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“We imagined that we could supplant the role of meaning with other things—with advancement, with speed, with pixels and processors. But we cannot deny our essential humanity, our souls, if you want to call them that, which yearn not just for the superficial connection of social media, the followers and the followed, the influencers and the influenced, the likes and the dislikes, but for the deeper connections, enabling us to ask the questions we have pondered for millennia.
Why are we here?
What is our purpose?
And how can we come together in our inquiry as communities of belief, human-made groups of people who commit ancient and modern acts that frame the pivotal moments of our brief time on earth, our births, our marriages, our deaths?”
Bangladeshi writer Tahmima Anam’s recent book, The Startup Wife (2021), is a necessary parable of our times. The recipient of a Commonwealth Writers Prize, an O. Henry Prize, and one of Granta‘s Best Young British Novelists, Anam is a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times and was recently elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Educated at Mount Holyoke College and Harvard University, she now lives in London where she is on the board of ROLI, a music technology company founded by her husband.
In her book, when Asha Ray, a brilliant coder, is reunited with her high school crush Cyrus Jones, she is inspired to write an Empathy Module algorithm designed to unlock the empathetic brain for artificial intelligence. Asha abandons her Ph.D. program on a whim, ties the knot with Cyrus, and together they begin to work at an exclusive tech incubator called Utopia in New York. The alternative social media platform they build is unlike anything that has been created before in the history of the world.
“A social network that goes beyond selfies and humblebrags” — the platform enables people to form connections with each other based on what gives their life meaning instead of their likes and dislikes. Based on the inherent idea that people ultimately need some sort of a belief system to hold onto, it creates rituals around things that people love: their interests, beliefs, hobbies, passions, and obsessions. Towards this end, it pulls from history, novels, poetry, and witchcraft. In a sense, it gives people a replacement to religion, restoring and amplifying faith for those who have grown up in the shadow of social media.
With excellent feedback from test users, friends, and groups, the platform is an instant hit. In no time, it has millions of users and is all set to revolutionize the AI world. But simultaneously, the sudden fame takes a toll on the couple’s individual personalities, relationship with one another, and ultimately, their marriage. The story goes on to navigate how their lives gradually change as the startup grows.
Needless to say, reading the book would be a treat for today’s young generation of techpreneurs. Filled with tech jargon and trivia, it speaks to us about the technology of our times—one that “spies on you, mines you for data, extracts your soul, and then sells it back to you.”
It also offers a feminist look at modern partnership in conventionally male-dominated startup culture, highlighting some of its harsh realities — white man’s privilege, patriarchy, and that only two percent of all VC money goes to female-founded companies. Along the way, the story also shares some unique ideas for apps of the future: to make sex consensual, to introduce new ways of upholding social norms while maintaining safety without touching, and to curate one’s death on social media.
While the characters in the story use technology to save humanity from the apocalypse that is to come — climate change, natural disasters, or pandemics — the book also makes some possible predictions. In the book, ten years from now, wearables will be the only accessories around, and that handshakes, hugs, and casual kissing on the cheek will completely disappear within a generation. Ironically, some of these have already become a norm in the contemporary, post-COVID world that we inhabit today.
A subtle yet important message is also shared towards the end of the story — perhaps, unthinkable ideas should sometimes remain in the realm of imagination…
Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world.