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The Big Book

‘The Unknowns’: A story of our relationship with data

Kai Ryssdal Jul 18, 2013
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The culture of Silicon Valley, or maybe the mental image the rest of us have of Silicon Valley, gets talked about a lot.

Wealthy college dropouts hitting it big, running around the Bay Area in hoodies playing foosball in the office.

But there’s another side of geek culture. The tradeoff that sometimes comes with being really good at data: Being not so good at human interaction.

Author Gabriel Roth believes that disconnect is a story worth telling, and has written his debut novel, “The Unknowns,” about it. Set in the first big tech boom in Silicon Valley, the protagonist of the book, Eric Muller, has made some pretty good money off of his computer skills. But while programming might be his forte, women end up being a lot more of a challenge.

“He’s going around using his very rational, very data-oriented brain to gather information and think through every social interaction as though it can be understood and controlled like computer code,” says Gabriel Roth. “And that just doesn’t work when it comes to human interaction.”

Having worked previously at the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Roth even picked up computer programming in his quest to research this book. But when he set out to write, he didn’t realize how important larger ideas about data would become.

“It started from the human experience, and from that sense that you sometimes have in interactions of wondering what other people are thinking about you, and what they know about you,” explains Roth. “It was only after I started working on and writing about that sort of interaction that I realized there’s a connection here to these other questions that are coming up in discussions of business and politics.”

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