About two weeks ago, a strange little book called Iterating Grace appeared at my house. It was a remarkable story lampooning the technology world, impeccably put together with hand-drawn tweets by venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. And it was anonymous. And not the kind of anonymous where it takes five minutes of Googling to discover the author(s). No, this person or persons absolutely did not want to be found.
I took this as a challenge, of course, and I've been trying to track the author down, like any journalist would. Some people thought the project was dark-arts marketing by a Google or Microsoft. Others were sure that it was to generate buzz around a metafictional novel by Joshua Cohen. Accusations were lobbed—by myself and others—at a whole bevy of writers, from Dave Eggers to Caroline Paul to Po Bronson to Mat Honan to Robin Sloan to Paul Ford to Bay Area legend Curtis Schreier to an artist and Pinterest designer named Brian Singer.
But no one would fess up. And there was no smoking gun or otherwise obvious entry point into what seemed sure to be some kind of alternate-reality game.
There was, however, an email address on the back of the book. Some of the books had been sent out under my name — leading some recipients to falsely think I was the author — so I figured that I was practically supposed to email that address and then the rest of the game would reveal itself. I mean, the author had to have a plan, right? Right?!
My initial emails were met with rather dull responses. I sent over a photo of the muted-post horn, the sign of the Tristero in Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, as a sign that I was ready to engage in whatever strangeness the author was up to. "Glad you like it! Please share with your network!" came the chirpy reply.
Before I published the whole work, I sent a missive that went unanswered. After I did so, I requested to meet. "So, what's the chance we could meet up somewhere? Parking garage? Under an overpass? In a bar?" I begged. "The people have been made aware of the mystery. They are going to want some closure!"
Again, there was no play in the reply. "We love your wonderful writing about Iterating Grace and we enjoy parking garages, too," they wrote. "But sadly we cannot meet. It would be great fun. We cannot."
By the rules of postmodern literary analysis, I should not care about the author. A work can be detached from its creator. I get that. But keep in mind: the person who wrote this book is either a friend of mine or someone who has kept an incredibly close watch on both a bunch of my friends and the broader startup scene. Books were sent to our homes. Our names were used to aid the distribution of the text. So, fine, who cares about the author—but I wanted to know about the publisher.
So I searched and waited, searched and waited, searched and waited. Anouk Lang, a Lecturer in Digital Humanities at the University of Edinburgh, even ran some suspects through software that compared the linguistic features of various writers to Iterating Grace. But there were no obvious hits. The text, as we'd received it, didn't closely match with any of the texts that Lang tried. Eggers was out. Honan was out. Ford and Bronson and Sloan, too.
Pando Daily's Dan Raile has a beautiful theory. In a spreadsheet that I made, an anonymous person dropped in a hint that I should look at the journals at the Farley's coffee shop in San Francisco's Potrero Hill neighborhood. When I arrived to check them out last Thursday, Raile was, as he said, "two steps ahead of you." Indeed he was, he published his story and theory later that day.
That Farley's has a collection of collective diaries stretching back 15 years. They keep them on a bookshelf by the door, where they mostly gather dust. The baristas are dimly aware of their existence, but seem to find them a little embarrassing, like an atavistic bad habit of a new beau.
Raile had found some lettering in the journals that looked suspiciously similar to the Iterating Grace hand. Working from a symbol that often accompanied these entries, he tracked down who'd written them: "His name is Curtis Schreier, but he also goes by the nom de guerre the Architect of Desire."
Schreier was part of Ant Farm, a countercultural group of architects, artists, and videomakers that has long obsessed me. "I am 65 percent not kidding when I say that the social-media ecosystem is basically the Ant Farm plus the Internet," was how I put it in an essay.
Iterating Grace reminded me of their best work (aside from the Dolphin Embassy): a media-clowning stunt that relied on the media as a distribution mechanism. They called it Media Burn. Just check out the setup:
On July 4, 1975, the members of San Francisco's Ant Farm architecture and video collective staged what they called the "ultimate media event." After a bit of performance-art frivolity in which a John F. Kennedy impersonator gave a mock speech deriding the media — "Who can deny that we are a nation addicted to television and the constant flow of media? Haven't you ever wanted to put your foot through your television?" — the group took a heavily modded Cadillac and crashed it through a thin pyramid of television sets.
But it's what happened next that was the best: the stunt had drawn TV crews from across the area, who all seized on the gorgeous, unbelievable visuals and broadcast them on the nightly news.
So, yeah, this had some Ant Farmy features.
But there are some things that don't add up. I have come to find out that a couple of the home addresses to which the book was sent are known only to a small handful of people, none of whom are remotely connected to Schreier. Maybe he had an accomplice? Or perhaps a fellow admirer had merely taken up the mantle. I've been unable to track down Schreier.
Though I'll keep trying to contact Schreier, I doubt we will have any satisfying resolution to the mystery. That's because I received an email last week that confirmed what I'd simultaneously feared and hoped.
This really is going to go down as an anonymous, glorious little experiment. Iterating Grace will join the ranks of other great unresolved mysteries of the technology world, such as the identity of Satoshi Nakamoto, the creator of Bitcoin. (OK, maybe it's not quite that big.)
The author(s)—using the first-person plural—emailed me to "say goodbye." And provide an answer to one important question.
A clarification, which we feel you’re due: We are not a brand. Brands are fine; we're just not one. And this wasn’t marketing, except for the marketing of a single human story. Nothing is ever launching.
We understand your curiosity about our identity but feel it’s not the point. Please, don't worry about it. The point was just the book - the joy that went into it and whatever came out of it.
And now, enough has come out of it. Surely we’ve taken up enough of everyone’s time. In the end, time is all we've got. We all lie down for the llamas eventually.
You see, the lead character in Iterating Grace, commits suicide by smearing cat food all over his body and laying down to be trampled by a relative of the llama, the vicuña. (I told you it was a good story.)
So, naturally, I wrote back to say, "They were vicuñas!"
And I received, promptly, what I take to be the final note from whoever wrote this little thing.
EXPERIENCE + CURIOSITY = POWERFUL
EXPERIENCE - CURIOSITY = LIABILITY
THE WORLD IS DYNAMIC
That's an all-caps version of this tweet by venture capitalist Bill Gurley. And with that, I think I have to reluctantly file this as a cold case. Maybe one day, perhaps at Shotwells, a stranger will approach and admit authorship, before melting away into a crowd of Giants fans.
But for now, all we have is the mystery.