Here's a little night-time journey through Genentech's Vacaville manufacturing site, through the eyes of someone who has no idea of what he's seeing. The problem is, he doesn't know that - he and his friend think that they have it all figured out:
"On the one hand this place makes drugs that save people's lives -- treatments for cancers and cystic fibrosis and asthma," she told me. "Heading out," I told her, as the construction worker walked across the campus towards the gate.
"And yet, on the other hand, this place is pure evil." We walked past large vats labeled "Poison" and huge machines that looked like they could crush us. Smoke belched from the top of the building and we could see more buildings and a parking lot in the distance.
"Companies like this are made up of dozens of people, each of whom, individually, are the sweetest guys. Nice, friendly people who just care about doing well at their work." As we approached the buildings, we saw that even now -- 2AM -- the place was alive. New cars were pulling into the lot and men and women were walking from building to building. The yellowed light on their white lab coats gave the whole thing a sinister air.
"And yet, together, they manage to pull off the most incomprehensible evils. . ."
Well, incomprehensible to Aaron Swartz and his friend, anyway. The essay is written as a feeble imitation of Hunter Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"
Swartz presents himself through the whole piece as a passive, puzzled observer. It all just seems too much for him - equipment he doesn't recognize, people doing things he doesn't understand for reasons that he can't quite work out. The Genentech scientist in the piece comes across as a much more human figure, although there's some attempt to make him a figure of fun. Which reminds me - if anyone out there works at the Vacaville site, or knows someone who does, I'd be interested in hearing from anyone who witnessed this tiny adventure from another perspective).
Aaron Swartz, by the way, was one of the early people behind the social media site Reddit, which is intermittently interesting. These days, though, it's more often a swamp of delusional conspiracy groupthink. If it were your only news source, you'd likely be convinced that (among many other unusual things) storm troopers were sweeping the streets, rounding up supporters of Ron Paul. Or, perhaps, that Genentech was run by creatures out of H. P. Lovecraft.