Faces of Silicon Valley
Exactly eight years ago - 19th October 2009 - I quit drinking, for good.
My reasons for getting sober will be obvious to anyone who knew me in my 20s, and familiar to anyone who has ever known a self-destructive alcoholic.
I was the worst kind of drinker: The kind who got into fistfights with strangers and said unforgivable things to friends and regularly woke up naked in hotel corridors or battered and bloody in police cells. The kind who was once was nearly stabbed to death by a Spanish drug dealer halfway up a mountain. My drinking problem became so bad that the Guardian hired me to write a column titled “Not Safe For Work” about my blackout misadventures. The money I made from the column allowed – enabled, you might say – me to carry on drinking myself to death and calling it work.
I didn’t realize I had a problem until I was already past rock bottom. And, by then, I couldn’t afford to stop.
And yet. While my drinking might have been suicidally mundane, my process of quitting was different from the usual AA/treatment path.
If you’re interested in the full story, you can read it in The Upgrade or Sober Is My New Drunk. The short version is that I quit cold turkey, without AA or any other kind of treatment program. Rather I used a variety of technological tools, combined with a healthy awareness of my own ego, to keep myself away from the booze.
The first thing I did was write a public blog post, explaining how bad things had become and inviting friends and readers to help with my sobriety. I was always a social drinker, and rarely a private one. By publicizing my decision to quit as widely as possible, I was hoping to create an invisible network of well-wishers (and perhaps a few enemies) who would leave me no place to hide. My ego simply wouldn’t allow me to risk being caught drinking. I also asked editors to stop giving me commissions based on my drunken behavior. No more enabling.
I then pushed the post out through Facebook and Twitter and other social networks, and prepared for the howls of ridicule. In fact, the unmitigated love I received back through those networks – from strangers just as much as friends – kept me strong through those impossible early days. 2922 days later it’s still working.
(If you want to know how well it’s working, I recommend you pre-order Sarah’s new book, A Uterus Is A Feature Not A Bug, in which I am proud to be a supporting character..)
It’s strange - and ironic - to look back today and realize the extent to which I owe my sobriety to the tech industry. To both the tools created by Silicon Valley - Facebook, Twitter et al - and also to some of the industry’s most prominent figures who sent me their love and encouragement.
In 2009 I saw first-hand the reserves of generosity that lie beneath Silicon Valley, and the power of tools like Twitter and Facebook to save lives. All of which makes it all the more tragic, eight years later, to look at what has become of those same tools and that same industry. How Twitter has become a cesspool of abuse and harassment - a platform which might soon trigger a third world war. How Facebook appears to have been at least passively complicit in the theft of an American presidential election by agents of a foreign government. How many of those Valley insiders who offered their love and support now stand accused of permitting or perpetrating the worst kinds of behavior against their fellow human beings.
When contemplating the “faces of meth” poster that is Silicon Valley 2009 -> 2017, it’s impossible to miss the parallels between my own former addiction and that of the tech industry.
The Mayo Clinic lists the following symptoms of alcoholism:
Behavioral: aggression, agitation, compulsive behavior, self-destructive behavior, or lack of restraint
Mood: anxiety, euphoria, general discontent, guilt, or loneliness
Psychological: delirium or fear
Also common: physical substance dependence…
It’s chilling how closely those symptoms track with how tech companies behave (aggression, agitation, compulsive behavior, self-destructive behavior, or lack of restraint) but also how social media and other Silicon Valley inventions make the rest of us feel (anxiety, euphoria, general discontent, guilt, or loneliness, delirium, fear).
Experience has taught me that that even the worst addicts can be helped. But only, as the good folks at AA will tell you, if the addict is willing to conduct “a searching and fearless moral inventory.”
Certainly we’re seeing some small signs of that industry-wide moral inventory, with a smattering of companies and founders finding their voice against white supremacy and other bigotry - or pledging to root out harassment and abuse inside their own organizations. But for every hopeful indicator there are far more examples of industry leaders like Jack Dorey and Mark Zuckerberg - never mind Peter Thiel or Travis Kalanick - angrily refusing to admit that their corner of the tech industry might have (and be) a serious problem.
Until that changes - whether through epiphany or intervention - the money and power addicts of Silicon Valley will only continue their downward spiral, dragging the rest of us down with them.