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Humanism Technology

Robin Sloan’s Fusion of Technology and Humanity

When Roy Rosenzweig and I wrote Digital History 15 years ago, we spent a lot of time thinking about the overall tone and approach of the book. It seemed to us that there were, on the one hand, a lot of our colleagues in professional history who were adamantly opposed to the use of digital media and technology, and, on the other hand, a rapidly growing number of people outside the academy who were extremely enthusiastic about the application of computers and computer networks to every aspect of society.

For the lack of better words—we struggled to avoid loaded ones like “Luddites”—we called these two diametrically opposed groups the “technoskeptics” and the “cyberenthusiasts” in our introduction, “The Promises and Perils of Digital History“:

Step back in time and open the pages of the inaugural issue of Wired magazine from the spring of 1993, and prophecies of an optimistic digital future call out to you. Management consultant Lewis J. Perleman confidently proclaims an “inevitable” “hyperlearning revolution” that will displace the thousand-year-old “technology” of the classroom, which has “as much utility in today’s modern economy of advanced information technology as the Conestoga wagon or the blacksmith shop.” John Browning, a friend of the magazine’s founders and later the Executive Editor of Wired UK, rhapsodizes about how “books once hoarded in subterranean stacks will be scanned into computers and made available to anyone, anywhere, almost instantly, over high-speed networks.” Not to be outdone by his authors, Wired publisher Louis Rossetto links the digital revolution to “social changes so profound that their only parallel is probably the discovery of fire.”

Although the Wired prophets could not contain their enthusiasm, the technoskeptics fretted about a very different future. Debating Wired Executive Editor Kevin Kelly in the May 1994 issue of Harper’s, literary critic Sven Birkerts implored readers to “refuse” the lure of “the electronic hive.” The new media, he warned, pose a dire threat to the search for “wisdom” and “depth”—“the struggle for which has for millennia been central to the very idea of culture.”

Reading passionate polemics such as these, Roy and I decided that it would be the animating theme of Digital History to find a sensible middle position between these two poles. Part of this approach was pragmatic—we wanted to understand how history could, and likely would, be created and disseminated given all of this new digital technology—but part of it was also temperamental and even a little personal for the two of us: we both loved history, including its very analog and tactile aspects of working with archives and printed works, but we were also both avid computer hobbyists and felt that the digital world could do some uncanny, unparalleled things. So we sought a profoundly humanistic, but also technologically sophisticated, position on which to base the pursuit of knowledge.

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Robin Sloan is a novelist who has published two books, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and Sourdough, that are very much about this intersection between the humanistic and the technological. Beyond his very successful work as an author, he has had a career at new media companies that are often associated with cyberenthusiasm, including Twitter and Current TV, and he has also spent considerable time engaging in crafts often associated with technoskepticism, including the production of artisanal olive oil, old-school printing, and 80s-era music-making. In this larger context of his vocations and avocations, his novels seem like an attempt to find that very same, if elusive, via media between the incredible power and potential of modern technology and the humanizing warmth of our prior, analog world.

Unlike some other contemporary novelists and nonfiction writers who work in the often tense borderlands between the present and future, Sloan neither can bring himself to buy fully into the utopian dreams of Silicon Valley—although he’s clearly tickled and even wowed by the way it constantly produces unusual, boundless new tech—nor can he simply conclude that we should throw away our smartphones and move off the grid. Although he clearly loves the peculiar, inventive shapes and functions of older technology, he doesn’t badger us with a cynical jeremiad to return to some imagined purity inherent in, say, vinyl records, nor will he overdo it with an uncritical ode to our augmented-reality, gene-edited future.

Instead, his helpful approach is to put the old and new into lively conversation with each other. In his first novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Sloan set the magic of an old bookstore in conversation with the full power of Google’s server farm. In his latest novel, Sourdough, he set the organic craft of the farmer’s market and the culinary artisanry of Chez Panisse in conversation with biohacked CRISPRed food and the automation of assembly robots. 

But this was in the published version of the novel. In a revealing abandoned first draft of Sourdough that Sloan made available (as a Risograph printing, of course) to those who subscribe to his newsletter, he started the novel rather differently. In the introduction to this discarded draft, titled Treasured Subscribers, Sloan briefly notes that “these were not the right characters doing the right things.” I think he’s absolutely right about that, but it’s worth unpacking exactly why, because in doing so we can understand a bit better how Sloan pursues that elusive via media, and how in turn we might discover and promote humane technology in a rapidly changing world.

[Spoiler alert: If you haven’t read Sourdough yet, I’ve kept the plot twists mostly hidden, but as you’ll see, the following contains one critical character revelation. Please stop what you’re doing, read the book, and return here.]

Treasured Subscribers begins with a similar overarching narrative concept as Sourdough: a capable, intelligent young woman moves to the Bay Area and becomes part of a mysterious underground organization that focuses on artisanal food, and that is orchestrated by a charismatic leader. Mina Fisher, a writer, lands a new marketing job at Intrepid Cellars, led by one Wolfram Wild, who refuses to carry a smartphone or use a laptop. Wild barks text and directions for his newsletter on craft food and wine offerings over what we can only assume is an aging Motorola flip phone as he travels to far-flung fields and vineyards. In short, Wild appears to be a kind of gastronomic J. Peterman, globetrotting for foodie finds. The only hint of future tech in Treasured Subscribers is a quick mention of “Chernobyl honey,” although it’s framed as just another oddball discovery rather than—as Sourdough makes much more plain—an intriguing exercise in modding traditional food through science-fiction-y means. Wild seems too busy tracking down a cider mentioned by Flaubert to think about, or articulate, the significance of irradiated apiaries.

By itself, this seems like not such a bad setup for a novel, but the problem here is that if one wishes to explore, maximally, the intersection and possibilities of human craft and high tech, one can’t have a flattened figure like Wolfram Wild, who sticks with Windows 95 on an aging PC tower. (Given the implicit nod to Stephen Wolfram in Wild’s name, I wonder if Sloan planned to eventually reveal other computational layers to the character, but it’s not there in the first chapter.) In order for Sloan’s fiction to consider the tension between technoskepticism and cyberenthusiasm, and to find some potential resolution that is both excitingly technological and reassuringly human, he can’t have straw men at either pole. Had Sloan continued with Treasured Subscribers, it would have been all too easy for the reader to dismiss Wild, cheer for Mina, and resolve any artisanal/digital divide in favor of an app for aged Bordeaux. To generate some real debate in the reader’s mind, you need more multidimensional, sophisticated characters who can speak cogently and passionately about the advantages of technology, while also being cognizant of the impact of that technology on society. A clamshell cellphone-brandishing foodie J. Peterman won’t do.

Sloan solved this problem in multiple ways in the production version of Sourdough. In the published novel, the protagonist is the young Lois Clary, a software developer who gets a job automating robot arms at General Dexterity, and learns baking at night from two lively undocumented immigrants and their equally animated starter dough. General Dexterity is led by a charismatic tech leader, Andrei, who can articulate the remarkable features of robotic hands and their potential role in work. Also hanging out at the unabashed cyberenthusiast pole, ready for conversation and debate, is the founder and CEO of Slurry Systems, the maker of artificial, nutritious, and disgusting foods of the future, Dr. Klamath. And Clary ends up working at—yes, here it returns from Treasured Subscribers, but in a different form—an underground craft food market, which is chockablock with artisanal cheeses and beverages made by off-duty scientists and a librarian who maintains a San Francisco version of the New York Public Library’s menu collection. Tech and craft are in rich, helpful collision.

The most important character, however, for our purposes here, is the delightfully named Charlotte Clingstone, who is the head of the legendary Café Candide, and the stand-in for Alice Waters of Chez Panisse fame. Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, pioneered the locavore craft food movement, and normally a fictional Waters would be a novel’s unrelenting resident technoskeptic. But in a key twist, it turns out at the end of Sourdough that Clingstone also underwrites futuristic high-tech foodie endeavors—including that “Chernobyl honey” that is a carryover from Treasured Subscribers. Clingstone both defends the craft of the farm-to-table kitchen while seeing it as important to explore the next phase of food through robotics, radiation, and RNA.

As Sourdough develops with these characters, it can thus ask in a deeper way than Treasured Subscribers whether and how we can fuse tech know-how with humanistic values; whether it’s possible to exist in a world in which a robotic hand kneads dough but the process also involves an organic, magical yeast and well-paid workers; whether that starter dough should be gene sequenced to produce artificial, nutritious, and delicious food at scale; and how craft-worthy human labor and creativity can exist in the algorithmic, technological society that is quickly approaching. The only way to find out is to experiment with the technical and digital while keeping one’s heart in the mode of more traditional human pursuits. Sloan’s protagonist, Lois, thus follows an emotional arc between developing code and developing bread.

* * *

I suppose we shouldn’t make that much of an abandoned first draft of a novel (he says 1,000 words into an exploratory blog post), but reading Treasured Subscribers has made me think again about the right middle way between technoskepticism and cyberenthusiasm that we tried to find in Digital History. Certainly the skepticism side has been on the sharp ascent as Silicon Valley has continually been tone-deaf and inhumane in important areas like privacy. Certainly we need a good healthy dose of that criticism, which is valid. But at the end of the day, when it’s time to put down the newspaper and pick up the novel, Robin Sloan holds out hope for some forms of sophisticated technology that are attuned to and serve humanistic ends. We need a bit of that hope, too.

Robin Sloan is willing to give both the artisanal and the technical their own proper limelight and honest appraisal. Indeed, much of what makes his writing both fun and thoughtful is that rather than toning down cyberenthusiasm and technoskepticism to find a sensible middle, he instead uses fiction to turn them up to 11 and toward each other, to see what new harmonious sounds, if any, emerge from the cacophony. Sloan looks for the white light from the overlapping bright colors of the analog and digital worlds. Like the synthesizers he also loves—robotic computer loops intertwined with the soul of music—he seeks the fusion of the radically technological and the profoundly human.