Between 1996 and 2002, Gabriel Roth worked a variety of positions at the San Francisco Bay Guardian observing the dot-com boom, which he now dramatizes in his first novel, The Unknowns. Roth’s protagonist, Eric, passes on college and moves to the city from small-town Colorado to pursue programming. But, after selling big, Eric still has larger life problems to hack, from family relationships to romance. We spoke with Roth, who will be interviewed by Chris Baty at Litquake this evening, about how he conceived of this ur-San Francisco novel.
You are a programmer yourself, so I suppose it's no accident that your main character is also a programmer?
Well, the character is an extremely talented programmer. I’m not one of those. I’m barely above hobbyist level, but I do some web, Mac, and iOS development. I haven’t had an $18 million payout [like Eric does in the book]. I learned more about programming as preparation for writing this book—people like Paul Graham got me interested with essays and blog posts in ordinary English about the programming mindset. As I started to think of the character, I knew who he was before I knew he was a programmer, but it really fit, since programmers operate in a world that’s bounded by known complexity. And, of course, that’s the way the character is most comfortable approaching human interactions and romantic situations. Borrowing metaphors from the language of programming expresses his character and gives the nontechnical reader a flavor for the programming he's doing.
What does literary language have in common with programmatic language? Does this question compute?
The problems of managing complexity, brevity, and elegance occur in both literature and coding. You can also think of different programming languages as analogous to different literary styles—they work well for some things and are more difficult for others. Fundamentally [code and literature] are very different. One thing the computer won’t accept is ambiguity. By definition, in programming ambiguity is error. However, in literature you can have—you want to have—all kinds of ambiguity.
Eric works on big data and defends it in a conference against privacy concerns. Why does he take this position?
I’m getting this question a lot. I have a sort of pat answer, but the real answer is that when I started writing the book, I realized it was about this character who wants to understand things, both technically but, more importantly, in his life. It made sense in a thematic way that the programming work he would be doing would be collecting information on people. This is also true in his life, when he’s collecting “small data” on the woman he loves, trying to understand her.
Do you think that in San Francisco today our real flaneurs aren't writers, but really our unemployed-by-choice tech millionaires?
It's a really interesting phenomenon and maybe one of the things that has made San Francisco really weird right now. To have unemployed multimillionaires, that’s an interesting position for the city to be in. My character, Eric, is happy to have solved his money problem, but all of his deep emotional problems have yet to be addressed. Now that he has the time and energy to address them, it's both good and bad. There are different kinds of hard problems. A hard problem, in computer science, is hard because of complexity. But a hard problem in life, like the one that derails Eric at the end of the book, is a problem of ambiguity.
Gabriel Roth reads from The Unknowns tonight at 7 pm with Litquake's Chris Baty at Hotel Rex, 562 Sutter St.