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?
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.
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?
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?
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.