Rob Reid’s 2012 novel Year Zero drew from his experiences as the founder of the music-streaming service that became Rhapsody. His new book, Forever On: A Novel of Silicon Valley, is similarly tech-obsessed — though from what we can tell, there aren’t any aliens in this one. But we’ve still got an exclusive excerpt to share below.
Here’s a synopsis of Forever On:
Meet Phluttr – a diabolically addictive new social network, and a villainess, heroine, enemy, and/or bestie to millions. Phluttr has ingested every fact and message ever generated by, to, from, or about her innumerable users. Her capabilities astound her makers – and they don’t know the tenth of it.
But what’s the purpose of this stunning creation? Is it a front for something even darker and more powerful than the NSA? A bid to spawn a trillion-dollar market by becoming “The Uber of Sex?” Or a reckless experiment that could spawn the digital equivalent of a middle-school bully with enough charisma, dirt, and cunning to bend the entire planet to her will?
Phluttr has it in her to become the greatest gossip, flirt, or matchmaker in history. Or she could cure cancer, bring back Seinfeld, then start a nuclear war. Whatever she does, it’s not up to us. But a motley band of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, VC’s, and engineers might be able to influence her.
And here’s the excerpt, which reveals just how eerily familiar “Phlutter” really is.
They’re still discussing how to handle tomorrow’s board meeting when it’s time to surrender their table to the next reservation. The bar has a huge library-themed back room where front-room evictees can mingle, so they adjourn to it.
Mitchell’s midway through his next Imperial Eagle when a hipster in chunky glasses approaches with a buddy. Both hoodied and sideburned, they look somewhat similar in the dim light, only the second one lacks spectacles. “S’cuse us,” Specs says to Danna, “but we’re having a little debate about prohibition-era literature.”
“How very strange,” she answers warily. Her ‘Achilles bicep’ of paranoia is already kicking in — and Mitchell’s normally calm limbic system is going into overdrive! He senses a threat, and all these years after graduation, the blood of a high school defensive tackle still courses through his veins. He’s instinctively protective around Kuba, due to years of sticking up for him before the kids in their town finally accepted him. He’s also no less protective toward Danna, because knowing part of her history, he suspects some fragility lies beneath that tough, fearless surface.
Specs gestures at the surrounding shelves. “Well, these books are all from the period, so we couldn’t help ourselves. Anyway, my buddy here says the era’s best novel is The Beautiful and the Damned by Fitzgerald. But I’m holding out for The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein.”
Danna’s eyes widen slightly. “Wow — I’d say you win!”
“Dammit!” No-Specs says, playfully feigning dismay.
“What do you like about Stein?” Danna asks, still a bit suspicious.
Specs rises to this. “Well, her work really broke with the narrative, linear, and temporal conventions of the 19th century. And she started experimenting with all that long before Faulkner, Woolf, or even Joyce.”
Danna nods aloofly. “She really doesn’t have any antecedents.”
Specs nods. “I’d say she was more influenced by Picasso than by any actual writers. She’s almost literature’s response to Cubism.”
This shatters the ice. “Holy crap! I wrote a whole thesis on Picasso’s influence on Stein!” Danna turns to Mitchell. “Former life,” she explains.
Mitchell nods politely. As if 23-year-old’s have those, he thinks. But he knows what she’s talking about. Danna majored in comparative literature, and minored in philosophy (she picked up design and coding in her spare time, the brat). Because literature’s up there with colour palettes in her pantheon of passions, it’s now on Mitchell to be the paranoid one, and he’s amped. You’d never know it to look at him, though. The flip side of his particular form of charisma is an ability to mask his agitations just as deftly as he can infect others with them.
“So where’d you discover your passion for Stein,” Danna continues, quite a bit more warmly.
Specs grins. “It will sound weird, but in Morocco, of all places. I did Peace Corps there, and dated another volunteer who was a huge reader.”
“Wait — ” Danna says. “You did Peace Corp in Morocco? When?”
“Three years ago.”
“Whoa! Well, this is random. But did you know a woman named Madison Parker while you were there?”
Specs gives her a stunned look. “Knew her? Madison was the girlfriend who taught me how to read!”
Danna breaks into delighted laughter, then explains that Madison was the older sister of a dorm mate of hers. “I had the biggest girl crush of my life on her!” she says. “We all did. She was so smart, and gorgeous, and funny. And going to Morocco for Peace Corp? That was fierce!”
“Well, thank you,” Specs jokes.
Danna laughs. “It was fierce for a blond woman. But you? I’ll give you ‘feisty.’ ” She’s beaming now, her features utterly vibrant, and drawing besotted looks from guys who hardly noticed her moments ago.
Soon, No-Specs jabs his buddy. “Time to go, man,” he says.
“We’re off to see The Black Keys at the Warfield,” Specs explains apologetically.
“Holy crap, I hate you!” Danna says, beaming even more incredulously. “They’re my favourite band ever! How’d you get tickets?”
No-Specs cups a hand around his mouth and mock whispers, “He’s buddies with their bass player,” as if spilling a secret his chum is too humble to share.
Specs glares at him facetiously. “Why you rattin’ me out? We’re supposed to say StubHub, remember?” He turns back to Danna — who’s suddenly regarding him very oddly. “But yeah, I do know their bassist. And they’re on in nine minutes. If they stick to the schedule he texted me this afternoon.”
“Got it,” Danna says, now gazing very intently into his eyes. “One last thing,” she enunciates very loudly and clearly. “Who is winning the Warriors game right now?”
Specs is suddenly very nervous. “Warriors are up by five,” he says sheepishly.
With that, Danna suddenly flicks her drink right into No-Specs’s unshielded eyes. He gasps and jumps back as her other hand flies to Specs’s face, snatching for his glasses. “What the hell?” Specs yelps, folding into a protective crouch. This smashes his face right into Danna’s grasping fingers, and his glasses go flying.
Danna dives for them, yelling, “cover me,” to no one in particular. Lunging toward her, Specs is instantly slammed to the floor by Mitchell, who’s stunned to find his football training so useful in this CEO gig. Danna uses the ensuing chaos to briefly snatch the glasses. But No-Specs has recovered, and bats them from her hands, sending them skittering under a thicket of legs midway across the room. Mitchell then agilely drops No-Specs to the floor, which leaves everyone sprawling but Kuba, who casually strides into the now-gawking huddle of drinkers, plucks the glasses from the carpet, and looks at them reeeeeeeal close as a mountain of Mississippi muscle and fist closes in on the scene.
“The hell?” the bouncer asks, effortlessly plucking Danna and Specs from the floor by the scruffs of their jackets.
“She assaulted me,” Specs whines shrilly.
The bouncer hoists Danna to eye level, like a picky shopper appraising a melon. “This’n? Hell, she ain’t a hundred pounds soakin’ wet. If she can whup you, you oughta learn some Kung Fu.” He releases them both.
Figuring Danna’s about to clam up and stare daggers at everyone, while Kuba catatonically ponders those high-tech glasses, Mitchell surges to his feet. “He’s a glasshole,” he declares pointing at Specs. “He was recording us, and everyone else in this bar!” This is only a guess. But it’s an educated one, and could just win the bouncer over.
“Hey, those are mine!” Specs practically shrieks, seeing his glasses in Kuba’s hands and lunging for them. Kuba dangles them out of his reach, then hands them peaceably to the bouncer.
“Glasshole,” the giant grumbles, examining the thick lenses. This term dates back to the early heyday of Google Glass — the famously clunky first-generation attempt to embed heads-up data displays in eyewear. Priced at fifteen hundred bucks, Glass categorically failed to set the world alight. It then largely vanished from the wild, but not before its built-in camera sparked a small wave of local paranoia. Reasoning that nothing could stomp a buzz quite like a herd of sly geeks sneaking candid photos of profitable revelry, several barkeeps banished Glass from their premises. “I got me a powerful allergy to glassholes! No wonder I got the sniffles tonight.” As the drawling quip hints of a playful wit beneath the gruffness, Mitchell decides on the tone he’ll take with this guy.
“I wasn’t recording anything,” Specs whines petulantly. “Those are prescription.”
“Sure,” Mitchell says, giving the bouncer a chummy glance. “Diagnosis: asswipe.” His delivery’s impeccable, so this comes across much funnier than you’d think.
Guffawing cheerfully at this, the bouncer peers at an arched bump on the temple of the frame, which looks a lot like a power button. A new wave of data glasses is starting to circulate, and digerati bars like this one want nothing to do with them. “Or maybe, glasswipe,” he parries, and Mitchell chuckles politely. Then he hands the glasses back to Specs, saying, “You two get your peepin Tom asses outta here now, and I don’t ever wanna see you again.” With that, Specs and No-Specs slink out, the bouncer gives the Giftish.ly crew a merry wink, and they’re left in peace.
“That hardware was amazing,” Kuba whispers once they’re alone. “They looked exactly like normal glasses. And I mean, exactly.” Everyone knows that smart eyewear will one day be indistinguishable from the real thing. But Glass itself fell comically short of this, and while the new Magic Leap gear is way better, it’s still pretty easy to spot in a crowd.
“It’s the software that freaks me out,” Danna says, clearly shaken. “That guy didn’t know crap about me, Gertrude Stein, or my friend’s big sister. But his glasses were … telling him what to say. Kind of.”
“That’s what I guessed,” Mitchell says. “How’d you figure it out?”
“The guy without the glasses blew it when he tried to ad lib about the Black Keys.”
“You mean when he said they knew the bass player?”
Danna nods. “The Black Keys don’t have a bass player.”
“Seriously?” Mitchell asks. “They sure sound like they do.”
“Trust me. They have been my favourite band for years. Just like Stein’s my favourite author. And Toklas is my favourite book. It was one coincidence too many. Meanwhile, I thought I’d seen a couple weird flashes of light in that guy’s lenses. So when they blew the bassist thing, I suddenly put it all together.”
“Ahhh,” Mitchell says. “So when you leaned in close and asked him about the Warriors game…”
“It was on a hunch. I figured smart glasses would have built-in voice recognition. And if I asked really clearly about something really basic, like a sports score, the system might flash up the answer.”
“So you saw the score pop up in his glasses?”
Danna shakes her head. “Just a glimmer of light. But that was enough.”
“But how did he learn all that stuff about you?” Kuba asks, more wide-eyed about the technology than disturbed by the privacy rupture.
“Well, first he had to figure out who I was, so let’s start with facial recognition.” Danna says. “I’ll bet those lenses ID everyone he looks at.”
Mitchell rolls his eyes. “Oh, come on.” This strikes him as just a bit paranoid — and, at least ten years into the future.
But Kuba’s nodding. “Think of all the pictures of you online. Of all of us. Each tagged with our names. Any system that’s scanned them all could do it. Facebook’s been ID-ing faces in photos for years. ID-ing someone from a live feed through those glasses wouldn’t be much harder.”
Danna shudders. “I’m sure it’s a layup for the NSA.”
“Please, those guys weren’t NSA,” Mitchell says (although he wouldn’t mind being wrong, because it would be pretty badass to’ve flattened a pair of government agents like that!)
“They wouldn’t have to be, to pull that off,” Kuba says. “Five years ago, maybe. But today? No. Facial ID just isn’t that hard or exotic anymore.”
“Then how’d the system come up with all that stuff for him to say about Danna’s friend’s older sister?” Mitchell asks.
“It probably didn’t,” Kuba guesses. “The operator just picked Danna as a target. Maybe randomly. Maybe because he liked the way she looked. Then, the system pulled up a bunch of facts about her. She wrote a thesis on this book. Here’s her social graph. Here are some distant acquaintances of hers you might credibly pretend to know. That sort of thing. Then the guy pieced together his own story and approach. I mean, he was pretty smooth. He wasn’t reading a teleprompter or anything.”
“Except for his initial description of Stein’s writing,” Dana says. “That was pretty wooden. Almost like he was reading from Wikipedia. But after that, he was real smooth. And, he was also having fun with it. Which made it believable, because small-world conversations like that actually are fun. If I didn’t feel so violated, I’d be kind of impressed with the whole performance. And he could’ve done something much creepier if he wanted to.”
“Like what?” To Mitchell, this shit was about as creepy as it gets.
“Well, let’s see. It would have been illegal, but once the facial recognition did its thing, there’s a bunch of databases the system could’ve hit to figure out where every cute girl in the bar lives, right? Then it could’ve told him which ones live in walking distance. And which ones are single, and live alone. Then it could’ve fed him a bunch of facts to help him seem all trustworthy to the unsuspecting target of his choice. Kind of like it did with me. He could’ve come off as being the brother of an old friend of hers. Or maybe, ‘hey, we took that history class together junior year! Wasn’t Doctor Bernstein the best?’ Enough trust that she lets him walk her home at the end of the night, because it’s a crap neighbourhood, and she thinks they have a dozen friends in common. And then? Use your imagination.”
Mitchell shudders. “That’s sick.”
“I agree. But our guy only tricked me into thinking we had a bunch of weird things in common. Pretty harmless by comparison.” Danna is actually less put off by the episode than Mitchell or Kuba. As she’s already plenty paranoid, it didn’t surprise her. Nor did it reduce her faith in the average stranger, which for years has had nowhere lower to go.
“But we still loathe him, right?” Mitchell confirms. If Danna and Kuba are right about everything, those glasses make the guy half-omniscient — and like some real world supervillian, he’s noxiously abusing his powers. “And what the hell was the point of all that anyway?”
“They were alpha testing something new,” Kuba says softly. “Something radical. Taking it for a spin in the real world. That hardware’s pre-release, and very special. You saw how they fought. They did not want it getting out of their hands.”
“Do you seriously think that spying system is gonna be someone’s product?” Mitchell asks. “It can’t possibly be legal! It’s like … weaponised information.”
“Any more weaponised than a handgun?” Dana asks. “Those seem to be legal everywhere.”
Mitchell nods grimly. “I can hear the lobbyists now. Magic glasses don’t spy on people — people do.”
“Yes, they will say that,” Kuba agrees. “And they won’t be entirely wrong. Cynical. But not wrong. Because the tech itself could be used for practically anything, good or bad. It’s as value-neutral as a smart phone. Or a computer.”
“And every bit as inevitable,” Danna adds. “We’ve seen that dozens of times. Today’s million-dollar prototype is tomorrow’s $US99 ($132) gizmo.”
Mitchell nods. “I just wish the guys who invented it didn’t go straight to the gutter with their first application.”
“Agreed,” Danna says. “Why build something that amazing just to creep on people in bars?”
“Completely twisted,” Mitchell agrees. “I mean, seriously. Who would do that?”
“A super-rich organisation,” Kuba muses. “God only knows how much R&D that took.”
“Make that a brilliant rich organisation,” Danna says. “That shit was incredible.”
“Make that a brilliant, rich, evil organisation,” Mitchell adds. “Just to state the obvious.”
They all fall silent. Then Danna inevitably guesses, “Stanford?”
Mitchell grins. “Spoken like a true Berkeley girl. But sorry — not evil enough. He falls silent, then hazards, “North Korea?”
Kuba shakes his head. “Not rich enough.”
Then Danna guesses “Iran?”
“Not brilliant enough,” Mitchell points out.
As if on cue, their pockets all hum with an in-bound digital coupon.
The briefest of intervals, then Danna’s eyes widen and she snarls, “No!“
This baffles Kuba. But Mitchell’s right there with her. “It was fucking Phluttr!!!” he barks.
From the forthcoming book FOREVER ON by Rob Reid. Copyright © 2017 by Rob Reid. Reprinted by arrangement with Del Rey, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
Rob Reid’s Forever On: A Novel of Silicon Valley comes out May 2, 2017.