From New Waves by Kevin Nguyen

Aerial view drawing of office cubicles with desktop computers cast under zaffre blue light

People talk about algorithms like they’re magic. It’s easy to see why. They govern how the internet is shown to us, conjured from spells. Their methods are opaque, and yet we put our trust in them. Algorithms to answer search queries; algorithms to tell us what to buy; algorithms to show us what news matters. Even when the behavior of a service can’t be explained—an errant search result, a miscalculated recommendation—we blame the algorithm. We like to point the finger at computers because they are incapable of feeling shame.

But an algorithm is not that complicated. It’s just a set of rules, a series of yes-or-no questions that a computer asks—really simple logic that could be represented by a very long flow chart. What’s impressive about an algorithm isn’t its intelligence, but its speed. A search query will go through thousands—hell, maybe tens of thousands—of questions in a matter of seconds. Because what do we value more: a thing done quickly, or a thing done well?

At the end of the day, though, we never ask about the person who wrote the algorithm. We never ask who they are, or what perspective they bring to it, because we want to believe technology is neutral. No biases or fallibility should be allowed to infiltrate it, even if the authors themselves are biased and fallible (and they always are). An algorithm is just a set of rules that works in a system. A system that works quickly and without prejudice. Thousands of processes in a matter of seconds because it has to work fast. No room for bias there. Not enough time for it.

Margo had often explained that a sloppy algorithm could easily fall into a pattern of reinforcing small mistakes. A system eating itself. Bad decisions at scale.

But when the stakes don’t feel real, no bad decision feels that consequential at the time. In fact, it might even feel fun, like a high school prank. This certainly did.

When we finally arrived at the office, I insisted we keep the lights off, even though Margo pointed out that we would look more suspicious if someone came in and discovered us literally under the cover of darkness. I nodded in agreement, then ripped a drunken burp. Margo started cackling and soon we were snickering so much we forgot to turn on the lights, even though we’d just agreed we should. I bumped into just about every chair and table during the short journey to Margo’s desk, each bit of fumbling progress punctuated by the sounds of trying to hold in our laughter.

Since I was a contract worker, I was supposed to be scarce after seven hours of work. I’d never seen the office at night. In the dark, the dimensions seemed different—deeper, even. During the workday it was polluted with fluorescent light and the clamor of people talking over one another. Now it was silent, save for the hypnotic drone of high-powered desktop computers that hummed even while they slept. I should have been nervous, but no one was around, and I felt bolder than I ever had before in this place. It would be so easy.

Margo guided us to her desk. Her personal effects were gone, but thankfully no one had removed her computer yet. She booted it up.

It only took her a few minutes to write a script that would duplicate the company’s entire user database, but much longer for it to finish copying to a flash drive. And so we waited, staring at the monitor. Margo kept checking her phone and I kept my eye on the entrance.

“So this is what you do all day, huh?” I said, gesturing to her phone, where she had Facebook open.

“Coding is a lot of waiting around,” she said. “And long stretches of contemplation.”

“Is that true?”

“No, it’s just a lot of busywork. This is why I am better suited to a life of crime.”

“I’m starting to see why you got fired.”

Minutes stretched into tens of minutes, then nearly an hour. Suddenly it had been nearly two hours, and we were starting to get a little sick of each other.

“Never have I ever…downloaded the email database from the place where I work,” I said.

“That’s not how this game works.”

“Fine. Never have I ever…stolen anything.” 

“I told you, it’s not stealing.”

“I didn’t say this was. I’m just saying I’ve never stolen anything.” Margo lowered a finger, signaling as part of the game of Never Have I Ever that she had stolen something before.

“What did you steal?”

“In college, the virginity of at least two white boys.”

Margo laughed. I don’t know if I understood the joke, but I laughed alongside her, realizing that my voice was starting to sound more anxious. My confidence was beginning to fade as my drunk did. I’d thought the process would be faster, that we would be in and out in a matter of minutes. Margo was strangely cool about the whole endeavor. She told me to calm down and went back to reading something on her phone.

“Apparently ‘grand larceny’ is stealing anything worth over a thousand dollars,” she said.

“How much do you think this user data is worth?” I asked.

Margo laughed and made an exaggerated shrug. This did not make me feel better.

“Do you even know who you are going to sell this to?” “Sell it? We’re not gonna sell it.”

“Then what are we going to do with this information?”

“It’s, like, insurance. Against Nimbus. So they can’t fuck with me.”

I began to panic. “Margo, by doing this you’re begging them to fuck with you.”

“I’d like to think I’m daring them.”

“You haven’t thought through any of this—”

“Just trust me,” Margo said. She grabbed my hand and squeezed it tightly. Her fingers were soft, cold, but slowly warmed as they became entangled in mine. Margo and I were as close as friends could be, but never would we have held hands like this. The feeling was comforting and intimate and I didn’t understand what it meant—if anything—and we just remained silent, not verbally acknowledging that we were touching. All I knew was that I didn’t want to let go.

Kevin Nguyen is the features editor at The Verge and was previously a senior editor at GQ. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

From the book New Waves by Kevin Nguyen. Copyright © 2020 by Kevin Nguyen. Published by One World, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

Purchase New Waves here.

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