Artist Interview: 
Nicholas O'Brien
Lindsay Howard:

When did you first start paying attention to Silicon Valley-speak, and what is
it about salesforce.com that particularly interests you?

Nicholas O'Brien:

I first started actively paying attention to the rhetoric of Silicon Valley after I
realized I was using it in everyday conversations without realizing it. In other
words, I started paying attention after it was too late to do anything about it
being everywhere around me. Maybe in a more nuanced way I’ve been
thinking about that strand of language since I started seeing some of the
best minds of my generation started working for startups. So, maybe five or
six years? It’s hard to tell, since some of that type of language seems so
naturally integrated into my surroundings.

Salesforce.com is particularly interesting because their version of Silicon
Valley language is of a particular variety (or inflection). Its repetition and
limited vocabulary are so deliberate that they standout in my opinion against
others that just use the common jargon from that world. Maybe that’s a “
success” of their marketing, but in mind it’s more just an quickened
eventuality of the language that comes from Silicon Valley. The vocabulary
isn’t just coming from technology, however. It’s really coming from the
business models that these companies employ: Venture Capital, High
Growth/High Risk, angel investment, incubation, etc. As a result, the
language is a unique blend between excitement and exactitude.

Howard:

You’ve referred to In the Hollow of the Valley as a “point and click
misadventure,” implying that the storyline is not rewarding or goal-oriented.
The model references a choose-your-own adventure, but comes across as
more depressing or sad. Does this reflect your pessimism about Silicon
Valley, or is it more personal?

O'Brien:

The lack of goal or traditional reward structure is a way of creating an
interactive environment that’s based more on storytelling than high scores.
In some ways, the choose-your-own adventure and point-and-click
adventure style games were the most enjoyable for me growing up because
they rewarded players by thoroughly exploring the space on a screen.
Easter Eggs and hidden gems were often given to players with the most
amount of imagination. In the Hollow of the Valley doesn’t have a reward,
per say. Thus my calling it a misadventure.

To answer your question, it’s a bit of both. The personal parts come from my
own affinity and enjoyment of point-and-click games as a kid, but the
pessimism is also there. That being said, I’m not outright against what
salesforce.com is hoping to accomplish or even their business model. I’m
more skeptical of the way salesforce.com makes Marc Benioff appear as a
hero. I felt that the mythologizing of the start of salesforce.com needed to be
questioned and scrutinized. I wanted to slow down the speed at which we
accept that narrative and to interrupt the seemingly natural flow of the
language that pours out of salesforce.com
April 9, 2015
Lindsay Howard talks with artist Nicholas O'Brien about his NewHive
commission In the Hollow of the Valley, a browser-based, interactive
work that retells the origin story of salesforce.com as a point-and-
click misadventure.
Images courtesy of Nicholas O'Brien. CRM stock image from www.salesforce.com.



Howard:

How much of the text and storyline are true to salesforce.com’s history? Which areas did you
choose to embellish or write from scratch, and why?

O'Brien:

There are constant slippages between fact and fiction within the piece. One block of text can
drift back and forth between documented accounts of events happening in and around San
Francisco in 1999 and something I’ve fabricated or embellished. To dissect each instance
would maybe be besides the point, but for anyone interested in specific instances, I’d be
happy to discuss that further.

I will say though, that the general portrait of Marc Benioff is not far from the truth. I adapted (
and am inspired by) a lot of methodologies found in historical novels and films. Right now I’m
reading David Peace’s GB84 which takes real historical information from the miner strike of
1984 in the UK. Though historical figures like Margaret Thatcher appear in the novel, the
specifics of the narrative hinge on fictional characters. In that way, I treat the mythology of
salesforce.com as a fictional starting point and build outwards from there. Did Marc Benioff’s
wife Lynne actually give him fresh plants from their garden? I don’t know. Did salesforce.com
say “There is no software on the path to enlightenment”? Absolutely.

Howard:

In the Hollow of the Valley pulls inspiration from four main sources: the narrative structure of
Alain Robbe-Grillet’s short novella Jealousy, the visual look of early computer software
Hypercard, the interactive elements of “Escape the Room” genre games, and the language
used by salesforce.com. If you had to identify a core emotion at the center of these
references, what would it be?

O'Brien:

Remoteness.

Howard:

I laughed when I read your description of the fictional room where Benioff starts
salesforce.com as the place where “the cryptic language of salesforce is born and the poetic
language of significant meaning has died,” because it brought to mind the cliché of origin
stories – those contrived narratives designed to lend credibility and make a company seem
more human. How does the gradual degradation of the room over time contribute to the
narrative? What are you suggesting about time and innovation?

O'Brien:

I laugh too, since I can be a bit heavy handed. I also laugh because when I try to read some
of the language from salesforce.com out loud I feel like I’m reading another language. I
suppose this feeling also happens to people that work in the tech sector trying to read
Foucault (or anyone trying to read him for that matter). That being said, the underlying
severity of my initial introduction is a reflection on the effect of the terminology used by
salesforce.com. In some way, that sense of foreignness is particularly affecting because it
uses terms that I would otherwise be quite familiar with. “Customer” "Relationship" and
“Management” all make sense independently, but when used in the context of Software as a
Service they take on very different meanings. In some ways, In the Hollow of the Valley is a
way of trying to understand this language, a way of putting it under a microscope in order to
reveal its meaning from the outside.

The degradation is an attempt to plot a creative trajectory for a particular vernacular that is
attempting to rewrite language. I think of language as a network - in a semiotic way - and
words acquire meaning through negative associations. In other words, we start to understand
things by what they are not, more than by what they are. The degradation is a way of
crystalizing the language of salesforce.com into some form where it is uniquely its own
genre. In doing so, it becomes something that other forms of communication are not. That
form might be alienating and vacuous, but it might also be poetic.

Attempting to create a poetic voice within that reductive language is in some ways a
reflection on the idea of innovation and how that term has taken on new meaning as of late. I
find it hard to compare the innovation of Tesla’s alternating current to SEO and CRM. In my
mind, the innovation of this generation is further consolidating money, access, and power
across many different platforms and technologies. To me, this is not what innovation should
do, and in times past innovation has sought (and achieved) a broader public benefit. Maybe
it’s too hard to tell at this current moment where the innovation of Software as a Service will
end up, but I imagine its lasting impact will be on everyday language.



"The language [of Silicon Valley] is a unique
blend between excitement and exactitude."
"In some ways, In the Hollow of the Valley is a
way of trying to understand this language, of
putting it under a microscope in order to
reveal its meaning from the outside."