The Big Disruption, a satirical novel written by Jessica Powell, Google’s former head of communications, is set inside the lush and bountiful Silicon Valley headquarters of Anahata, a massive, 10-year-old tech giant in love with its own mythology about open-door board meetings and profound yet “napkin-able” ideas. Visionary CEO Bobby Bonilo deploys the company’s vast resources and intellectual firepower mainly to play catch-up with Galt, the hottest startup in the Valley, famous for creating apps and tools capable of “reducing all thought and opinion to easily shareable, bite-sized chunks.”
The parallel to Powell’s real life is obvious. Anahata began as a search engine that couldn’t seem to get social networking right. The company takes a literal shot at the moon. But even though Bonilo seems like an easy match to either Sergey Brin or Larry Page, Powell says she was based in Europe when she wrote the book in 2012 and hadn’t yet met Google’s cofounders in person.
Instead, she says the book’s yogi-CEO, who speaks in cryptic tech koans, was based on a short stint handling PR for the dating-app company Badoo. At the time, Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs had just been published, and Badoo employees would consult the book to guide even the most inconsequential product decisions.
Much like the real-life tech giants, Anahata ultimately attempts world domination, but not out of thirst for money, power, and data. Rather, its ambitions are driven mainly by Anahata’s need to keep Galt from poaching its engineers and Bonilo’s need to feel relevant. Big Tech’s critics may imagine that behind closed doors, executives debate trade-offs between ad revenue and user safety. But inside Anahata, product changes or developments with momentous global impact are the result of petty office politics in a rigid hierarchy that places engineers at the top, product managers somewhere in the lower middle, and legal, HR, marketing, and PR at the bottom. (Policy and ethics don’t even merit a rung.)
Powell hopes her novel will ring true for tech workers. “Fiction that portrayed the Valley was so heavy on dystopias and evil laugh tracks,” she says. “If you're sitting there and you're an engineer working on a cloud storage solution and you hear that your company is doing evil, evil things, how do you even reconcile that? It’s not what you see,” and so “you just completely discount that outside voice.”
Medium published the book online in October and, 100,000 or so readers later, decided to publish it in print—both firsts for the company. Powell wrote the book before rejoining Google in 2012. When Powell resigned from Google in August 2017, she was on the management team reporting directly to CEO Sundar Pichai.
The book touches briefly on racial discrimination in Silicon Valley but mainly satirizes the industry’s treatment of women. Across 90,000 words, there is a single female engineer, who is made to feel unwelcome by the company’s insanely sexist HR practices.
Powell never intended to publish the book under her real name, but her friends told her that the book’s critique about the lack of women in the industry wouldn’t hold much water without her experience. Then The New York Times published an anonymous op-ed written by a Trump administration official tearing into President Trump. Powell realized, “This anonymous thing is played,” which made Medium happy as well. “They had always said don't be dumb. Although they were very kind about it.”
The Big Disruption was written closer to the Arab Spring than the tech backlash—there’s an overseas revolution, but it's driven by a search engine rather than social media. But it predicted one of Google’s many ongoing political predicaments. In the book, an Anahata engineer, a royal prince in exile, is captured in his native country, ruled by an oppressive regime. In order to help the engineer—and get a “democracy uptick” in Anahata’s stock price—Bonilo starts manipulating search results to redirect users in the country to negative stories about the regime. You know, the kind of thing that we now call “fake news.” Would Google ever attempt something similar in the real world? “No, that would be ridiculous,” Powell says.
Even in that instance, however, Bonilo’s move is fueled by his desire to keep up with Galt. The initial seeds of a revolt were fomented by a viral post on Galt’s social network, so if the government is overthrown, “Galt will get all the credit for having spread a revolution and ushering in a new era of democracy,” an Anahata executive named Greg Fischer tells Bonilo. “We’ve done a handful of revolutions now — that’s our space. We can’t let Galt take this by themselves,” Fischer continues. (Fischer is the company’s chief financial officer and corporate affairs officer, who also runs “all the departments — legal, finance, marketing, and PR — that were seen as necessary evils in helping run a large company,” Powell writes.)
In any case, the joke’s on Bonilo because the media loves the story of a tech-enabled revolution toppling foreign dictators, but it doesn’t help Anahata’s stock price, because the market sees no upside in human rights.
Powell uses overdrawn characters and hyperbolic plot to comment on Silicon Valley’s monoculture of thought and the lack of women in tech. But the bits about office culture inside tech giants are actually more chilling. What if the fabric of civil society unraveled not because a CEO wanted to sell more ads but because some engineer wanted to prove that he was smarter than his coworkers?
The book is best when Powell is teasing out the existential dread fueling Anahata’s sense of manifest destiny. Wildly ambitious “quirky” projects like a social car are used to distract engineers from getting bored or jumping ship. At one point, Bonilo tries to hire a fixer during a PR crisis, but the fixer ends up articulating the CEO’s worst fears, telling Bonilo, “You’re so desperate that you gobble everything up, thinking size alone will secure your future. But listen to me when I tell you that you have no future in the future.”
In Powell’s telling, the need to grow is both endless and inevitable. For ad-supported companies, it’s a slippery slope from a search engine to a browser to laying down fiber-optic cable to monetize the developing world. As a real-world example, Powell pointed to reports that Facebook is working on its own cryptocurrency, which means Apple or Google would soon be forced to follow. “Now these companies are so big that they're all watching each other, because they're all in each other's like verticals, even though each one is doing the other's vertical crappier,” Powell says.