Author and startup founder Jessica Powell published her first full-length novel, The Big Disruption: A Totally Fictional but Essentially True Silicon Valley Story (Medium, 2019) after working at a startup in London, and then as the former Vice President of Communications for Google. She wields clever honesty in her analysis of the tech industry and Silicon Valley.
Rebecca Gross: As you know, Kanstellation is interested in bridging the gap between tech and the humanities. When I first found out that your novel, The Big Disruption: A totally Fictional but Essentially True Silicon Valley Story, is the first ever to be published by Medium, I thought that was a really interesting way to combine tech and literature. How did you originally think to publish your book on Medium and why was it important to you?
Jessica Powell: First of all, when I first read about Kanstellation, I really appreciated that it’s about tech but it’s not all crazy dystopia. I just felt like it was much more nuanced, which I really liked.
I deserve no credit for the Medium stuff. I found an agent for it relatively quickly. She was living in San Francisco and was super positive about it, and probably importantly, she was married to someone in tech, and was very immersed in the culture out here. She went to New York, and [tried to] sell it, but all the major publishers rejected it. And they all had the same feedback..."it’s funny, it’s well-written, but there’s zero market for a book about the tech industry. It’s not marketable."
RG: That's interesting.
JP: It really surprised me at the time, because I had never written anything before, and I was not at all confident about the writing. But what I was confident about was the interest. Because I was working in marketing and PR, so I had just seen over the years from working in tech how the interest in the industry was growing. I saw that the number of column inches newspapers were devoting to technology companies was only increasing. So I had this book sitting on this dusty digital shelf somewhere.
After I left Google...a friend of a friend sent [the book] to Medium. They said, "we don’t do books, but why not?"
I was really impressed by the whole thing because...from when Medium bought it to when it was published, probably three months passed. What was so cool about working with Medium was that they were just up for it with this spirit of experimentation, combined with the fact that they just had this really great reach. It was just so cool to be able to reach so many people around the world simultaneously. I think I will never write anything in my entire life that got the kind of readership that this book did, because of Medium.
It felt very appropriate to publish it on Medium. And also I think, staying in the meta level, it felt authentic to me in a lot of ways. I feel like a lot of the stuff that gets written about tech is either super fan-boy, or it’s really almost hyperbolic and so extremely anti-tech and dystopian. And while my book is critical of tech, I think there’s a ton that’s really awesome about the industry, the people who work in it, and the products that have been built. While I think [the book] is a pretty scathing commentary, I do think there’s also a lot of love for parts of [the tech community embedded in the book]. If you work in tech and you’re reading it, you’d be laughing along in parts of it rather than feeling like you’re getting scolded constantly.
RG: And I think that also speaks to the love-hate relationship in every job, but specifically in tech because it’s so rewarding but it’s also just really taxing. I noticed in one interview you said, “I felt like I’d ceased to become anything else. All I did was work all the time and talk about tech.” Could you talk a little more about that experience [of burnout] and even speak to what writing and reading literature has done for you to oppose that feeling? Have you gained any more of yourself through this creative medium?
JP: When I think of burnout in the context of my job...I definitely found that my being was optimized for work. If it didn’t have to do with my kids, everything was focused on work. During that time, I found it really hard to read. My husband gave me this wonderful book called Radiance of The King. The book is really good, but I could not get past the first page! I thought it was so dense and complicated, but I was actually just really tired. I was so used to consuming text in a really transactional kind of way, trying to extract information from the text in front of me. And it was only after I quit work and slowed down and started reading for pleasure again, that I went back to that book and [realized] there’s nothing remotely difficult about it. It’s a great book, and it’s actually very easy to read. And it was really eye-opening for me. The fact that I’m more in charge of my day and my time makes a big difference in how I interact with the rest of the world and with my work.
RG: I’m struck by the fictional representation of Anahata as a tech giant. Do you think fiction does something that nonfiction can’t? Do you think using fiction, rather than a memoir for example, is a better way to connect to your audience?
JP: I really think fiction just has a really interesting way to connect with people. Nonfiction can be incredibly powerful because you know it’s someone’s personal experience. But at the same time, it can be easy to write off [nonfiction] because you can find all these ways to identify someone’s experience as an exception to a larger problem. And I think some people don’t pick it up and won’t engage with it because they assume it’s a story that won’t interest them.
What’s interesting about fiction, and what’s particularly interesting about satire, is the characters and the nuance is in service of the humor. In some ways, it’s easier to read and I think you can draw more people in because they just want diversion, or to laugh. But at the same time, there’s an undercurrent of critique in that....
[The book] came out of anger and confusion [with the startup I was working at]...[I thought], well if this isn’t bad enough, how bad do I have to make things for you to agree that it’s bad? This lent itself to satire, and to this exaggeration of reality.
The book is totally ridiculous, but it’s not like 40% wilder than what could happen in [Silicon] Valley. It’s only like 5 or 10% wilder. It felt very emotionally true to me. For me when I was writing it, it was this cathartic exercise that was trying to make sense of the world around me. I was trying to understand how all these people in their early 20s and 30s were making tons and tons of money, and also having all this influence on the rest of the planet, while also doing some really unethical things.
RG: What do you think bringing more female voices into the tech community could do for tech?
JP: I think you’re always going to have better outcomes when you bring more representation to the table. And I think that’s true whether you’re talking about gender or ethnicity or age or class. Tech, on the whole, is just very homogeneous. We’re very focused on building for everyone, and yet the very makeup of our employee base and the majority of our management team doesn’t reflect the world we’re building for... You really don’t have equal voices at the table making decisions at the company.
RG: That makes a lot of sense. To switch gears from tech culture to literature, I’m wondering: What are some of your main literary influences?
JP: It sounds crazy, but I spent so many years not reading when I was working crazy hours that I feel like I’m kind of re-discovering books. I feel like I went from reading a ton when I was younger to this huge drought, and now I’m back into it. Right now I’m reading The English Patient. I’ll read something contemporary and then I’ll read something very old.
I love Girondo, who is an Argentine poet. I still really love modernism. And I really love the absurd! I really like worlds that are 10% off. There’s a sweet spot for me. I’m not the person that loves the hardcore science fiction where all the science totally makes sense and there’s a lot of time spent on proving that world. I’m much more interested in that world that’s just a bit different from our current world. I really like a disfiguration or deformation of reality as a way to reflect on reality. And when I look back at the book I wrote, which was never intended to be a book, it makes sense that I ended up writing that way—not a totally alternative universe but rather something that was just turned up quite a bit.