The Unknowns by Gabriel Roth
You Are Your Own Worst Hack
“I never really am satisfied that I understand anything; because, understand it well as I may, my comprehension can only be an infinitesimal of all I want to understand about the many connections and relations which occur to me, how the matter in question was first thought of or arrived at.”
- Ada Lovelace
Scientific audacity in the 20th century took humanity to previously unimagined heights. Skies became superhighways, humans descended to the deepest point on Earth and astronauts galloped across the moon. It was the Age of Aquarius, and The Jetsons felt inevitable after a third glass of Saturday-morning Tang.
Many of mankind’s prodigious exploits would not have been possible without the programmable algorithm—a mathematical miracle invented by a woman more than a century before the digital revolution.
Lady Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s only legitimate daughter and a “poetical scientist,” wrote the first computer program. She also theorized computers would eventually transcend prosaic number-crunching.
They would do far more, in fact, emulating any set of mutual relations through numerically represented data strings that wrought digital order from analog chaos.
Lovelace realized computers would be capable, in time, of subjugating infinitely sublime variables of reality into a controlled calculus. Absent her paradigm shift in computer theory, our increasingly omniscient digital milieu would not exist. The scions of Silicon Valley stand indebted to the uncommon genius of a woman derided as insane when she posited her theory nearly 200 years ago.
One of those scions now makes it into The Unknowns, Gabriel Roth’s incisive debut novel. We’re in 2003, as investors and executives yearn for the halcyon days before the Dot Com bubble burst.
That same year, Roth began writing a food column for alt-weekly San Francisco Bay Guardian. He did this on the side, while cutting his teeth as a web developer. Somehow, he managed to turn a Quizno’s review into an incisive think piece about soulless branding and the power of denial. “I don’t really know anything about food so I tried to compensate by spending more time thinking about it than most people would be able to tolerate,” Roth writes on his personal website.
In his novel, he brings the same obsessive focus to bear on every meticulous particle of protagonist Eric Muller.
Eric just sold a data harvesting application he’s hacked away at for the past three years—finally, he can show something for all the hours of every high school lunch period spent in the computer lab coaxing a few more megabytes of RAM…and just maybe a few moments of intimacy from his female peers. Eric has yet to resolve the most elusive equation of all—love.
Roth filters a dull house party through Eric’s cunning eye. The scene teems with virtual logarithms, requiring him to leverage every last bit of perceptible data to yield the highest scoring probability.
“At a crowded party,” Eric observes, “you can make three slow circuits of the premises, turning sideways to slip past the people in line for the bathroom, and then leave without self-reproach. The fewer guests, the more you’re implicated in the event’s success or failure.”
A well-timed sardonic remark (or occasionally treating his sudden remarkable success with genuine humility) lands Eric a few memorable night caps, but he treats talking with women, for the most part, as a slightly better version of a functioning web application.
Still, as in all quintessential romances, the guy always falls for the girl who renders any charm offensive useless with one single inscrutable gaze.
Roth uncorks Maya Marcom as the alliterative elixir to Eric’s geek pathology. She’s a sharp investigative journalist whose wit and boundless intuition make her an irresistible and amorous cocktail. She finds Eric’s attempts to decipher her as benevolent, cute. They find one another compatible enough to bargain a psychological peace treaty.
But once Eric tries to plot Maya onto his precise emotional matrix, outliers begin to skew toward a new uncharted axis.
In the larger world, egregious false positives launch a nine-year quagmire in Iraq. Back home, Eric analytically desires to exhume the truth hidden in Maya’s repressed past. Once he begins peeling back layers of his new lover’s onion, logical fallacies singe his hardwiring. A kernel of doubt germinates in his conflicted emotional cortex. Unsubstantiated proofs will simply not compute for him. He must crack the enigma, learn what makes Maya tick.
Roth deftly illuminates the origins of Eric’s exacting personality. In middle school, Eric creates a computer game that resembles a sophisticated digital Dungeons & Dragons (sans the odious cosplay and stale Cheetos). He can map all possible outcomes with the press of the return key. A business partner sums up what makes Eric tick in a tidy edict: “Lubricating the flow of information about individual consumer preferences constitutes a meaningful contribution to human happiness.”
The neo-libertarian mantra of Big Data goes something like this: Universal harmony is possible once all data sets are seamlessly homogenized into a collective tech utopian consciousness anyone can manipulate.
Love hardly works this way, of course. Its seduction is fraught with unending mystery. This inalienable truth hits Eric hard. He’s unable to give in to the magnetism and simply accept circumstances. Still, he’s Eric. He can’t avoid ceaselessly engineering the dynamics between himself and Maya. Roth somehow subverts Eric’s inner Machiavelli into his most endearing vulnerability.
In the last scene of The Social Network, we see Mark Zuckerberg alone in a conference room after hours of beleaguered deposition. He surreptitiously logs into his Facebook account.
He searches for the same girl who broke up with him in the first scene of the film. He lets the mouse hover over the Add Friend button for a few harrowing seconds. Finally, he clicks.
We never know if this desperate missive will be reciprocated with an Add or Ignore. Either way, in this moment we clearly see how Facebook exists simply to connect with other people. No more. No less.
Like Eric, Zuckerberg can’t leave any element of the elegant social algorithm to mere chance or volatility. He’s actually invented a fluid self-contained representation of the courtship game we’ve played offline for millennia.
Eric is convinced he can program all of life’s serendipitous unknowns in The Unknowns, even if the data crumbs lead to more questions than answers. In the end, he realizes that the veiled subconscious webs woven out of opaque memories shouldn’t be untangled or disrupted; the sum is much more enchanting than its disparate parts.
Lady Lovelace must be blushing somewhere.
Patrick McGinn has contributed to Pretty Much Amazing, Flagpole Magazine, Charleston City Paper & Stomp and Stammer.