Wednesday, September 4, 2019

"Black Nowhere"

Reece Hirsch is the author of five thrillers that draw upon his background as a privacy attorney. His first book, The Insider, was a finalist for the 2011 International Thriller Writers Award for Best First Novel. His next three books, The Adversary, Intrusion, and Surveillance, all feature former Department of Justice cybercrimes prosecutor Chris Bruen. Hirsch is a partner at the San Francisco office of an international law firm and cochair of its privacy-and-cybersecurity practice. He is also a member of the board of directors of the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation. He lives in the Bay Area with his wife.

Hirsch applied the Page 69 Test to his new novel, Black Nowhere, and reported the following:
From page 69:
Silicon Valley is built on a lie, and it’s a lie told to the young.

They come to the Valley hoping to become the next Brin, Zuckerberg, or Dorsey, or at least to be a part of building something exciting and new. But the reality is very different. I’ve seen some of the best, brightest people I know squandering their youth as:

Unpaid interns;

Minimum wage “content generators”; and

Sales associates making hundreds of cold calls a day to make quarterly revenue projections for a buggy software product.

They’re grossly underpaid, but they’re told that they are receiving invaluable experience, and maybe even some sweet stock options—which more likely than not will be underwater if the company ever goes public. If the company tanks, and even if it doesn’t, they walk away after a year or two with very little. But their sweat drives the revenues that enable the company to go public. Note that I said “revenues,” not “profits,” because the idea that a business should turn a profit seems to have become an outdated concept, so Old Economy.

They take all the risk, those interns and content generators and sales associates, because they bet their twenties and thirties that the jobs will be worth it. And they pay the price, while the founders and the VCs have insulated themselves with their stock ratchets and golden parachutes. That tiny band of insiders typically makes millions, maybe even billions, even if the company crashes and burns.

And what do my peers and classmates get in return? A “fun” workplace painted in preschool primary colors with a tube slide connecting the floors. Branded shirts, hats, and backpacks. A kitchen with a wall of candy dispensers where you can have all of the M&Ms and yogurt-covered almonds you can eat.

Kyte may be illegal, but it’s still more honest than most Silicon Valley start-ups. We pay our coders and admins better than many of the Valley’s giants. We can’t provide health insurance or stock options given the nature of our relationship with the law, but at least we don’t pull a bait and switch. You get exactly what we promise you, and you take home real money—or at least real Bitcoin.

Our pirate ship is sailing. I can’t tell you how all this will end, but I can promise you an adventure. Let’s knock Silicon Valley on its ass and show them what a disruption really looks like. I hope you’ll join us.

We will never ask you to work for less money in exchange for a “learning opportunity” or a “fun work environment.” And I can promise you that we will never have a fucking candy wall.
Black Nowhere is loosely based on the rise and fall of the Dark Web drug marketplace Silk Road and the FBI investigation that brought it down. Nate Fallon is a brilliant Stanford physics graduate student who creates the Dark Web marketplace in my book, known as Kyte.

Nate’s site begins as an experiment in libertarian free-market economics but quickly becomes an enormously successful and profitable enterprise that puts him in the crosshairs of the FBI and a Mexican drug cartel. On pages 67-69 of Black Nowhere, Nate posts this entry from his Kyte Founders Journal, which quickly goes viral online. With this pronouncement, Nate is attempting to position himself as a successor to some of the titans of the tech industry whom he idolizes.

I think this excerpt passes the Page 69 test because it underlines one of the key themes of the book: the dark side of Silicon Valley’s optimism that technology “disruption” is always a good thing. I was fascinated by the Silk Road story that inspired Black Nowhere because that Dark Web marketplace followed the same arc as many wildly successful Valley startups with one important exception – it was a criminal enterprise. In this passage Nate Fallon is trying to portray his website Kyte as just a new and (he would say) more honest version of the classic Silicon Valley startup. As Fallon goes farther and farther to protect his growing empire, we see just how dangerous certain disruptive technologies can become.
Visit Reece Hirsch's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Insider.

The Page 69 Test: Surveillance.

--Marshal Zeringue