‘I Had the Job. What Was It? I Wasn’t Sure’

by Jacob Silverman

The job lasted a bit more than 9 months, a time period that would be pregnant with meaning if only I had managed to create something meaningful out of it. But these were the dark early days of the Great Recession and I was struggling to pay rent on an apartment in Los Angeles so as to avoid the indignity of telling my better-heeled roommates that I would have to move out and return to my childhood home a few miles away.

I was scrabbling around for work, any work, while also trying to carve out a path as a freelance journalist. The work came, just never enough of it. I wrote book reviews, the occasional reported story, crummy blog posts, and spent too much time laboring for what could generously be called content farms. In more than one tucked-away corner of the Internet are words I wrote to which I’d never attach my name, and there are a couple more places from which I’d like to take my name back.

In between, I applied for hundreds of jobs and only managed to get a few interviews. A buzzy new media startup brought me into their glass-and-steel Hollywood offices, only to tell me a few weeks later that they decided not to fill the position — a type of rejection that would be depressing if it weren’t mysterious.

The family foundation created by an ex-con financier didn’t understand why someone who had written for big newspapers would want a communications job at a non-profit. I could have talked about the disrupting influence of the Internet, or the stupidly naïve idea of wanting to be a book critic in this century, or the waning box-office bankability of Will Smith — wasn’t that a concern? I could have pointed outside and asked if she had seen how bad it was out there, if she had seen the man panhandling at the nearby freeway offramp, where he stood and asked me if I understood this housing bubble thing. He hadn’t, he said, and he made it clear that he still didn’t, but he had a home and now he didn’t. He was waiting for someone to come by and explain the series of events that led him to being on this corner, because he clearly, profoundly did not. There were thousands like him and with luck they would march on this office and demand what they deserved.

But I only told the foundation official that I needed a steady job, which is the most boring kind of truth.

There was the Craigslist ad looking for delivery drivers for a grocery store opening in a luxe housing development called Playa Vista. The hangar where the Spruce Goose was built loomed on a nearby hill, and the development itself, with its too-clean streets and crooked-numbered speed limit, lacked all ambition in comparison. It looked like it had just been assembled from some sort of mail-order kit. (Years later, I would find its doppelgänger in Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon’s doped-up sunshine noir about a crooked Southern California real estate developer.) I sat at a picnic table outside the store and readied myself to be interviewed by a young woman armed with a clipboard, the blue-collar supervisor’s sidearm. She asked me if I had a passion for the grocery industry, and I knew that I would give the simple, expected answer and not hear from her again.

Finally, a friend — one of those hustlers who seemed to work quite hard but without visible sweat and had his ear attuned toward all manner of rumor, connection, and opportunity — told me about an opening at a company he did some work for. It was all through the Internet, he said. I didn’t have to go into an office or even to meet anyone. In return, I’d earn a weekly stipend that would allow me to make rent, if nothing more. Amortized out to about $18 an hour, the pay was far better than what I was used to.

A few emails and a couple of polite phone calls later, I had the job. But what was the job? I wasn’t even sure. The company was based out of San Francisco, locus of all things technological. It also had an office in China. It operated TV screens in coffee shops, restaurants, grocery stores, elevators, places in which people might be idle, captive audiences, which presented event listings, advertising, and summaries of the day’s news. The company controlled thousands of these glowing rectangles in a half-dozen or so large cities around the United States. I soon learned that they were part of what I was told was an emerging industry: Digital Out of Home, the sort of newfangled tech/media concern that has its own acronym (DOOH), boosters, trade magazines, and small conferences filled with fervent believers speaking a bit too rapidly as they hand you their embossed business cards.

My job was to be the LA city editor. Each weekday morning, I had to wake up and cobble together tweet-length summaries of the day’s big local and national stories. I also had to maintain a rotating queue of upcoming events, which I used whenever possible to plug my friends’ bands. I had regular shifts during which I had to keep an eye on an automated feed of national news and, with a couple of clicks, move stories that had passed some arbitrary threshold of significance into yet another feed, which pulsed out to all of the company’s screens nationwide. Finally, I was occasionally required to add messages from our partners. Every few weeks, the other city editors and I would join a conference call with our supervisors, who after thirty-plus minutes of updates, reports, and mild blandishments, would release us on our own recognizance. That was about it.

The job, then, was easy and decently remunerative and didn’t ask much of me. I could do it from my queen-sized office (purchased from a mattress salesman teleported here from the fifties, complete with combover and early-stage emphysema). I didn’t have to be passionate about an industry I knew nothing about, in part because I had no hope of ever advancing in it, though I was never quite sure if DOOH was the insurgent, disruptive field its investors needed it to be, or if, like specialty grocery stores and a thousand other lumbering incumbents, it was fated to be unseated by something cheaper and more slickly technological. This ambiguity, which became my generalized and familiar professional microclimate, was reinforced by my isolation: for those nine months, I didn’t meet a single person who worked for the company, my friend who referred me being the sole exception. I lingered in front of my screen, updating text on other screens.

That’s what made the job more than a little weird. Working remotely isn’t unusual in this age of outsourced call centers, Bitcoin miners, and other stay-at-home digital laborers. But something about the job left me uneasy. Maybe I felt some sense of guilt about producing fatuous content that did little more than give people something to look at as they waited to pay for sandwiches. But I also had gotten used to doing desultory jobs. More than that, it was an aura of inexplicability that surrounded the work. I controlled hundreds of screens seen by thousands of people every day; it wasn’t like I was programming the schedule at NBC, yet I was potentially reaching a lot of people. But towards what end? What possible meaning or utility did it have? Was not its mere existence, like so many contemporary capitalist concerns, an exercise in shared delusion mostly designed to serve a few distant shareholders, with the few necessary workers pulling on the lever to receive their chits at designated intervals?

And what about the conference calls; the emails of rote encouragement from my disembodied supervisors; the allusions to Chinese programmers and new technologies being developed in Beijing; the occasional mass mailing from a company executive touting growing opportunities in the “DOOH space”; the half-baked company origin story that had some intellectual grounding, so far as I could tell, in Greek myth — what did it add up to? Millions of dollars were being spent, or wasted, on telling bored office workers and diner patrons about the day’s events. Surrounding it all was the excitement of technological progress and the certitude that, when it’s possible to put a screen somewhere, well, you damn well better do it.

For the first time, I had the feeling of being a very small cog in a larger, if not very formidable, machine. My friends began to tell me when they stumbled upon one of “my” screens in a bakery or food court. The elevator in my mother’s office building had one, something less than an interface between us, but at least a marker. I began to notice the screens everywhere, not only my employer’s but competitors’ too, and I had an odd feeling of being followed, of somehow following myself, when a screen suddenly appeared in the coffee shop next to my gym or in a nearby mall.

After a software update gave us editors the ability to alter the content on individual screens, rather than the citywide network, I flirted with creating personalized messages for my friends or for my mother on her morning elevator ride. I could creep out strangers, maybe re-enact one of those terrible blockbusters of technological paranoia. Too cowardly to act on these small rebellions, even as a cure for boredom, I did nothing but continue to dutifully click.

As I continued to do my non-work for my non-boss in my non-office, as small but essential three-figure payments appeared, almost by magic, in my bank account each week, I wondered if maybe the screens were beside the point. Perhaps I was part of some bizarre money-laundering operation. Perhaps the job was so pointless and its product so ephemeral — yet clearly so rooted in something physical, colonizing a space in front of captive consumers’ eyes — because it was a cover for something else. I developed a baroque, Pynchonian fantasy that my screens and the feeds I managed were aiding some transcontinental conspiracy, shuttling cash from low-grade venture capitalists in San Francisco to Beijing.

But soon the fantasy was mugged by reality. Our company merged with another DOOH firm, and a new name and CEO were introduced. Our website and, I was told, the San Francisco office got a makeover, an asylum grey-and-blue color scheme dictated by the new chief. One of my supervisors was laid off: a quick email goodbye and then, poof, she disappeared into the ether. On the day after my birthday, I received a call from my other supervisor who informed me that the company was, as the good book says, “going in a different direction.” All of the city editors were being laid off. She promised to endorse me on LinkedIn.

Within a few days, my company email and CMS accounts had been disabled, and the weekly payments ended. By then I was well into a period of bewilderment and even a kind of loss that felt so unearned and ill-defined that it left me feeling embarrassed. But then: it had been mine, and I needed the money.

When my lease ran out, unable to afford my apartment, I moved back home with my parents, another one of the gestures that became so widespread and widely analyzed in those years that it acquired the air of ritual. (“Actually, did you know that many Italians live with their mothers until …” etc, etc.)

I couldn’t help but continue to notice the screens around town. Each one was a reminder of those many hours spent doing — what? I couldn’t quite say, but it was hard not to feel disappointed, at time and opportunity having slipped by unnoticed. Even after I moved to New York in 2011, I still occasionally saw the TV screens around my new city. The bagel shop near my Brooklyn apartment had one, the company’s label hanging by a few filaments of glue. I had been replaced by a computer, as the prophets of economic doom say we all will be. My successor was an automated feed, an algorithm that served up snippets of popular stories from the New York Times, the company’s new partner. And though I knew there was no human on the other end, I still stared and wondered if in them was a message for some past version of me.

Jacob Silverman’s book, Terms of Service: Social Media, Surveillance, and the Price of Constant Connection, will be published in March by HarperCollins.

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