The Human Side of the AI Underclass
Paris Marx is joined by Joanne McNeil to discuss her new novel dealing with the human labor behind self-driving cars and the challenges of being a good tech critic.
Joanne McNeil is the author of Wrong Way and has written for Dissent Magazine, New York Magazine, and The Nation.
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Paris Marx: Joanne, welcome back to Tech Won’t Save Us.
Joanne McNeil: It’s always great to talk with you, Paris.
PM: I’m so excited to have you on the show again, you were a very early guest with your original non-fiction book, that you wrote, geez, I guess a few years ago now. The show has been running for three and a half years, so it has been too long. But it’s really fantastic to have you back on the show, because I’m a great admirer of your work. And I just think you do such fantastic work on the tech industry and beyond. So, I’m very excited to dig into your debut novel with you.
JM: Thank you!
PM: So, I want to start with the novel, obviously. I’m wondering, you have written a non-fiction book in the past, as far as I’m aware; I think you’re working on another one. You’ve obviously written a bunch for a bunch of different publications on tech topics, on film, so many different things. Why did you decide you wanted to write a novel in this moment? Why did you decide you wanted to expand into this other form of writing?
JM: In my case, it was returning to the kind of writing that I started doing and it’s a matter of, there’s writing that’s public because you found someone to publish it and and broadcast it outward. And there is a writing that maybe is a little bit difficult to find someone interested. And that’s been my experience with fiction. So, 20 years ago now, I was pretty diligent about working on science fiction stories. And I was always working on a novel. I completed one; it was not very good. I had always been writing fiction. And then sometime around 2008-2009, I was feeling a little bit alienated by writing communities, and especially sci-fi writing communities, because that was a time when the fascination in sci-fi writing communities was Joss Whedon TV shows and these products. And I was trying to talk to people at conferences about J.G. Ballard and Michael Moorcock his tradition of 70s sci-fi writing that was very radical and experimental. And I couldn’t find a community and I took a break from it. I started writing a blog that was a lot about technology and culture, a lot of tech criticism.
From there, editors found my work, commissioned criticism and essays for me. And that’s how I went down that path. Because I was getting so much — not like I was a famous author — but I was getting attention for this work. It was validating, but at the same time, while I was working on lurking, so I got the book deal, “Lurking,” in 2016. I made a goal for myself to publish a short story a year, to at least not write that part of me off, and I stuck to it. And I’d always had some novel idea in the back of my mind, nothing that came to conclusion. But the funny thing with this particular book, I started it, basically, immediately after I finished “Lurking,” and I had this idea that concept felt right. I had a sense of what I wanted to put into the story in terms of character and setting. And I also knew that probably my experience following the tech industry would be relevant here that I could have a critical lens without overwhelming the actual human story that I wanted to tell. So it was a winding path, but I am very lucky to have have this book now. I mean, by the time people hear, it’ll be on shelves in bookstores.
PM: Which is always so amazing, to walk into a bookstore and be like: How is my thing right there among all of these other people? It doesn’t feel right. But I find it so fascinating to hear that story of yours. And it’s the first time I’ve heard you describe it in that way. Because I relate to it a lot. I used to write a lot of fiction back in the day, and then gave up on it, because I was like: I don’t know, I can’t do this. I don’t know, if I’m doing this well. And then I started blogging on Medium, and that was how editors found me. So, I slowly started to write for some smaller publications people have never heard of, and then for Jacobin, then it grew from there. And then last year, I had my first book published, as well. So just hearing you describe that trajectory. I’m like: Wow, that’s kind of wild, that other people have had this similar-ish experience. It’s still different in many ways, of course. But I don’t know, I wonder if it’s how people got their start at this particular moment, when we both started doing this kind of writing, I guess? I don’t know.
JM: This is something I think that a lot. Now, in terms of, if I were starting out now, how would I break into publishing? I really don’t know. Because the good thing about blogs was the community aspects that someone was interacting with you through comments through having a blog role. And there was something inviting and porous about the community aspects at that time. I don’t know how someone could break in the same way, through writing alone. I feel like there would have to be a audio visual or image-based component to it, which as a writer, you might not have a handle on. Because I can say, many of those experience, when I was working on this blog, I had a day job in a call center and it was pretty bleak. And I think now, how does someone who has a day job in a call center, get to, not just write a novel, but maybe write a book review in The Nation? Which of all places the nation should be aware that certainly their astute readers who work in call centers.
PM: I was also working in call centers because I was working 40-50 hours a week. And I was still trying to write articles and feeling like: How am I doing this? I have no time at all. It was wild.
JM: So, you know?
PM: Absolutely. And I do think about those same things sometimes. Because people do occasionally asked me: How would you recommend I get started in this industry? And I’m like: I have no idea, because I feel like things have, fundamentally, changed. And I don’t know, I feel like even if you look at now, like you have something like Substack, which is a commercialized form of what blogging was back in the day. That still doesn’t work the same way as blogging used to. For Substack to work, you almost have to have already developed a following somewhere else. And if you haven’t done that, then what is the way that you get started? Maybe you have a TikTok that takes off, and you just luck out with the algorithms and whatnot. But it seems so much less certain as to how that works today, I don’t know.
JM: One thing, and I don’t want to go down a bleak path that, for those writers and musicians and artists and filmmakers who might be listening, that feel stuck and don’t know their way, I will say that there is an audience waiting for you. So we just have to figure out how to get you to them. Because the work that these conglomerates are publishing, are producing, it’s so cynical. A lot of it is just driven for this vague, allegedly political, but just completely meaningless, upper middle class viewer. That there really aren’t that many people, and they’re all in New York, but there are a lot of people in this country who love art, who love books. And there are people like us who want to help you get your work to them, and we just have to keep brainstorming on this.
PM: I think that’s a really important point to make. I want to pivot back to something that you were saying, as you were writing science fiction stories, and just feeling that there wasn’t really a community there, in that moment, for the kind of work that you wanted to do. I wonder if you feel that that has since shifted over the past decade or so? And if the science fiction community has evolved in a slightly different direction than what you were seeing around 2018, in that moment?
JM: There are two shifts that I see happening, and one is incredibly beneficial, and would have changed my life in my 20s, if it had happened then. That is just the diversity of voices in science fiction, where when I was writing in the oughts, it was a big deal to have a woman author at all. A white cis straight woman, who went to a good school. If that author had been publisher would be a big deal. Now, it’s obviously much more diverse. Many of the most successful authors, with very passionate audiences, are women of color. And there are many authors who are trans. It’s incredible that this is happening. That’s changed landscape a lot. The fact that Octavia Butler is now canonized — so, it’s not that she’s a known author that you might possibly pick up at a used bookstore. It’s that she is an author who is selling like crazy, and is thought of as the genre in a sense that Philip K. Dick, and only a handful of others, 20 years ago, might have been. That’s major. So that’s an incredible change that’s happened.
On the other hand, there’s been this not so great transition where science fiction has become very prestigious. And it is thought of as this intellectual style of writing. It’s very professionalized. I see people want to write science fiction because they think that is going to be valuable in a marketplace, almost, because we know how Silicon Valley will just mine sci-fi stories for ideas. This prestige if you go back to Ursula Le Guin’s writing, when she was mid-career, which is a pretty lonely place as an author speaking from experience. Although, when Ursula was mid-career, you can see her feeling very despondent about how her work is just not going to be nominated for awards. It’s just not going to be taken seriously by the New York Times, because it’s science fiction, and they think science fiction is just kid stuff. And she had that chip on her shoulder and I’m glad that she expressed it in her writing — in her nonfiction writing — because it shows how much can change in a handful of decades. That we have all seen that video of her accepting, I think it’s the Lifetime Achievement Award at the National Book Awards.
I doubt she would have thought that was possible when she was writing her letters to friends about how like: No one takes my stuff seriously. I think the transition that it’s taken seriously in literature, but it also has this function and prestige is a corrosive force. Prestige is elitism — prestige is how people decide whether you worth something or not based on looking at you, based on: Did you go to a good school? Okay, well, I’m not going to take you seriously. The number of writers of color who did not go to Ivy League schools is incredibly small. And it’s basically impossible for those writers to break into publishing. That worries me a great deal. Because it’s the corrosive power of prestige. It’s this belief that you can decide if something’s worthy of your attention based on the aura it gives off based on whether people you think are important think it’s good. And science fiction getting mixed up with prestige has come with some benefits, but has also come with its own problems.
PM: I think you can definitely see that. And I also think, when you speak about someone like Ursula K. Le Guin, who listeners will know, if they’ve been listening for a while, that I absolutely adore. I find her work just incredible and was some of that science fiction that really kind of, I felt, was mind opening and really helped you to think about things in a different way. That you would hope that maybe some good science fiction would do that, though that certainly doesn’t need to be the goal of all science fiction. But to think about how someone like her, who did really seem on the fringes, has increasingly come closer to the center and can be recognized in the way that she was before her death.
But then I feel like when you talk about that elitism, which I feel is something that has always been there, but I wonder if you feel like it has, almost become in some ways, more corrosive and more present, not just in the art world, but in a way where we see it increasingly throughout society. Especially when we have a society that has become so much more unequal than it has been in such a long time. And you have this class of people who is always able to get by in this way, or has these privileges that are just kind of inbuilt. Whereas you have this growing mass of everybody else who is just stuck, constantly competing for not nearly enough.
JM: Oh, absolutely. And I think this is something that’s been a problem with the arts forever, because it’s just a matter of assigning value to something. We know the economics example of: If you’re in a desert, and someone offers you a bottle of water for $20, okay, you’re probably going to take it if you’re thirsty. A diamond, on the other hand, the value of a diamond had to be invented. So with the work of art and literature, the value has to be invented. And I find as, a writer, one thing that I do value as community are those people who can walk into used bookstore, pick up a book off the shelf, they know nothing about, read it in the privacy of their mind, commune with someone else’s mind. Assess it on its own merits and have a really beautiful experience that was not shaped by someone else, or shaped on who you are for liking this author.
This is another problem too. It’s like: Are you a smart person, because you picked up this book by an author who’s allegedly smart? But I think there are still so many people, and I am lucky to have a lot of friends like this, who I know love that privacy that you can have with a book and love making up your mind in that privacy. And I hope that my book, and I am really lucky that it’s doing well, but there’s definitely enough this PR machine making sure that booksellers has get like a pizza when they get the ARCs (Advanced Reader Copies). That’s definitely not happening here. So anyone who’s picking it up is having a chance to read this book without pressure to be something because you’re reading it and that makes me feel good. No matter how it performs, I know that that’s still an experience that can happen.
PM: Well if you are reading this book, then it says that you’re a good Tech Won’t Save Us listener [both laugh].
JM: Definitely, I’ll take it.
PM: On the necessary reading list. If you haven’t read “Wrong Way,” then what are you doing? [laughs] But I do want to pivot to talking about the book itself and more of its content rather than the the wider world of literature that it lives within. And, obviously, part of the reason that you’re on the show is not just that I have a deep respect for you. But also, this is a book that really touches on a lot of the topics that I talk to people about on the show all of the time. And so tell me about the idea for this book, where did it come from? Why was this the story that you ultimately decided you wanted to tell in your debut novel?
JM: You might like this. I have ideas for novels, especially sci-fi ideas all the time. But the idea of doing something about self-driving cars occurred to me, this was 2018, and I just figured; Okay, there was no way this technology is going to be here by the time I finish this book.
PM: I appreciate that.
JM: And I think the companies would say that they’re much more advanced than the technology on the road in my novel, but I don’t know about that.
PM: Maybe you should describe, I don’t know how much you want to kind of give away in spoilers or whatnot.
JM: I could say a little bit, which is that this is a company that is running a fraud. And what they are investing all of their time and energy into is, again with the aura, the marketing and the messaging. The messaging that sounds a lot like leftist slogans that has a purpose of confusing people. It’s a company that’s not just allegedly progressive at hiring policies, but also, a lot of its core beliefs are anti-hierarchical, which as the novel goes on, you’ll see do not add up because the founder has a ideology he calls “the holistic apex.” This is just basically how everybody is up here — and I was a little bit inspired by holacracy, and things like that at Zappos. But I wanted something a little bit more like if one of the Silicon Valley billionaires started following a lot of DSA-types, like the really public DSA-types. And was like: Huh, I bet I could do this. I bet I could say these things and still be everything like I’ve always been. I mean, Dad Price would be another influence here. The guy in Seattle who I feel like he probably did tweet out things like: Every billionaire is a policy failure.
PM: Absolutely. And to be clear, Dan Price is the guy who paid everyone at his company $70,000 and got this big PR boom out of it. And then there were some stories about how he was a pretty terrible human being, actually, but a lot of this stuff was swept under the rug, because he got this marketing lift from this big PR story that he did, basically.
JM: There were a few others out there who have made it a mission to solve capitalism or say things like: Capitalism has failed us. And, okay, it doesn’t seem like it failed you. What exactly are you proposing if it doesn’t involve giving your money away? The billionaire types who are far-right and clearly believe these things were no joke — I mean, Peter Thiel, Elon Musk — cannot overstate how frightening that power and that belief system attached to power is, without money. Then there are people like Jack Dorsey who are really vague and will spin some fairy tales, if it puts them in a position that they feel like they need to be.
PM: One of the things I was quite struck by reading the book, especially when your ounder, Falconer Guidry, I don’t know if I’m pronouncing that properly.
JM: Falconer Guidry.
PM: I’m terrible at pronounciations. But every time that he shows up — and it should be no surprise given how long you have been writing about these companies and these people, but you’re so skilled at replicating the language that these tech companies and these founders use in order to boost their products and themselves, and how they talk about these weird ideas, like the one you created for the book, “holistic apex.” What was it like having to come up with your own version of tech bullshit for the book?
JM: I kind of set as a goal for myself to make this incredibly satirical and metastic. But also, as people are reading it realize this could happen, that there is something grounded in reality here. And what I was thinking is: How do I imagine something and that’s so absurd, but with enough wiggle work with a copy and the messaging, the founders of the company can present it as normal long enough and then it’s just running out the clock? Because we’re seeing this right now and this moment that we have, like when you’re showed debuted Paris, in 2020 or so, there was quite a lot of attention to these tech companies, and it felt like something was going to happen. It was called the techlash. I never really liked that term because I feel like that dissent had been there for a really long time. But, definitely the issue of reining in Big Tech was galvanizing.
Right now, we’re seeing Facebook basically normalized. It’s back to square one with the nonsense ideas that Mark Zuckerberg put forward that Facebook is about democracy and friendship, taken seriously, after all this time. As if it’s a neutral force, as opposed to a corrosive force. It really just takes sticking to that message, and exhausting the public to let something that’s clearly a disaster, and continues to be a disaster, continue. And with Facebook, we know the underclass that is making Facebook possible. We’ve heard so many stories at this point about the content moderators that make your fun times with your aunt and uncle leaving birthday messages or whatever people do on Facebook, who make that possible. In the end, which is that they are driven to extreme mental distress. We all know that’s happening. There are no real solutions in place other than, allegedly, AI which is not going to happen. And I could see that with this book, I wanted to put forth an idea of a gig labor that would not be any more toxic or objectionable, than what gig labour is already supporting with these Big Tech companies.
PM: It’s important what you say there as well. We had this moment of techlash, this idea that we were actually going to do something about these companies. Some people would probably push back on this, but I think that it is fair to say that that moment has really evaporated, like even the antitrust push that we were seeing in the United States has, I would say, been quite firmly defeated by the tech companies. Certainly there’ll be some small wins that will come out of it, but nothing near to the scale that was hoped for or expected in 2020, in that moment. Then, even with the release of Threads recently, you really saw this rejuvenation of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook as the good guys in relation to Elon Musk’s Twitter, and it was just so shocking.
Maybe it shouldn’t have been shocking that that could happen — that someone like Mark Zuckerberg could be treated as the good guy again, after all we know he has put people through after being demonized, just a couple of years earlier. And all of a sudden, so much of the tech media was ready to say: Oh, no, he’s the good guy now, because he’s not Elon Musk. And it was like: Is the bar really that low? Is this the point that we’ve reached?
JM: I guess, when I try to understand it, I put it in terms of: Is Big Tech as crucial an issue as, say, climate? I mean, we can all see they’re linked. They’re absolutely linked, but it’s like: Is someone’s attention better off served, doing everything possible to see forth climate justice policy? Or even in in this moment, right now, I mean, do I value calling on my Congressperson to do a data privacy act versus getting into to call for a ceasefire now? That’s a pretty clear cut answer. And the priorities here — Big Tech has never been a really top priority. It got a lot of attention, but for whatever reason, as much of a force as it is in our daily lives, as much of a force as it is in our workplaces, in a way we consume media, it still can feel like air and water of the internet.
And that, to me, is something that I feel like as a critic of technology, I have to continually remind people that: This is a company that is expressing its values through you, and you might think you’re interacting with your friends in a neutral way. But in fact, they’ve made these tiny decisions that are impacting how you can even communicate with them or what you’re saying. It’s not the same as being out in a park and hanging out with your friends, as much as it sometimes does feel like that. I hope this is just a temporary thing, and knowing Facebook, there was bound to be another big drama, and we’ll see when that happens if this good guy, Mark Zuckerberg moment, continues through that. I don’t necessarily know it will, but I do imagine he might just take a step back, a little bit, as a public face of Facebook. And that actually worries me a little bit more where without him as the face of the company, it can so easily rebrand itself.
PM: Almost like Bezos moving back to the chairman role instead of CEO, and he’s still there, and still pulling the strings. But, he’s able to distance himself a little bit from what what is going on there. Talking about the novel, again, you mentioned how it’s a book that really does deal with self-driving cars. Self-driving cars is the technology that is quite central to what is going on here. You talked about how the book, and the idea for the book, emerged a lot from 2018. Of course, 2018, was this moment when you had an Uber vehicle in Arizona kill a pedestrian. And there were a ton of revelations that came out of that around, how these systems were not working the way that companies were promising, and all those sorts of things.
It feels like that degree of hype never really returned, but it does feel like in the past month or so we’ve reentered another one of these phases, as Cruise in San Francisco has been going through something similar, I would say, as to what was going on there. I wonder, as someone who has a novel now coming out, that deals with this technology of self-driving cars, that deals with the deceptions that really have existed around this technology, and continually show themselves to be there, what it is like having written this book, probably expecting that it would have some degree of relevance today, but maybe not the immediate relevance that it does seem to actually have? [laughs]
JM: It’s actually really funny because I was in San Francisco about this time last year, and I could see all the Waymos and Cruise vehicles, on the road. And at that point, I turned in my book with copy edits, I was going to go through a few other passes for the copy team, but I couldn’t make any substantial changes to the document. And I found myself thinking like: Has this technology advanced more than I thought when I wrote it, and I felt like I had to commit to the research that I had done, about the margin of error of these cars on the road. I trusted that more than what I could see with my own eyes, with these cars on the road. And I had this incredibly funny experience where I flew out to Phoenix, Arizona, just to ride a few Waymos because they had set up their ride hailing service, and it was raining.
Every single car I booked was driven from start to finish by one of the remote operators. That’s when I kind of first learned about the remote operator workforce, which I think assumed that there were people who were pressing buttons or something, if the car got stuck at a left turn. But I wasn’t aware of that if it’s a rainy day, they will drive the car, and to someone else in the road, it looks like a Waymo going about its business, you have to be in the car to see that it’s not a safety driver who’s just observing. It’s actually a driver driving. That struck me as very telling of this illusion, that Waymo — again, this is a point that you’ve made in your newsletter — Waymo is not all that much better than Cruise. And another thing that’s funny about this moment is they’re going through all these layoffs, like Google is not invested in Waymo’s outcome at this moment.
They’ve cut the staff. They clearly do not intend to deploy many more of these vehicles. They shipped a demo; they are showing this as a demo. It can do quite a lot, but when there’s a little bit of drizzle and Santa Monica, no, you’re going to have the remote operator in the driver’s seat again. And so, who knows? Maybe in five years, it’ll be an idea that gets a lot of energy again, because the Silicon Valley types are excited about the idea of a self-driving car. And I think that’s something that I really dug into in this book is like: What is it exactly that excites them? Why don’t they want to be the billionaire with a driver of their Bentley or Rolls Royce? Why don’t they want some driver they can order around who can be their servant, who’s going to do a better job than a self-driving car? That’s something that I really want to tease out, those class dynamics.
PM: That’s so fascinating. I have never actually been in one of these self-driving vehicles. I was just in San Francisco last week. And I was like: Should I try one of these Waymos? Should I give it a shot? I was like: No, I don’t know. Because my stance is always like: If I don’t need to use it. I’m not going to bother. I don’t use Uber; I’ve never used ChatGPT. I don’t care. And I don’t feel that that makes my criticisms any less valid. So, I didn’t actually know that they had the remote drivers in the way that you describe. I know that there are remote drivers there who can intervene, but I didn’t know that they so actively were engaged in moments when the weather is so bad and things like this. And, as you say, this is a point that is really obviously very present in the book and that I feel like we see time and again, and that the book illustrates really well, is that it’s always like a desire with these tech companies not so much to get rid of the human labor, but to hide the human labor so that we don’t fully know that it’s there. What are your reflections on how this played out and how it’s so continual?
JM: It is so funny that the same people who will say something like: Well, humans are lazy; humans make mistakes; they sleep too much; humans are not good at tasks that automation can do. And then when you look behind the curtain, who is solving the most difficult tasks that an automated system could do? Humans, of course, and humans who are paid the least, respected the least. It’s with every single AI application, as far as I know. Because ChatGPT, this is the same. They are imperfect, and those imperfections, prevent these products from shipping to customers or enterprises.
So, they have to hire humans to do these really menial tasks, and make sure that the failure rate isn’t what it is. But I guess I wasn’t expecting my book to be released in a year of AI. I was still invested in what I had read about AI. What I knew what the failure rates were that I didn’t realize, they’re going to push this — with flaws and all — because a bunch of humans at a call center, paid nothing and respected not at all, can always fill in those gaps, because that’s their product, in fact, that AI underclass.
And I think the other thing, too, is part of the reason I wrote is because I’m a writer who can see myself taking one of those jobs. When I read about the content moderators for the first time, knowing I didn’t take that call center job, because this was my dream to work in a call center. It’s because I needed to work, and that was the only place that hired me. I’ve been in those circumstances where a really terrible job is the only one that I can take to pay my rent, to buy groceries. I could see myself working as a remote operator, I can see myself working as a content moderator and I worked very hard to make sure that comes through in my writing, because I think there’s a lot of academic writing about gig labor. There’s a lot of academic writing about this AI underclass. And sometimes it really has another layer of surveillance, because it’s coming from someone who, as soon as they turn 18, they went to Harvard, and just from there, they’ve lived in a really isolated world and not had much contact with these people, not as subjects, but as people.
PM: That’s really well said. The book does that really well. Obviously, I went in and I was like: This is tech critical book because Joanne wrote it, I’m so excited! But then as I was reading through it, I was like: She’s really hitting the nail on the head with not just the problems with this industry, but also what this has meant, and just the inequity that comes with technology, in the way that technology forwards these unequal work practices. And the precarity that a lot of people have to experience today. But also what living in this increasingly unequal society actually means for people and how that experience has been transformed. Where it’s so much more difficult to get one of these stable jobs.
As we were talking about, I’ve done the call center thing. I’ve worked in a number of call centers. I’ve done the thing where you go to a temp agency, and they place you somewhere and all those sorts of things. I’ve been through all of that, and it’s terrible. I feel really privileged that I don’t need to be in that position anymore, but there are so many people who are and I feel like those numbers are only growing as this economy and society is transformed in this way. I don’t know, I just wonder if you could speak to that a little bit more, because you do illustrate it so well, in the book, in relation to the main character that you follow.
JM: I’m glad that came through, because with Teresa, it was very important to me to show someone who is incredibly intelligent, has so much potential. And things did not work out, I think there’s a tendency in the novels that conglomerate publishers publish, about working class lives, about people who are poor, to show them as just these characters in Ben Affleck movies or something. The idea that there might be this woman who goes to the cinema and sees some classic film or reads a bunch of books and is quite aware of the world and curious and fascinated by art, while also working in a call center is something I did not see, and I know that these people exist because I was one. I also felt that it was very important to depict a character in midlife, because I was seeing the data on Ubers and how the drivers of Ubers are typically I think, in their 40s or up, the passengers are all like late 20s, average or so. And that rings true with what I know of Uber and its client base. I have been in an Uber and I have noticed that the drivers tend to be maybe my parents age.
It’s worrying to me to see that at this stage of life there are many reasons why someone would not have a retirement account, there are many reasons why someone would end up, in their 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, or later, and have nothing to do, have nowhere else to go except something that isn’t really paying all that much and requires so many hours to continue with it. So these were a few things that were important to me building this character just to make sure that she is human. And something that I’ve liked — as a lot of people who have read the book have said —she’s relatable. I know there was this whole thing about: We don’t need women who are relatable, like it’s okay if they’re bad. Whatever, but it’s just like, when people are talking like that, it’s always about some novel about some rich girl who was just gross and mean. I just didn’t want to do that. I wanted somebody whose maybe suffering, which is not even necessarily aware to her, she’s quite accepting of her life. She’s accepting of a lot of things. I felt this is somebody who, like the women I grew up knowing, somebody who doesn’t need to be famous or best at anything, but just wanted a decent life and is doing everything she can to get that.
PM: I think I think it’s really important. To me, as I hear you describe that it also kind of brings to mind the other work that you do. Well, you’re not just a critic of the tech industry, but I don’t know if it’d be right to call you a film critic, but you obviously write a lot about film and are really engaged in broader cultural discussions. I feel like one of the things that really stands out is when you look at the depiction of the working class, in a lot of the mainstream cultural depictions that people have, whether it’s books or television shows, or movies or whatnot. It really doesn’t get to, for the most part, what it actually feels to be an average person in American society, if we’re talking about this today and having to experience the types of things that you’re talking about.
Rather, it’s a lot of the characters we see now are somewhat wealthy, or in this milieu, where they come from familial wealth, or they don’t need to worry about it. Or they’re presented or depicted as being broke or poor working class or whatever, but actually have a big apartment. There’s not this real reflection of that in the lived experience of this person. And there seems to be just a poor, not only depiction of the working class, but it feels like part of that is because the working class is not allowed or pushed out of these cultural professions, I guess, in a way that they weren’t in the past. Which I feel like is another reason why your book particularly stands out.
JM: These were things that I had in mind as just pressures that I have felt, I’ve certainly had those moments where I’ve been in a party full of leftists. And they were saying: Oh, well, working class, people can’t afford to be writers. And I’m thinking: Well I’m here, and you can give me some opportunities if you want some working-class writing. But then at the same time, we have this sort of messy way of reading right now which is like reading it for an identity. So, I know a lot of writers of color who have been struggling with this, where it’s like, from their mind, they wrote a novel. It’s a novel, and a white audience, white upper middle-class audience, is reading it as instruction. It’s like: Oh, I read this book, now I know what it’s like to be Black in America. Because everything is just like they’re perpetually learning; they didn’t stop going to Harvard. And I’m so worried that my book is going to be read like that, like it’s a lesson in working class lives. No, it’s more just a snapshot of a reality that most people in our country are experiencing that is not depicted in literature.
Because publishing as an institution, especially New York publishing, is extremely biased against working class writers, and biased against a lot of types of writers, but there is a class biases there, definitely. So, it was important to me to show her as someone who can still find joy, who can still have friendships, who can still be present in the world. And it is not just someone on this treadmill for money, is actually in many ways has refused that treadmill and one might, perhaps I did it to herself because she doesn’t want success that way, but from my perspective as the author, it’s that that’s a lottery. You can strive, and you could strive, and you can strive, but only a handful win in that system. And they are lottery winners. That she is already deciding not to be on that treadmill is something that I wanted to bring to this character and see what she does value instead of these traditional markers of success.
PM: Which as you say, is very outside what cultural norms that we have, or the messages that we receive of what people should be going for, or trying to attain in life. I do want to go back to something that you were saying a little bit earlier, though, because one of the things that people may or may not know about you is that you’ve been a tech critic for quite a long time, before the techlash. Sometimes I feel a bit bad when I say: There wasn’t very much tech criticism in the earlier part of the 2010s, when obviously, people like you were very much doing that and pointing out the issues at companies like Facebook, and many people were but they just weren’t getting the attention of the mainstream opinion or whatnot.
But going back to what you were saying about the Waymo and being in San Francisco and seeing these vehicles, like last year when the book was pretty much finalized. But you were questioning whether the technology had actually advanced more than you were aware of. I feel like this is something that I experience a lot where I see this new thing that is out there, or this thing that has been recycled and is back again. And the mainstream, public view, and a lot of the reporting is like: Look, it’s moved. So far, it’s it’s so great. And I’m like I don’t necessarily have the proof to say that it hasn’t, but my gut tells me that it’s not, because I’ve seen this so many times. So, I wonder how your reflection on that after having done this work so many times, after being through so many cycles, but still being able to maintain that clear-eyed view on these technologies.
JM: I think that’s crucial for any good writer on technology. It’s like having your gut, when we had five years ago, all these stories in the tradition of “Bad Blood,” these exposes on yet another Silicon Valley company, as broken promises. And it’s all hype and made up. It starts with a reporter who is just noticing something, and went: Doesn’t add up here. Unfortunately, I think there are too many companies where things don’t add up, and there are too few reporters. And at this point, we we all know that the audience for these stories, is all kind of prepared. If you have some new startup that’s promising something that most of your listeners are going to be like: You sure about that? But I think it is a good skill to listen for what they aren’t saying, and remember that the flashy demos is how they get their money. That’s how they find investors — through doing something really dramatic, and doing these magic tricks for the public.
PM: Do you find it difficult sometimes to push through that questioning that you have yourself? Like: Do I have it wrong this time? Have I misjudged in my criticism? Or do you feel quite confident in seeing these things and saying: There is this history here; I can see it very clearly. I just need to stick with how I feel, and kind of go for it, because it’s proven right in the past.
JM: Where I feel I need more space to decide things is, I am looking for technologies that are beneficial. I am looking for projects that would be like ARPANET in 1969. I’m looking for that use of technology that would be to advance progressive society, to offer a better future for us. And there are few avenues to do that. One would be through nonprofits, through government products, through academic projects. And I do have to, at least, keep my eyes open that this might be happening. Whereas, I’m instinctively cynical about any VC-backed startup because they have to fulfill a certain type of technology for investors.
PM: I always struggle with that point. But I think that recognizing what VC and what venture capital does, these companies can really allow you to see through a lot of the bullshit. Maybe as we start to wrap up this conversation, one of the things that jumped out a couple of times in the novel was hearing your founder-type guy, Falconer, you particularly chide at the socialists and the neo-Luddites a couple times. I wonder your reflections, having done this work for so long, where you see tech criticism — the tech industry itself in this moment — because we were talking about how they did get away from the 2010s, criticism and desire to take action on them. So, how do you feel about where things stand today?
JM: Well, my feeling as a critic, and it’s just like in film and technology and anything, if you state someone’s ideas fairly, and engage with their ideas. If you put in the effort, if you’re generous enough to understand what someone is actually trying to say, or do, and you disagree with that, you’re criticizing fairly. And a lot of these companies cannot deal with critics because as soon as you see them for what they are, they crumble. That’s something that I always keep in mind, whether it’s a film, or it’s a new gadget, if you spend that effort to actually see what it is, and not just like knee jerk: Well, it’s another startup, it’s got to be garbage. I wouldn’t write that piece, because I just don’t think it’s needed. If I’m going to write a work of tech criticism right now, I’m going to actually engage with these companies and see what they’re trying to build, why they’re building it, what their purpose is, and then engage from there. And if they have a problem with my criticism that also is revealing in itself?
PM: No, absolutely. I think it says a lot that the tech industry is so bothered by people who just need to call out the very basic harms that that they do and can’t even accept that very basic level of skepticism of what they’re doing today. But also what they’ve been doing for the past couple decades.
JM: I mean, pointing out that the self-driving car companies have remote operators as a labor force. That’s just a fact that’s not criticism, these companies receive it like it’s criticism. Like, you can’t hold the mirror up to them. And that says enough.
PM: Definitely. And what we’ve learned about Cruise recently is that it’s something like 1.5 remote drivers to the vehicle that they have in San Francisco. Which is like, they claim to be making everything more efficient and driverless and blah, blah, blah. And then you see the reality, but only once there’s a real scandal or something really bad happens. And then we finally learn that the people who have been looking at it — who have been skeptical of it, like you and I, for so long — were actually on the right track.
JM: It only took dragging a woman through the streets of San Francisco — for I don’t know, a couple blocks, it was something really horrific — to get this sort of coverage about what they’re doing. It only took incredible tragedy. That was a bleak moment, and it does make me wish that there were more invested into technology reporting, because I would imagine that if you are a tech founder and you are sincere about what you’re doing, you should want these stories to be published. Because you don’t want to be confused with something as dangerous as that on the road. I think there probably are a lot of people working in the AV space who have very sincere belief in what they’re trying to achieve, and that Cruise reporting is crucial to what they’re doing. And I hope they see that.
PM: Absolutely. And guess to close off our interview, you’ve written this novel, this fantastic novel, that I would recommend everyone go pick up. What is the takeaway, what is it that you want people to take away from reading this and the experience of spending 270 pages with you?
JM: Well, I hope that the characters come to life for the reader, I hope the reader has a moment with it. I mean, I read a lot of fiction. And I wrote a book that I did not see in the world, which I feel like, as many novelists will say this, that you write a book that you couldn’t find and you need it. So I hope that comes through, and I am grateful for anyone taking a chance on it because it actually does mean a lot as an author to have pupils willing enough to spend 70,000 words follow you along in a world as as overwhelming and stressful as this one. I hope this book is an actual moment of respite for the readers.
PM: Really well said. I always find that I read so much non-fiction because of obviously the work that I do. And I don’t get to fiction nearly as much as I would like to, but then occasionally when I do get to pick up a book like yours, and spend that time to just give myself to it. It’s always such a wonderful experience. And so I would just wholeheartedly recommend people pick up the book because it is really fantastic. And congratulations on having written it, having it published, on having it arrive in this perfectly precise moment that works so well for it. And thanks again for coming on the show, Joanne.
JM: Thank you so much Paris! It’s so great talking to you.