Dear Ariane—I wrote the last paragraphs thinking of Starship and / but they blended into a corporate communication. Another day, another three commercial real estate viewings.
Shortly after moving back to San Francisco, I stopped at a cafe in the middle of a commercial real estate search and sent a dispatch from the scene that unfolded in front of me:
A laundromat-cafe I used to like has been replaced by ROARK GYMS, where a mint of Randian heroes tread excitedly. We continue to Sightglass for a coffee.
Mezzanine level. An “Affogato bar,” so called, run by a pudgy African American in a retro Star Wars T-shirt set in faded pink letters. We joke, he gives me a discount, I give him a tip.
I sit down at a large communal table and get started with the application form for a Mission office. Across from us, two South Asians are speaking slowly, quietly, and clearly: it is impossible not to listen. They both carry accents, but each performs the language with competitive vigor. One is being fired, the one with a wedding ring and a scratchy face and a floppy Hawaiian shirt. “I’m sorry, but this is bullshit,” he says calmly.
The manager, in a loose-fitting purple-blue T-shirt, stammers through his next lines. He is young and his eyes are open and alert. The decision is final.
“No, you may not go back into the office, your personal items will be returned to you.” A darker-skinned Indian bystander sits across from us with a brand new space gray MacBook Pro and a vivid white matte cable connecting it to his jet black iPhone X. He takes off his over-ear bluetooth headphones and walks per- plexed to the Affogato bar with the pink- Star Wars barista, returning with three scoops of vanilla ice cream in a flimsy bowl that he sets down in front of the fired man, who now sits upright in his floppy shirt.
Confusion follows. “It seemed like an ice cream day,” explains the darker Indian with perfect American locution and upper-class tact, before clumsily ducking back into his headphones and pretending to get back to work. “Did you think ...?” the ice cream recipient asks, furrowing his eyebrows into an ag- gressive condescension. “What do you think happened?” He addresses the whole table and declares that they were only practicing. It’s his trump card. He tries to give the ice cream back to the generous bystander, who refuses it. The actor and his simulated boss promptly leave. As they leave, the donor takes off his headphones and looks up at me to share his bewilderment. I ask him if he wants an ice cream.
The Starship editors asked me to take the story further, to hint at what it might be about. This is because I am not a writer. It is because I can’t quite pick the right details that might through implication alone suggest the conclusion I want the reader to draw. Structural claims are dry and facile: the Bay Area imports an extraordinary homogeneity.
Every claim needs opposition—a sympathizer to California’s technological prowess might evoke the history of personal computing and network-based collaboration to demonstrate an ethos of individual and anti-bureaucratic empowerment—so this story depicts a lateral corporatism. Rookie engineers helping each other track towards management. Here were three South Asians, all at different levels of integration of the Bay Area technology hierarchy, publicly performing tropes at home in any faceless corporation and not at all particular to a new workplace consciousness. The shared ethnicity is relevant because it suggests a common experience and language between them that is not being employed to keep them together. I assume there is another story behind this one, likely involving British colonialism, only the outlines of which I can trace. The newcomers’ awkwardness allows the otherwise subtle codes of San Francisco to reveal themselves more clearly: competitive bureaucratic capitalism has permeated the social core of the city.
Loathe to generalize from anecdote, even if it fits with my larger impression, I considered why the moment sustained my notice and connected it to my recent thoughts and anxieties about assimilation. I had been working internationally with a high degree of independence for a good number of years and had just moved back to San Francisco to open a software company. Would I dissolve and disappear into flows of capital and delusional visions, or did assimilation leave open the potential for my character to permeate the larger context? When I lived abroad, I distanced myself from the United States without decisively adopting a new sovereign context. I had seen a cartoonist commandeer Stalin’s pejorative of the Jews’ “rootless cosmopolitanism” and I saw my own life, too, flash through those words even if I resisted ascribing my identity to my ancestor’s Eastern European Jewish diaspora. It fit with my work as well as my life: fluid and digital, words and images floating through distributed networks and repositories, visualizations and interfaces for fragmenting and decontextualizing media. For me to identify the awkwardness of these newcomers in language and conduct implies that I am at home here, that I have returned.
One of the most evocative computer algorithms of the last decade, which I have been studying and building upon, is called word2vec. It consumes a set of texts and produces a series of numbers (“vectors”) to represent the words it comes across. Each word’s vector is determined by nearby words in the input: two words with similar vectors show up in the neighborhood of similar words. This implies a theory of language where meaning is both used and perturbed with every utterance. Each word assimilates its neighbors, thereby evolving a language through usage. It is a completely ungrounded theory of language: rather than tie meaning to physical experience, there is only association and connotation. My interfaces use space as a surface to lay out their subjects, all placed based on these mathematical vectors but subject to sudden reconfiguration and reorganization.
That a word can take on multiple definitions allows for simultaneous meaning, and I tried to understand all of the layers of “assimilation.” It’s a cheap trick in writing—and in thinking—to reinterpret a sentence with every successive meaning of a word, mining for new ideas from old and forgotten senses. It is cheap if we know the language, because it is what the language tells us. A history of use is embedded in a sense of each word, and language represents this history. That word2vec allows a computer to model some of this nuance in language underlies a new flexibility in computerized comprehension of word, sound, image. Of senses. I had come across a technical form of “assimilation” recently describing how successive phonemes in human speech often blend into one another, one sound disappearing into the next. Even on the micro-level, fluency seems to be about knowing what not to say, when to leave a letter implied rather than voiced. To hear a voice as foreign, as I did at the Sightglass table, is to hear a foreign environment of sound, as if phonemes bring hometown neighbors along with them into the new language. This is the “accent” we hear, sounds coming along from one language to another. Assimilation must enter even our phonemes, must expunge our sonic memories. The old neighborhoods of sound must be forgotten.
The men were rehearsing because they recognized that it is not enough to know something in the abstract, but rather one must practice before knowledge enters the body and can be reliably performed. The fact that simulation is used for ideological embodiment, paradoxically, only proves the dematerialization of knowledge, proves that the idea triumphs over space and time. Simulation brings the new knowledge and language inward, and the host environment is then tested with a simulation of itself.
In this way simulation is the ideal framework for understanding our virtual reality. As in the role play I witnessed, virtuality supports a “what if” mode of thinking where many different scenarios can be explored and tested. The subject is not fired, but internalizes that it could be him next. Insofar as there is access to “undo,” we must not be in a reality of causal time and consequence, but rather modeling it as if it were numbers in a spreadsheet. Faced with unending possibility, we become more conservative than ever. The spreadsheet should allow a million production and distribution scenarios to be modeled and tested, but instead it hosts every business’s near-identical quarterly growth strategy. The Internet becomes five companies. Chains and franchises and Prime delivery connect and collapse landscape. This is why I am starting a company: even if I don’t yet know what will be different in my spreadsheet, I know that I am at home and that I don’t belong.
❧ ❧ ❧
The fire started and when after a couple of days the air was still thick with smoke, public life simply ended. The streets emptied of everyone with a roof, restaurants hosted a lone table or two, and the city became a graph. Nodes are represented with circles, regions capable of sustaining life, corporate petri dishes for testing different cultures of management theory. Between the circular nodes are drawn narrow lines to represent the Uber route from home to work and back.
The fire exposed what the city had already achieved: the annihilation of the public sphere.