Illustration by Idiots’Books
The afternoon passed quickly and enchantingly. Perry was working on a knee-high, articulated Frankenstein monster built out of hand-painted seashells from a beach-side kitsch market. They said GOD BLESS AMERICA and SOUVENIR OF FLORIDA and CONCH REPUBLIC and each had to be fitted out for a motor custom built to conform to its contours.
“When it’s done, it will make toast.”
“Yeah, separate a single slice off a loaf, load it into a top-loading slice-toaster, depress the lever, time the toast-cycle, retrieve the toast and butter it. I got the idea from old-time backup-tape loaders. This plus a toaster will function as a loosely coupled single system.”
“OK, that’s really cool, but I have to ask the boring question, Perry. Why? Why build a toast-robot?”
Perry stopped working and dusted his hands off. He was really built, and his shaggy hair made him look younger than his crows-feet suggested. He turned a seashell with a half-built motor in it over and spun it like a top on the hand-painted WEATHER IS HERE/WISH YOU WERE BEAUTIFUL legend.
“Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? The simple answer: people buy them. Collectors. So it’s a good hobby business, but that’s not really it.
“It’s like this: engineering is all about constraint. Given a span of foo feet and materials of tensile strength of bar, build a bridge that doesn’t go all fubared. Write a fun video-game for an eight-bit console that’ll fit in 32K. Build the fastest airplane, or the one with the largest carrying capacity… But these days, there’s not much traditional constraint. I’ve got the engineer’s most dangerous luxury: plenty. All the computational cycles I’ll ever need. Easy and rapid prototyping. Precision tools.
“Now, it may be that there are is a suite of tasks lurking in potentia that demand all this resource and more—maybe I’m like some locomotive engineer declaring that 60 miles per hour is the pinnacle of machine velocity, that speed is cracked. But I don’t see many of those problems—none that interest me.
“What I’ve got here are my own constraints. I’m challenging myself, using found objects and making stuff that throws all this computational capacity at, you know, these trivial problems, like car-driving Elmo clusters and seashell toaster-robots. We have so much capacity that the trivia expands to fill it. And all that capacity is junk-capacity, it’s leftovers. There’s enough computational capacity in a junkyard to launch a space-program, and that’s by design. Remember the iPod? Why do you think it was so prone to scratching and going all gunky after a year in your pocket? Why would Apple build a handheld technology out of materials that turned to shit if you looked at them cross-eyed? It’s because the iPod was only meant to last a year!
“It’s like tailfins—they were cool in the Tailfin Cretaceous, but wouldn’t it have been better if they could have disappeared from view when they became aesthetically obsolete, when the space age withered up and blew away? Oh, not really, obviously, because it’s nice to see a well-maintained land-yacht on the highway every now and again, if only for variety’s sake, but if you’re going to design something that is meant to be au fait then presumably you should have some planned obsolescence in there, some end-of-lifing strategy for the aesthetic crash that follows any couture movement. Here, check this out.”
He handed her a white brick, the size of a deck of cards. It took her a moment to recognize it as an iPod. “Christ, it’s huge,” she said.
“Yeah, isn’t it just. Remember how small and shiny this thing was when it shipped? ‘A thousand songs in your pocket!’”
That made her actually laugh out loud. She fished in her pocket for her earbuds and dropped them on the table where they clattered like M&Ms. “I think I’ve got about 40,000 songs on those. Haven’t run out of space yet, either.”
He rolled the buds around in his palm like a pair of dice. “You won’t—I stopped keeping track of mine after I added my hundred-thousandth audiobook. I’ve got a bunch of the Library of Congress in mine as high-rez scans, too. A copy of the Internet Archive, every post ever made on Usenet… Basically, these things are infinitely capacious, given the size of the media we work with today.” He rolled the buds out on the workbench and laughed. “And that’s just the point! Tomorrow, we’ll have some new extra fat kind of media and some new task to perform with it and some new storage medium that will make these things look like an old iPod. Before that happens, you want this to wear out and scuff up or get lost—”
“I lose those things all the time, like a set a month.”
“There you go then! The iPods were too big to lose like that, but just look at them.” The iPod’s chrome was scratched to the point of being fogged, like the mirror in a gas-station toilet. The screen was almost unreadable for all the scratches. “They had scratch-proof materials and hard plastics back then. They chose to build these things out of Saran Wrap and tin-foil so that by the time they doubled in capacity next year, you’d have already worn yours out and wouldn’t feel bad about junking them.
“So I’m building a tape-loading seashell robot toaster out of discarded obsolete technology because the world is full of capacious, capable, disposable junk and it cries out to be used again. It’s a potlatch: I have so much material and computational wealth that I can afford to waste it on frivolous junk. I think that’s why the collectors buy it, anyway.”
“That brings us back to the question of your relationship with Kodacell. They want to do what, exactly, with you?”
“Well, we’ve been playing with some mass-production techniques, the three-dee printer and so on. When Kettlebelly called me, he said that he wanted to see about using the scanner and so on to make a lot of these things, at a low price-point. It’s pretty perverse when you think about it: using modern technology to build replicas of obsolete technology rescued from the dump, when these replicas are bound to end up back here at the dump!” He laughed. He had nice laugh-lines around his eyes. “Anyway, it’s something that Lester and I had talked about for a long time, but never really got around to. Too much like retail. It’s bad enough dealing with a couple dozen collectors who’ll pay ten grand for a sculpture: who wants to deal with ten thousand customers who’ll go a dollar each for the same thing?”
“But you figure that this Tjan character will handle all the customer stuff?”
“That’s the idea: he’ll run the business side, we’ll get more time to hack; everyone gets paid. Kodacell’s got some micro-sized marketing agencies, specialized PR firms, creative shippers, all kinds of little three-person outfits that they’ve promised to hook us up with. Tjan interfaces with them, we do our thing, enrich the shareholders, get stock ourselves. It’s supposed to be all upside. Hell, if it doesn’t work we can just walk away and find another dump and go back into the collectors’ market.”
He picked up his half-finished shell and swung a lamp with a magnifying lens built into it over his workspace. “Hey, just a sec, OK? I’ve just figured out what I was doing wrong before.” He took up a little tweezers and a plastic rod and probed for a moment, then daubed some solder down inside the shell’s guts. He tweezed a wire to a contact and the shell made a motorized sound, a peg sticking out of it began to move rhythmically.
“Got it,” he said. He set it down. “I don’t expect I’m going to be doing many more of these projects after next week. This kind of design, we could never mass-produce it.” He looked a little wistful, and Suzanne suppressed a smile. What a tortured artiste this Florida junkyard engineer was!
As the long day drew to a close, they went out for a walk in the twilight’s cool in the yard. The sopping humidity of the day settled around them as the sun set in a long summer blaze that turned the dry fountain full of Christmas ornaments into a luminescent bowl of jewels.
“I got some real progress today,” Lester said. He had a cane with him and he was limping heavily. “Got the printer to output complete mechanical logical gates, all in one piece, almost no assembly, just daisy-chain them on a board. And I’ve been working on a standard snap-on system for lego-bricking each gate to the next. It’s going to make it a lot easier to ramp up production.”
“Yeah?” Perry said. He asked a technical question about the printer, something about the goop’s tensile strength that Suzanne couldn’t follow. They went at it, hammer and tongs, talking through the abstruse details faster than she could follow, walking more and more quickly past the vast heaps of dead technology and half-built mall stores.
She let them get ahead of her and stopped to gather her thoughts. She turned around to take it all in and that’s when she caught sight of the kids sneaking into Perry and Lester’s lab.
“Hey!” she shouted, in her loudest Detroit voice. “What are you doing there?” There were three of them, in Miami Dolphins jerseys and shiny bald-shaved heads and little shorts, the latest inexplicable rapper style which made them look more like drag queens in mufti than tough-guys.
They rounded on her. They were heavyset and their eyebrows were bleached blond. They had been sneaking into the lab’s side-door, looking about as inconspicuous as a trio of nuns.
“Get lost!” she shouted. “Get out of here! Perry, Lester!”
They were coming closer now. They didn’t move so well, puffing in the heat, but they clearly had mayhem on their minds. She reached into her purse for her pepper spray and held it before her dramatically, but they didn’t stop coming.
Suddenly, the air was rent by the loudest sound she’d ever heard, like she’d put her head inside a foghorn. She flinched and misted a cloud of aerosol capsicum ahead of her. She had the presence of mind to step back quickly, before catching a blowback, but she wasn’t quick enough, for her eyes and nose started to burn and water. The sound wouldn’t stop, it just kept going on, a sound like her head was too small to contain her brain, a sound that made her teeth ache. The three kids had stopped and staggered off.
“You OK?” The voice sounded like it was coming from far, far away, though Lester was right in front of her. She found that she’d dropped to her knees in the teeth of that astonishing noise.
She let him help her to her feet. “Jesus,” she said, putting a hand to her ears. They rang like she’d been at a rave all night. “What the hell?”
“Anti-personnel sonic device,” Lester said. She realized that he was shouting, but she could barely hear it. “It doesn’t do any permanent damage, but it’ll scare off most anyone. Those kids probably live in the shanty-town we passed this morning. More and more of them are joining gangs. They’re our neighbors, so we don’t want to shoot them or anything.”
She nodded. The ringing in her ears was subsiding a little. Lester steadied her. She leaned on him. He was big and solid. He wore the same cologne as her father had, she realized.
She moved away from him and smoothed out her shorts, dusting off her knees. “Did you invent that?”
“Made it using a HOWTO I found online,” he said. “Lot of kids around here up to no good. It’s pretty much a homebrew civil defense siren—rugged and cheap.”
She put a finger in each ear and scratched at the itchy buzzing. When she removed them, her hearing was almost back to normal. “I once had an upstairs neighbor in Cambridge who had a stereo system that loud—never thought I’d hear it again.”
Perry came and joined them. “I followed them a bit, they’re way gone now. I think I recognized one of them from the campsite. I’ll talk to Francis about it and see if he can set them right.”
“Have you been broken into before?”
“A few times. Mostly what we worry about is someone trashing the printers. Everything else is easy to replace, but when Lester’s old employer went bust we bought up about fifty of these things at the auction and I don’t know where we’d lay hands on them again. Computers are cheap and it’s not like anyone could really steal all this junk.” He flashed her his good-looking, confident smile again.
“What time do the movies start?”
Lester checked his watch. “About an hour after sunset. If we leave now we can get a real dinner at a Haitian place I know and then head over to the Thunderbird. I’ll hide under a blanket in the back seat so that we can save on admission!”
She’d done that many times as a kid, her father shushing her and her brother as they giggled beneath the blankets. The thought of giant Lester doing it made her chuckle. “I think we can afford to pay for you,” she said.
The dinner was good—fiery spicy fish and good music in an old tiki bar with peeling grass wallpaper that managed to look vaguely Haitian. The waiters spoke Spanish, not French, though. She let herself be talked into two bottles of beer—about one and a half more than she would normally take—but she didn’t get light-headed. The heat and humidity seemed to rinse the alcohol right out of her bloodstream.
They got to the movies just at dusk. It was just like she remembered from being a little girl and coming with her parents. Children in pajamas climbed over a jungle-gym to one side of the lot. Ranked rows of cars faced the huge, grubby white projection walls. They even showed one of those scratchy old “Let’s all go to the lobby and get ourselves a treat” cartoon shorts with the dancing hot-dogs before the movie.
The nostalgia filled her up like a balloon expanding in her chest. She hadn’t ever seen a computer until she was ten years old, and that had been the size of a chest-freezer, with less capability than one of the active printed-computer cards that came in glossy fashion magazines with come-ons for perfume and weight-loss.
The world had been stood on its head so many times in the intervening thirty-plus years that it was literally dizzying—or was that the beer having a delayed effect? Suddenly all the certainties she rested on—her 401k, her house, her ability to navigate the professional world in a competent manner—seemed to be built on shifting sands.
They’d come in Lester’s car, a homemade auto built around two electric Smart cars joined together to form a kind of mini-sedan with room enough for Lester to slide into the driver’s perch with room to spare. Once they arrived, they unpacked clever folding chairs and sat them beside the car, rolled down the windows, and turned up the speakers. It was a warm night, but not sticky the way it had been that day, and the kiss of the wind that rustled the leaves of the tall palms ringing the theater was like balm.
The movie was something forgettable about bumbling detectives on the moon, one of those trendy new things acted entirely by animated dead actors who combined the virtues of box-office draw and cheap labor. There might have been a couple of fictional actors in there too, it was hard to say, she’d never really followed the movies except as a place to escape to. There was real magic and escape in a drive-in, though, with the palpable evidence of all those other breathing humans in the darkened night watching the magic story flicker past on the screen, something that went right into her hindbrain. Before she knew it, her eyelids were drooping and she then she found herself jerking awake. This happened a couple times before Lester slipped a pillow under her head and she sank into it and fell into sleep.
She woke at the closing credits and realized that she’d managed to prop the pillow on Lester’s barrel-chest. She snapped her head up and then smiled embarrassedly at him. “Hey, sleepyhead,” he said. “You snore like a bandsaw, you know it?”
She blushed. “I don’t!”
“You do,” he said.
Perry, on her other side nodded. “You do.”
“God,” she said.
“Don’t worry, you haven’t got anything on Lester,” Perry said. “I’ve gone into his room some mornings and found all the pictures lying on the floor, vibrated off their hooks.”
It seemed to her that Lester was blushing now.
“I’m sorry if I spoiled the movie,” she said.
“Don’t sweat it,” Lester said, clearly grateful for the change of subject. “It was a lousy movie anyway. You drowned out some truly foul dialogue.”
“Well, there’s that.”
“C’mon, let’s go back to the office and get you your car. It’s an hour to Miami from here.”
She was wide awake by the time she parked the rent-a-car in the coffin-hotel’s parking lot and crawled into her room, slapping the air-con buttons up to full to clear out the stifling air that had baked into the interior during the day.
She lay on her back in the dark coffin for a long time, eyes open and slowly adjusting to the idiot lights on the control panel, until it seemed that she was lying in a space capsule hurtling through the universe at relativistic speeds, leaving behind history, the world, everything she knew. She sat up, wide awake, on West Coast time suddenly, and there was no way she would fall asleep now, but she lay back down and then she did, finally.
The alarm woke her seemingly five minutes later. She did a couple laps around the parking lot, padding around, stretching her legs, trying to clear her head—her internal clock thought that it was 4AM, but at 7AM on the east coast, the sun was up and the heat had begun to sizzle all the available moisture into the air. She left the hotel and drove around Miami for a while. She needed to find some toiletries and then a cafe where she could sit down and file some copy. She’d tweeted a bunch of working notes and posted a few things to her blog the day before, but her editor expected something more coherent for those who preferred their news a little more digested.
By the time she arrived at Perry’s junkyard, the day had tipped for afternoon, the sun no longer straight overhead, the heat a little softer than it had been the day before. She settled in for another day of watching the guys work, asking the occasional question. The column she’d ended up filing had been a kind of wait-and-see piece, describing the cool culture these two had going between them, and asking if it could survive scaling up to mass production. Now she experimented with their works-in-progress, sculptures and machines that almost worked, or didn’t work at all, but that showed the scope of their creativity. Kettlewell thought that there were a thousand, ten thousand people as creative as these two out there, waiting to be discovered. Could it be true?
“Sure,” Perry said, “why not? We’re just here because someone dropped the barrier to entry, made it possible for a couple of tinkerers to get a lot of materials and to assemble them without knowing a whole lot about advanced materials science. Wasn’t it like this when the Internet was starting out?”
“Woah,” Suzanne said. “I just realized that you wouldn’t really remember those days, back in the early nineties.”
“Sure I remember them. I was a kid, but I remember them fine!”
She felt very old. “The thing was that no one really suspected that there were so many liberal arts majors lurking in the nation’s universities, dying to drop out and learn perl and HTML.”
Perry cocked his head. “Yeah, I guess that’s analogous. The legacy of the dotcom years for me is all this free infrastructure, very cheap network connections and hosting companies and so on. That, I guess, combined with people willing to use it. I never really thought of it, but there must have been a lot of people hanging around in the old days who thought email and the net were pretty sketchy, right?”
She waved her hands at him. “Perry, lad, you don’t know the half of it. There are still executives in the rustbelt who spend bailout money on secretaries to print out their email and then dictate replies into tape recorders to be typed and sent.”
He furrowed his thick eyebrows. “You’re joking,” he said.
She put her hand on her heart. “I kid you not. I knew people in the newsroom at the Detroit Free Press. There are whole industries in this country that are living in the last century.”
“Well, for me, all that dotcommie stuff was like putting down a good base, making it easy for people like me to get parts and build-logs and to find hardware hackers to jam with.”
Perry got engrossed in a tricky bit of engine-in-seashell then and she wandered over to Lester, who was printing out more Barbie heads for a much larger version of his mechanical computer. “It’ll be able to add, subtract, and multiply any two numbers up to 99,” he said. “It took decades to build a vacuum-tube machine that could do that much—I’m doing it with switches in just three revs. In your face, UNIVAC!”
She laughed. He had a huge bag of laser-cut soda-can switches that he was soldering onto a variety of substrates from polished car-doors to a bamboo tiki-bar. She looked closely at the solder. “Is this what sweatshop solder looks like?”
He looked confused, then said, “Oh! Right, Perry’s thing. Yeah, anything not done by a robot has this artisanal quality of blobbiness, which I quite like, it’s aesthetic, like a painting with visible brushstrokes. But Perry’s right: if you see solder like this on anything that there are a million of, then you know that it was laid down by kids and women working for slave wages. There’s no way it’s cheaper to make a million solders by hand than by robot unless your labor force is locked in, force-fed amphetamine, and destroyed for anything except prostitution inside of five years. But here, in something like this, so handmade and one of a kind, I think it gives it a nice cargo-cult neoprimitive feel. Like a field of hand-tilled furrows.”
She nodded. Today she was keeping her computer out, writing down quotes and tweeting thoughts as they came. They worked side by side in companionable silence for a while as she killed a couple thousand spams and he laid down a couple dozen blobs of solder.
“How do you like Florida?” he said, after straightening up and cracking his back.
She barely stopped typing, deep into some email: “It’s all right, I suppose.”
“There’s great stuff here if you know where to look. Want me to show you around a little tonight? It’s Friday, after all.”
“Sounds good. Is Perry free?”
It took her a second to register that he hadn’t answered. She looked up and saw he was blushing to the tips of his ears. “I thought we could go out just the two of us. Dinner and a walk around the deco stuff on Miami Beach?”
“Oh,” she said. And the weird thing was, she took it seriously for a second. She hadn’t been on a date in something like a year, and he was a really nice guy and so forth. But professional ethics made that impossible, and besides.
And besides. He was huge. He’d told her he weighed nearly 400 pounds. So fat, he was, essentially, sexless. Round and unshaped, doughy.
All of these thoughts in an instant and then she said, “Oh, well. Listen, Lester, it’s about professional ethics. I’m here on a story and you guys are really swell, but I’m here to be objective. That means no dating. Sorry.” She said it in the same firm tones as she’d used to turn down their offer to treat her at the IHOP: a fact of life, something she just didn’t do. Like turning down a glass of beer by saying, “No thanks, I don’t drink.” No value judgment.
But she could see that she had let her thinking show on her face, if only for the briefest moment. Lester stiffened and his nostrils flared. He wiped his hands on his thighs, then said, in a light tone, “Sure, no problem. I understand completely. Should have thought of that. Sorry!”
“No problem,” she said. She pretended to work on her email a while longer, then said, “Well, I think I’ll call it a day. See you Monday for Tjan’s arrival, right?”
“Right!” he said, too brightly, and she slunk away to her car.
She spent the weekend blogging and seeing the beach. The people on the beach seemed to be of another species from the ones she saw walking the streets of Hollywood and Miami and Lauderdale. They had freakishly perfect bodies, the kind of thing you saw in an anatomical drawing or a comic-book—so much muscular definition that they were practically cross-hatched. She even tried out the nude beach, intrigued to see these perfect specimens in the all-together, but she chickened out when she realized that she’d need a substantial wax-job before her body hair was brought down to norms for that strip of sand.
She did get an eyeful of several anatomically correct drawings before taking off again. It made her uncomfortably horny and aware of how long it had been since her last date. That got her thinking of poor Lester, buried underneath all that flesh, and that got her thinking about the life she’d chosen for herself, covering the weird world of tech where the ground never stood still long enough for her to get her balance.
So she retreated to blog in a cafe, posting snippets and impressions from her days with the boys, along with photos. Her readers were all over it, commenting like mad. Half of them thought it was disgusting—so much suffering and waste in the world and these guys were inventing $10,000 toys out of garbage. The other half wanted to know where to go to buy one for themselves. Halfway through Sunday, her laptop battery finally died, needing a fresh weekly charge, so she retreated again, to the coffin, to wait for Monday and the new day that would dawn for Perry and Lester and Kodacell—and her.
Tjan turned out to be a lot older than she’d expected. She’d pictured him as about 28, smart and preppie like they all were when they were fresh out of B-school and full of Management Wisdom. Instead, he was about forty, balding, with a little pot-belly and thinning hair. He dressed like an English professor, blue-jeans and a checked shirt and a tweedy sports-coat that he’d shucked within seconds of leaving the terminal at Miami airport and stepping into the blast-furnace heat.
They’d all come in Lester’s big, crazy car, and squishing back in with Tjan’s suitcases was like a geometry trick. She found herself half on Perry’s lap, hugging half a big duffel-bag that seemed to be full of bricks.
“Books,” Tjan said. “Just a little personal library. It’s a bad habit, moving the physical objects around, but I’m addicted.” He had a calm voice that might in fact be a little dull, a prof’s monotone.
They brought him to Perry and Lester’s place, which was three condos with the dividing walls knocked out in a complex that had long rust-streaks down its sides and rickety balconies that had been eaten away by salt air. There was a guardhouse at the front of the complex, but it was shuttered, abandoned, and graffiti tagged.
Tjan stepped out of the car and put his hands on his hips and considered the building. “It could use a coat of paint,” he said. Suzanne looked closely at him—he was so deadpan, it was hard to tell what was on his mind. But he slipped her a wink.
“Yeah,” Perry said. “It could at that. On the bright side: spacious, cheap and there’s a pool. There’s a lot of this down here since the housing market crashed. The condo association here dissolved about four years ago, so there’s not really anyone who’s in charge of all the common spaces and stuff, just a few condo owners and speculators who own the apartments. Suckers, I’m thinking. Our rent has gone down twice this year, just for asking. I’m thinking we could probably get them to pay us to live here and just keep out the bums and stuff.”
The living quarters were nearly indistinguishable from the workshop at the junkyard: strewn with cool devices in various stages of disassembly, detritus and art. The plates and dishes and glasses all had IHOP and Cracker Barrel logos on them. “From thrift shops,” Lester explained. “Old people steal them when they get their earlybird specials, and then when they die their kids give them to Goodwill. Cheapest way to get a matched set around here.”
Tjan circled the three adjoined cracker-box condos like a dog circling his basket. Finally, he picked an unoccupied master bedroom with moldy lace curtains and a motel-art painting of an abstract landscape over the headboard. He set his suitcase down on the faux-Chinoise chest of drawers and said, “Right, I’m done. Let’s get to work.”
They took him to the workshop next and his expression hardly changed as they showed him around, showed them their cabinets of wonders. When they were done, he let them walk him to the IHOP and he ordered the most austere thing on the menu, a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich that was technically on the kids’ menu—a kids’ menu at a place where the grownups could order a plate of candy!
“So,” Perry said. “So, Tjan, come on buddy, give it to me straight—you hate it? Love it? Can’t understand it?”
Tjan set down his sandwich. “You boys are very talented,” he said. “They’re very good inventions. There are lots of opportunities for synergy within Kodacell: marketing, logistics, even packing materials. There’s a little aerogel startup in Oregon that Kodacell is underwriting that you could use for padding when you ship.”
Perry and Lester looked at him expectantly. Suzanne broke the silence. “Tjan, did you have any artistic or design ideas about the things that these guys are making?”
Tjan took another bite of sandwich and sipped at his milk. “Well, you’ll have to come up with a name for them, something that identifies them. Also, I think you should be careful with trademarked objects. Any time you need to bring in an IP lawyer, you’re going to run into huge costs and time delays.”
They waited again. “That’s it?” Perry said. “Nothing about the designs themselves?”
“I’m the business-manager. That’s editorial. I’m artistically autistic. Not my job to help you design things. It’s my job to sell the things you design.”
“Would it matter what it was we were making? Would you feel the same if it was toothbrushes or staplers?”
Tjan smiled. “If you were making staplers I wouldn’t be here, because there’s no profit in staplers. Too many competitors. Toothbrushes are a possibility, if you were making something really revolutionary. People buy about 1.6 toothbrushes a year, so there’s lots of opportunity to come up with an innovative design that sells at a good profit over marginal cost for a couple seasons before it gets cloned or out-innovated. What you people are making has an edge because it’s you making it, very bespoke and distinctive. I think it will take some time for the world to emerge an effective competitor to these goods, provided that you can build an initial marketplace mass-interest in them. There aren’t enough people out there who know how to combine all the things you’ve combined here. The system makes it hard to sell anything above the marginal cost of goods, unless you have a really innovative idea, which can’t stay innovative for long, so you need continuous invention and re-invention too. You two fellows appear to be doing that. I don’t know anything definitive about the aesthetic qualities of your gadgets, nor how useful they’ll be, but I do understand their distinctiveness, so that’s why I’m here.”
It was longer than all the speeches he’d delivered since arriving, put together. Suzanne nodded and made some notes. Perry looked him up and down.
“You’re, what, an ex-B-school prof from Cornell, right?”
“Yes, for a few years. And I ran a company for a while, doing import-export from emerging economy states in the former Soviet bloc.”
“I see,” Perry said. “So you’re into what, a new company every 18 months or something?”
“Oh no,” Tjan said, and he had a little twinkle in his eye and the tiniest hint of a smile. “Oh no. Every six months. A year at the outside. That’s my deal. I’m the business guy with the short attention span.”
“I see,” Perry said. “Kettlewell didn’t mention this.”
At the junkyard, Tjan wandered around the Elmo-propelled Smart car and peered at its innards, watched the Elmos negotiate their balance and position with minute movements and acoustic signals. “I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you,” he said. “You guys aren’t temperamentally suited to doing just one thing.”
Lester laughed. “He’s got you there, dude,” he said, slapping Perry on the shoulder.
Suzanne got Tjan out for dinner that night. “My dad was in import-export and we travelled a lot, all over Asia and then the former Soviets. He sent me away when I was 16 to finish school in the States, and there was no question but that I would go to Stanford for business school.”
“Nice to meet a fellow Californian,” she said, and sipped her wine. They’d gone to one of the famed Miami deco restaurants and the fish in front of her was practically a sculpture, so thoroughly plated it was.
“Well, I’m as Californian as…”
“…as possible, under the circumstances,” she said and laughed. “It’s a Canadian joke, but it applies equally well to Californians. So you were in B-school when?”
“Ninety eight to 2001. Interesting times to be in the Valley. I read your column, you know.”
She looked down at her plate. A lot of people had read the column back then. Women columnists were rare in tech, and she supposed she was good at it, too. “I hope I get remembered as more than the chronicler of the dot-com boom, though,” she said.
“Oh, you will,” he said. “You’ll be remembered as the chronicler of this—what Kettlewell and Perry and Lester are doing.”
“What you’re doing, too, right?”
“Oh, yes, what I’m doing too.”
A robot rollerbladed past on the boardwalk, turning the occasional somersault. “I should have them build some of those,” Tjan said, watching the crowd turn to regard it. It hopped onto and off of the curb, expertly steered around the wandering couples and the occasional homeless person. It had a banner it streamed out behind it: CAP’N JACKS PAINTBALL AND FANBOAT TOURS GET SHOT AND GET WET MIAMI KEY WEST LAUDERDALE.
“You think they can?”
“Sure,” Tjan said. “Those two can build anything. That’s the point: any moderately skilled practitioner can build anything these days, for practically nothing. Back in the old days, the blacksmith just made every bit of ironmongery everyone needed, one piece at a time, at his forge. That’s where we’re at. Every industry that required a factory yesterday only needs a garage today. It’s a real return to fundamentals. What no one ever could do was join up all the smithies and all the smiths and make them into a single logical network with a single set of objectives. That’s new and it’s what I plan on making hay out of. This will be much bigger than dot-com. It will be much harder, too—bigger crests, deeper troughs. This is something to chronicle all right: it will make dot-com look like a warm up for the main show.
“We’re going to create a new class of artisans who can change careers every 10 months, inventing new jobs that hadn’t been imagined a year before.”
“That’s a pretty unstable market,” Suzanne said, and ate some fish.
“That’s a functional market. Here’s what I think the point of a good market is. In a good market, you invent something and you charge all the market will bear for it. Someone else figures out how to do it cheaper, or decides they can do it for a slimmer margin—not the same thing, you know, in the first case someone is more efficient and in the second they’re just less greedy or less ambitious. They do it and so you have to drop your prices to compete. Then someone comes along who’s less greedy or more efficient than both of you and undercuts you again, and again, and again, until eventually you get down to a kind of firmament, a baseline that you can’t go lower than, the cheapest you can produce a good and stay in business. That’s why straightpins, machine screws and reams of paper all cost basically nothing, and make damned little profit for their manufacturers.
“So if you want to make a big profit, you’ve got to start over again, invent something new, and milk it for all you can before the first imitator shows up. The more this happens, the cheaper and better everything gets. It’s how we got here, you see. It’s what the system is for. We’re approaching a kind of pure and perfect state now, with competition and invention getting easier and easier—it’s producing a kind of superabundance that’s amazing to watch. My kids just surf it, make themselves over every six months, learn a new interface, a new entertainment, you name it. Change-surfers…” He trailed off.
“You have kids?”
“In St. Petersburg, with their mother.”
She could tell by his tone that it had been the wrong question to ask. He was looking hangdog. “Well, it must be nice to be so much closer to them than you were in Ithaca.”
“What? No, no. The St. Petersburg in Russia.”
“Oh,” she said.
They concentrated on their food for a while.
“You know,” he said, after they’d ordered coffee and dessert, “it’s all about abundance. I want my kids to grow up with abundance, and whatever is going on right now, it’s providing abundance in abundance. The self-storage industry is bigger than the recording industry, did you know that? All they do is provide a place to put stuff that we own that we can’t find room for—that’s superabundance.”
“I have a locker in Milpitas,” she said.
“There you go. It’s a growth industry.” He drank his coffee. On the way back to their cars, he said, “My daughter, Anushka, is 12, and my son, Lee, is 8. I haven’t lived with them in four years and I’ve only seen them twice since. They’re good kids, though. It just couldn’t work with their mother. She’s Russian, and connected—that’s how we met, I was hustling for my import-export business and she had some good connections—so after the divorce there was no question of my taking the kids with me. But they’re good kids.”
“We videoconference. Who knew that long-distance divorce was the killer app for videoconferencing?”
That week, Suzanne tweeted constantly, filed two columns, and blogged ten or more items a day: photos, bits of discussion between Lester, Perry and Tjan, a couple videos of the Boogie Woogie Elmos doing improbable things. Turned out that there was quite a cult following for the BWE, and the news that there was a trove of some thousands of them in a Hollywood dump sent a half-dozen pilgrims winging their way across the nation to score some for the collectors’ market. Perry wouldn’t even take their money: “Fella,” he told one persistent dealer, “I got forty thousand of these things. I won’t miss a couple dozen. Just call it good karma.”
When Tjan found out about it he pursed his lips for a moment, then said, “Let me know if someone wants to pay us money, please. I think you were right, but I’d like to have a say, all right?”
Perry looked at Suzanne, who was videoing this exchange with her keychain. Then he looked back at Tjan, “Yeah, of course. Sorry—force of habit. No harm done, though, right?”
That footage got downloaded a couple hundred times that night, but once it got slashdotted by a couple of high-profile headline aggregators, she found her server hammered with a hundred thousand requests. The Merc had the horsepower to serve them all, but you never knew: every once in a while, the web hit another tipping point and grew by an order of magnitude or so, and then all the server-provisioning—calculated to survive the old slashdottings—shredded like wet kleenex.
Subject: Re: Embedded journalist?
This stuff is amazing. Amazing! Christ, I should put you on the payroll. Forget I wrote that. But I should. You’ve got a fantastic eye. I have never felt as in touch with my own business as I do at this moment. Not to mention proud! Proud—you’ve made me so proud of the work these guys are doing, proud to have some role in it.
She read it sitting up in her coffin, just one of several hundred emails from that day’s blog-posts and column. She laughed and dropped it in her folder of correspondence to answer. It was nearly midnight, too late to get into it with Kettlewell.
Then her computer rang—the net-phone she forwarded her cellphone to when her computer was live and connected. She’d started doing that a couple years back, when soft-phones really stabilized, and her phone bills had dropped to less than twenty bucks a month, down from several hundred. It wasn’t that she spent a lot of time within arm’s reach of a live computer, but given that calls routed through the laptop were free, she was perfectly willing to defer her calls until she was.
“Hi Jimmy,” she said—her editor, back in San Jose. 9PM Pacific time on a weeknight was still working hours for him.
“Suzanne,” he said.
She waited. She’d half expected him to call with a little shower of praise, an echo of Kettlewell’s note. Jimmy wasn’t the most effusive editor she’d had, but it made his little moments of praise more valuable for their rarity.
“Suzanne,” he said again.
“Jimmy,” she said. “It’s late here. What’s up?”
“So, it’s like this. I love your reports but it’s not Silicon Valley news. It’s Miami news. McClatchy handed me a thirty percent cut this morning and I’m going to the bone. I am firing a third of the newsroom today. Now, you are a stupendous writer and so I said to myself, ‘I can fire her or I can bring her home and have her write about Silicon Valley again,’ and I knew what the answer had to be. So I need you to come home, just wrap it up and come home.”
He finished speaking and she found herself staring at her computer’s screen. Her hands were gripping the laptop’s edges so tightly it hurt, and the machine made a plasticky squeak as it began to bend.
“I can’t do that, Jimmy. This is stuff that Silicon Valley needs to know about. This may not be what’s happening in Silicon Valley, but it sure as shit is what’s happening to Silicon Valley.” She hated that she’d cussed—she hadn’t meant to. “I know you’re in a hard spot, but this is the story I need to cover right now.”
“Suzanne, I’m cutting a third of the newsroom. We’re going to be covering stories within driving distance of this office for the foreseeable future, and that’s it. I don’t disagree with a single thing you just said, but it doesn’t matter: if I leave you where you are, I’ll have to cut the guy who covers the school boards and the city councils. I can’t do that, not if I want to remain a daily newspaper editor.”
“I see,” she said. “Can I think about it?”
“Think about what, Suzanne? This has not been the best day for me, I have to tell you, but I don’t see what there is to think about. This newspaper no longer has correspondents who work in Miami and London and Paris and New York. As of today, that stuff comes from bloggers, or off the wire, or whatever—but not from our payroll. You work for this newspaper, so you need to come back here, because the job you’re doing does not exist any longer. The job you have with us is here. You’ve missed the night-flight, but there’s a direct flight tomorrow morning that’ll have you back by lunchtime tomorrow, and we can sit down together then and talk about it, all right?”
“I think—” She felt that oh-shit-oh-shit feeling again, that needing-to-pee feeling, that tension from her toes to her nose. “Jimmy,” she said. “I need a leave of absence, OK?”
“What? Suzanne, I’m sure we owe you some vacation but now isn’t the time—”
“Not a vacation, Jimmy. Six months leave of absence, without pay.” Her savings could cover it. She could put some banner ads on her blog. Florida was cheap. She could rent out her place in California. She was six steps into the plan and it had only taken ten seconds and she had no doubts whatsoever. She could talk to that book-agent who’d pinged her last year, see about getting an advance on a book about Kodacell.
“Are you quitting?”
“No, Jimmy—well, not unless you make me. But I need to stay here.”
“The work you’re doing there is fine, Suzanne, but I worked really hard to protect your job here and this isn’t going to help make that happen.”
“What are you saying?”
“If you want to work for the Merc, you need to fly back to San Jose, where the Merc is published. I can’t make it any clearer than that.”
No, he couldn’t. She sympathized with him. She was really well paid by the Merc. Keeping her on would mean firing two junior writers. He’d cut her a lot of breaks along the way, too—let her feel out the Valley in her own way. It had paid off for both of them, but he’d taken the risk when a lot of people wouldn’t have. She’d be a fool to walk away from all that.
She opened her mouth to tell him that she’d be on the plane in the morning, and what came out was, “Jimmy, I really appreciate all the work you’ve done for me, but this is the story I need to write. I’m sorry about that.”
“Suzanne,” he said.
“Thank you, Jimmy,” she said. “I’ll get back to California when I get a lull and sort out the details—my employee card and stuff.”
“You know what you’re doing, right?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I do.”
When she unscrewed her earpiece, she discovered that her neck was killing her. That made her realize that she was a forty-five-year-old woman in America without health insurance. Or regular income. She was a journalist without a journalistic organ.
She’d have to tell Kettlewell, who would no doubt offer to put her on the payroll. She couldn’t do that, of course. Neutrality was hard enough to maintain, never mind being financially compromised.
She stepped out of the coffin and sniffed the salty air. Living in the coffin was expensive. She’d need to get a condo or something. A place with a kitchen where she could prep meals. She figured that Perry’s building would probably have a vacancy or two.
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As part of the ongoing project of crafting Tor.com’s electronic edition of Makers, the author would like for readers to chime in with their favorite booksellers and stories about them in the comments sections for each piece of Makers, for consideration as a possible addition to a future edition of the novel.