"Hi," Cris said to the receptionist as she walked into the building, taking off her Vogtmask. The air outside was thick from wildfire smoke; an 80,000 acre blaze had erupted further north, and plumes of grey had blown down to the San Francisco Bay. It was the worst wildfire in the state's history, overtaking last year's giant wildfire, which had also been the worst in history. Every year brought a new record.
The tightly-controlled air conditioning in the office was a relief. Perfectly filtered; temperature controlled to a narrow spectrum of heat that was broadly acceptable to most men and women. Everyone was snappily but casually dressed, and there was beautiful designer furniture in every room. If you stayed here long enough, you could pretend that the rest of the world didn't exist and be perfectly comfortable.
Time for some coffee.
"Oh, Cris," the receptionist called to her as she walked past to the Keurig. "Brad wanted to grab you for a meeting. It's not on your calendar I don't think, but he booked the room in case you had time. He's in Bezos."
All the conference rooms were named after tech industrialist billionaires: Bezos, Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg, Watson. There had been some controversy about the last one - Watson was the President of IBM who had created its sales culture, and turned it into an enormously valuable company. But, unlike the others, he wasn't its founder - and most importantly, he had colluded with the Nazis to tabulate the German census and create a sort of proto-database that could identify German residents by ethnicity. He made enormous profits, but at the near-term cost of abandoning humanist ethics, and the ultimate cost of millions of lives. His name lived on not just as a conference room, but as the name for IBM's modern-day technology for making inferences from data.
There had been a movement to replace him with Sandy Lerner, the founder of Cisco, who used the profits from building her company on animal welfare and women's writing projects. She would have been the only woman to give her name to a room in the office. However, many of the partners argued that her contribution paled in comparison to Watson's, and the name prevailed.
Cris knocked on the door, opened it, and quietly walked through.
Brad was at the boardroom table, looking at his laptop intently. On the screen was an episode of a British baking show, with the volume turned uncomfortably loud.
"Hi," Cris said. "What are you doing in here?"
Brad gestured at the screen. "I'm watching the Great British Baking Show," he said. "Have you seen it? It's pretty great. Everyone's so nice to each other. Normally they make cookies or cakes, but this time they're making samosas." He picked up his phone and opened an app.
"I've ... uh, I've been meaning to watch it," Cris said.
"Well, here it is," Brad said.
Cris felt her watch vibrate. She turned her wrist and glanced at it: one Signal message. Casually, she took her phone out of her pocket and unlocked it.
Signal was an easy-to-use instant messaging app with end-to-end encryption. SMS messages - the kind that phones send by default - didn't have any encryption, and could be easily listened in on by the phone company or anyone who intercepted the data as it moved from point to point. In contrast, while the Signal app worked in almost the same way from a user point of view, the data was almost impossible to crack. Nobody could intercept the conversations you had on it. And because it was open source, anyone could take a look at the source code and verify that it didn't have any backdoors or other security vulnerabilities. Quietly, over a period of a couple of years, almost every venture capitalist in Silicon Valley had installed it. They didn't talk about why, or that they'd done it, but keeping their messages away from prying eyes had become more and more important.
"Don't react to this message," Brad's message to Cris read. "There are cameras in every room of this building now, for compliance. They installed them over the weekend. We're watching Bake Off."
Cris sat down at the table and put her phone face down.
"Oh, by the way," Brad said to her, over the noise of the bakers. "They wanted me to tell you that we need to bring our phones to IT sometime today. They're going to install some software on them so they can remotely erase them if they get lost or stolen. We want to be good stewards of our portfolio company's private information."
"That makes sense," Cris said. "I'll make sure I do that."
Her phone vibrated and she picked it up again. "They can also read all the data on our phones," Brad wrote. "They're going to add something to our laptops, too. We have about an hour before they call us in."
"So what are you doing?" Cris wrote back.
Brad laughed at the screen. "It's not as good as when Mel and Sue were the hosts and they had Mary Berry. I'm not saying the new hosts and the new baker aren't good, but it's almost like it's not different enough, you know? They haven't made it their own yet."
"I've got the internal notes on the Source Code Financial portfolio companies and I'm sending them to a journalist over a secure connection," he wrote.
"What if they catch you?" Cris wrote.
"It'll already have been done," Brad wrote.
Cris set her laptop on the table and opened it. Outside, she could hear more of the firm's employees coming into work.
"I need you to cover for me if someone comes in," Brad wrote. "Transfer is 17% complete."
"👍," Cris replied.
"Please talk," he wrote.
Cris nodded slightly. "So can you explain what's going on here? Will they be judged and have to leave the island?" She said.
Brad laughed emptily. "It's not quite Survival, if that's what you mean," he said. "But every week they get rid of one of the bakers who didn't quite 'cut the mustard', as they say it over there, ha ha, until they pick the best baker in the final show of the season. But it's all very nice. They all help each other out. It's not hyper-competitive."
"20%," he messaged to Cris.
"That sounds like my kind of show," Cris said. Maybe add a murder or two and a hard-bitten detective, and it actually would be, she thought. What the hell was Brad trying to do?
There was a knock at the door.
They looked at each other, and for a moment, they froze.
"Come in," Brad said. "25%," he wrote.
Jack walked in, saw them both around the table watching the Great British Baking Show, and shrugged his shoulders. "What are you doing in here?"
"Research," Cris said.
"Really?" Jack said. "You've got the TV on incredibly loud. It sounds to everyone - and I mean everyone, because the entire office can hear you - like you're sitting in here watching reality TV on company time. I guess that's fine - we're not going to tell you what to do and what not to do, as long as you get good results - but I wanted you to know the effect you're having on everyone else. They all think you're just watching TV."
"It's research," Cris confirmed. "This is one of the most popular shows on Netflix. People binge it for hours, across demographics that wouldn't normally be seen watching either a cooking show or a reality TV show. It doesn't neatly fit into any kind of box."
"And so you're doing some kind of data analysis?" Jack asked, pointing at Cris's screen. She had brought up the last Excel spreadsheet she had been looking at: a profit and loss statement for some startup that she had decided not to recommend an investment in.
"I'm interested in whether this represents a new trend among cord cutters," she said, "and whether --"
"Let me cut you off," Jack said. "I'm not sure how you did this before, but we don't do this kind of data analysis by hand. We normalize the data from the startups we invest in, and other data we acquire, and then we let machine learning algorithms do the analysis for us. We have quants in Asia and in London writing code and making statistical determinations. There's no need at all for you both to be sat in here watching TV."
"Understood," Cris said. "But don't you think there's something to be said for us qualitatively understanding this market as well?"
Jack paused. "We're talking about a reality TV show," he finally said, slowly, "and you're taking me for a fool. What is going on in here? Today is IT consolidation day - we want to get you using our network tools on all your devices before you get back to work. You're two of the most important people here. I need to make sure the work you do is safe. I'm sorry, but I need to insist you turn off the television and make your way down there."
Cris glanced at Brad. He returned the look anxiously.
40%. He needed more time.
"We'll pack up here and do that in a second," Cris said.
"No need to pack up," Jack said. "You can leave your stuff and come back. Maybe turn off the TV. But it's a requirement that everyone's devices get checked out by IT. They're waiting for you. Let's go." He glanced at Brad, who was typing furiously on his laptop. "Now."
Cris slowly shut her laptop, and carefully, calmly, put it back in her bag. She picked up her phone. "Understood. I'll go first -"
"You can both go together," Jack said. "It's better we do this in parallel so you can get on with your day."
Stalemate. For a moment, everyone in the room was quiet.
Finally, Jack said, "I know what you're doing here."
"What do you mean?" Brad said, looking up from his laptop, half-shutting its lid.
"This is serious business. You think we just let the notes for all of our portfolio companies sit openly on the network? We saw you access them."
"I wanted to get myself up to speed," Brad said.
"Up to speed is one thing, but copying the files to another device is another," Jack said. "We can see you do that. And we can see you open a secure connection on the network. And we can see both of you sending and receiving data on your phones, messaging each other even when you're in the same room. We're looking at all of that. We treat our data very seriously."
The air seemed to have been sucked from the room.
"At our first meeting post-deal, you realized you didn't know who our partners were," Jack said. "You seemed shocked when you discovered. But let me tell you how this works.
"Did you know I was one of the inventors of modern artificial intelligence? You probably did. That's written up all over the place. But what you probably don't understand is what that really means."
"I worked on some of the earliest machine learning algorithms. I took financial data from wherever I could, about markets, about companies, about trades and upcoming deals, and then wrote software that would make decisions based on that data. If the decisions were wrong, the algorithm would self-correct. If the decisions were right, the algorithm would self-reinforce. My software made better and better decisions, and I put it to work for me, making my hedge fund richer and richer. We made hundreds of billions of dollars.
"And so I gained the attention of other wealthy individuals, who wanted to know how they could use my algorithms for their own advantage. I didn't work with other hedge funds, of course, but the general principles applied to any kind of data. We could make better and better decisions.
"It used to be that people were untraceable. Yes, they would buy things and pay bills and scan their passports sometimes, but their daily lives were completely hidden from view. It was impossible to know what they were going to do next. So we tried to influence them crudely, with advertising that was the same for everybody, no matter who they were, and - if you were a politician - by making legislation that would hopefully make people like you more. Do you know how they used to determine public opinion?"
"They'd phone them," Cris said.
"Exactly," John said. "They would telephone people and ask them what they thought. They were doing that as recently as 2008. Just phoning them, asking some questions, and plugging answers into a database. Which would be fine if everyone was truthful and everyone picked up the phone, but you only had a handful of people who actually provided useful information. It was a useless system.
"But along came smartphones, and social networking. Suddenly everyone was turning their ordinary activities into data. They were taking photos of the things they cooked for lunch. They recorded who they met with; who they knew. The everyday details of everybody's lives could be recorded and quantified and analyzed, for the first time in human history. We all become knowable."
"If a person is knowable, if their data is available to be stored and normalized and quantified, that doesn't mean you can make good statistical inferences from their actions. You may be able to derive some patterns - they have coffee around this time, they'll react this way to a particular kind of message - but it'll be rough, and you won't be able to make reliable inferences about how someone else will act. The magic starts to happen when you have fine-grained data from hundreds of millions of people. And then billions of people. Then you start to be able to find patterns across different kinds of people, and make far more reliable predictions about how they will act.
"And if you can make predictions about how someone will act in different scenarios, you don't just get a sense of who they will vote for - although you do get that. It's a much more reliable system than just calling people and asking them what they're thinking. But more importantly, you get to predict how your actions - as a marketer, as an advertiser, as a propagandist - change how certain people think about something you care about. And you can repeat these experiments hundreds of millions of times, creating hyper-targeted messages that change the way people think about an issue or a person, until you get the result you want."
"When the internet got to that point, we realized we could encourage companies to capture more and more data. To the outside world, they looked like individual startups, disconnected from each other. People will reject a company that openly follows your every move. They won't use that app. Why would they? But they'll use one app that follows where you walk, another one that takes care of who you've met with recently, another one that lets you read and share articles and web pages you're interested in, and another one that measures your heart rate and tells you to breathe when you're stressed. Separately, all those things are a little bit creepy, but well within most peoples' creepy tolerance. But all those things together are an incredibly powerful sensor for how you're feeling, where you are, who you're with, and what you're thinking."
"I know this story," Brad said. "You've been taking enough control of each company you invest in that you can get access to that data - or at least, you can have a say in what happens to that data. And then it all gets connected, and normalized, and analyzed."
"Or the infrastructure companies that host each startup's apps," John said. "It's enough to own the database that the data is stored in. We can work with that."
"And you sell that ability," Cris said. "You sell that ability to whoever needs it. That's far more valuable than your portfolio of companies as a set of venture capital investments. Investments are bets; selling access to how the world thinks is a sure thing. You have some powerful customers."
"You're correct," John said. "Some very powerful customers indeed. Some of the most powerful people in the world."
"But do you know," John said, smiling, "why I've been talking for all this time, instead of simply calling a halt to your amateur investigations?"
"What's going to happen to us?" Brad asked, quietly.
"That's a completely different question, I'm afraid. I'm not sure what's going to happen to you - although I've got a pretty good model. But the real question, the one you're asking yourself but don't dare to say out loud to me is: what's going to happen to the work you're doing right now, Brad?"
Brad glanced at the screen, his heart thumping through his chest.
"Because I know what you're doing," John said, "and I'm quite certain our partners do too."
John took out his phone and typed something on it.
Brad and Cris both received Signal messages on theirs. "Finish the upload. But quickly. We're being watched. I'm here to help."
"Bring your devices to IT," he said, "and then leave. I'm afraid there isn't room for you here any longer." And then he walked out.