Anatomy of a tech breakdown

Most of my talks include a nice summary of my life. They always leave out the raw bits. Until the first INSTED, where I'd thought to use the semi-anonymity of a small new event to experiment with a truth-telling session more like a visit to a shrink. After I wrote out my talk in a single 2.5 hour session and didn't bother with time to practice, I realized it would be livestreamed. And went for it anyways. I notice you were nervous, a friend told me later. I got to the halfway mark and realized why. Video above, notes below. 

I never know what to talk about when I don't really know an audience, so I'm just going to do what comes best and tell you personal stories, try to string them together in something that makes sense for the advertised outrage of this anti-tech conference.

A few weeks ago, I was hosting planning meetings for this event along with Rachel at my really sweet tech office, huge monitor on the wall, nice couches, Aeron chairs. I was the first employee at that company, an owner almost, except stock options aren't ownership.

I have a three-minute version of this talk - I honed it really well for our Series B investor pitches. The version you're getting now is longer - thank you - and it's got a lot more despair, sex, and Uber bashing. I think it'll fit the time, yeah. I usually have a bunch of slides and just talk off bullet notes. I used this speech time calculator, online tech tool. I think this is going to work, yeah.

So. I use the past tense because three weeks ago I was laid off, along with 40 of my colleagues. My new team, formed six weeks before, cut in half. The Toronto office that launched just a month before - gone.

It was one of the happier days of my life.

Let's talk about Aeron chairs for a minute. Herman Miller always gets nailed when a startup lays off a bunch of people. Yeah, we had those chairs all over the place, plenty of empties now. Huge monitors, too. Thunderbolts. The huge open office that's designed to hold many more people than when we were at peak humans, it's emptier now. Seas of cubicles. You know why cubicles, yeah? The problem with a truly "open" office environment is nobody can hear anything. And somebody's got to do sales. And sales is your engine. So you put in cubicles so there's as least a minor sound wall between the noisy sales folks and their neighbors.

Aeron chairs. Yes, they are pricey. I haven't bought one for my home office yet. But you know, if I was paying someone $55-90,000 to sit in a chair all day and make phone calls, $600 for that chair doesn't seem too much. Because all the fancy stuff left behind when growth goes bad, those are to keep the expensive people happy. Big offices are kind of expensive, sure. But Thunderbolts, standing desks, kitchens full of food, those aren't what get cut when VC funding gets tight. Nope, people. Headcount. You, me, our friends.

OK, enough of that. Let me tell you why April 10th was a great day. You know how they say alcoholics aren't ready to change until they hit rock bottom? And while that rock bottom is different for everyone, it's never very pretty. I'm talking to you about the anatomy of my tech breakdown. They layoffs weren't even my bottom - I think that came sometime after the laid-off coworkers party a week later when I jumped in the pool with my waterproof phone. No phone calls, no Twitter or Facebook notifications, no Instagram. No emails in my hand. No texts from dad. Two weeks. That's grounding.

I've got to go further back. Like I do for the VCs.

When I was a young lad, like seven, I was really into reading. Chronicles of Narnia, maybe seven times. Lord of the Rings, yeah. Silmarillion, even. So, naturally my first career was as a journalist. I was a writer at the San Francisco Examiner, politics, City Hall. I launched the paper's first blog, a notes column called The Body Politic.

I quickly realized that it was a very small number of people - from the tenant activists to the elected officials to the housing developers' lobbyists - who got things done in the city. It wasn't too long before I got tired of just telling stories. I wanted to be part of them. (This really gets VCs, I think - see, VCs who aren't founders secretly want to be founders, VCs who were founders still relive those days. There's so much more adrenaline in spending others people's money to fuel your dream than just spending other people's money to fulfill other people's dreams.) I left the paper and went to work as an investigator for the San Francisco City Attorney, where I could use my own time to get politically active. The first thing I got involved in was a library bond campaign. Library, that sounds great - at first I was excited to take my young son there - he'd be about five by the time it was finished. Then I learned that not only were they going to wipe out half of the public park next to my house for the huge parking garage for the library, they were also threatening eminent domain on the family home behind the old library. (VCs like this, too - it sound a little right wing. And VCs are a little right wing. Like, build islands far enough into the water that they can escape terrestrial laws right wing.) OK, library. So, I killed that library bond. Did what I knew how, started blogging, telling stories.

I got a big head and the next thing I did was run for Congress. Yeah, U.S. Congress. There's not another kind, but people asked. It was 2009 and I became the first person in the U.S. to announce a federal legislative campaign via Twitter, got a lot of media for that. And, ultimately, got more Twitter followers than votes.

I met the founder of the last company to employ me on that campaign, used an early version of his tech. I thought I needed something like it if a guy like me was ever going to break out and win again the bigs, he though he needed a guy crazy enough to try and talk to 200,000 voters by himself.

OK, back to my non-Series B investor pitch voice. That story isn't exactly true. It's not a lie, either, it just doesn't have the important details. And it crunches the timeline pretty conveniently. Because it's not really a human story, it's a VC pitch. Story. Pitch. [Weigh each in hands.]

Human story - that's what I was doing when I wrote blog posts and letters to the editor about Elizabeth Heidt, the third generation matriarch who owned the house the Walnut Creek City Council wanted to ship off on a trailer, if they couldn't bulldoze it instead. Human story. That's why I ran for Congress, right after the banking crisis and subsequent federal reserve bailout deal, reciting Mario Savio in the car and sometimes to some poor Democrat I'd cornered at an event.

There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part! You can't even passively take part! And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop! And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!

Human story is growing up on welfare after your parents lost everything in a bid to become Bible translators in Papua New Guinea. Human story is one of your Congressional opponents joining the contest because he was kicked out of the Army after two tours in Iraq because he loved a man and wouldn't hide it. Human story is shaking hands with and handing flyers to 10,000 people in five months, talking to hundreds of them, telling them yeah, I'm running because I can't in good conscience look at what's going on and not do something.

It's putting your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels.

But this is too serious. And it's too grandiose. Running for Congress. Quoting Savio with that voice. Was I a madman? Am I madman? Well, my professional bio seems to say no. I almost wore my glasses today - maybe those make me look more sane.

I want to talk about personas for a minute. We've all got these masks that we wear in different social situations. Maybe there's one for work, one for home, one for our spouse, one for close friends. Maybe we think we've rejected that, but then there are the subconscious masks. The ones we don't want to wear but wear anyway. The ones we don't think we're wearing, but they're there. And they're not even masks. They are personalities we try to herd into some kind of coherent consistent self.

And mine thought that running for Congress was a way to express the pain in my heart. The pain of childhood. The pain of peers who make fun of welfare kids. Of fat kids with long bangs and indeterminate gender. Anonymous Christmas presents. Holiday food lines. A childhood and adolescent poisoned by restrictive religion. College years full of acid and pot followed by conversion to an even more extreme religion. Married at 20 years old. Clerical coworkers who lived for their smoke breaks and died just before or just after retirement. Attorneys and investigators and cops who knew not to the year or the month but to the day and the hour when they'd be able to start collecting their pensions. Just trying to herd it all into something coherent.

Everybody, rich, poor, black, white, everybody's got a psychology.

Running for Congress didn't work. So two years later I was taking a flyer on a tech startup. Its mission was my mission. Grow fast grow fast grow fast. Escape business realities by taking lots of money from dudes in Silicon Valley who got it from the richest of the rich and from teacher pension funds (but hate teachers). But this is the dream. You get the dream, read a bunch of articles on Fred Wilson's blog and Hacker News about how to calculate story after story about the future of your options. Engineers can look at startups the same way a woman who wants to have kids looks at romantic partners - four years in this relationship, I can only do four or five of these within my peak years. Gotta find the right one, gotta make it before my working clock runs out. Before you're 36 and at the top of a fast-growing startup that hits a bump and lets you go.

Happy. This was supposed to be a story about a happy day.

The first year at my startup I just killed it. I worked 12 hours a day seven days a week. Sometimes 16. I got fatter. I moved from my computer only to walk from my home office to eat with my family. Then we got more VC money and needed to open a real office. My wife and I'd bought a home near the train station that took me into work at my City job. Where it got to the point that I’d get off the train and any time the opposite platform was filled, to not just get back on and go back home. Cognitive therapy. SRIs. So I took a flyer and moved to Los Angeles, bringing my family three months later.

Anatomy_of_a_Tech_Breakdown_031215_4.3.jpg14 years of this plus LA had destroyed me. Fatter. Whiskey to sleep. Video games to quiet the riot in my head. Series B funding. Working on the parts of the company that needed attention but weren't getting it except that I bled for the bleeding edge. Emails into the night. Emails in the morning. Body on the gears on the levers.

Fell in love with my masseuse. Coming back to life started with my body. And it was all about losing.

Lost 50 pounds in six months. Lost my wife overnight. Lost my kids back to her hometown in Tokyo in three months. Lost another 20 pounds. Lost lover after lover in a summer just as wild as the summer of acid and concerts back in college, before my 15 year marriage. Women a dozen years younger. Women old enough for my divorced dad to date. Lost my memory to alcohol like clockwork once a month. Still the standing desk. Tinder. The Aeron chair. The Macbook Pro. Emails on the phone. Retweeting the company line. Therapy. Yoga. Meditation. Breathwork. Hypnotherapy. More meditation. Missed opportunities at love so devastating they finally lead to a bottom. 10 more pounds lost. Saying to a coworker, you know, it's like I'm having a spiritual awakening and a nervous breakdown at the same time. Yeah, that's usually how it happens, she says.

There's something they say about a yogi and a psychotic. They're both experiencing this same subconscious sea of rival intelligences inside the self. But the yogi is swimming and the psychotic is drowning. And there's a big difference between swimming and drowning.

Everything that we require for salvation, everything we require for safety and happiness, it's inside of us. It's that realization that makes a layoff simply the end of a tech breakdown. Losing the Aeron chair and the cell phone. Walking on the beach not looking at Likes. Allowing the emotion of a mass layoff to pour in and wash through. Tech is not a savior. IPO is not a savior. Political office isn't a savior - but yes, we are the ones we are waiting for.

Dissent. Antagonism. That's what were doing today. Are we mad because those people with jobs look happy? Hell, what's an entrepreneur but a guy's ain't got a job? Now, I'm a pretty happy guy these days. I'm not yelling Mario Savio quotes. Well, maybe seven minutes ago I was. So what’s next, what's now? Tech utopia. Soylent in every pot. An Uber in every garage. Legal pot for every liberal state. Somatic bliss.

I am mad. I'm mad that the human story is being turned into a dream - and by other humans. What's happening with tech? It's the government recording and storage of our every electronic message. It's Facebook feeds so compelling they can play moods better than a sunset. It's a society with wealth stratification that some future society will look back on like we look on the age of Pharaohs. It's not wall-sized TV screens that do us in. It's the ones in our hands. [Holds hand up, stares imagined cell phone]

Artificial intelligence isn't what we need to worry about - if it's any smarter than us, it's likely to be a hell of a lot more benevolent. Even in the Haley Joel Osment movie, it's not homeless robots that suffer, it's homeless robots that humans torture that suffer. Bots. Bots are are enemy. But not because they're tech. Because humans can be awful. And humans got the bots. Uber drivers - they're practically plugged into the Matrix now (I know - robots controlled the Matrix. This is worse, because we're doing it to ourselves. Cannibalizing labor for greater and greater returns to the richest of the rich.). Without the Uber app, hell, without our GPS, do we know where we're going anymore?

Go home. Read Manna by Marshall Brian. Reread it. Want to earn poverty wages driving Uber? Not if your stars go down you won't. And we got God view, bitches. We know where you are, where you've been, who you were with - and we've got the money to destroy anybody who gets in our way. Give us a few years and we'll have bots in those cars, too.

Our jobs are gone, we just don't know it already - or, since this isn't TED, maybe we do know it already.

So what's the answer? In you. The answer is in our human story, it's in the happiness that transcends the bleak night. It's the joy of a breath, a smile, a droning chord. It's in your eyes, your heart. Bots - we can use them, too.

All I can say - don't be an Uber.

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