the joy of not cooking

Much like they recently did with the drought, the New York Times has found a West coast phenomenon to report on in their piece1.New York Times about Soylent, the protein-powder meal replacement that’s gained a dedicated following (as well as venture funding) in the tech industry, and its ilk. Soylent is fine, if you are inclined to consume what I can only imagine can be described as “tasting like nothing, but worse”. I couldn’t see myself getting on a waitlist for that kind of thing, so spare me that assumption. The focus of the piece was not on Soylent itself – they covered that last year2.New York Times – but on the trend of Silicon Valley’s army of coders and entrepreneurs forgoing traditional meals for a tall glass of protein powder, in the interest of being more productive. While I read the article, my thoughts turned to the future, because Silicon Valley is where the future happens before you really want it to, and they went a couple of ways.

I read about my peers, the coders, who view their self-sacrifice as virtuous, and where their extreme ambition, by today’s standards, could fall in line with the other tech industry norms that would have been unheard of in a pre-dot-com world. Tech workers are not a monolith, but the way that we talk about ourselves (and are talked about) has a very real impact on the way we are understood as a demographic. We are rockstars, devil-may-care wizards of our craft with a rider of Red Bull and pizza on the company dime. We work hard and play hard, and are happy to follow up a month of crunch time with a big blowout party with our colleagues. We do what we love, motivated not just by the check that we live on but the mission we live for, an immaterial compensation that the visionaries at the helm have provided to us by merely existing. What isn’t part of that lexicon is an honest account of the competition, which is not wholly unlike that of every other economy; The Internship may have been a fun3.not that it was actually much fun: AV Club look inside the office-playgrounds at Amphitheatre Parkway or Hacker Way or Infinite Loop, but there’s nothing quite so endearing about tales of attrition and alienation at Amazon4.Gawker, constant crunch in the games industry5.Kotaku, a CEO publicly rescinding an offer to a candidate who asked for career advice online6.Discussion on Quora, offending comment deleted7.Screenshot by Rod Begbie (twitter), or a wage-theft lawsuit that involved a stacked cast of heavyweight corporations in the valley8.Pando. Is this what we’re racing to the bottom for?

This says a lot about the tech landscape, but what is also telling is the way it dictates life outside the confines of the office park as well. San Francisco seems to be mired in a game of whack-a-mole with startups trying to monetize its public parking9.SFGate, and they already settled their battle against private use of their transportation infrastructure by the shuttles for an absolute pittance10.San Francisco Examiner. City councils in Santa Clara County’s transit district have voted against improving a vital bus corridor, with Sunnyvale in particular citing the self-driving future as a reason to vote nay on restructuring traffic flows along the route11.StreetsBlog SF. Struggling public school systems are in competition with charters focused on computerized learning12.Hack Education13.Salon. How does a trend like Soylent fit into this future? As a time-saver for professionals, less hungry for a decent meal than a professional record that hopefully translates to a good deal more money down the line? As sustenance for those living an augmented existence, wired into google glass and entertainment and virtual reality, with their IDE running in the background, too attentive to their stats to focus on things that don’t have a game layer? As a budgetary measure for school lunches, or an industrial foodstuff for the masses to survive on while the upper crust dine on whatever artisan fruits and vegetables and locally-sourced meats14.Jacobin haven’t been ravaged by drought? It’s impossible to know, and industry-backed schemes don’t always succeed15.SFist, but they can have a habit of sticking around more than most people would want them to.

I read about my peers, and the various ways driven workers in all professional fields prove their devotion to their careers. Long hours and shitty dinners and an urge to follow up on email on vacation are certainly not unique to software engineers. Deadlines, release dates, presentations, and the occasional panicked phone call are facts of professional life. But the tech industry stands out with respect to the reverence it pays towards them. The basic facts of life are equalizers; you and your CEO may not have much in common, but you both need to eat, sleep, and get dressed every morning. It speaks volumes about the valley that disruptions to those functions seem to warrant more discussion about specifics than debate about whether or not they’re setting a new standard for work-life penetration.

The most basic commonality to all human experience – more universal than how we eat or sleep or put on pants in the morning – is our mortality. That we will all die on our journey is a truly terrifying fact, yet it is there, staring back coldly at us as we gaze toward all points on the horizon, no matter our station. Some people cope with this by dedicating their lives to service or sloth, some by chemically altering their consciousnesses to better reason with death or ignore it altogether, some by building personal monuments to opulence and comfort that are the envy of all or disavowing all manner of wealth and possession because they can’t take it with them, some by cowering in fear of it and some by provoking it, flirting with it, taunting it, seeing how close they can get to the abyss without destroying themselves.  We traverse the mortal coil navigating between these various extremes, making choices big and small, guided by only our understanding of the consequences and the forces that bring them about. In the end, it is not my personal concern if a peer of mine eschews a burrito in favor of a vitamin-rich slurry so he or she can spend an extra five hours in a week dedicating service to someone else’s startup scheme. But as us two, me and this peer of mine, lie on otherwise parallel deathbeds, as they unplug us from whatever simulation – digital or analog – diverts us from our pain, and explain to us that despite their best efforts, the healthcare system does not have the means to keep our bodies in working order, that all the vital-sign monitoring and synthesized tissue and bespoke heart valves and futuristic procedures could not meaningfully extend our time on this earth, regardless of who’s paying for it all, as we consider the sacrifices we made to reach that end, I will have a few spare memories of al pastor meat leaking grease through foil or burning the roof of my mouth on a hot egg sandwich or every once in a while properly executing the alchemical rites to cooking a decent meal, and my peer will have memories of blending a nutritionally-sufficient powdered beverage in the interest of logging a few extra hours at a terminal. Neither decision is particularly important, and the richness of the human experience is a subjective thing, but I imagine my peer will wonder why he or she did that, and if it made any difference.

References   [ + ]

1. New York Times
2. New York Times
3. not that it was actually much fun: AV Club
4. Gawker
5. Kotaku
6. Discussion on Quora, offending comment deleted
7. Screenshot by Rod Begbie (twitter)
8. Pando
9. SFGate
10. San Francisco Examiner
11. StreetsBlog SF
12. Hack Education
13. Salon
14. Jacobin
15. SFist