Reading Notes: Sourdough

Aug 2020

“Culture,” he said. “The word meant this—making cheese—before it meant that—art and opera. And before it meant anything, it just meant working the land. That’s a better definition. That’s who we are. Not our music, our books. Psh, books. They’re all dead. We’re alive. We eat, we grow. But, but but but, here’s the thing! We’re amateurs.”
Robin Sloan

I loved Robin Sloan’s Sourdough. (What can I say, I’m a standard-issue pandemic nerd.) It’s light, fun, and occasionally funny, but still asks hard questions: can technology further our culture, or only erase it? Can culture be shared, or only appropriated?

That’s high-minded stuff, but so many of the book’s small details spoke to me. Sloan nails programming in San Francisco: the constant exhortations to work harder and change the world, the disconnect between high-flying fundraising decks and the kludgy heuristics that actually run the machines, and the sense of wonder that a coding breakthrough brings. It’s easy to see myself in Lois, the book’s protagonist.

One hint at a time, Sloan also builds a hauntingly beautiful picture of the Mazg, the fictional community of stateless European migrants who nurtured Lois’s sourdough culture through centuries of wandering. I regret not listening to the audiobook version of Sourdough—it includes computer-generated Mazg music! Some samples are included in this blog post, which is also the best non-technical description of machine learning I’ve found.

I love San Francisco, and programming, and cooking, and I worry that nerds like me have destroyed our city (and possibly our country). I’m also the cofounder of a young startup, hoping to make some small change in our culture. I left Sourdough struck by this quote from the mysterious backer of the Marrow Fair:

“It is no small thing to change a culture,” Horace said simply. “But I think interesting things are growing here. Lucrative enterprises. Provocative tastes.”