Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Footnotes from a non-fan

This whole Robin Williams thing, eh? I couldn't call myself a fan, and yet his death has prompted so much talk of suicide that it seems to have reached people who wouldn't otherwise have been overly engaged by the ending of his life.

One thing that's great is that some of those making commentary are doing so from the perspective of their own suicidal inclinations.

How refreshing; death is part of life, after all, and given that sentient humans are capable of choosing to end our own lives, it seems silly to pretend the thought never entered our collective mind.

We must all have known people who have taken their own lives. We can, surely, also assume that we've all thought about it in relation to ourselves, either in abstract or more practical terms. Even those now asking what Williams could possibly have had to be depressed about must have given the topic more than a passing thought.

This suicide is the first I've heard of since last year, when I woke in the middle of the night with the same compulsion. That time, it was a compulsion—unexpected, overwhelming, necessary. I never fought so hard against anything as I did against that. I was never so scared of—or for—myself.

Whenever I hear of a suicide, my first thought is, "Oh! If only they'd told someone!" Because things change, and suicidal hours or weeks can segue into mere difficulty, given time. But time is crucial. And the suicide doesn't care for it—what matters is this moment. Which is why it's so important to be there for anyone who express a desire to die.

I told just one person about that night: the friend I felt closest to. I wrote to them a couple of days later, but they did not respond. They kept silent, told no one. And when I finally confronted them, just recently, months after the fact, they brushed it off, saying, "It wasn't real" while avoiding my gaze.

Self-harm is hard to come to, even for some of the supposedly intelligent, respected, sensitive people who might claim to be your friends.

When a famous person loses a death-battle with something—drugs, mental illness, whatever—the media, and we as part of it, rush to encourage others to ask for help if they need it, as if there's a solution in the seeking. There's not.

Self-harm is complex because we are complex. Both those who want to do it, and those who would stop them, are human. We make choices on the basis of sentiment rather than sense. We all are weak. Those who have never wanted to kill themselves are no "better off" than those who have.

There is no "better off". There's only this moment, and what you do in it.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

So you think the tech industry's fucked...

"The greatest minds of our time are dedicating themselves to making a Buy button more clickable."

So moaned someone in my Twitter feed last week (or something similar), and then someone else this week. And then I read this post about how everyone's disillusioned by the dystopia we've made.

All of which prompted this Public Service Announcement. I think it's time we faced some facts.

1. The greatest minds of our time are not building web interfaces. Or even websites.

Apparently the web worker's self-obsession has now reached a point where even in condemning the culture in which we work, we naturally continue to regard ourselves and our peers as members of some kind of elite.

We're at once insatiably competitive and exclusionary in the extreme. It's as if, on some level, building the web has convinced us we're God's gift to humanity—or at least the first world. Yet there's so much going wrong in the world, and we don't know what to do.

Well, here's the thing. We are not the greatest minds of our time. We're not even working with 99% of them.*

Some of the things the greatest minds of our time are doing include:
  1. Developing research technologies to study things like the brain, space, hadal zones and genetics.
  2. Tirelessly lobbying governments for things like social justice and environmental policy.
  3. Working with and in support of individuals in disadvantaged, dangerous and difficult situations.
  4. Making art.
Good news! The greatest minds of our time are out doing great things for humanity and our planet! They're not bothered with buttons.

2. Selling things on the internet is not serious business.

Web workers love to take their work very seriously, as if doing serious work will warrant our being taken seriously as people. But even if your Serious Internet Business has shareholders or investors, what the vast, vast majority of web workers do aids only in profiteering. And—come on!—profiteering is hardly serious business.

Serious business comprises all the kinds of things we're rushing to social media to express grave distress about:
  • governments blowing up schools full of children
  • rebels stealing schools full of children
  • children shooting up schools full of children
  • governments sending boatloads of children to certain psychological disaster in detention
  • rebels shooting planeloads of people, including children, out of the sky
  • entire nations denying basic human rights to entire generations of children, or children of a certain gender
  • entire cohorts of rebels systematically abusing the basic human rights of entire cultures of human beings—or just killing them
  • environmental disaster
  • food and water security
  • disease.
More good news: this kind of actual serious business tends to be what the greatest minds of our time are focused on.

3. There is no point loving technology for technology's sake.

I know, so many would laughingly scoff at such an assertion and say I'm crazy. We love technology! What's wrong with loving technology?

This. Loving technology for itself is like loving words for themselves. What good are words unless they say something valuable? What good is technology unless it does something that's actually valuable in the context of the serious business I mentioned above?

And if you have the insight and skill to create technology, what are you doing wasting your days on anything but projects of value?

Really. What are we doing?

You have arguments, I'm sure. We're all entitled to fun, right? And hey, connecting [paying audience] with [charged service] is valuable to those people! Your USB-cup-warmer-monitoring-app enriches users' lives! And, listen, you have a child to feed, clothe and educate in a system that, if you're in Australia (or other first-world country that values individual over community wellbeing) will cost you your home or said child the opportunity to buy one for themselves.

Well, here's the thing. That keep-me-comfortable attitude keeps us miserable. We work in what should be one of the most progressive industries there is. Yet technology is beset by exactly the same conservative, patriarchal, short-sighted self-protectionism as every other sector.

What we don't seem to get is that we're part of the problem.

At the very least, we've got to see what we do in the context of what's happening in the world, not what's happening in our industry. What we do is not life-and-death. In most cases, it's not even important! If your biggest challenge for the day is an intellectual one, you're laughing. Have fun! Enjoy it.

Of course, we can always go further, and use our powers for actual, objective good. The good not just of our own children, but of the entire generation that can't afford to get an education any more. Or can't attend school without fear of death. Or doesn't have any schools to go to. 

That should be what we're doing, don't you think?

*Figures are approximate.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

This is not about you

A friend tweeted this today and it touched something of a nerve. Three lines in particular:

"If there's not a penis or an MBA involved, a decision can not be made." This seemed to sum up the whole of my working life—which has, admittedly, involved two brief stints outside of IT.

The line, "I don't want to fuck them [my colleagues] over" was another.

The line "I'm grateful" induced rage.

The problem of workplace sexism is everyone's problem. It's an unavoidable fact that commerce is dominated by men, and we've all been raised in a commercial environment that has gender bias at its core. That's history.

The problem is that, despite the opportunity that emerging industries like technology have to change this situation, they continue to fail to even begin to do so at the most basic level. It is a great disappointment to see such an opportunity squandered.

And women, dare I say it, aren't exactly great at advancing the cause. Why not? Take a look at the comic.

"I don't want to fuck them over."
First, we always disqualify our current employers, colleagues and friends from the public comments we make on gender bias.

I enjoy my current workplace but that sentence about penises, MBAs and decisions applies everywhere I've worked. That's not a slight on all my employers and clients and colleagues ever: it's a statement on the nature of the tech industry.

Alas, frequently, even when those things are present a decision remains elusive. In my experience, tech "decision-makers" are terrible at it. Male decision-makers, in particular, dilly-dally.

So much so that these days, one of my standard fallbacks when I'm dealing with someone who's flipflopping over a decision on something I've presented is, "Oh, sure, well, if you want to make that call, that's fine. Is that the directive then?" It never is. There's always a lot of backpedalling. I use this tactic because it's proven time and time and time again to be the shortest route to getting my ideas approved: reverse psychology works a treat on the indecisive.

These are the kinds of tactics women develop to get around gender-related bullshit. Which is entrenched in the industry. Including wherever it is that you work.

"I'm grateful."
Second, women go around stating publicly that we're "grateful" for our jobs. What, have we just come out of the Great Depression or something?

Technology work is work. It's a commercial exchange: your talents and your time for money. If you're any good at all, you'll be able to get work. Right now, most tech employers are bending over backward to offer free lunches and open bars and god knows what else to attract good people. People like you.

It's time we stop saying we're "grateful" for our jobs and accept the fact that, like everyone else in the workforce, we've just earned them. It's that simple. And that boring.

#lovemyjob
Third, we're too quick to jump on the love-my-job startup bandwagon. Where's the healthy scepticism, people?

If you want an example of a sector that's inherently masculine, in which exclusivity is entrenched and beer-swilling-brotherhood cliqueyness is not just the norm but actively demanded by employees, tech startup culture is it. Look no further, ladies. Step right up, be overworked and underpaid, start drinking at 11am and hashtag all your tweets #lovemyjob.

Why does anyone do this? Could it be that leaping aboard the startup-worship bandwagon is seen as an easy way to fit into what is an inherently exclusive culture? I hope it's not just that.

But let's face it: startups aren't objectively better places to work than established businesses. They have nothing intrinsic to recommend them over five- or 15- or 150-year old companies. They're just at a different place in their boring old company life cycle.

Maybe that suits you better at this point in your life. Great. Go nuts! Just leave out the propaganda.

It's not about you
That piece does much to point out that sexism isn't personal: it's general. It's inherent. It's not about me or you. It's not about employers we've had or clients we've worked with.

It's about incredibly uncreative thinking on the part of people who run and manage and work in technology businesses and who, supposedly, have both people and profitability at heart.

For women to proliferate the myth that working in technology is some kind of miracle, and that they're "lucky" and their company is "great" while pointing out that the industry is appallingly, inherently gender biased is duplicitous at best, and deliberately undermines the advancement of both women and the industry as a whole at worst.

Isn't it time we took a more balanced approach?

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Having a story

I know I've entered short story competitions before, but I can't remember them. I think that's why I was eager to do something for the 2014 Jolley Prize.

These days, what with a steady job and all, there's plenty of time and space for feeling that sense that, out of nowhere, rises up in the nerves, the pit of the stomach, the backs of the eyes: the sense that you have a story.

I didn't enter the competition to win; I entered it to write something creative to a word limit and a deadline. I entered to see what was waiting in me, ready to be construed somehow through the process of transposition from brain to page.

I don't know that the story is very good, but I'm pleased with it at least. It's not just an end in itself, though. The act of getting it down, polishing it up, and putting it together has opened the possibility to doing that again. Doing it more.

What else is lying in wait? What else is waiting here?

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

[too fast]

Speeding car;
blurred lights;
metronome: my heart.

Dark images,
dark imaginings:
the empty self
in the rain-slick path.

Careening cars
and mindless lights.
Strummed lungs,
deadened legs.
Bright windshield,
bright lightning;
empty hands 
and the black wasteland.

The rain: split diamonds
on the windscreen,
spilt gems
against the glass.
The world falls
and lists—
reflection/distortion
—we're going far too fast.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

It's time

Okay, so I finished The Goldfinch. The fact that I started in in January should give you a sound idea of how slow a reader I actually am. Whatever.

The bigger question is: what next?

The big answer is: Cannery Row.

It's been a while since I sat down with any Steinbeck. I think the time has come. Your warnings are welcome, but will likely not be heeded. John and I go back a ways, you see. It's time I paid him a visit.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Obsessions

One great thing about reading all of an author's work is the insight it gives into that person and their obsessions.

Donna Tartt and childhood bereavement. Bret Easton Ellis and self-obsessed paranoia. Cormac McCarthy and how love destroys us.

I spent the last year reading McCarthy's The Border Trilogy, which undoubtedly accounted for the lack of activity on this blog—all my thoughts were dismantled, held hostage by McCarthy's breathtaking, exquisitely horrific view of life.

When I say McCarthy, people mention The Road or No Country for Old Men, both of which are romps, rollicks, mere excursions when compared to the massive, marathon-esque insurmountability of McCarthy's unrelenting hopelessness in The Border Trilogy. I recommend it.

But all of these are Americans. By comparison, I've started to realise how apparently conservative, how seemingly gallant and polite are the British authors I've read. Their world view is more proper, more cultivated, and their works lack the staring, helpless overwhelm of the Americans.

Yet authors like Greene and Godden, Du Maurier and Lawrence reveal obsessions as ungraspable as the Americans'—they just do it more subtly.

With the Americans, you put the book down at the end of a passage gasping from the force of emotion in those paragraphs. You're as overwhelmed as they are.

With the Britons, you put the book down at the end of the passage in wonder, because what you thought was happening there was in fact a mask for something much deeper, and while you were caught up on the surface, you now realise, the author was whispering a darker, second story to your soul.

Either way, though, you get to the truth.

Right now I'm reading an author of each nationality. Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch presents the same premise as her previous two books: a great loss in childhood, and enormous, unapproachable grief to which some parts of the character, at least, must somehow adapt. And each line is designed to engulf the reader a little more completely, viz.:

"What had happened, I knew, was irrevocable, yet at the same time it seemed there had to be some way I could go back to the rainy street and make it all happen differently."