The threat posed by technocratic fascism has played out in real time on the timelines of social media users in recent months. Whether we’re sharing words or videos or memes or embarrassing grade school yearbook photos, we’ve ceded enormous power to too few gatekeepers. The rapid changes in technology has meant our cultural critique has been slow to catch up.
In Please Report Your Bug Here, the debut novel from Josh Riedel, the call is coming from inside the house. Riedel was once employee number one at Instagram before it was acquired by Facebook. Ironically, he had once worked at Facebook before his time at the photo sharing service. The faceless, bureaucratic Corporation in his novel could easily be confused with Facebook, which eventually gobbled up Instagram and became Meta, but the story is the same as hundreds or thousands of startups conglomerated by Meta, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, or a handful of other giants.
First and foremost, Please Report Your Bug Here is a critique—dare we even say a condemnation—of big tech. The establishment is the clear villain throughout the novel, and Riedel depicts the Corporation, the in-novel stand-in for the big tech conglomerate, in a fairly damning way in multiple aspects. It’s bureaucratic and slow to respond, cold and faceless in taking action, and the quest for profit blinds the company leaders. For many startups, acquisition is the long term goal, a moment when founders, investors, and employees earn their payout, justifying their libertarian meritocracy. But in the novel, even this joyful moment is tainted.
The narrator, Ethan, begins by warning us he’s violating his NDA by simply telling this story. Riedel seemingly is channeling Joseph Conrad and the opening of the Heart of Darkness, with Ethan a modern Marlow and the Founder not unlike the Director of Companies.
Ethan works at DateDate, a social media dating site based on algorithmic matches. He is, like Riedel, an early employee. Ethan, the overworked community manager, convinces the Founder to hire Noma, a contract employee with experience at startups. Ethan’s long time partner Isabel has broken up with him, meaning he’s not just an employee, but he’s a DateDate client too. When he attempts to meet his top match, he encounters a mysterious bug that leaves him feeling out of place.
The Corporation soon acquires the app—Riedel’s sense of pacing keeps the novel moving forward. Ethan becomes an employee there, but misses out on the millions the Founder earned during the sale. Noma, the contractor, is fired. The engineer is never heard from again. While working at the Corporation, Ethan realizes his bug is less an error and more the intention of the code. Spoilers ahead.
While DateDate’s magic proprietary feature had ostensibly been sensing the mood of users, the actual intention was to create a portal to transport people from place to place. When it works properly, it allows people to pass from place to place around the globe. However, in glitches, like the one Ethan experiences, it transports people to other realms more like dreams. The plot shifts when Ethan learns one engineer’s young daughter has disappeared into one of these realms.
The magic behind the software has an explanation, but don’t think too hard about it. This novel’s speculative elements might not hold up under too much scrutiny. Riedel keeps the techno-babbel to a minimum, and hasn’t laid out how software physically transports people in time and space. But that isn’t the point nor all that important to the plot. The book is a tough critique of the pitfalls of the modern tech sector, not so much the technology itself.
DateDate is not the Founder’s first successfully acquired tech project. Ethan had the opportunity to work on that first project but turned it down and missed out on a big payday. At last convinced to join the DateDate team, he’s bamboozled out of any meaningful share of the company, and in the end, the company is sold before his shares would have vested anyway. Yet, when DateDate is acquired, the Founder grants himself accelerated vesting. Ethan earns nothing from the sale except a new job and the promise of a big signing bonus. The already wealthy Founder grows even richer. The inequality of the tech sector’s wealth is on full display. Ethan, who labors at the company, sees little reward, while the Founder profits over and over again despite questionable contributions.
The critique of wealth and class is broader than just tech sector winners. Sure, it would have been great for Ethan to grab a piece of the startup money, but there is other money on display here too. For instance, Ethan observes, “Allie was rich because she’d sold her company, but also because she had family money. She couldn’t have co-founded the company without her family’s initial investment.” Riedel is acknowledging a fact all too rarely mentioned by the self-made tech billionaires: they’re starting off from a place of privilege. Mark Zuckerberg’s upper middle class family landed him at Harvard before he founded Facebook. Elon Musk had family money from an emerald mine his father owned in Zambia before he launched his first company. The humble beginnings in a Palo Alto garage, the origin mythology behind the likes of Apple, HP, Amazon, and others, is all dependent on access to the garage, an expensive piece of real estate to be sure.
The power dynamics are scrutinized as well, and not just through the lens of wealth. The Corporation consists of mainly faceless bureaucrats setting policy and making impactful decisions on a whim. To fund or sunset projects is to live and die at the Corporation, and for the girl trapped in the other universe, literally life and death. Meanwhile at Yarbo, the scrappy Oakland innovation collective, the leader, Soren, leverages his technology to get back into power at the Corporation. There is a constant struggle for control played out in boardrooms and through email memos.
This novel is a series of mysteries, played out in a well-paced narrative filled with frenetic energy. Riedel succeeds at capturing the intrapersonal dramas of a startup, and despite the lean toward science fiction and a bit more melancholy, belongs in a genre with the same ups and downs we see in Doree Shafrir’s Startup and Leigh Stein’s Self Care. There are elements of a modern noir in this novel as well, with our perspective limited to Ethan’s, the narrator.
The novel has an alluring quality that keeps you turning pages, and the mysteries are largely satisfactorily concluded. There’s no deus ex machina to save the characters from their fates. But that leaves the question of whether Riedel sticks the landing. There’s plenty of space for a sequel without leaving anything unanswered. But not everyone will consider the ending a happily ever after; there is too much melancholy. Ethan finds in the resolution a sense of place absent from his character at the start of the novel.
Please Report Your Bug Here
By Josh Riedel
Henry Holt & Company
Published January 17, 2023
Ian MacAllen is the author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American, forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield in 2022. His writing has appeared in Chicago Review of Books, The Rumpus, The Offing, Electric Literature, Vol 1. Brooklyn, and elsewhere. He serves as the Deputy Editor of The Rumpus, holds an MA in English from Rutgers University, tweets @IanMacAllen and is online at IanMacAllen.com.