Silicon Follies

Chapter 54: Kiki and Barry reunited by Iridium -- silence at $40 a minute


Thomas Scoville
September 18, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Kiki had tried to contact Barry for days. It shouldn't have been that hard; Barry had one of those Iridium superphones, the kind that worked anywhere on the planet. The real difficulty was in convincing anyone at TeraMemory that Barry had a wife. Apparently, it was a detail he hadn't shared very widely.

She had been reduced to faxing the marriage license to TeraMemory's public relations department. That had gotten their attention, convincing them Kiki wasn't just another in a long line of jilted paramours and unhinged she-stalkers. They agreed to patch her through to the Captain of the Singularity.

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The biggest bandwidth bottleneck would be a psychological one. He answered on the sixth ring in his curt, signature baritone: "Dominic."

"Barry? Is that you? It's Kiki."

"Why are you calling me, Kiki?" he said gruffly. "Didn't we agree it would be better to limit your contact to my attorney?"

"The lawyers can't help with this one, Barry."

She told him about Gretchen.

Barry didn't speak for a long time. The line made a steady, gentle hissing, punctuated only by the sound of hiccuping satellites.

Forty dollars a minute, and no words to say: Barry and Kiki stood on opposite sides of the earth, speechless, joined only by an evanescent strand of radio waves and electrons. They were as ghosts to each other, disembodied phantoms unable to extend any real connection across the ether of some desolate digital afterlife. It was worse than being alone. It was exactly like their marriage.

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"How?" Barry finally asked, his voice higher, a thin trace of forlorn.

She told him about Last Chance, the mountainous Santa Cruz backcountry, with its narrow, shoulderless roads and pitch-black nights.

"Thank you for notifying me. I appreciate your call," he responded with corporate coldness. He was walling it off the only way he knew how: by treating it as a business call.

"Barry, where are you?"

"Tasmania."

"I don't mean geographically -- I mean personally. Where have you been all these years? I've missed you."

Silence. More soft hissing and geosynchronous chatter.

"I know you're back there," she continued, "somewhere behind all the anger and the ambition. Couldn't you at least come out for a moment? I'd like to talk to that man one more time. Even just to say goodbye."

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His tone began to harden. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"I think you do. Where is he? Where's my old 'Tejinder Coffeepot'?"

Barry spoke. "I ... I ..."

Another long silence, then a pop and a moment of high-pitched chirping.

Dial tone.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

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You could spot them a mile away: Silicon Valley technocrats, critically oppressed by the vagaries and uncertainties of the chase, would come to wrestle their doubts in the monastic calm of the valley's only true ivory tower. The airy stone arches and broad lawns were a potent antidote to the relentless commercial whiplash of the valley.

The undergrads, sheltered as they were from many of the valley's harsher economic and vocational realities, surveyed these interlopers with some curiosity. Certainly they didn't belong on the Stanford campus; it was plain to see from their weirdly conformist "computer casual" dress and tightly wound demeanors. They were neither students nor faculty, neither fish nor fowl, entirely lacking the easy manner and unhurried rhythm of academia. They were oddities, stress refugees, indigenous tourists attempting to decompress and imagine life beyond the next round of funding or book-to-bill ratio.

Thus the two men strolling by Memorial Chapel made an unlikely pair. Steve, in his sandals, cut-off jeans and Nine Inch Nails T-shirt, could easily have passed for a graduate student. Paul, on the other hand, had the mark of the Machine upon him. He wore the official uniform of the company town: khakis, virgin Nike cross-trainers, a crisply pressed denim button-down shirt with corporate technology logo embroidered on the breast. Gang colors for geeks.

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"Let's go for a long, thoughtful walk around the quad," Steve had puckishly suggested when Paul called to explain his incipient career blowout. "That's what all the guys do when they burn out working for the Man. You can see 'em shuffling around, hands in their pockets, talking to themselves. Except for you," he had quipped. "I'll save you the embarrassment. You can talk to yourself to me."

And talk he did. More than a little. Paul talked so much he scared himself, tapping into a heretofore unknown, repressed pocket of resentment and frustration at his core.

"Oh, I dunno ..." Paul ruminated with a sigh, hands in pockets, as predicted. "It's getting harder and harder to see any point these days. I feel like I spend my time running a hundred miles an hour, working late every night and forsaking any semblance of a real life just for somebody else's technical pipe-dream that'll probably never happen in a million years.

"I mean, the other day I took inventory: Of the seven companies I've worked for in the last six years, four no longer exist. And most of the stuff I worked on is already obsolete. Hardly any of it ever saw an actual customer.

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"It was perfectly good code. But computational fashions seems to change so fast these days. It's hard to feel like you're making any sort of significant contribution at all when all the rules are in constant flux, and history gets rewritten every six months."

Steve knew where Paul's lament was leading, but decided to play devil's advocate just for the fun of it. "Well, hey, you're a big boy -- and you're getting paid by the hour, anyway, right?"

"Yeah, but it's the futility, you know? You spend every day in the stocks, sweating and spinning a compiler, and you just know that in six months they'll cancel the project or start from scratch so they can chase the latest info-craze. After a while, not even the money can make you feel good about it. I'd rather be slinging burgers than feeling so burned out and hopeless at the end of each day."

Steve put his hands together, prayer-like, a hacker Buddhist. "In your despair is the beginning of wisdom, grasshopper. What you do to get somewhere becomes who you are once you arrive."

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He dropped the Zen pretense and laid his hands on his chest. "Look at your old friend Steve: I ain't making the big bucks. Hell, I'm barely making any bucks -- but at least I love my work. And I don't have to worry about having my karma shafted by some wise-ass, business-school dickhead with a Ferrari and a pile of venture capital.

"That's the whole hacker thing, man. It's 'Live Free or Die.' It's art for art's sake. Haven't I taught you anything? It always shakes out the same way, age after age, scene after scene: You can have the love, or you can have the money. If you ever do happen to get them both at the same time, you just gotta remember it's a temporary anomaly, a violation of cosmic law, and it can't last. That's the tragedy of the market: Whenever anybody does something beautiful and pure, the Man hunts it down and kills it. Money hates beauty."

"Why?" Paul asked, dumbly.

Steve sighed and looked at his friend a moment, the lowering sun reflecting in his eyes. "Just jealousy, I guess."

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Thomas Scoville

Thomas Scoville is either an Information Age savant or an ex-Silicon Valley programmer with a bad attitude. He is the author of the Silicon Valley Tarot.

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