The Geek Doesn’t Always Get the Girl: A Novelist on Hacking Romance

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explain, and where I didn’t understand what the companies did. There were a lot of parties. It was fascinating and in ways sort of mystifying to me.

By the time I started working on the book, I had become interested not so much in the startup business but in the programming side of things. I had begun reading essays and books by programmers—there was a boomlet of writing about programming in the first decade of this century. That got me interested in programming as a pursuit separate from startups. And that’s how I came to this aspect of Eric’s character—the idea that he was someone who would enjoy immersing himself in this intensely rational, cognitive activity. In the end, the fact that he makes a bunch of money by founding a startup is, for him, almost an accident or an afterthought.

X: There are a number of passages in the book where you seem to appropriate the language of startups in an ironic and dismissive way—for example, there’s one sentence that reads “I made myself into the person she needed, and while it wouldn’t scale it was at least a proof of concept.”

GR: I think that’s because I have ambivalent feelings about it. I learned a little bit about programming in the course of writing the book, and became an intermediate-level programmer, but there is something I very much admire about people who become really expert programmers. They seem to be driven by natural curiosity and a love of making things and a creative impulse, and I find all those things admirable. In particular, a lot of programmers—more then than now—are people who don’t care whether it’s cool to do or not, they are just fascinated by it. That is the aspect of the classic programming geek that I really admire. I aspire to that quality of focus. There is something monastic about it—these are people who are separating themselves from the world to try and figure something out.

About the people nowadays who come out of business school and decide they want to disrupt the parking meter space, or something like that, I say good luck to them. Maybe they will make something useful, but I don’t find myself as sympathetic to that impulse.

In a way, if I see one big difference between the startup-founder-programmers of Eric’s generation, around the turn of the millennium, and those of today, it’s that the technology has gotten so much better. Nowadays you can build a modern startup website with social features largely by assembling components that have already been developed by other people. You can use a framework like Ruby on Rails and host it on Amazon servers and a lot of the work has been abstracted away. Which is terrific, but the modern startup scene has less of a role for intense programming. So the advantage that somebody like Eric had in 1999 or 2000 would no longer be such a competitive advantage.

X: One thing about Eric’s biography seemed improbable or at least outdated to me. He’s very rich as a result of selling his software startup, and he’s still in his early twenties, but he seems totally stalled in life. Today there’s a very well marked out path for people in that situation—they become angel investors and start putting money into their friends’ companies, and eventually they start something new of their own. But Eric isn’t doing any of that. He’s not even trying to stay plugged into the startup scene.

GR: There are more of these guys today than there were 10 years ago. Back then, there weren’t things like Y Combinator. There weren’t books explaining what you need to do to start a disruptive company. It certainly could happen, but it wasn’t a known strategy. So there’s more of a default path, now that there is a more stabilized startup culture.

But more importantly, I think this is an area where Eric is not representative of anything beyond himself. He is a guy who fell into this by accident—he says at one point that he wasn’t even trying to get rich. I could imagine Bill Fleig [Eric’s teenage hacker buddy and eventual co-founder] as a successful innovator working on another startup. But for Eric there was this whole other set of problems that he was preoccupied with, even as he was writing the code that would eventually make him very wealthy.

As I thought about, “Okay, what would happen to him after he’s made all that money and no longer has to worry about a day job?,” it did seem like it would be difficult for him. I didn’t think he would have much interest in networking with people. There’s a scene where he goes to a conference and afterward, people are mobbing him and trying to get him to invest in their companies, and the only interesting thing to him is that maybe being surrounded by these people will elevate his status and help him become what he actually wants to be, which is an attractive person that a girl will love.

X: Eric comments early in the book that “some people found social life as obvious as I found computers.” How real do you think that dichotomy is? Are there some people who just instinctively understand how other people think, and people who don’t?

GR: I certainly don’t think it’s a dichotomy. It’s not that there are people who get it and people who don’t get it. It’s a spectrum. People like Bill Fleig are probably more hopeless than Eric is. Eric in many ways is extremely insightful and empathic and understands other people quite well. His problem, in a way, is that his intense self-consciousness makes it difficult for him to respond in an appropriate or natural way, after he has processed the data correctly.

I do think there are people who, for whatever reason, have a natural ability to be likeable, or to act in ways that are socially appropriate, and there are others for whom that comes harder. Adolescence is really the time when that gets sorted out—when people are revealed to have that natural sense or not. Everybody sort of figures it out along a slightly different path, and that can make those four or five years extremely intense and, for some people, extremely uncomfortable. That’s why there are sections in the book about Eric’s teenage years.

X: The core perception that seems to set Eric up for romantic disaster is this idea that it’s possible to “hack the girlfriend problem.” He’s obviously unsuccessful at that with Maya, but what do you think about the impulse itself? Eric seems to be trying to work with the tools he has. Is that so misguided?

GR: What I sympathize with in Eric is the intensity of his inspiration. He wants it so badly, he is willing to try anything. And he doesn’t have a lot to work with. His parents certainly haven’t given him much to work with, and nature hasn’t equipped him with much to work with in certain respects. But it has equipped him with this high cognitive intelligence, so he’s working very hard with what he’s got. I’m really sympathetic to that.

It would be much better if he weren’t stuck in his head so much, and if he had a more natural way to act around other people. He would be very fortunate if he had even a slight increase in those things. He doesn’t, and so he’s in trouble.

X: But what about this idea that it’s possible to reduce human relationships to algorithms—that a coder’s mindset might actually help you understand other people? You don’t have to look to fiction to find people who believe that’s actually true.

GR: Let’s say I’m skeptical. I think we should call it “thinking” rather than algorithms. I think that thinking is very useful, up to a point. Thinking about what other people feel and want, and what you yourself feel and want, can be really helpful. But if it’s divorced from feeling and emotional insight, then it’s hard for me to imagine building a really satisfying relationship out of it.

X: Toward the end of the book Eric observes, “We can only know each other the way we know distant stars: by observing years-old light, gathering outdated information, running calculations and making inferences.” That seems to be a defense of his original idea that there’s a kind of calculus for managing relationships. That passage left me feeling unsure whether Eric has really learned anything.

GR: Those lines about distant stars feel very important to me, and I read them slightly differently from the way you do. I think what he is acknowledging in that moment is that people are … Next Page »

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2 responses to “The Geek Doesn’t Always Get the Girl: A Novelist on Hacking Romance”

  1. Bill Ghormley says:

    Wade — this seems the quintessential battle between Memetics and Biology.
    “The Unkowns” as you depict it sets up the Man/Meme vs. Man/Gene problem in bright light — having to give in to the unknowns of a relationship to reproduce, as opposed to building an engineered world through solving for unknowns — building one’s memetic legacy. This interview was poignant, and powerful, on a number of levels — thanks.

  2. Jerry Jeff says:

    Really good stuff, Wade.