Tag Archives: literature

the Fictionalizations of ‘the Google’

I had a colleague a few years ago who joked about how his aging parents always referred to Google, the search engine, as “the Google,” as if the internet giant had become an entity of such massive, generic proportion that it deserved its own “the..”, like “the city,” or “the ocean,” or “the internet.” The Google.

Popular culture has been producing fictionalized narratives about what life at Google might be like, to complement the hordes of reportage documenting the reality of the company. For an account of how it came to be, and an outsider’s view of the founders, Ken Auletta’s non-fiction book “Googled” tells a fascinating story.

But the real story of Google is about the people who work there, and what they are trying to accomplish. There are plenty of imaginary guesses as to what that’s like – in ‘The Internship,’ actors Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn actually have the blessing of Google’s marketing department to use the company’s real logo, and refer to it by name, in their imaginary take on what it’s like to work for the massive company.

The American author Dave Eggers has recently published “The Circle,” his take on life at Google, (or maybe some combination of Google and Facebook) and how the company is changing the world, but without the happy rainbows and moon-glow sheen of the Wilson/Vaughn film.

Of the two accounts, is one more accurate than the other? I would need first hand experience to answer that with any authority. My best guess is that Eggers is reaching closer to Google’s heart than Vaughn and Wilson.

At Eggers’s Google (He calls it ‘the Circle’) the campus glistens and sprawls, the office parties are legendary, and the ‘Circlers’ on staff are all brilliant, young intellectual heavyweights. But eventually, the villianization of privacy becomes overwhelming, the expectations of world-saving become untenable, and the marriage of life and work becomes suffocating.

Eggers’ Google follows these guiding principles, echoing Orwell’s Big Brother:

“SECRETS ARE LIES. SHARING IS CARING. PRIVACY IS THEFT.”

The Circle has incredible ambition – an imaginative product called ‘TruYou,’ which is your real identity, everywhere online; ‘SeeChange,’ a YouTube-like network of tiny cameras placed everywhere in the world, broadcasting everything to satisfy anyone’s curiosity; and ‘Transparency‘, which puts the cameras on individual persons, worn as a necklace, making their every movement a publicly broadcasted act. Numerous other realistic inventions are sprinkled throughout the story, introduced as positive societal game-changers, but simmering beneath the surface with totalitarian terror.

As Eggers’ describes these fictional innovations, without diving into technological reality, they actually seem very close to the realm of possibility – or at least near to the trajectory we can expect to see over the next few decades.

The story follows the path of Mae, an ambitious young woman drawn to the company by its promise of involvement, optimism and excellence. The journey she takes is one that moves from initial bewilderment at The Circle to a creeping acceptance and incapacitating servitude, while she alienates and betrays every real relationship in her life along the way.

The ugly consequences of The Circle’s mission to publicize everything are highlighted by the revulsion felt by Mae’s ex-boyfriend, who chastises her:

 “Every time I see or hear from you, it’s through this filter. You send me links, you quote someone talking about me, you say you saw a picture of me on someone’s wall… It’s always this third-party assault. Even when I’m talking to you face-to-face you’re telling me what some stranger thinks of me. It becomes like we’re never alone. Every time I see you, there’s a hundred other people in the room. You’re always looking at me through a hundred other people’s eyes.” 

At Vaughn and Wilson’s Google, in “The Internship,” the company is nothing more than a place for two aging slackers to take a second shot at being financially responsible adults, who are capable of earning a living to support themselves – it just so happens this place is also Google, where everyone who wears the logo must be disruptively smart and attractive.

‘The Internship’ doesn’t touch on a single thing that Google actually does, or how their real products and technology are used by the world, until a thrown together final scene which vaguely hints that Google can help a small pizza shop – yet this is the fictionalization that the corporation gave a real blessing to, with ample permission to display their bright and shiny logo in nearly every scene, from the extensive coverage of the ‘nap stations’ on campus, and the ample free food and snacks, to the team-building trips at San Francisco strip clubs.

The British film critic Mark Kermode described The Internship as “one of the most witless, humourless, vomit-inducingly horribly self-satisfied, smug, unfunny comedies I have ever seen.”

So which of these representations is the real Google? Hmm, I don’t know…. Maybe you can Google it.

When I was a kid, I remember having playful arguments with friends during our imaginative games that were settled by how many multiples of a number we were better than one another – ‘I’m a million times taller’ or ‘I’m ten million times faster!’

One day, in a conversation with my Dad, he explained the number ‘googol,’ and I felt like a huge cloak had been lifted from the possibilities of the universe. It was the biggest number ever! In my imagination, I could be GOOGOL times faster!

So now, along with all the other cosmic and intricate coincidences that fill up my life, I’m an adult, and Google is still the easiest way to end an argument.

on the Humanities

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal asked – “Who ruined the humanities?”

The writer’s premise is that students of art and literature are at a disadvantage when studying at a university, where a rigid pedagogy is imposed on works that should be considered personally and at leisure, thus leaving the students with no real benefit upon graduating but having soaked up and learned to reproduce the opinions of professors. The article is rich with opinion and gives an interesting history of literature studies that I didn’t encounter at all during my years of college.

He writes:

Only a knave would applaud the falling-off in the formal study of books that cultivate empathy, curiosity, aesthetic taste and moral refinement. But the academic study of literature leads to nothing of the sort.

Every other academic subject requires specialized knowledge and a mastery of skills and methods. Literature requires only that you be human. It does not have to be taught any more than dreaming has to be taught.

The notion that great literature can help you with reading and thinking clearly is also a chimera.

This socially and economically worthless experience is called transcendence, and you cannot assign a paper, or a grade, or an academic rank, on that.

Some … pitiable non-humanities majors might not be interested in literature at all. They might have to settle for searching for a cure for cancer, and things like that.

My initial reaction to the eloquent but inflammatory statements was defensive – I am a happy, successful young professional working for a company the same publication praises in another section for it’s potential and vision – as I do my ‘real’ job, I’m simultaneously filming documentary video of my workplace for the WSJ to judge in their ‘Startup of the Year’ competition. My studies in English have in no way disturbed my career progress, so the author must be crazy. Majoring in the humanities has had no negative effect on my life.

Sitting with the idea for a few days, I started to form a second opinion. Maybe I was looking at this from the wrong angle. Perhaps it isn’t in the workplace where English majors end up suffering, but away from it. We’re adept at talking our way into meetings and charming executives. Our communication skills and ability to interpret abstract concepts and complex narratives put us at an advantage in any field. Unfortunately, we end up taking  more of our stumbles outside of the office.

It’s in the sappy voicemails, late night texts, and unprovoked confessions where we scramble to retain a happy medium. It’s in personal relationships that the English major’s education might be an albatross. Because we sprinkle a concoction of tender adjectives on every passing glance, because we inscribe every innocent comment with depths of hidden meaning. Because we thought critically about Juliet, Werther, Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina – we might be more sensitive to the same kinds of drama in our own lives.

(I certainly don’t have any data backing up this suggestion – nor have I even asked any other English majors – simply banking on my own experience. Maybe I’m judging harshly.)

My course selections could have had more influence on how to understand ‘love’ than other classes might have – if there were a survey of Grisham and Crichton novels instead of 19th century Romantics, I could have ended up with a shaper ear for legal briefings and popular science as opposed to scandal and heartbreak, so it’s not like I didn’t make the bed myself. C’est la vie.

I don’t agree with the author that the study of literature in a university is completely useless. Many of the works I read I wouldn’t have encountered anywhere else. Ingénu that I am, it wasn’t until I was enrolled in an English program that I cared who Twain, Goethe, or Tolstoy were.

Exposure to works I wouldn’t have otherwise bothered with, and participating in discussions that validated my opinions of and interest in what I was reading, made the courses worthwhile.

I also had the pleasant opportunity to learn a handful of fancy words, and in turn begin using them daily to describe the unbelievably indescribable thing that is life. So there’s that, too.

on “The Bug”

For several years, my job has been testing web sites. There’s several ways to describe what I do, the commonest being that I “look for bugs.” I perform a role known formally as ‘Quality Assurance’ on web development projects, and I’ve worked on a variety of sites, like HGTV, the Washington Post, TroopSwap, and Better Medicine.

I’m not a programmer by training, but much of the QA process requires logical thinking and familiarity with engineering practices. As someone who majored in English and spent more time reading Shakespeare than learning UNIX commands, my career has been an experiment of patience. Testers are usually outnumbered by coders, so it can be a lonely (and thankless) task.

I recently found a novel that lucidly captures the mentality of testers, developers, and anyone who has had to deal with the often infuriating process of creating software.

“The Bug” by Ellen Ullman tells the story of a single software defect that dramatically affects the lives of all who encounter it. A tester and a coder frame the narrative, the tester happy to find a flaw within a system she feels intellectually superior to, and the coder driven to madness by trying to fix it.

I connected to the story on a remarkable level, given the ‘tester’ character’s background in literature and linguistics. For those who have thought deeply about the power and nuance of the English language, the efficiently dull and plodding ‘languages’ of software can be infuriating.

What the novel does brilliantly is reveal what I feel is easily overlooked in software development – the unavoidable connection between the ‘coder’ and the ‘code’. Developers have pride in how universal and general code is intended to be,  but all intellectual creations carry the signature of their maker, however faint they intend it to be.

Days and weeks spent in conversation with a machine that at its core only understands two statements – true or false – can shift the perspective of the people behind  the screen. Tunnel vision can be a fatal result. Long stretches of time thinking in binaries can strip people of the humanity required to see the ‘big picture’ of what they’re trying to achieve.

“The Bug” captures the dichotomy of thinking like machines in order to assist people – in much richer and more studied language than you’ll find in any programming manual.

Ullman’s gift for uncovering the fallible humanity that hides in the cracks of software is evident in passages like this one:

 “But now I knew that between one pixel and the next—no matter how densely together you packed them—the world still existed, down to the finest grain of the stuff of the universe. And no matter how frequently that mouse located itself, sample after sample, snapshot after snapshot—here, now here, now here—something was always happening between the here’s. The mouse was still moving—was somewhere, but where? It couldn’t say. Time, invisible, was slipping through its digital now’s.”

Herman Hesse on Trees

This has been blogged on Brain Pickings and several other places, but it pops into my mind often when I’m outside walking and looking at the trees, so I wanted to share (for Earth Day):

For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.

Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.

A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.

A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.

When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. . . . Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.

A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.

So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.

Herman Hesse

trees

on ‘What Technology Wants’

Working in the web development industry, where growth and innovation happen at an incredible rate, it’s easy to become enamored with the internet, software, screens, and devices, and put off the big questions about our use of technology.

Kevin Kelly’s book, “What Technology Wants” is a vivid analysis of the human compulsion to create and use tools, adding depth to the commonly superficial perspective we take on daily interactions with things like the web and mobile phones.

Kelly writes with authority on many subtopics (from the sentience of rock ants to the ‘evolution of evolution’) but the book’s most eye opening theme, for me, was the analogous relationship between biological life and technology. “We can think of technology as our extended body,” he writes.

He relates the evolution of technology to the evolution of life, finding parallels over time in increasing complexity, structure, and mutuality. The story of new ideas unfolding in the ‘technium’ is told with the understanding that progression is natural, or instinctive. Technology doesn’t mature casually, its advancement isn’t accidental – the transformation of our tools is subject to patterns that can even be described as laws.

Taking a walk yesterday, I found myself glancing at the sidewalk and thinking about the properties of concrete, looking at my shoes and wondering about rubber’s integration with apparel, hearing automobile traffic and considering all the ‘millions of tiny fires’ burning on highways everywhere. Reading the book gave pause to the usual naiveté I take in normal activities.

It’s easy to get lost in cat videos, song downloads, and ‘liking’ photos, but when you scratch the surface, technology ‘wants’ us to do much, much more.

On the Hunger Games

I finished reading the Hunger Games, too late to see the movie when it first opened, but better late than never.  On the surface, without any analysis, its a simple, entertaining, well-paced read.  In discussion it could easily open up topics like modern entertainment and gender roles.

Like ‘1984’,’ Fahrenheit 451′, or more recently, ‘A Super Sad True Love Story’, ‘Games’ portrays the authorities of the future as inconsolable. Like ‘Lost’, ‘Castaway’, and ‘The Beach’ it also gives nature and human survival a furious posture. Like ‘the Truman Show’ it warns against the relentless nature of celebrity.

I was a bit skeptical about the innocent sexuality of the characters, who were otherwise ferocious murderers and survivalists. In many works of gratuitous violence, examples of extreme sexuality are also present – ‘..Dragon Tattoo’, ‘Pulp Fiction’, ‘Clockwork Orange’.  A world where characters murder each other is more imaginable if they aren’t concurrently experiencing a kiss for the first time, but innocence invites empathy and makes the story engaging and the characters sympathetic.

I really liked a few of the images from the book – birds picking up songs and passing them around – so much that now when I step outside and hear a chirp, I find myself thinking, ‘which human emotion is that bird mimicking? who did it come from?’  Probably not the author’s most deliberate attempt at a memorable moment, but it worked for me. Overall I would recommend the book if you haven’t already seen the film.

On Taking Sips (of Books)

Since I first got my hands on a Kindle, I’ve liberally abused the “Sample This Book” feature available in the Kindle Store.  In the last two years, I’ve downloaded and read samples of dozens of books.

Here’s an incomplete compilation of the samples I’ve acquired, which are surely all very interesting books worth a full reading… but we are only given so much time, right?

If anyone reading has a suggestion for which of these I should follow through to their conclusion, let me know in the comments…

  •  Punk Rock Dad – Jim Lindberg
  • Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe
  • Bossypants – Tina Fey
  • Mental Models – Indi Young
  • In The Plex – Steven Levy
  • Guitar For Dummies – Jon Chappell
  • Understanding Marijuana – Mitch Earleywine
  • The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien
  • What Technology Wants – Kevin Kelly
  • Aleph – Paulo Coelho
  • Alone Together – Sherry Turkle
  • What I Talk About When I Talk About Running – Haruki Murakami
  • The Paris Wife – Paula Mclain
  • The Art of Seduction – Robert Greene
  • Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter – Tom Bissell
  • Beautiful Testing – Adam Goucher
  • Freedom – Jonathan Franzen
  • Flight To Arras – Antoine De Saint Exupery
  • Lost Illusions – Honore de Balzac
  • Drown – Junot Diaz
  • The Practice of Everyday Life – Michel de Certeau
  • Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next – John D. Kasarda
  • Death in Venice – Thomas Mann
  • FDR – Jean Edward Smith
  • Black Coffee Blues – Henry Rollins
  • The Afghan Campaign – Steven Pressfield
  • Cold Mountain – Charles Frazier
  • The Four Loves – C.S. Lewis
  • Miracles – C.S. Lewis
  • The Bicycling Guide – Todd Downs
  • Where Good Ideas Come From – Steven Johnson
  • After Dark – Haruki Murakami
  • From Barcelona – Jeremy Holland
  • The Paris Review Interviews – Paris Review
  • The Winner Stands Alone – Paulo Coelho
  • The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson
  • Curious? – Todd Kashdan
  • Empire of Illusion – Chris Hedges
  • A Grief Observed – C.S. Lewis
  • The Lost Symbol – Dan Brown
  • Complete Short Stories – Ernest Hemingway
  • From Olympus to Camelot – David Leeming
  • Free Culture – Lawrence Lessig
  • Here Comes Everybody – Clay Shirky
  • Media Concentration and Democracy – C. Edwin Baker
  • Batman and Philosophy – Mark D. White
  • Dragon Rising: An Inside Look at China Today – Jasper Becker

Literary Diversion

“Those who arrive at Thekla can see little of the city, beyond the plank fences, BH080794the sackcloth screens, the scaffoldings, the metal armatures, the wooden catwalks hanging from ropes or supported by sawhorses, the ladders, the trestles. If you ask, “Why is Thekla’s construction taking such a long time?” the inhabitants continue hosting sacks, lowering leaded strings, moving long brushes up and down, as they answer, “So that its destruction cannot begin.” And if asked whether they fear that, once the scaffoldings are removed, the city may begin to crumble and fall to pieces, they add hastily, in a whisper, “Not only the city.”

from “Invisible Cities” by Italo Calvino

Endless Life

A few months ago before the semester ended, while turning in one of my last assignments, I saw sitting on a shelf of free books a collection of “Taoist Drinking Songs from the Yuan Dynasty,” a collection of Chinese poetry. I picked up the free copy and didn’t think much of it.

Since deciding to travel to China, I’ve looked at the book and found a few nice poems. Here is one:

    done with the world
    and pure
    as darkness
    nothing to hold me
    nothing restrain
    the old guy here
    within the grove
    before blue cliffs the
    moon’s companion
    mad and singing
    drunk and dancing
    smashed, polluted with the wine
    of endless life

I’m getting ready to start my trip this evening. This will be my last post from America, and I hope I can update frequently while on the road. Adios!

Cultural Recon

The pleasure of visiting a foreign country increases a great deal with some knowledge of the local culture. I’ve been sifting through books and movies to learn more about Chinese and Spanish customs, and here is some of what I’ve been checking out:

Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” is a classic tale of Spain during the civil war.  Also, his journals from the 1930s-1950s, collected in “By-Line: Ernest Hemingway” portray his own experiences during the fighting. 

For language reference, “501 Spanish Verbs” and “Dimelo Tu!” have both proved useful. Linguists claim it’s nearly impossible to attain natural fluency in any language after the magical age of about four, but it doesn’t hurt to try. 

Waiting” by Ha Jin is a story of China after the cultural revolution. The novel chronicles the life of a military doctor, who is prohibited for decades from getting a divorce.

Rob Gifford is an NPR reporter whose book “China Road” is a study of the modern influence of capitalism on the Chinese. The book documents his travels on the ancient silk road, now known simply as Route 312. 

Invisible Cities” by Italo Calvino has nothing to do with culture in particular, but I consider it essential reading for any kind of travel.  In a surrealist narrative Calvino imagines the stories told by Marco Polo to Kublai Kahn of his distant travels. 

Films are a great way to discover culture, also.  Here are a few I’ve been watching:

“Lust, Caution” and “The House of Flying Daggers” are both cinematically opulent; the first imagining Shanghai in the 1940’s, and the other China during the Tang dynasty.  Directed by Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou, respectively. 

Stolen Life,” or “Sheng Si Jie” is an unsettling portrait of life in modern Shanghai.  After becoming pregnant, a university student is forced to make a decision: drop out of school, or have an abortion. 

Please Vote For Me” exhibits how China’s communist order is being slightly re-worked at the grade school level, where students in this documentary participate in a democratic class election. 

China is the native country of admired architect I.M. Pei. The documentary “I.M. Pei: First Person Singular” showcases his amazing work, including the Chinese National Bank in Hong Kong, and the glass pyramid at the Louvre.