I have a few friends working at major technology companies who share a similar story—they describe meetings with the founder, always an eccentric, Delphic, creature who gives feedback that is rushed and difficult to understand. The group huddles after meeting with the oracle, attempting to decode his meaning. Some hilarity ensues. Someone among the group is a founder whisperer, with a track record of properly decoding his pronouncements.
Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers captures this dynamic and puts the reader in touch with an unforgettable character. The founder of Tetration, a Google-like company, hires Joshua Cohen, a failed writer, to ghostwrite his biography. The founder, also named Joshua Cohen, has some traits of Steve Jobs, and is singularly focused on Tetration’s goal of “equaliz
Early in the novel, ghostwriter Cohen interviews Tetration founder Cohen (“Principal”), who gives a lurid account of his attitude toward users of the search engine and the world more generally.
Cohen: “How’s it treating you, NY?” I said.[…]
Principal: “Whatever the thing to say is, write it.”
Cohen: “I take it you don’t have a great opinion of the press?”
Principal: “The same questions are always asked: Power color? HTML White, #FFFFFF. Favorite food? Antioxidants. Favorite drink? Yuen yeung, kefir, feni lassi, kombucha. Preferred way to relax? Going around NY lying to journalists about ever having time to relax. They have become unavoidable. The questions, the answers, the journalists. But it is not the lying we hate. We hate anything unavoidable.”
Cohen: “We? Meaning you or Tetration itself?”
Principal: “No difference. We are the business and the business is us. Selfsame. Our mission is our mission.”
Cohen: “Which is?”
Principal: “The end of search—”
Cohen: “—the beginning of find: yes, I got the memo. Change the world. Be the change. Tetrate the world in your image.”
Principal: “If the moguls of the old generation talked that way, it was only to the media. But the moguls of the new generation talk that way to themselves. We, though, are from the middle. Unable to deceive or be deceived.”
Cohen: “I want to get serious for a moment,” I said. “It’s 2004, four years after everything burst, and I want to know what you’re thinking. Is this reinvestment we’re getting back in NY just another bubble rising? Why does Silicon Valley even need a Silicon Alley — isn’t bicoastalism or whatever just the analog economy?”
Principal blinked, openshut mouth, nosebreathed.
Principal: “You — what attracted us to NY was you, was access. Also the tax breaks, utility incentives. Multiple offices are the analog economy, but the office itself is a dead economy. Its only function might be social, though whatever benefits result when employees compete in person are doubled in costs when employees fuck, get pregnant, infect everyone with viruses, sending everyone home on leave and fucking with the deliverables.”
Cohen: “Do the people who work for you know your feelings on this? If not, how do you think they’d react?”
Principal: “Do not ask us — ask NY. This office will be tasked with Adverks sales, personnel ops/recruitment, policy/advocacy, media relations. Divisions requiring minimal intelligence. Minimal skill. Not techs but recs. Rectards. Lusers. Loser users. Ad people. All staff will be hired locally.”
Cohen: “You realize this is for publication — you’re sure you want to go on the record?”
Principal: “We want the scalp of the head of the team responsible for this wallpaper.”
This is just one excerpt of Cohen’s fantastic book. I cannot do it justice. It is uncompromising, yet rewarding. People comment on its epic length, but what is more important is its Joycean ambitions and what it says about humanity and technology. Cohen perfectly captures the flat affect and arrested development of this breed of uber technologist. Why should you care? To them, we’re all rectards.