The Startup Wife, which calls attention to the gender imbalance and sexism in the tech world, is another one of the recently published novels with a plausible plot.
Asha Ray, daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants, is pursuing her PhD at Columbia when she reconnects with Cyrus Jones, her high school crush, and marries him after dating him briefly. Cyrus was a brilliant boy in school, turning over the most impressive assignments for his AP finals (a story without using the letter E for Lit, a 3D diorama of the battle of Algiers for European history — you get the picture) before he stopped attending school. Now, Cyrus is creating personalized rituals for the non-religious based on their preferences. With Asha already doing research that aims to teach empathy to artificial intelligence systems, the couple decide to combine their expertise and build a social media platform, named WAI (We Are Infinite), that would provide a community to secular people depending on their interests. Asha quits grad school and becomes WAI’s programmer, Cyrus, its brains, and his best friend, Jules, its bank-roller. Even though the trio starts out the venture as equal partners, it soon becomes clear that Asha is pulling the most weight being the only one with the technical know-how to execute Cyrus’s ideas. But the moment they try to find investors to take their platform to the masses, Asha finds herself faded into the background. Being a woman trying to find her footing in a male-dominated industry, Asha realizes the only way to get the business up and running is to make Cyrus, a white man, WAI’s face. Asha doesn’t mind this at first. She even chafes at a lawyer who warns them marriage and business might not go well together and advises them on getting a post-prenup. However, when WAI becomes a hit and Cyrus becomes synonymous with WAI, she finds herself increasingly sidelined within the company she co-founded…
The Startup Wife was infuriating to read mostly because the state of women in tech rang true to me. Among those who work in the industry, roughly around a quarter are women, while the fraction of women holding leadership positions hovers around 5%. Because of these biases, it wasn’t surprising to me when investors looked to Cryus and Jules for answers on technical issues, even when they very well knew coding was all done by Asha! Also, I was disappointed by Asha’s naivety and her refusal to protect herself in this joint business venture. Whenever there were disagreements about WAI, Jules took Cryus’s side, leaving Asha to cave in because Cryus was never the one to budge. So bit by bit Asha was losing control over the business for the sake of maintaining peace in her marriage. 😬
The intersection of big data and artificial intelligence, and the future directions their combination would take us is a compelling aspect of The Startup Wife. As WAI expands, it merges with another app called AfterLight. In the event of your death, AfterLight will scour through your social media accounts and keep communicating with your contacts mimicking you. Although these sort of “resurrection” apps are already in the works, like me, Asha wasn’t sold on the ethical aspect of putting off grief and making people live in a false reality. But AfterLight’s developer, whose mother had died when he was young, made the argument that this might help people get closure, especially if the death of their loved one was sudden. Ultimately The Startup Wife ends with Asha’s biggest fears about AfterLight coming true – its bot sends a message to a grieving widower that makes him take his own life to reunite with his deceased wife. WAI shuts down AfterLight with that, but in reality, with a lot of expansion happening in the digital afterlife services space, this book provides food for thought.
Note: Many thanks to Scribner for sending me a review copy of The Startup Wife.