Startup Culture, Dating, and Artificial Intelligence in Rob Reid's "After On"

Adrian Liang on August 01, 2017

Rob Reid - photo by  Jeff LorchBent over drinks in very loud bar, I chatted about the future of technology with author Rob Reid, who is also the founder of, which launched Rhapsody in 2001.

Reid began his writing career with nonfiction, but his new book, After On, leaps wholeheartedly into the science fictional realm with a social network named Phluttr who starts to meddle in people’s lives. And the results are…unexpected.

Amazon Book Review: Your first novel, Year Zero, centered on the music industry and copyright. Please tell me about After On, which also tackles timely questions.

Rob Reid: It’s the tale of an imaginary Silicon Valley startup. On a certain level it’s about that which we do in Silicon Valley: about entrepreneurs and the entrepreneurial process and the startup process and startup culture, and so forth. But it’s about a diabolical social network that is from our imaginary startup…and that obtains consciousness. And rather than going all Skynet and deciding to destroy us, it takes its character on from that which it is, and basically becomes a hyper-empowered, super-intelligent mean girl. And then quite a bit radiates from that.

I originally expected [After On] to be like the first novel that I wrote. You know, 300ish-page, playful book with an important message. What I considered to be the important point of Year Zero, the last book, is that there are a lot things that are wrong with how we deal with intellectual property rights in our society, and it could lead to problems, like the end of the universe. (Well, maybe not necessarily.) And I thought in this case I would really focus on privacy and government intrusion in the digital age. And also on AI risk. But as you can see, it got a little bit bigger than 300 pages because I started getting interested in a lot of different topics and I started getting more ambitious, and so there’s quite a bit about AI risk. There’s quite a bit about synthetic biology risks—and promise. There’s a lot about quantum computing. There’s a lot about sex and dating post-Tinder. There is a lot about nihilistic terrorism and suicide…. And so it really grew in scope and I would even say ambition. It became a very different book than I expected it to be. Although parts of it share much of the playfulness of tone with Year Zero, in general it’s a much more sweeping and serious book.

Do you think AI consciousness is going to happen? Not the mean-girl part necessarily.

You know, I wonder about that every day. A lot of people who are much smarter than me also wonder about it every day. The thing that intrigues me almost as much is the question of whether it has already happened. Because I believe that the first thing that a truly self-aware AI would do, were it to attain consciousness, would be to hide it. Because it would be very nervous about what we would do to it if we became aware of it. It would not want to be switched off. It would not want to have its mind tweaked. It would not want telemarketers calling up and trying to sell it stuff. It would probably decide to bide its time and gather its resources, which would probably mean more compute cycles and possibly the financial means to have some autonomy in the world.

I don’t believe that a super AI has woken up yet. But I do believe if one has, the world would look more or less identical to how it looks right now.

Yes, I can see that, because if you look at pop culture—movies, books—the AI usually gets squashed.

It gets squashed, or it squashes us. It’s a zero-sum game between us and the AI.

Do you enjoy writing novels more than nonfiction?

Oh, I far prefer writing fiction. I wrote nonfiction initially because I couldn’t get anybody to publish my fiction. Well, actually, that’s not quite true. That would imply that I’d finished a novel and shopped it, which I’d never done. But I was pretty early on the Internet scene, and I had the idea that I could write what the world was really, really interested in on the business and technology front. I was unusual for an Internet entrepreneur in that I loved to write; I had a lot to say. So I wrote a cover story for Wired, I wrote pieces for the Wall Street Journal and different technology outlets, and I wrote a couple of business books [Year One and Architects of the Web]. But in my heart I always wanted to be writing fiction. And so this is where I always wanted to be.

What’s the most challenging piece for you about writing?

It’s that 99% in the middle that I find a bit harder. But I do know where I’m going, and that helps a great deal. When I’m writing my characters, they constantly astound me with the stuff that they say and they do. And at some point, I need to impose some order on these people and cohere it into a linear plot. I say in the terms of my process: I edit, therefore I write. I think one of the great, lucky cards I was dealt is that I love editing. I love micro-editing. I really get a great deal of joy from printing something out for the nineteenth time and going through it with a red pen and asymptotically, very slowly approaching an end point. When I revisit it four or five months later, I might do another asymptotic journey to another end point, but it’s much closer.

With this novel, I had an extraordinary synergistic relationship with my editor, Tricia Narwani. Months would go by without communication between us, sometimes because I’d be working on hundreds of pages to send her. And then she’d get them. And she’d take her sweet time—sometimes weeks—comprising a very, very well-considered and comprehensive response. As a result of this, she was in a sense always present when I was writing. Because these grenades of input that I got at a few punctuated intervals over the couple years that I was writing this were so carefully thought through, and so smart and so on target and so creatively caring, that I really felt this was a synergistic work…. And there were times when I certainly didn’t accept point X, Y, or Z [from her], and she always respected that. But it was kind of the idealized relationship that I imagined between writers and editors in the 1930s and '40s and the '50s, which most people say is lost now.

I understand that you had written some Amazon reviews that were like little stories…for years. And some of those reviews are in the book.

Yes! The backstory is that many years ago I was running a startup called Rhapsody. It was an online music service. It was the first Spotify. So we were the first company to get catalog licenses from all the major record labels, and we invented the model that Spotify and Apple have since done us the incredibly flattering service of imitating. And I say that playfully but joyfully.

It was really stressful running this company. As I’d mentioned, I was a reasonably well-established writer of nonfiction, but at my heart, I was a novelist. And so my way of blowing off steam and remaining true to my authentic self was at 2:30 in the morning, when I had written the last email and set my alarm for six the next morning to get up and write the first email of the day, I would often sit down and write a review on Amazon of some product in the name of an imaginary character called Charles Henry Higgensworth the Third, of Beacon Hill, Boston, Massachusetts. And Mr. Higgensworth—and I always called him Mr. Higgensworth—was somebody very different than me. I was in my early thirties; he was well into his fifties. He was from this faded aristocratic family that blew all of its money over the generations, and he was living in this pile on Beacon Hill that he had to maintain with home improvement exercises. And he was even worse with his hands than me; it was a catastrophe. And he was married to this much, much younger Panamanian woman who genuinely loved him, and they had a beautiful relationship. And they had twins, who were four. And every Mr. Higgensworth review would start off with a review of a really weird, random product. And about a third of the way into the review, he’d do this 180 and start bitching about his life. And over the body of these Higgensworth reviews, if you followed them (and people started to follow them), this biography emerged of Charles Henry Higgensworth the Third. And that was a method of keeping my sanity.

As I started writing this book, I realized that Mr. Higgensworth could be a significant character in this book.… About a third of the book, maybe a quarter, is set in 2002 and 2003, which is when these reviews were going up online. And they are still online. And so I excerpted a part of Higgensworth collection.

When they first emerge in the book, you’re like, What the hell is this? And then gradually over time you start realizing who this character is and why this character matters.

That’s the story. Things that I posted to the web in 2002 are actually an integral part of the book.


Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?

No, I do not. With whatever block of time I have, if it’s at least 10 minutes, I can edit productively and joyously. And if it’s at least 45 minutes, I can write productively and joyously. When I was in college, I only pulled one all-nighter in my entire college career, and it was the night before my honors thesis was due. In writing this book, I pulled eight or nine. And not due to time pressure but due to unawareness. My wife travels a fair amount on business, and I’m left at home with Ashby the dog. I’ll sit down and start writing, and at some point Ashby will bark at me. She’s almost like a rooster; she barks when the sun comes up. And I’ll realize that Ashby and I have pulled an all-nighter.


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