In the Cybersweatshop

Christian Lorentzen

  • Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon
    Cape, 477 pp, £20.00, September 2013, ISBN 978 0 224 09902 8

Silicon Alley was a name given around 1996 to the cluster of internet companies in Manhattan. The phrase is mostly in disuse now: it connotes boosterism, puffery, and a lot of money lost on ventures that had little chance of turning a profit. It was a silly name in an era of silly names. I worked in Silicon Alley for a few months in the spring of 2000, first at an unnamed travel website where I was paid in cash. After a few weeks, the site had a silly name: I almost quit out of embarrassment, but after another few weeks the Nasdaq started falling and I no longer had a job. Then I found a job at a website about jobs. I wrote daily newsletters advising professionals in the human resources industry about the latest in recruiting tactics, benefits packages, compensation and retention. I was told that if I stuck around I would accumulate stock options. The website was run out of a loft in Chelsea full of coders, designers and content producers. I made a lot of friends. I attended a focus group, and from behind a one-way mirror I watched several HR professionals discuss how useful, informative and entertaining my newsletters were. I was praised for my ‘out-of-the-box HR thinking’. The newsletters would become a channel, I was told. Then the Nasdaq definitively crashed. I quit for a job at a magazine. I was invited many times over the next two years to drinks marking my old colleagues’ layoffs. The company never quite folded, and was sold to a venture capital firm in 2007. The man who hired me, one of the ‘founders’ – what is it about starting a website that makes people think they have a lot in common with George Washington? – is now a not very funny comic wine columnist.

Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge is a period novel about Silicon Alley. Pynchon is fond of silly names, and in the dotcom bubble they seemed to be self-generating: Razorfish, AltaVista, HotBot, Yahoo! There was a strange connection during that boom between whimsy and greed, as if the internet had brought about a completely innocent, even goofy way of becoming fantastically rich. A popular trade magazine for the industry was called Red Herring, and Bleeding Edge is built on red herrings. A year goes by, from when the pear trees first bloom in 2001 until the blossoms return in 2002. The novel is soaked in ‘instant nostalgia’, or ‘what passes for nostalgia in a time of widespread Attention Deficit Disorder’. Here is a view of guests leaving a party in SoHo:

Faces already under silent assault as if by something ahead, some Y2K of the workweek that no one is quite imagining, the crowds drifting slowly out into the little legendary streets, the highs beginning to dissipate, out into the casting-off of veils before the luminosities of dawn, a sea of T-shirts nobody’s reading, a clamour of messages nobody’s getting, as if it’s the true text history of nights in the Alley, outcries to be attended to and not lost, the 3 a.m. kozmo deliveries to code sessions and all-night shredding parties, the bedfellows who came and went, the bands in the clubs, the songs whose hooks still wait to ambush an idle hour, the day jobs with meetings about meetings and bosses without clue, the unreal strings of zeros, the business models changing one minute to the next, the startup parties every night of the week and more on Thursdays than you could keep track of, which of these faces so claimed by the time, the epoch whose end they’ve been celebrating all night – which of them can see ahead, among the microclimates of the binary, tracking earthwide everywhere through dark fibre and twisted pairs and nowadays wirelessly through spaces private and public, anywhere among cybersweatshop needles flashing and never still, in that unquiet vastly stitched and unstitched tapestry they have all at some time sat growing crippled in the service of – to the shape of the day imminent, a procedure waiting execution, about to be revealed, a search result with no instructions how to look for it.

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