Essays on Technology and Culture

A Few Words of Explanation

It appears I touched a nerve with my previous piece, “Productivity Über Alles.” I was wary of posting it, worried that it would be taken the wrong way by Internet friends who are entrepreneurs, or that it would be a seen as a giant flameout, akin to Merlin Mann’s (in)famous “Merlin Labs!” video. It took some coaxing from said Internet friends, entrepreneur and corporate stooge alike, to convince me otherwise.

The post came in a burst of sheer frustration—a tough day at my corporate stooge job, combined with frustration about the sheer volume of crap that had been flowing into my inboxes about working for oneself, finding focus, doing your best independent work, and so much other stuff. When I read that article on people listening to audiobooks at 2x to better cram more information in, well, I snapped. Nothing against Shawn Blanc, and Mike Vardy, of course. They work hard, and I’m sure someone will get value out of their stuff. I just can’t mentally justify dropping $250 on a course on how to focus—and that’s probably cheap, really. The reason why is personal—I did blow $400 on a goddamn smartwatch, after all—but I’m sure it’s not exclusive to me.

So much of the rhetoric around “do what you love,” “work for yourself,” and anything that puts independence above everything else rings painfully shallow and hollow to my ears. My natural cynicism is to assume that someone has something to sell me, usually because they do. It feels like “make-believe help,” to borrow a phrase from Merlin. Something something “Facebook group about creative productivity,” am I right? There’s no shortage of a market for various panaceas to assuage the frustrated cubicle-dweller that they too can be an entrepreneur and, if not make it rich, at least be more fulfilled in life, by working for themselves. Hell, even those scummy “sharing economy” companies use the “entrepreneur” thing to justify having a giant pool of contract workers with no benefits and shitty pay. That alone should be a clue as to how bullshit the term “entrepreneur” is these days.

At least in the giant swimming pool called “technology” upon which I have been sitting on the edge of the shallow end of, with my toes in the water, the entrepreneur is lionized out of proportion. The only people in technology who get multiple hagiographic biographies and docudramas are the rich, white men who started companies and got successful. Not every startup CEO wants to be the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, but every VC wants to find the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, so hey, if you can’t be Steve or Mark, at least look and act the part, and maybe the VC gods will shine down upon you. From my perspective, it feels like if you’re not working 80 hours a week for equity and the promise of a payday, or pulling down six figures at an established startup for the same amount of hours, you’re nothing.

Few things appeal to me less than the idea of working more than 40 hours a week, by the way. I held down two jobs for 52 hours a week, for a couple years, and it was killing me. But that’s what I had to do to keep my head above water, and pay down my student loans. I’m keeping afloat now, but I also had the luxury of my parents paying off a chunk when they sold their house. Even if I had been doing “something I love” for both of those jobs (and I wasn’t, by any stretch), I would still be exhausted at the end of each work week, ready to find some distraction to make me forget my misery. I certainly wouldn’t be working on the next thing. It takes a certain type of personality to make that work, and that ain’t mine.

That’s one of the things that irked me the most, and lead to my piece, the one-size-fits-all advice of “WORK FOR YOURSELF OR BE A MISERABLE FAILURE” mantra that runs through way too much of the tech-focused media I consume. It’s in my inbox, it’s in my podcast app, it’s in the various websites I check during downtime at work. It manifests itself as “THE ROBOTS ARE COMING FOR YOUR JOBS” on the one end, and “BE FULFILLED AND MAYBE GET RICH” on the other. Neither is compelling. if I cared about making money, I wouldn’t have gotten a degree in English.

And that’s the other problem. The demand for more. Life hacks, and efficiency, and ways to crank out more widgets, book more clients, maximize income, maximize shareholder value, maximize all of it. I don’t care. I wouldn’t say no to more money. I am $36,000 in debt, and have a small problem with buying gizmos with pictures of fruit on them (and concert tickets), after all. But I don’t want more money if it means more agony: chasing down invoices, pushing for the next client, marketing yourself, paying taxes on 1099 income. None of this appeals to me, and I can see it tainting the work I ostensibly want to do and love. Okay, fine, all things in life come with stuff you don’t like. My corporate stooge job isn’t a walk in the park, but the agony is manageable, and it usually ends at 5:00 every day. In the calculus of the life I want for myself, A boring desk job for The Man, with moderate agony looks preferable to a job working for Myself, with increased agony.

This isn’t exactly a new struggle on my part, just one thrown into sharper focus after a bad day and some frustrating timing. I’ve long struggled to figure out just what the hell I want out of my life. All I’ve got so far is just a huge, and growing, list of what I don’t want. Maybe some of those things on that list will fall off and I’ll re-evaluate them, but that’s a ways away. In the meantime, I just want a little less agony, and a lot less people screaming in my ears about how I shouldn’t be chained to someone else’s desk for 40 hours a week, and instead be working for myself… and buying their how-to guide to maximize every hour I spend doing it.

Eight hours for Work, Eight hours for Rest, Eight Hours for What We Will

Productivity Über Alles

Produtivity is all that matters. Do more work, do it faster, do it better (maybe), and the world will be yours, if you can ever find the time. After all, life is just a big competition. Someone is going to undercut you, your job is going to be outsourced to a contract programmer in India. A competing startup is going to be bought by Facebook. You have to be on top of everything. You have to be productive. Always.

Productivity rules everything. It explains the preponderance of “sharing economy” companies that promise to do all the useless, utilitarian crap that takes up so much of your day. There’s companies to drive you around. There’s companies to bring you groceries, ready-to-cook meals, pre-made meals, Soylent. Companies to do your laundry, clean your house, buy you clothing… All to save you time that you can spend being more productive.

It’s reflected in the Cult of the Entrepreneur, the ideal to which we all must aspire. He (and it is always a he) is the one who is 110% dedicated to his vision and business, until it’s time to pivot. He’s constantly pitching, constantly seeking clients, constantly working, except when he’s working out or sleeping at the office (or coworking space). And why is he working out? To keep himself fit so he can work longer hours, even harder than any other entrepreneur. This is the only way to live: working for yourself, free from your commitments to The Man. You only are responsible to your clients and your investors. True freedom.

Of course, the entrepreneur route isn’t easy, or cheap. It helps if you’re not in debt, of if you have rich parents and a trust fund. Fortunately, if you can’t be a Real Entrepreneur, you can work for a startup (if you’re a white male who knows how to code.) Trade money for equity, work long hours, and maybe you too will be inspired to start your own company and be the Valley Ideal. It’ll be easier once your equity vests, and the startup you work for gets acquired for a few hundred mil. Now you don’t even need Angel funding!

Find all the wasted time in your life and squeeze it out. Quantify yourself. Quantify everything. You can’t improve what you don’t have data on, so start collecting it all. Anything you can’t quantify, well, it probably isn’t important. In fact, scratch the “probably” part. Install RescueTime and Chrome Nanny. Uninstall Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram from your phone, unless your job or company is focused on Social Media. Get a treadmill desk, so you can work out while you work. Don’t read paper books, or even ebooks. Listen to audiobooks at 2x.

Sign up for online learning courses for hard skills that look good on a résumé. Sign up to online courses on how to focus on your work. Contribute to open source projects in your “downtime” so you have an impressive GitHub. Blog for free. Network. Go to meetups. Go to conferences. Make more connections on LinkedIn that you’ll never interact with. Buy an ultra-light laptop and tether it to your smartphone so you can work wherever you are. Take a vacation, but keep answering email. Is all this work stressing you out? Learn to meditate, and get back on that horse before someone knocks your ass off of it.

Write more lines of code.

Get more new user sign ups.

Deploy more new features.

Book more clients.

Cram more work into the day, it doesn’t matter what.

Forget your family. Forget your friends. Work is the only thing that matters. If you work for a startup, you have work friends. Work hard and party hard with your coworkers! All the cool startups keep a beer fridge, so you don’t even have to go out to the bar. Just drink in the office and, if you have too much, sleep it off at your desk. You practically live at work anyway, right? And then you’re right there, ready to get back to work in the morning.

Never stop, even for a minute, to think about what the fuck you’re doing, and whether it’s actually what you want to be doing, and whether you’re actually making the world a better or worse place, and the toll the constant work is taking on your body, and how little sleep you’re getting, and all the fucking hollow relationships you have with everyone in your life, because you’re devoting 144 hours a week to maximum productivity. Never wonder why you feel so empty inside during those rare moments of downtime, when you don’t know what to do. Fill that time with more work, another side hustle, anything.

Because if you don’t, who knows what might happen? You might realize that it’s all bullshit, and then the whole productivity racket, the whole “sharing economy,” the whole modern world of the technology business might collapse like the house of cards it really is. And we can’t have that, can we?

Now get back to work.

“It’s OK to be multiplatform”

“What does independence mean? It means that we should be able to change platforms and devices without having rebuild entire workflows. We should be able to work in an internet cafe on the other side of the globe using a spotty connection, even after all of our own batteries have run dry.

It’s OK to be multiplatform in a world of Googlers, Apple zealots, and Microsofties. Every day we use Apple iPads, Android Nexuses, Microsoft Surfaces, Google Chromebooks, and Ubuntu servers, and we want to show you how they all work together. We will provide opinions, reviews, recommendations, and tutorials in eclectic proportion, and together we’ll see what sticks.”

Heretics – A Concept

Interesting. And something I’ve been thinking about lately too. This is something to watch.

The Danger in Your Work-Provided FitBit

It’s becoming more common to have something tracking you at the office — not just someone from IT sending you a nastygram when you accidentally click a porn link in a spam e-mail. IT’s been able to see what you do on the computer for years, but now it’s more in-depth. A number of companies are promising to track the applications and websites you use at work, with the goal of making sure you stay productive in the office. But increasingly, employee tracking is moving outside of the office and working hours. Some companies give employees fitness trackers to nudge them into a healthier lifestyle, and maybe save some money on their insurance plans. Some do more.

Ugh! Bosses Are Now Using Non-Work Apps To Spy On Us…

My second piece for Unicorn Booty is up, and it’s about a real, growing problem with the apps we use to create and track our data. I’m more than happy to track what I do for my own benefit, but I’m pretty damn creeped out by the idea of my employer using those same tools to keep an eye on me when I’m off the clock.

I Want to Know what Google and Facebook Know

As Apple draws a battle line between themselves and Google over privacy, I’ve heard more than a few people in tech circles spout the same refrain about Google’s monetization of our data. “Google’s not selling your individual data,” they say, “they’re aggregating your data and selling that!” That’s not as reassuring as I think they mean it to be. They’re still collecting my data, and they’re still selling ads to target me—they’re just packaging it all up with other people’s data, and selling it in bulk. The advertisers who buy the targeted info can’t identify me individually, but they have a group of people who are similar enough to me for advertising purposes that it’s saleable.

That’s, at least, what I understand of how Google’s data collection and ad tracking works. Facebook’s system works in a similar way, but they have a more clever way of identifying the specific things I’m interested in. The problem is, I don’t know the extent of both what they’re collecting on me, and I don’t know the extent of what they’re selling to advertisers. Google’s Ads Settings page lets you see the profile Google has on you, including your gender, age, languages, and “interests.” If you haven’t explicitly provided them, it shows you Google’s algorithmic guess. My page comes up empty, because I thought it smart to opt-out of Google’s interest-based ads. If only I trusted it.

No data provided, no data to sell.

At least Google provides something, even if I doubt it’s a complete picture of what they’re packaging and sending. Facebook doesn’t even offer me the courtesy of showing me what it thinks it’s determined about me. I’ve stripped my Facebook profile down to the bare minimum I feel I can get away with and still use the service: my name, my birthdate, my relationship status, and the bands I like. [1] That’s it. Both Google and Facebook, however, track my move online—at least when I’m not using Disconnect. Hell, Facebook even tracks the status updates and messages I choose to not send. They have more data on me than they let on, even after opting-out of everything I can find.

I want to see that data.

Loathe as I am to use the “if you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to hide” argument that these companies—and the US Government alike—use on us, that’s what I’m reduced to. If I shouldn’t worry about the data I feed to Google, Facebook, and a whole holy host of similar companies and services out there, why not be more transparent about what data is being collected, how, and what they know about me? I want to see a simple, clean, human readable page on every service I feed my personal data to that tells me every last piece of information that they know, everything they sell to advertisers, how, and a way to opt-out. If I can’t opt-out, at least show me a way to delete my account—and my data—should I become spooked.

This is fair. This is right. This is my data that I am creating, and I have no way of knowing what is being collected, or how it’s being used, without reading a massive dose of legalese called the Terms of Service. If, as Natasha Lomas claims on TechCrunch, “The online privacy lie is unraveling,” then it is to the benefit of Google, Facebook, et al. to pull back the curtain and reassure us that we, and our data, are not being exploited as much as we’ve feared. That is, unless the truth is even worse than the none-too-comfortable fiction that these companies have created for us. Only one way to find out.

  1. Facebook’s one coup… it’s the only reasonable way to keep up with bands and artists, though I hope iTunes Music will put a nail in that coffin.  ↩