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The definitive novel of today’s Silicon Valley, After On flash-captures our cultural and technological moment with up-to-the-instant savvy. Matters of privacy and government intrusion, post-Tinder romance, nihilistic terrorism, artificial consciousness, synthetic biology, and much more are tackled with authority and brash playfulness by New York Times bestselling author Rob Reid.
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 sent to, from, and about her innumerable users. Her capabilities astound her makers—and they don’t even 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 create a trillion-dollar market by becoming “The UberX of Sex”? Or a reckless experiment that could spawn the digital equivalent of a middle-school mean girl 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, venture capitalists, and engineers might be able to influence her.
After On achieves the literary singularity—fusing speculative satire and astonishing reality into a sharp-witted, ferociously believable, IMAX-wide view of our digital age.
Praise for After On
“Rob Reid’s mind is like no other known thing in the universe, and this book is a truly spectacular way to discover it.”—Chris Anderson, head of TED
“An extended philosophy seminar run by a dozen insane Cold War heads-of-station, three millennial COOs and that guy you went to college with who always had the best weed but never did his laundry.”—NPR
“An epic cyberthriller peppered with pop-culture references, metadata, and Silicon Valley in-jokes.”—Kirkus Reviews
“It’s rare to find a book that combines laugh-out-loud humor and cutting-edge science with profound philosophical speculation. This is that book.”—Analog
“[Rob Reid] writes in a humorous and sarcastic style while unveiling a terrifying and frightening scenario that seems all too real.”—Associated Press
Under the Cover
An excerpt from After On
Some people think all great books should start with a dare. And those folks can’t be big readers—because really, when was the last time you read a book that began with a dare? Well, this one does. And that’s not some ham-fisted gambit to position it as “great” because we just established that only half literates conflate opening dares with greatness. So it’s, truly, just a simple dare. And it’s this: I dare you to finish the fucker.
And let’s be real—you probably won’t. It’s 547 pages printed, after all. Which is to say, any number of “locations,” “sections,” or “litnodes” on your eReader. And its obnoxious length is nothing compared to the disquieting truths it reveals about a popular social/messaging/hookup platform that humanity already spends 11.2 percent of its online time engaged with. About who really built all that, and why. About who’s listening, and what they’re recording. And (here’s the part that may smart a bit) how terribly uninteresting they almost certainly find you. There’s also some truly scary stuff you just don’t need to know. About the February bombing in San Francisco. About how it actually saved lives (lots of them—and quite possibly, your own). And about how moronically close we came to nuclear war with China on a recent winter’s day (spoiler alert: not my fault).
You don’t have to know any of this. And ignoring the hidden ugliness we can’t do much about makes life easier. So if you tend to avoid facts like the age of the kid who stitched your favorite blazer just outside of Phnom Penh; or how athletically a certain ex once cheated on you; or how painful and scary the last few days of most human lives are; then for God’s sake: Put. The book. Down. Then do yourself a big favor and catch a movie. A numbered sequel, say starring cartoon-men invented to distract tots during the Roosevelt era. You’ll find that plenty challenging, and much more fun. It’ll also be over sooner, leaving you free for more numbered sequels, or maybe some lite sci fi written for the bright teens and dim grown-ups we euphemistically call “Young Adults.”
Are you still there?
If so, sorry if that sounded a bit mean. But we’re better off without whoever just stomped off. Those people offend easily and are always whining about how they feel “unsafe,” or undercherished if their every clumsy kick, catch, and volley isn’t commemorated with trophies. I can’t stand those people. I’ll bet you can’t stand them either. So getting rid of them was worth feigning contempt for some of my own favorite things (pssst: two of the best movies, ever, in my view are Iron Man 1 and 2. Also: I read “Y.A.” stuff constantly. I’ll bet you didn’t know that).
Now that it’s just us, I applaud you for at least attempting to see this thing through. Even you probably won’t get there (those 547 pages, again). But if you do, I can make you three promises. One: I will never talk down to you. Yes, certain facts herein are hard to confront and accept. Certain others are plenty hard to understand. But I think you’re man enough, woman enough, or young adult enough to handle it all. So. No sugarcoating, and no dumbing down. Two: I’ll never lie to you. Everything that follows—however fantastical and hard to believe—is entirely true and precisely depicts the underpinnings of the world you inhabit. And finally: at the very, very end of all this, you will find a glittering prize. Books that end with glittering prizes are even rarer than those that start with dares, so lucky you. But please. No peeksies.
With that, I’m almost done with you. And that may be welcome news! My tone can grate a bit, I know. It’s probably just a phase I’m going through. But I’ll give you your space now. That said, I will check in every so often. Sometimes when you least expect it, as the hit men say. And, of course, I’ll be back at the end, with that glittering prize of yours (and you thought I’d already forgotten).
But for now, let’s begin our story with some quick opening praise for the women and men of Silicon Valley. Yes, yes; I know—“but those fuckers gave us FarmVille!” It’s true. And everyone’s awfully sorry about that. But at its best, the Valley remains an inspiring land, almost bewitchingly so. I mean, where else can a handful of misfits meet up in a garage, share mad bolts of inspiration, then mainline Red Bull, sleep under desks, and code on bleeding fingers until they hack together an agenda-setting product that will rock the world? And then register their millionth user in just weeks? Their ten millionth in mere months? And forge friendships and talents that will last a lifetime—all while getting vastly, shamelessly, pornographically rich?
The answer, of course, is Austin, Seattle, Beijing, London, Oslo, Bangalore, Seoul, Nairobi, Dubai, Buenos Aires, and quite possibly Perth, Australia, among countless other places. But this sort of thing happens on a grander scale in Silicon Valley than anywhere else. And the cliché is dead accurate: we’re designing the future here. We also designed the present, and you’re much better off for that. Snort at this if you must. But do you really want to go back to six broadcast channels, CB radios, typewriters, dominoes and checkers, rotary phones, and thermostats that don’t even speak a single word of English? Didn’t think so.
So, yes. Silicon Valley did give us FarmVille. But across the decades, its countless startups have also rebuilt our world’s foundations. Some relentlessly advanced the microprocessor, enabling the digital wonders of our era. Others honed DNA sequencing, which cracked the human genome and will one day help to cure cancer. Still others pioneered wireless technologies that are finally patching the world’s poorest sectors into a global superplex of information. Literally thousands of Silicon Valley startups in these and countless fields have advanced humanity in palpable ways. And no matter how you cut it—however imaginatively, generously, even schizophrenically you look at things—Giftish.ly was never, ever one of them. Nope! Not even close.
Giftish.ly was an unremembered startup in the wholly forgotten realm of “social gifting.” Even the most obsessive tech historian would struggle to name the year when this concept briefly infatuated a luckless handful of able but misguided entrepreneurs. “Twenty-something-teen” is close enough. So what is social gifting? Or rather, what was (or, really, what wasn’t) it? Well, its boosters reckoned that billions of people neurally lashed to their Facebook newsfeeds would eventually develop an uncontrollable urge to buy shit for each other. Having done so, they’d want to brag about their purchases. The joyous recipients would want to brag right along with them, and a social gifting service would enable all of this. Imagine an inbox clogged with posts like “SAMANTHA just bought GEOFFREY a Giftish.ly Certificate for a MOCHACHINO!” and you’ve glimpsed the daring vision. Only time will tell if social gifting’s pioneers were dead wrong about everything, or merely (and this is a huuuuuuuge badge of honor for Valley also-rans) too early.
Mitchell Prentice is considering this question as he anxiously awaits a response from the squawk box of the blank door at 501 Jones Street. Though he scrupulously keeps the opinion to himself, he now believes the prognosis is grim across the board. Almost as grim as his immediate surroundings—which is saying something. This may not be the city’s single most crime-ridden corner. But it’s a contender. And with every passing month, this whole putrid neighborhood sticks out ever more in the striving hive of hyperachievement that is San Francisco. Just blocks away, tech outfits have been drawing gaggles of six-figure youngsters ever since Twitter first colonized Market Street’s fringes (later followed by Uber, Thumbtack, and countless others). Yet here at O’Farrell and Jones, drunks sleep it off on piss-stained sidewalks, migrants mortgage wee paychecks at bulletproof windows, and gruff panhandlers ply their trade with menace. And then you have Mitchell. Mitchell Prentice.
Ring, ring, ring squawks the box.
“Answer the door,” Mitchell urges, eyeing a sullen clutch of hooded faces midway up the block. A shadowed figure mutters something to the others, triggering laughter. Deep, sinister, and . . . mocking? He feels spooked and kind of shamed, and just then, a cop siren kicks in. Though a half block away, it sounds like an air horn in his inner ear. And this makes the perfect trifecta: frustration, embarrassment, plus a sensory jolt. So in an instant, Mitchell’s face numbs, and his fingers start to tingle. The timing couldn’t suck more. But on blocks this blighted, Murphy’s Law applies as strongly as that of, say, gravity.
The neighborhood is called the Tenderloin—a word that once evoked rare nights at a cozy steak restaurant for Mitchell. These days it makes him think of a gory sore, raw and pus-filled, marking an otherwise hale civic body. Primal collisions of unlimited dollars with scant real estate are physically contorting every other neighborhood (here, a fifty-story co-op erupts from the earth; there, thickets of cranes sprout in a once-vacant lot). But the Tenderloin defies all gentrification. It’s like a superbug that stubbornly evolved in a hypersanitized ward until it could whup any antibiotic. Or maybe it’s more like a . . . native reservation? Yes, Mitchell could imagine the city council’s Maoists creating such a thing. The Tenderloin’s folkways and customs shall be preserved, they’d decree, so as to enlighten the spawn of the liberal elite on field trips—as when his own grade school visited Colonial Williamsburg.
The squawk box continues to ring. And the hoods, to chortle. More menacing, more mocking! Frustration and shame spike, and the tingling spreads to Mitchell’s neck, chest, and forearms. And then, to his mouth. He doesn’t need this. Not now, and certainly not here! Ten more seconds, and his tongue will be buzzing, humming with the tingle—impairing speech until he talks like a cartoon dullard; then good luck getting past this door. The menacing, mocking knot is now drifting his way (or is it?) and the tingling rockets to his legs. Great. Maybe they’ll fold again, then sprawl him in the doorway like some spat-out Tenderloin junkie!
And so, The Blur begins. This is Mitchell’s term—you won’t find it in the clinical literature. His best analogy is a symphony’s preconcert din, when everyone’s tuning instruments at once (a sound he knows strictly from public TV). Everything in his purview chimes in simultaneously—every photon, scent, sound wave, and nerve ending. Each element is crystal clear. But as it’s all concurrent, the whole is diffuse behind comprehension. A few more seconds of Blur, and he’ll pass out, collapse into carrion for the chortling hoods. He strains against this, rallying the stray wisps of attention he can muster toward the squawk box.
Ring, ring, ring! then finally, “Password?”
“Knickerbocker.” Mitchell over-enunciates methodically, and a miraculous combination of his careful diction and the pre-war intercom’s crap AM-radio acoustics makes him sound normal (or at least acceptable) on the far side, and he’s buzzed in.
∞ ∞ ∞
Special Field Operative Brock Hogan hated having to drag that tightly muscled, six-foot-three-inch frame of his across countless time zones back to headquarters. Yet he always came when summoned. Not because any Langley pencil pusher had the first thing to teach him about spycraft, close-in combat, geopolitics . . . nor indeed, ABOUT PUSHING PENCILS!
Wasn’t it he, after all, who had covertly kiboshed the blood-spattered career of a certain rabble-rousing mullah by pressing a graphite No. 2 stylus right into his Carotid Artery mere moments before he was to incite a region-wide conflagration by broadcasting a scripture-twisting fatwa from that notorious jihadi radio station deep in darkest Iran? Unarmed and stark naked after escaping sadistic interrogation in a nearby Terrorist Bunker, Agent Hogan had coolly canvassed the benign offerings of an office-supply closet for repurposable matériel, then wordlessly waylaid his unexpectant foe in an empty hallway en route to the control room. “Mightier than the sword after all, wouldn’t you say?” he uttered ironically as he withdrew the dripping shaft from the fallen fedayeen, who could respond only by moaning and writhing through the climax of his death throes!
So, no: not even the most decorated Langley bureaucrat could ever dream of “pushing a pencil” with half his aplomb! Yet Agent Hogan dutifully returned to HQ whenever summoned by those cringing desk jockeys because he was, above all, a loyal warrior; and loyal warriors respect the chain of command; however contemptible and backstabbing certain so-called “superiors” might be.
As usual, a veritable grand powwow was convened to debrief him! And so every leather-bound swivel chair in the agency’s largest conference room was hoisting some panjandrum’s posterior when Hogan arrived several dozen minutes late, as was his devil-may-care habit. His piercing, blue, wide-set eyes took instant mental inventory of those present, lingering perhaps an extra picosecond on the fecund curves of a certain Chinese-featured female assassin with whom he enjoyed occasional Sexual Congress; then perhaps twice that duration upon one most-unexpected attendee.
“Dr. Phillips,” he intoned, his left brow arched with a muted irony, which divulged that; beneath its playful, almost mocking surface; he in fact held a deep (if not ungrudging) well of respect for the portly, gray-headed, and wizened brown-eyed gentleman whom he addressed. “This is . . . most unexpected!”
∞ ∞ ∞
The door buzzes, admitting Mitchell into a hushed yet bustling sanctuary. Its dirty, blank, street-side exterior honors the local quarter’s historic scuzziness—but inside, Bourbon & Branch is a sleek jewel box.
“You’re Mr. Prentice,” the drinks-list-clutching hostess states. She knows this from his password. Each guest has a unique one (most with a Prohibition-era echo), which keeps the reservations straight and the neighborhood junkies out.
Mitchell nods. The tingling is fading quickly. But it’s still present, and he doesn’t (quite) trust himself to talk properly.
“You’re the second to arrive,” she says. “Walk this way.”
She leads him down narrow aisles, past swank ranks of sophisticated drinkers. The aesthetic is Capone-era speakeasy with faint Old West hints. The single malt, bourbon, and tequila lists are encyclopedic here, and it’s rumored that ordering a vodka drink will get you drop-kicked to Jones Street. “Hey, boss,” Danna says as the hostess seats him at their plank of a table. It’s set within a steakhouse-like booth that’s much contracted to accommodate tumblers rather than platters. This puts patrons shoulder to shoulder and knee to knee—but without quite realizing it, as those booth-y visual cues signal spacious seating. Congeniality and conspiratoriality are thereby subtly abetted, along with any number of unintended hookups. “I got you the yoozh,” Danna adds, handing him a chilled Imperial
Rob Reid founded Listen.com, which built the pioneering online music service Rhapsody, and created the unlimited subscription model since adopted by Apple, Spotify, and many others. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller Year Zero, a work of fiction; Year One, a memoir about student life at Harvard Business School; and Architects of the Web, the first true business history of the Internet. He lives in New York City with his wife, Morgan, and Ashby the Dog.