Quitting the Silicon Valley Swamp
After 15 long years, I've said all I have to say about tech awfulness.
There are, I humbly submit, few people as adept at quitting as I.
My 20s were a blur of jobs and relationships abandoned, most due to a combination of restlessness, ambition, and alcoholism. The net result of that recklessness: A fat advance check for my first book, Bringing Nothing To The Party.
No wonder I got a taste for it.
Later I quit my apartment in London - and London itself, and then England - and embarked on a new life spent living in hotels. Along the way I quit most of my possessions until I could fit my life in a single carry-on bag. On the eve of my 30th birthday I finally quit alcohol, and have been sober ever since. All of which saw me rewarded with yet another check, for a second book called The Upgrade. (And then a third: Sober Is My New Drunk.)
More important than the cash I earned as a professional quitter was the acclaim. Such was the panache with which I quit my job at AOL-TechCrunch that I “earned” a place on Business Insider’s list of the “Best Resignation Letters of All Time.” After quitting Silicon Valley for Las Vegas, I enjoyed a solid month of press attention from bemused Vegas journalists trying to understand why anyone would trade California for Nevada (The universe soon offered an answer: $1m in funding for NSFWCORP.)
Most recently, here on Pando, I've written about the importance of quitting products and services that are bad for me, and possibly bad for the universe. I deleted Uber in 2012, long before doing so merited its own hashtag. I quit Twitter for a year in 2010 and permanently a few years later.
More money, better health, a nicer home, improved happiness and heightened creativity: For my entire adult life, strategic quitting has propelled me from one level of Maslow's pyramid to the next . I could (and maybe one day will) write a book on the 7 Habits of Highly Effective Quitters.
And yet. Even for a pro like me, the actual process is – as Neil Sedaka rightly sang – hard to do.
Case in point: My recent decision to delete all my remaining online accounts.
I've already shared some of the reasons for that decision – my anxiety over privacy abuses and fear that continuing to support awful companies made me a hypocrite. The full story, though, is significantly more complicated, and far more stressful even to tell...
A few weeks ago, I realized that my relationship with the tech industry had reached its nadir. I had reached my limit with the pervasiveness of the cloud, and the relentless demand for new social “content” to attract ever more Twitter trolls. More than that, though, I was disgusted by the behavior of abusive tech bros, and by the cheerful creepiness of (for example) Mark Zuckerberg's F8 keynote boast about how his company will soon be able to upload our brains, or Amazon's decision to launch a sassy new bedroom camera, or whatever the fuck this parade of haircuts is supposed to augur. I was nauseated by the flagrant law breaking, the fraud, the harassment, the discrimination and the endless hypocrisy and bullshit and bad-for-the-universeness of it all.
For years, I've “called out” Silicon Valley's “bad apples”, but by the start of 2017 it was impossible to distinguish maggot from apple from the rotting barrel itself. My workdays were an endless perp walk of sociopaths, psychopaths and criminals with names like (Pando investor) Peter Thiel, Travis Kalanick, Emil Michael, Palmer Luckey, and Gurbaksh Chahal – not to mention their enablers and co-conspirators like Paul Graham and Sam Altman, Rachel Whetstone and Steve Hilton, Joe Lonsdale, Arianna Huffington, Shervin Pishevar, and a thousand more like them.
Never mind that actually writing about these clammy-palmed monsters frequently made me want to punch a wall. Sometimes merely glancing at tech headlines was enough to make me feel physically unwell. (As I was writing that last sentence, Sarah called over to me: “Hey, did you hear about this Memphis tech exec accused of multiple rapes?” I had not.)
Please understand I'm not being hyperbolic when I say “physically unwell.” Around the time America's tech royalty made its pilgrimage to Trump Tower, I suddenly stopped sleeping through the night. Even rare occasions when I did scrape six hours uninterrupted rest, I would wake feeling exhausted. I noticed too that I was grinding my teeth during the day and, maybe related, had constant dull headaches and an ache in my jaw that I couldn't isolate to a single tooth. My neck and shoulders throbbed constantly, like I'd fallen asleep next to an open window. I was eating badly and - definitely related - had put on nearly 20lbs since October. I even started getting occasional heart palpitations, something I haven't experienced since I quit drinking.
At first I was worried that I might be gravely ill. The palpitations in particular almost prompted a visit to a cardiologist. But then I identified some clear patterns: On days when I didn't write, or think, about tech awfulness, the symptoms were barely noticeable or entirely absent. I felt healthy, happy and, well, relieved. If I was able to remove myself from Silicon Valley – to visit London, or even just LA – I slept more soundly, woke more cheerfully, and ate more nutritiously.
This wasn't a case of burnout, or overwork: Even when I toiled for eight or nine straight hours at my keyboard, writing and rewriting chapters of my hopefully-upcoming novel, I suffered no noticeable side-effects except a moderate-to-severe case of imposter syndrome. Similarly, day-long meetings about other non-tech-journalism projects left me feeling positively giddy with enthusiasm.
But the minute a conversation shifted from a non-tech topic to, say, news that a tech CEO had beaten his spouse, back came the teeth grinding, or the shoulder pain or the urge to punch a wall. Before sitting down to write the story for Pando, I instinctively reached for the Advil, and whatever comfort food was closest at hand.
"A jester unemployed is nobody's fool." —Danny Kaye
The professional quitter learns to listen to his gut.
Quitting London at the exact right time set me on a path that revitalized my career and ultimately allowed me to quit an even more damaging influence: Alcohol. I quit TechCrunch after AOL started to aggressively interfere with editorial policy and right after Arianna Huffington gave Sarah's job (while she was in labor) to the hapless Erick Schonfeld. But I was long gone by the time Michael Arrington made international headlines for claims of abuse made (and later redacted) by an ex-girlfriend. I quit Uber years before the true extent of the company's awfulness started to become clear. The election of Donald Trump was clearly the right time to quit social media, and to quit storing data in the cloud.
And so when my gut said it was time to remove myself from the Silicon Valley swamp (pictured above) I listened. I deleted all my online accounts and promised myself I'd only think about the swamp during work hours.
The cull complete, I waited for the familiar wave of relief: For the “you made a good decision” chemicals to flood my brain.
But the relief didn't come.
Still hasn't come.
It's not hard to figure out why: When I realized my life in London was unhealthy, I didn't change neighborhoods. I left London. When my drinking took me to rock bottom, I didn't just switch from rum to beer. I quit booze, and wrote about my decision publicly so I couldn't quietly relapse. Cold turkey, no half measures.
My gut wasn't telling me to delete my iTunes account, or Twitter, or Facebook. It wasn't telling me to limit my exposure to the swamp. It was telling me that I needed to stop engaging with tech awfulness completely. To stop thinking about it, to stop talking about it, to stop enabling it and... loudest of all.. to stop writing about it.
I could listen to my gut, or ignore it. But there was no middle ground. No half measure.
Today, I'm choosing to listen. Today I'm quitting the "toxic tech" beat. Completely. Entirely.
This might seem like an odd time to quit writing about tech awfulness: The exact moment when so much of my criticism of Silicon Valley is being vindicated. In fact, the timing is perfect.
Five years ago it often felt like I was the only one writing about the awfulness of, say, Uber. For good reason: I often was the only one writing about the awfulness of, say, Uber. Back then tech bros like Travis Kalanick were hailed as modern day Robin Hoods and – to paraphrase God's own dipshit, Paul Graham – you could tell how unpopular a journalist was by how aggressively they questioned them.
Today, tech awfulness is everyone's beat. “It must feel good to be right!”, readers frequently joke via email about Uber or Wikileaks or Facebook or holacracy or Thiel or Kalanick or Whestone or any one of a dozen other organizations and people I've covered, as if a hypochondriac would be thrilled to have his worst diagnostic fears confirmed.
But no. The fact that spotting tech toxicity has become my “thing” is exactly the problem. Another lesson I learned a long time ago: When something toxic comes to define you, it's time to stop.
Moreover, I never really planned to be a tech writer. That happened by accident when I was still at university and a one-off column for the Guardian accidentally became the start of a career. Even then, punditry was always in tandem with my actual job – a satirical political newsletter, then books and TV stuff. Even at TechCrunch, my real job was writing a book about hotels, or gallivanting around Vegas, or – ultimately – starting a comedy magazine in the desert. When I joined Pando, my job was to edit wide-ranging investigative reports and help build the “product” (unlocks, subscriptions, all that good stuff.)
It's only in the past couple of years - starting when Uber pledged to spend $1m to “go after” Sarah's family – has writing about the swamp become my full time job. A full time toxic swamp snorkeler.
And now it's time to take off the flippers before my eyeballs turn green and I grow a third ear.
TO BE VERY CLEAR: Quitting writing about tech awfulness doesn't mean I'm quitting writing in toto. It certainly doesn't mean I'm quitting Pando Media, not now and not ever. I REPEAT: I AM NOT LEAVING PANDO.
In fact, starting next week, here on Pando, I'm launching a new weekly column. It's called - appropriately enough - The Quitter and will appeal (I hope) to readers who enjoyed projects like my Las Vegas Hotel Diary. What it won't be is about the tech industry. At all.
I love working with Sarah and our insufferably talented team of writers and contributors and I'll happily continue doing that, as an editorial director and product monkey - til the end of time. That's the job I was actually hired to do, and I can't wait to get back to it.
Away from Pando, I have a brace of big writing projects – fiction and non-fiction – that have been limping along, or put on hiatus, thanks to my near constant anguish and agony caused by trying to write four weekly diatribes about the worst people in the universe. (Writing likable, three dimensional fictional characters is particularly difficult, it turns out, when your day is spent writing real life two dimensional monsters.) Action item: Reassure my book agent that I haven't pulled a Christopher Knight.
(If you're curious about those projects, my email newsletter thing is my last surviving platform for self-promotion. Action item #2: Send weekly updates.)
I also want to get back to writing stupid stuff for fun: One-off pieces on one-off subjects for smaller/specialty publications, like the articles I wrote for Food and Wine (about room service chocolate), or National Geographic (about Vegas) or the weird German psychology magazine that cold emailed me and asked me to write about dating American women. In German.
But as for the daily horror show that is the tech industry – after 15 long years, I've said all I have to say.
Five years ago my stepping away from this beat might have left a medium sized hole. Today, hopefully, it'll barely leave a scratch. On Pando, Sarah is – for my money at least – doing the best work of her career in exposing the misogynist and predatory extent of the Valley's bro culture. Regular correspondents like Kevin Kelleher and Dan Raile continue to deliver reporting and analysis that makes me chartreuse with envy, while one-off contributors like Alex Halperin can be relied upon to upset all the right people in all the right ways.
I cede the wider landscape to folks like Erin Griffith at Fortune, Alyson Shontell at Business Insider – not to mention William Alden, Eric Newcomer, Ellen Huet, Johana Bhuiyan and, of course, Yasha Levine and Mark Ames. Aimee Groth is doing the Lord's work on Zappos and the Downtown Project and Mike Isaac is making up for lost time by breaking scoop after scoop on Uber over at the New York Times.
Book-wise, I encourage you to read Antonio Garcia Martinez, and Kevin Mitnick, and Nick Bilton on Silk Road, and Brad Stone on Amazon (but not Brad Stone on Uber, unless you have a wall that needs punching). Jonathan Taplin's Move Fast and Break Things seems like it might be worth a look too.
The fact there are so many great, muckraking tech writers to recommend underscores my point that covering tech awfulness is no longer the lonely furrow it once was.
It's just that, for me at least, it has become an increasingly unhealthy one. And so, with gratitude to everyone who has read and supported my swamp reporting over the years, I quit.
Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando