Ghost in the Shell

23 July 2020

Almost a year ago I was contacted by a literary agency to see if I was interested in writing a popular science book. I had gotten inquiries from self-publishing houses before, but this was different. This was Foundry Literary + Media, an NYC-based agency with books like Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One and Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime in their wheelhouse. The agent from Foundry not only seemed legitimately interested, but he had also clearly read my work. He understood my strengths and had some good ideas about the type of book I might write.

So we started to develop a book pitch. We chose a topic, I wrote a pitch, he suggested revisions, I rewrote the pitch, sent it his way, and got a quick “Thanks, I’ll get back to you once I’ve read it.”

Then nothing. After a couple of months, I sent an email asking about the status. Still nothing. A couple more months, and I sent a quick “Thank you for your time.” email. Still nothing but silence. I had been ghosted.

Needless to say, I was disappointed. It would have been nice just to get a quick response that he was no longer interested, but alas. Despite how poorly it reflects on business, professional ghosting is remarkably common. I’ve seen it from scientific magazines, textbook publishers, even my own editor at Forbes. Ghosting is easier than a simple response.

Being ghosted is a bit annoying. It’s bad enough to pitch a story to the wind only to hear silence in return. It’s worse when you’re ghosted in the middle of a work in progress. You might keep working on a project for a few weeks thinking it is still active, not realizing that you are wasting your time.

But perhaps the worst part about ghosting is how it dehumanizes people. Your interactions are reduced to transactions. Ghosting someone implies that they no longer have anything to offer you. They aren’t worth the professional kindness of a quick response, because they have no inherent value.

In our hyper-commodified world, it is easy to see people like things. Writers, for example, aren’t individuals, they are machines that churn out clickbait headlines. People on social media are the gatherers of personal data. Data that can be sold to the highest bidder. Our society pushes us to define others by their transactions. What are they buying, selling, or providing?

Each of us is guilty of this attitude at times. It is easy to see strangers as machines, as NPCs in our personal adventure story. Likewise we often forget we are only minor characters in their epic tales as well.

It isn’t always easy to remember the humanity of strangers, but it is important to try. As we continue in these long months of quarantine and conflict, honoring that humanity may become the most important tool toward saving ourselves.