“Oh goody, Paul has a newsletter now! He must have a book coming out.”
In fact, Dirt Channel is less about self promotion than about scratching an itch. Or maybe several itches. An outlet for thoughts and ideas that aren’t quite ready for prime time, and for me to try out ideas for future books and other projects.
Here’s what it decidedly won’t be: A weekly stream of polemics about the hideousness of latter day Silicon Valley. This is not (and here I adopt the deftly sneering tone of a French maître d’) a Substack.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I’ve run out of things to say about the tech world, nor am I any less angry about the horrors Silicon Valley has wrought. It’s just that tech journalism and commentary – at least the kind that hopes to make A Difference (TM) – is over.
There was a time – one that lasted through the early days of Web 2.0 and into the dawn of the cult of disruption – where reporting critically on startups and venture capital could still change minds and behavior – of users, founders, and investors. An era when a series of well-reported articles about Uber accessing the medical records of rape victims, or Secret causing teens to kill themselves, or Amazon workers boiling to death in warehouses, or Facebook board members funding white supremacists could pose an existential threat to those behaviors, if not to the companies themselves.
Today, that era is so far in the rear view mirror that it might as well be a different planet.
Today, even your grandpa knows the names of the baddies: Uber, Amazon, Facebook; Thiel, Bezos, Kalanick, Zuckerberg – and your grandma understands perfectly well the moral calculus implicit in using their products. We’ve all – as a society – made our peace with the loss of privacy and the willing complicity required to shop online or share photos with our friends.
Every day brings a new book promising to reveal the horrible truth about a tech behemoth – a new author hoping their non-fiction masterpiece will be the one to make a dent, and destined to be disappointed. In 2021, the best a tech reporter can hope to achieve is a guest appearance on Rachel Maddow or Tucker Carlson and – if they’re very lucky – for a milquetoast bullshit artist like Tristan Harris to co-opt their work and pass it off as his own.
Sorry. That last paragraph came perilously close to polemic. It’s easy to get sucked back in, even though I know it’s just empty catharsis.
Polemic is a young man’s game, and I’m 41 now. The age where you stop trying to use words to change reality, and instead start trying to make sense of it.
That’s why recently I’ve been devouring novels about tech. Not technothrillers or sci-fi, but mainstream popular fiction like Kiss Me First, People Like Her, The Circle, and The Herd. I just started listening to the audiobook of One by One, by Ruth Ware, an enormously fun whodunnit based in the Swiss Alps in which the founders of a Euro music startup (think Spotify meets Last.fm) are already dropping like flies.
If you prefer your fiction a little older, or a fraction more nerdy, I’ve also torn back through The First Twenty Million is Always The Hardest (which predicted the Chromebook way back in 1997), The Minority Report (which predicted Palantir), Supertoys Last All Summer Long (Alexa, Google Assistant), and of course 1984 and Brave New World.
These are books with one thing in common: They don’t try to change a reader’s relationship with tech or social media or startups, but simply reflect it back as entertainment, like Charlie Brooker (another man who aged out of journalism) did so brilliantly with Black Mirror. And yet somehow (like Black Mirror) these entertainments manage to affect us more deeply than journalism ever could.
As Lisa Cron explains in her brilliant book, Wired For Story, storytelling is as primal an urge as sex and food. Why? Because to read a novel (or hear a story) is to participate in a kind of immersive organic virtual reality: A book-shaped holodeck that lets us experience an endless number of “what if” scenarios, to better prepare ourselves for the day when fiction might become our own reality (there’s a reason Contagion was a pre-pandemic hit, and why our cavemen ancestors sat around telling tales of hunting dangerous beasts).
Unlike journalism – which demands that we take a real position on a real ethical issue, and judges us when we fall short – fiction gives us plausible deniability. It lulls us in by masquerading as entertainment, it shows not tells, understands that life is complicated.
And best of all, unlike in tech journalism, the bad guys in tech fiction are actually likeable.
Which brings me neatly to my “ask,” as venture capitalists like to say: My Bookshop.org cart is empty and there’s a sliver of room on by “to read” shelf. I’d love your recommendations of tech-related or Valley-adjacent novels – any genre, and age, so long as they’re fiction.