Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

Fear and Loathing in Biotechnology Firms

I was sitting with my journalist and reading Fear and Loathing when I noticed that things weren’t seeming the way I’d become accustomed to them seeming. For one thing, my journalist’s nose seemed a fair sight bigger than one would expect a nose to be, even accounting for taste, while her eyes seemed to be moving back and forth in her head as if they weren’t quite sure whether they preferred it in or out.

Still, I shouldn’t criticize. I suspect I didn’t look my usual self either, what with my head making those small wobbly notions on my neck and my leg vibrating back and forth as if it were thinking very hard about something. Why it was forced to work as my leg, supporting me all the time while i gave it no consideration in return, perhaps.

As I finished the book I slammed it down on the desk, causing a couple other books to fall off the side. “We must rent a very fast car,” I demanded, before scrunching up my face in an inevitably doomed attempt to get a look at myself. I didn’t normally sound like this.

My journalist agreed, so we popped some pills and picked up a BMW. It was a little past midnight at the time, so you could hardly notice the car’s nasty habit of accelerating right up to the edge of other cars, stopping hard a couple inches before it hit them.

“We must find a heart of darkness,” said my journalist. I just looked at her. She continued mumbling about a heart of darkness while stepping on the accelerator. I decided to look away. She continued to make friends with the accelerator. “I’ve got it—” she shouted, wrenching the car around, “Vacaville!”

My journalist assured me that Vacaville was a small city outside San Francisco filled with giant vats of transgenic mutant corn that cured cancer. I wasn’t quite sure what any of that really was, let alone which part of that was a heart of darkness. My fears were not allayed when we pulled off the freeway under a giant light-up sign that said “Authentic Historic Vacaville”, only to see a couple 7-11s and a CostCo. We got back on the freeway.

The next time we got off the freeway, there were a dozen industrial buildings with sinister yellow lighting belching vast plumes of smoke into the air. We ditched the car behind a tree, dropped our wallets and identification in it, and, arm-in-arm, begun strolling through a place which had even less claim to the title of Authentic Historic Vacaville.

In 2006, the leading biotechnology firm Genentech was named the number one “Best Company To Work For” by Fortune Magazine. I suppose this incredible allure could explain why the company’s campus was surrounded by barbed wire. It did not, however, explain why the barbed wire was facing in.

There are a couple of ways to get into the Genentech campus. You can climb the barbed wire fence. You can swipe an ID badge and go through the imposing metal turnstiles. You can drive past the guard at the main gate and show some kind of ID. Or you can find the side gate that they forgot to lock and open it. My journalist didn’t want to scratch her pants, so we used the side gate.

And that was how we found ourselves strolling in the moonlight around the factories of a leading biotechnology firm.

“This place is incredible,” my journalist said, as we approached it. “Construction worker,” I said, as I spotted a man walking through the corridors of the empty new building. We continued walking around it.

“I’m always morally torn by major biotech companies,” she explained. “Smoke break,” I said, as the construction worker stepped outside the building and paused.

“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.” I was about to join her discussion of organizational sociology when I heard a go-kart pull up behind us.

“Excuse me,” said the man in the go-kart. “Do you folks work here?”

I was about to come up with some explanation but my journalist dodged in front of me and saved me the trouble.

“No, sir,” she said, with complete sincerity.

“Do you have visitors’ badges?” asked the man, sounding a bit puzzled.

“Definitely not,” she said.

“Are you supposed to be here?”

“No way. Actually, we were just going for a stroll when we found ourselves in this bizarre place. We were wondering if you could tell us how to get out.”

The man in the go-kart thought about this for a while before getting out of the kart and walking towards us. As he stepped into the light I could see he was wearing a bright orange vest.

“Huh, well the fastest way to get out of the facility from here is probably to walk through the entire campus,” he explained.

“Oh, I see,” said the journalist. “Well, could you escort us off the premises then?” she asked. I restrained myself from kicking her.

The man in the vest looked back at the go-kart, where his partner was sitting. “Nah, my there’s no more room in the kart,” he said.

“Oh, well then maybe you could take us to security?” she said. I dug a small hole in the ground, placed my foot into it, then used the other foot to fill it back up with dirt in a vain attempt to stop myself from kicking her.

“I’m actually not allowed to take you guys to Genentech security,” he said. “See, I’m over with construction. One of my men came by and told me that he saw to people walking around the premises, so I just came to check it out.” He thought about this for a while. “Let me see if I can find you someone,” he said.

And that is how we got a burly man in a bright orange vest to escort us onto the Genetech campus, a series of industrial buildings facing a shared quadrangle of matted grass, with some concrete sidewalks laid across it. The whole thing looked a bit like a college campus, I suppose, if the college’s buildings had been designed to look like some kind of sci-fi bubble city. Through the windows one could spy huge machines with many levers dials and large vats that stuff was being oozed into and out of.

People entered and exited the buildings in a hurried manner, and one scientist, a frazzled-looking man with a redhead’s beard and an orange t-shirt reading “got juice?”, crossed the path in front of us.

“Excuse me,” said the man in the vest, his manly striding posture suddenly becoming bowed and deferential before the frazzled scientist. “I found these people who got lost wandering around the campus,” he explained, as if it was a question. “Do you think you could try to get them home?”

“Oh, sure!” said the scientist, genial and alive as a carnival barker, as if he made a habit of wandering around the Genentech campus at 2 in the morning looking for people to take back to their cars.

“Thanks so much,” said the man in the vest, before scurrying back to his go-kart.

The scientist reached for a walkie-talkie from his back pocket. “Security, are you there? Security?” he said and paused. The radio crackled. “This is security,” it finally replied. “Where are you?” he asked. There was a pause. Then a crackle. “What?”

“Are you in your office?” Pause, crackle. “Um, yeah.”

“OK, be there in a bit.”

And that was how a Genentech scientist badged us into the facility and begun taking us through its corridors.

“So what do you do here?” I asked, as if making conversation.

“Oh, we, um, make drugs to treat breast cancer,” he explained.

“Yeah, right,” my journalist whispered in my ear. “Awful big facility just for treating breast cancer.”

“What do you do?” I asked. “Oh, I’m a scientist here.”

“Oh, really? A scientist? Heh, I always imagined scientists wandering around in big white labcoats carrying beakers,” I joked. “Oh, we do,” he said with utter sincerity. “Actually, I just took my lab coat off — if you guys had been here a couple minutes earlier I would have been wearing it.”

We wandered past hallways labeled with Genentech propaganda and stopped right before the company cafeteria, ducking into a door to find the desk for security.

“Hey there!” said the scientist. “Hi,” said the bored-looking African-American woman behind the desk.

“Um, these two folks got a bit lost wandering around the neighborhood and I was wondering you could help get them out of here.”

The security woman’s eyes widened. “What?” she shouted. “You brought random strangers in here? They can’t be in here! You can’t just bring people in here!”

“Well, I just figured I ought to take them to security and you guys could help them out.”

“Help them out? Help them out? I’m not allowed to leave this desk,” she cried. “Oh, they can’t be in here. You gotta get rid of these guys.”

“Oh, okay,” said the scientist, completely unfazed. “Well, I’ll walk them back to their car.”

“Yeah, whatever,” she said dismissively. “You just do what you gotta do, ‘cause they can’t be in here.”

And that was how a Genentech scientist took us through the building, past offices, through the loading dock, out the back past more industrial equipment, a running commentary all the way.

“How’d you guys get in here?” asked the guard at the gate as we walked past him. He’d obviously heard about us. “Oh,” my journalist said, “it was open. We just walked in.” The guard just laughed and waved.

The scientist asked where we were from, just in the spirit of making conversation. My journalist explained that we were from San Francisco and we’d decided it was a nice night for a casual stroll, so we had been walking around Vacaville. The scientist nodded approvingly, as if he always ran into cityfolk who came out for a stroll around Vacaville’s office parks at 2 in the morning.

Soon we’d located our car and said our goodbyes. The scientist waved goodbye at us and we tried to stifle our giggles until we got back to the car.

At moments like these, which seem to stand outside of space and time — middle of nowhere, middle of the night — one thing remains constant: Denny’s. Always open, with decor that hasn’t changed since its founding in the 1960s, a diner like Denny’s is a perfect place to go to make sense of it all. But none of it makes any sense at all; there is nothing to do but lay your head down on the table and puzzle at a world that is more strange than you can possibly imagine.

You should follow me on twitter here.

July 10, 2007


Hahaha, wonderful :)

posted by Winsmith on July 10, 2007 #

If Denny’s cooks were as good as their photographers nobody would eat anywhere else.


posted by William Loughborough on July 10, 2007 #

Loved it! Looking forward to more writings like these… Keep exploring!

posted by MT on July 10, 2007 #

Why are biotech firms evil?

posted by Nelson Madiba on July 10, 2007 #

I’ve read Hunter S. Thompson. You, sir, are no Hunter S. Thompson.

posted by ged on July 10, 2007 #

ged: give aaron a break. it was our first or second field trip. to be fair, he does continue hst’s tradition of playing the whole thing down a bit.

posted by quinn on July 10, 2007 #

sheesh. some people have no sense of humor.

posted by ged on July 10, 2007 #

found via reddit. great read, keep it up.

posted by foo on July 11, 2007 #

I’m not a large african american woman, and there was no desk. Your “facts” are incorrect, and you looked very very scared that night, my friend.

posted by I WAS THERE THAT NIGHT on July 15, 2007 #

Great reading here, BTW I found this site from wikipedia.  &nbsp Games

posted by Yagle on July 24, 2007 #

Ignorance, trying to be edgy.

posted by feh on August 1, 2007 #

You were never there… this is a weak hallucination… or a retroviral overdose

posted by malcolm on August 1, 2007 #

This tries to be funny, but I found it difficult to laugh. Between the lines I saw an ugly ooze of prejudice that turned my stomach. But don’t worry folks, it’s ok. It’s hip prejudice—prejudice against pharmaceutical companies. It used to be equally hip to be prejudiced against gays and african-americans.

Ok, there is one funny part—clearly the author has no concept of what Genentech is. It’s actually one of the last pharma companies you would characterize negatively. The people there go to work every day, thrilled to be saving lives and improving the world. Sure, let’s criticize that.

posted by Eric on August 1, 2007 #

I am convinced such paranoia and bigotry must be the result of an education system that is successful only in developing and nurturing inflated-self-worth and willful ignorance.

This author could be the poster child for the 49th percentile.

posted by Ramrod on August 6, 2007 #

I must say the comments are excruciatingly funny. They remind me of someone I encountered at the “Constructing Scientific Ignorance” talk by Robert Probst. As I hurried in late, an expensively dressed, blow-dried couple was leaving. I asked if I was in the right place. The man replied, “Yes, if you want to listen to people who want to DESTROY INDUSTRY!” (Emphasis mine)

“An ugly ooze of prejudice” indeed. Are these people your friends Aaron?

posted by Bob Calder on August 7, 2007 #

Wow wow wee. Why don’t you schedule a meeting with Genentech’s PR and ask to take a tour? Why don’t you interview the patients that survived from the cancers they beat using Genentech’s medications before you and your journalist make assumptions?

“And yet, together, they manage to pull off the most incomprehensible evils.”—really? The “incomprehensible evils” produced from the Vacaville site are the foosball players. I’m serious, they are wickedly good. There is one player from there that has this pull shot. It’s so good that he said he “…sold his soul to the devil” to acquire the shot. And there’s this other guy with a “sinister” bank shot. His 5 man bank shot can be classified as “… a huge machine(s) that looked like they could crush us”.
In the end, we can safely concur with Helen “Momma” Boucher, “…Foosball is the devil!”

posted by Choclate Rain Man on August 21, 2007 #

How can you say that biotech is evil without any explanation? You offer no proof, no evidence, nothing at all to back up your claim. Are they evil for making cancer curing drugs? Are they evil in the way they escorted you through the building? I don’t follow you at all. You simply say that biotech in evil, which is an unsubstatiated opinion. I can do what you do:

Milk is evil. Chair is evil. Lamp is evil. I love lamp.

posted by Perry Carter on August 21, 2007 #

I work at said biotech firm and you have a lot more “facts” that are outright lies. There are no vats that are labeled “poison”, there is no inward facing barbed wire…sure there is a fence and security, its a facility that costs half a billion dollars and corporate espionage has actually happened in this industry. Secondly you are extremely lucky you didn’t get arrested for trespassing on private property. Thirdly, check out Genentech’s philanthropic endeavors. Also note that we’re an extremely liberal company who emphasizes social and racial equality. We’re rated one of the best companies for working mothers, even offering onsite day care to employees needing such services. You’re shortsighted and illegal “adventure” is not only a lie but also moronic and childish at best.

posted by dumb dumb dumb on August 21, 2007 #

yes I work here too and I really suck at foosball. It’s the DEVIL!!!

posted by Darren C. from CCM on August 21, 2007 #

The things that is so doing my head in, lovely people from Genentech, is that you were all lovely. Aaron made a point of it, as well. Maybe you thought of it as sarcastic, but it wasn’t at all. Even the ones that really were annoyed were lovely, and the man who took time out to help us was amazing. Individually, I doubt there was anyone there that wouldn’t have ripped out their own beating heart to help someone in need. And you all were happy, well treated, etc. The heavenliness of it was part of what made it so intense and, to some degree, distressing.

Pharma companies like Genentech make drugs that have personally saved my life. That’s where my ambivalence comes from- for every me there are a bunch of people in the world that don’t get treated due to business decisions, logistics, etc. There’s a myriad of ways it comes about, and subtle critiques of why it happens, but I’m left with that human moment of knowing how it feels to be sick and without hope. The pharma angel descended on me. Maybe it’s the survivor’s guilt, maybe it’s the belief that we could collectively do better, but it leaves me heartsick.

So how does it happen? How do oil companies keep the world going and destroy the climate all at once? How do people as nice and generous as you add up to doing horrible as well as wonderful things? Why does it seem like sometime you can add more lovely people and end up with more terrible acts? And what, if anything, can we do about it? It’s like a mythical man month of morality.

So there was fear, we were scared out of our wits at times. And there was loathing, for, like you, ultimately being in the middle of this thing we don’t understand and can’t get out of. And like you, we’re basically good people that get misunderstood sometimes.

There are huge vats labeled poison. I believe it’s required by law on corrosives.

(The barbed wire facing in comment was actually a miscommunication. That was my high school in LA, not the Genentech campus.)

posted by The Journalist on August 21, 2007 #

One more thing, dagnamit.

Going to the nearest Denny’s at 2am, ordering a coffee, and laying your head on the table for 45 minutes isn’t how one celebrates a triumphant prank or ‘sticking it to the man’ or any such nonsense.

Denny’s coffee is the best drink for realizing late at night you are another blind man feeling an elephant. That night, we also came to understand that we weren’t just blind, we were tied to the elephant.

posted by The Journalist on August 22, 2007 #

Aaron Swartz is the devil. Damn the man who pops pills, goes for a fast ride and risks everyones life on the freeway for his own selfish adventure. Damn the man who lies for his own reportless ability. Aaron Swartz, “your a fake”.

posted by Jerk on August 22, 2007 #

Sure we make profits, we’re a company in a capitalist system. That’s how we survive. The expenses the public sees is from the raw material used to create the life altering drugs. You look at one component and see that it costs us over five hundred dollars and we must use fifteen of them every other day and then throw them away after one use and you wonder why we charge so much? Furthermore what is the price of human life? If we’re such an evil organization bent on milking the world, then why would anyone take our products? The reason is that they save lives. They stop cancer from growing and they work. If you really think we’re so evil and even have the audacity to compare us to oil companies who have nine billion dollars in profit each quarter for a product with inelastic demand, then honestly you don’t care about the people’s fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters that we have helped live longer lives. You honestly don’t care about the humans who live to breath another day, who enrich their family’s life another minute. The problem with liberal politics (coming from a democrat this sounds funny) is there shortsightedness. You see only what we charge, but you never attempt to place, or you do with fleeting desire, your minds around the costs to bring these products to market and their ultimate effects. Our biggest dreams are to be able to go out of business. To be able to eradicate cancer, but seeing as how cancer is in fact your very own body with mutated DNA, the chances of that happening are slim. So we are dedicated to the treatment of such a disease and the ability to give a dying person more time with their families, possibly even a lifetime more. In short, you two and your ilk are the real evil, the real enemies of the millions of people who are dying out there.

posted by RE: The Journalist on August 22, 2007 #

Please understand my point of view; the entire medical field doesn’t save even a significant fraction of the lives evil oil companies save.

If they stopped, it would all shut down, the lights would go out, and we’d die. We’d end up eating each other in darkened besieged streets if oil companies didn’t aggressively, sociopathically, seek out their product, take it from whoever is on top of it, and get it to market efficiently. I’d like to think I boycott Exxon, but of course I don’t. If I owe Pfizer my life 5 times over, I owe Exxon my life 1000 times over.

That leaves me ambivalent. If you look at the time stamp on this post, you’ll see it leaves me ambivalent late into the night.

You say yours is a company doing what it has to to survive in a capitalist system; that is what I was saying. We are interdependent. We rely on companies like Genentech to make us drugs, you rely on us waving our insurance cards indiscriminately when we feel bad. Ideologies aside, however evil you may think we are, you’re still going to take our money, and our insurance company’s money. We’re still going to take your drugs. I think we can all agree insurance companies are evil, but again, I’d be dead and you’d be unemployed without them. None of us are ready to defect from this system.

I think it’s hard to find evil. Every time you try to nail it down, everything gets hopelessly complex. I think this is kind of what the banality was about. It’s not the Jack the Rippers of history that do great evil, it’s not even the bad leaders. The bad men of history never killed millions of people, they created systems, and then ordered the system to go do it. I don’t think Genentech is a system expressly designed for killing people, and I don’t think I am either.

I think Genentech is part of a system that moves independent of the morality of the people within it. I think I left that night with a much greater awareness of a fairly simple thing. I came to look at that system, and like the campus itself, suddenly found myself in the middle of it.

posted by The Journalist on August 23, 2007 #

What the hell were you two on that night? Sounds like a wicked trip…

And beware the foosball players…they are the spawn of the devil!

posted by Testy and Tired on August 24, 2007 #

Just a couple of things to say here (most of it’s already been said)…First off, wild, random Thompsonesque behavior is great fun (albeit at someone else’s expense) and as a fan of Hunter S. Thompson, and even Kerouac I’ve pushed the limits of decency and reason. Where I’ve drawn the line is the ‘at someone else’s expense’part. One of the security guards lost their job that night. That’s right, because of your behavior. Maybe he deserved it. Maybe he was “evil”. So, while you debate with the others on this blog (very wittily, I might add) about the dichotomy of life and its relationship with good and evil, YOU COST A MAN HIS JOB.

By the way “Journalist”, this duality of man subject has been argued to death by every intellectual or psuedo-intellectual since “man” has existed. Plato, Aristotle, Nietzche, and yes Thompson, just to name a few. Its getting old my friend. Take a lesson from the oldest civilization on earth, the Chinese. Its called Yin and Yang. It is what it is, and harmony is only found when you embrace it. If you really want to help…quit your job, move to the Arizona desert, build an earthship, and live the dream. Otherwise, grow up and understand the consequences of your actions: Yin = you storming the Genentech campus. Yang = Hard working provider to his family loses his job. There’s good and evil for ya.

posted by Nestle's White Choclate Rain on September 3, 2007 #

sheesh. some people have no sense of humor.

posted by My Mobile Technology on September 13, 2007 #

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