds Kuba’s academic dreams, academia can lack urgency, and nothing invents or creates faster than a crack startup that’s betting everything on a new domain. That’s why Giftish.ly should have been such a great platform for Animotion. But a huge company with the money, patience, and creative spark to support speculative research could be an even better home.
Pugwash nods slowly. “Fucking smart, Cuz,” he concedes. Then he goes silent, and a bit catatonic — kind of how Einstein would get when duking it out with quantum theory. Lost in his own narrow realm of genius, he slowly starts shaking his head. And then, “But . . . but fuck that! Why? Because Google is now worth a half trillion dollars. So where’s the upside for me?”
His very life perhaps on the line, Mitchell abdicates his sober reign over the conversation. “Upside?” he snorts. “This is a fire sale, an acquihire! We’ll be lucky to get your capital back! There won’t be any upside!”
“Not if we sell to a public company whose stock has gone up a gazillion-x since its IPO,” Pugwash snaps. “The time to sell anything for Google stock was two years before they went public!”
“Oh, gee! So all we have to do is grab a time machine at Fry’s, and set it to 2003. Why didn’t I think of that?”
“Wrong, nimrod. All we have to do is sell to the next Google, while it’s still small-ish and private.”
“Oh — to them! Now you’re talking. Only, wait. I forgot! Private startups don’t do pure R&D, do they? Huhhhhhh . . .” An awkward, aggravated silence ensues as Mitchell sarcastically feigns deep thought.
Eventually, Pugwash snaps his fingers. “Holy crap — I know exactly who to sell this to! And they fucking love me!”
This odd statement sends Kuba and Mitchell down virtually identical mental paths. They first wonder who he could possibly be talking about. They then figure it must be someone who’s more or less obliged to be pro-Pugwash (or more likely, to fake it). They both then think through a list of his many investees — and reject each on the basis that a long-ago $50K investment couldn’t possibly engender that level of fealty. And this inevitably leads to the one other company that Pugwash bet big on when he nurtured those brief fantasies about other investors backing him, and turning #GreenSprout into a full-blown micro-VC. That putrid, scummy, gutter company. That screaming indictment of the entire entrepreneurial tradition whose board he also sits on. Yup — that jackpot stroke of obnoxious great luck that’s destined to become the highest-yielding angel investment of all time.
By evening, no one will remember if this exploded out of Kuba’s mouth, Mitchell’s, or both simultaneously.
Regardless, Pugwash is nonplussed. “What the hell do you have against Phluttr?”
“They’re the most intrusive, immoral, self-serving, and privacy-raping social network on the planet,” Mitchell says, coaxing every diplomatic neuron in his brain to squeeze out this shamelessly obsequious understatement.
“Phluttr’s not a social network,” Pugwash decrees nonsensically. “It’s a social operating system. And they’re your perfect buyer!”
“Define ‘perfect,’ ” Kuba snaps.
“Oh, hmm, let’s see.” Pugwash scowls, locks eyes with him, then raises an index finger, as if commencing a lengthy count-off. “They’re the next Google . . .” He freezes.
Time passes. A lot of it. Then Mitchell weighs in to break off the staring contest. “But Phluttr could buy anyone right now! I mean, sure, we have a good team. But why not buy a good team that’s also shown some commercial viability around their technology?”
Pugwash takes a (slightly) gentler tone. “I’m not actually sure. But I have a feeling they’ll be interested in Animotion itself.”
“Really?” Mitchell says, instantly half-placated. He’s interested in anything that’ll keep Animotion alive. But Phluttr? They’d ditch anything that couldn’t help sell more cigarettes to tweens, or nerve gas to dictators, or whatever else is winning the ad auctions this week.
“Well, ever since they raised their first really giant round of capital last year, they’ve been snapping up lots of companies,” Pugwash says. “And now that they just closed that billion-plus round, they’ll be buying way more stuff.” Then, in an oddly quiet tone, “Weird stuff, frankly. It all goes into this internal incubator. They call it the PhastPhorwardr.”
Mitchell groans. “Of course they do.”
“They’ve bought into machine learning, synthetic biology, drones, quantum computing, augmented reality, virtual reality, graphene, nanotech — if it’s been on the cover of Wired in the past couple of years, they’ve got some. They’re mainly picking up tiny startups with a big lead in something weird. And Animotion sounds pretty weird! By the way, wasn’t that a . . . disco band? Anyway. That’s why I think you guys might be a fit for them.” He looks at Kuba. “The engineers go to the PhastPhorwardr.” He turns to Mitchell. “Guys like you tend to get the axe,” he adds, flashing a whaddaya-gonna-do shrug.
“But why?” Kuba asks.
“Because they can’t code or do anything useful,” says Pugwash, who neither codes nor does anything useful.
“No, I mean why are they buying all those small companies in areas that have nothing to do with social networking?”
“A, Phluttr isn’t a social network; it’s a social operating system. And B, I don’t know. The same reason Google decided to invest in self-driving cars, I guess. Because they can. Because their stock’s so stupidly valuable, they can pick up options on a dozen hot technologies for practically nothing. But I don’t really know because we don’t talk about every little thing at the board meetings anymore. The company’s got almost a thousand employees! Plus dozens of initiatives, and the board’s totally focused on the IPO anyway.”
Mitchell misses most of this because he’s playing back the list of technology areas Phluttr has bought into. “Wait a sec — did you say augmented reality? Are they doing anything . . . interesting in that area?”
Pugwash shoots him the hostile, suspicious glare of a Navy Seal facing an alleged Nigerian prince requesting bank details so as to wire an improbable windfall. “What do you mean?”
“AR means laying imagery on top of someone’s actual view of the outside world, via — ”
“No, nimrod, I know what AR is. I meant, what do you mean by asking me about what Phluttr’s doing with it?”
Chilled by this odd vehemence, Mitchell decides not to mention last night’s incident at the bar. “Oh, nothing really, it’s just a . . . really cool area. I can only imagine what Phluttr would do with AR and couponing, for instance.”
“I’m sure I have no idea,” Pugwash enunciates slowly and clearly, as if ensuring that someone’s hidden lapel mic will catch every word. “Like I said. The board meetings are all about the IPO these days. And very little else. If you want to know what Phluttr’s doing in AR, you should ask around the PhastPhorwardr. If you get that far.”
The meeting ends quickly after that. Kuba and Mitchell reluctantly agree to let Pugwash reach out to Phluttr’s Phuckng Phoundr about an acquihire. Later, when Mitchell’s alone in his cramped office, he replays that odd interchange about AR. The topic’s apparent sensitivity brought out something faint in his cousin’s voice. Faint yet unmistakable. Something that never before broke through his bombast, blather, and braggadocio, going clear back to childhood.
It was fear.
No sooner had Agent Hogan voiced his urge to rid the Earth of the Chinamen’s treaty-scoffing Top Secret Superintelligence project than a stentorian, disembodied voice boomed thunderously into the conference room. “IT IS FORBIDDEN!” it proclaimed!“Good day, Mr. Director-in-Chief,” Agent Hogan rejoindered, blasély. “What is the Agency timorously precluding me from now?”“INVADING CHINA,” thundered his as-yet-unseen interlocutor. “The nuclear ramifications would be too momentous to contemplate!”“But a Chinese Superintelligence would pose an existential threat to Mankind!” Hogan cried.“One that could be negated by the doctrine of Decisive Strategic Advantage,” came the mysterious parry. “Decisive Strategic Advantage?” Hogan queried.“Yes, yes; Decisive Strategic Advantage! Dr. Phillips? Please expound upon this concept.”“Very well,” Dr. Phillips consented. “Today, when engineers develop new computers, they rely greatly upon software in designing chips and writing code. But central as these tools are to advancing Computer Science, human input is more essential still. Because no computer is clever enough to create its own heir; its own superior; its own next-generation successor.”“Of course not,” Hogan concurred.“But! This may not always be so. And should a computer arise that can create a more intelligent, capable, and creative computer than itself . . . then we will have both reached, and passed, a definitive point of absolutely no return, period, END, ever! We call that point the ‘Omega Point.’ And the hypothetical breakout computer that crosses it, ‘The Omega Computer.’”A knowing crease in Hogan’s brow betokened that he’d already discerned why this threshold was in no way re-crossable! “And because the Omega Computer’s descendant will be more powerful in every respect; it will, by definition, be capable of any feat performed by its inferior forebear,” he postulated.“Precisely!” Dr. Phillips intoned.“Ergo it, too, will create a descendant more powerful than itself; which will, ceteris paribus, repeat that feat, and so on!”“Precisely! Now, if you’ll indulge me in a thought experiment: suppose it takes Science one century to create a computer with Man’s full intellectual capabilities. How long do you surmise it would take to create a computer twice as capable?”“If only because the question as phrased all but goads me to say two centuries, the answer is surely anything but that.”“Precisely! The reason being the Exponential March of technology. Consider flight. In ancient Greece, the state of the art involved flapping one’s feather-clad arms for a few desperate moments before splattering at the foot of a cliff.” Dr. Phillips paused for laughter as the room envisaged the antics of the doltish ancestors of modern Europe’s most despised basket case. “It took men two millennia to advance from that to a 120-foot powered flight at Kitty Hawk. But it didn’t take another two millennia to achieve the first 240-foot flight. We rather reached the Moon in mere decades! Which is to say, 10 million times the distance, in one thirtieth of the time! That’s exponential improvement! And improvements tend to happen faster still in information processing.”Hogan nodded his head in vociferous agreement. “Because of its digital nature!” he cried.“Precisely! Now, to answer my own prior question, if it takes Computer Science a full century to create the first human-grade computer, estimates state it should merely take between 14.2 days and 20.6 hours before the first double-human computers arise!”Hogan arched an incredulous eyebrow disbelievingly.“The reason is that for a developing AI, human-grade horsepower is as arbitrary a milestone as the 120 feet that Orville Wright traveled on that first flight. Self-improving artificial minds will surpass human limits without noticing! Certainly without slowing. Indeed, while continuing to accelerate! A quadruple-human system will follow its double-human parent almost immediately. Then an octuple-human system, with its decca-sextuplet progeny, tri-decca-dual grandprogeny, its sex-decca-quadro great-grand progeny, and so on! Earth could fall under the absolute sway of an unfathomably advanced intelligence just days after the Omega Point is breached!”“And this brings us to the doctrine of Decisive Strategic Advantage?” Hogan conjectured.“It does,” Dr. Phillips certified. “A thousand-year lead in aeronautics was militarily irrelevant back when Greek test pilots were the preferred hors d’oeuvres of cliff-dwelling vermin.” This aroused another hearty chuckle as the room contemplated the timeless stupidity of the Greeks. “But just a decade after Kitty Hawk, Britain’s meager six-month lead in aeronautics proved decisive in many a dogfight!”“So if China beats us to a Super AI . . .”“Or, more broadly, if ANYBODY beats ANYBODY to a Super AI, then a lead of a few days, or even hours, will be completely insuperable! Why? Because a few lightning-fast digital generations after the first Super AI emerges, its progeny could easily hack into all global computer systems, and parse all of Mankind’s data, while simultaneously auditing all spoken conversations worldwide, using technologies incomprehensible and undetectable to our own puny minds!”“As such, the Super AI will be functionally omniscient in relation to human society!” Hogan deduced.“Precisely. And by mastering Synthetic Biology and Nanotechnology, it will likewise be functionally omnipotent! As such, it could preclude the creation of any subsequent ‘me-too’ Super AI as easily as a Harvard Trained Biochemist could stop a helpless bacterium from reproducing in a petri dish!”“And this shall be its . . . Decisive Strategic Advantage!”“It shall. To be very precise, the doctrine of Decisive Strategic Advantage ramifies that the first Super AI created by Man shall also be the last!”“So this is why we must brutally prevent China from developing a Super AI!” Hogan concluded.“WRONG,” came the thunderous boom from on high. “It is why we must BEAT THEM TO IT!”
This is the third excerpt of twelve from AFTER ON: A Novel of Silicon Valley, which will be published August 1st. To be notified of all future excerpts, simply Follow author Rob Reid. To navigate to other parts of this series (the first excerpt, for instance) see the upper left corner of this page. The context of this excerpt series is laid out in this post.
And for God’s sake, don’t miss our next installment, wherein a CEO fires his board for once; the digital nature of emotions is revealed; the desperate year of 2002 is reviewed from a safe distance; and stentorian phallocrat Brock Hogan falls oddly silent. If you’re a Medium member, you can read it right here.
Podcast host at after-on.com Author (“After On,” “Year Zero,” etc). Founder, of Listen (which created the Rhapsody music service). Tech investor. TED Talk-er.
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