is there a cure for existential loneliness?

making friends and meaning in the burnout society

Dear Claire,

Thank you for everything you have shared on Tech Support so far - it's the only place where I hear anything close to my own experience. That's the reason I'm writing.. loneliness.

I simply don't know how to reconcile my destructive experience of working at Google with how my family and friends perceive the company ("how bad can it really be? they do loads of cool stuff!"). I'm currently on long term disability leave after having a severe depressive breakdown. The cognitive dissonance demanded between the outer image of 'solving the world's biggest problems' and the reality - surveillance capitalism fuelled with vanity projects and promo packet inflation - almost cracked me. I became suicidal, walking around the campus imagining myself floating from the top of buildings, confused, disoriented yet needing to remain in the Bay Area for personal reasons. When my therapist forced me to take leave, I couldn't make sense of anything. I felt like my memory, my preferences, had been wiped.

Since then, my mental health has gradually been improving, but the experience has permanently changed me as a person. I can't "unsee" what I saw inside big tech. Although my family knows I have had some challenges, they don't see the difference between run-of-the-mill stress and a fully blown existential crisis precipitated by the exploitative nature of bottomless corporate greed which made me feel life was no longer worth living. I wish there was a support group dedicated to ex-tech existential crisis 'survivors' because I am so burdened by carrying this experience away from anyone who has seen the same version of reality with their own eyes. What can I do? Should I give up hope that my social circle will ever take the toxic side of tech seriously? Do I need to make peace with the loneliness of living my own truth?

Alone in the Void

Shalom, Alone <3

I’ve been staring at this dumbly for months, hoping that a sharper/wiser worldview from which to respond would magically materialize. Alas. (The only thing I have to show for most of the summer and fall is having watched the ENTIRETY of a YouTube channel that scrupulously analyzes celebrities’ plastic surgery, and while that did “resculpt” my worldview so to speak, not in a way that allows me to “contribute something back to society,” per se.) Anyway. I recently thumbed through The Circle and frankly in 300 pages Eggers didn’t render The Dark Night of the Tech Worker Soul as vividly as you do in a few sentences. “My memory, my preferences, had been wiped.” Chills, for real.

The movie plays itself: we see you (an intensely zoned-out Anya Taylor-Joy) pacing an empty Google HQ in broad daylight. You look dazed but driven, on a mission (viewer is aware you’re only 1-2 hieroglyphic clues away from uncovering Google’s secret underground catacombs). We zoom out a little and realize we’re watching a live surveillance feed that’s being piped directly into Eric Schmidt’s wood-paneled man-cave. Schmidt (Christoph Waltz) and Henry Kissinger (guy who plays the dad on Succession) are getting pedicures and massages from a fleet of Emily Ratajkowski clones. Kissinger jabs a finger at the screen. “She eez a threat to the natural order, Eric,” he hisses. “It eez time.” (if you don’t have a reference point for Kissinger’s amazing old German man vocal fry, I invite you to get one here; also in doing “the research” on this I discovered that literally every video of Henry Kissinger on YouTube has the comments disabled. Hahaha. Grow a pair, uploaders!!!!). Schmidt smirks Christoph Waltz-ily. “Emiiiiiiileeeeee!” he shrieks. All 12 Ratajkowskis whip their heads around. “Bring me the TOTAL ALIENATION button.” (The film picks back up in 2023 in a psych ward. We open on a close-up of Anya, stupendously wide eyes startling open and glowing neon [surviving the attack has imbued her with supernatural powers I guess? why not!]. She smiles and says in a voice hoarse & bitchy: “You work for me now, Mr. Schmidt.” aaaaand now we’re in an alt-universe Bond film where the survival of the human race rides on the success of a global worker uprising, etc).

OK. To grab the lowest-hanging fruit here—will your friends ever take the toxic side of tech seriously? I think……yeah????? It’s the Facebook whistleblower’s world now, we’re just living in it! After a slow, years-long turn of seasons, doesn’t it all of a sudden seem like everyone agrees Big Tech sucks/has too much power/is undoing the fabric of everything, not in the least our minds? Consider the positively ORGIASTIC display in the Senate the day Frances Haugen testified. “Tell us again how bad they are,” the senators said breathlessly. “Oh, won’t Mr. Zuckerberg think of the children?” And then who can forget the next day or whatever when Facebook and Instagram went down for several hours and everyone was genuinely happy for a minute. People were cheering in the streets (…of Twitter…). We’re free at last, we said (until the next day when we resumed semi-voluntary systems-level slavery)! I’d venture to say that disgust of Big Tech is bringing Americans together in a time when we could probably go to civil war on about 6-7 other issues.

But I guess a Gallup poll of tech industry favorability isn’t really a solve (salve? I hate myself for being like this!) for the loneliness accompanying a personal crisis. The phenomenon is more universal than you may think: in a wonderful New Yorker essay about recovering from a suicide attempt, the writer Donald Antrim describes feeling separated from people by a glass wall. “My friends and I occupied, it seemed, different times and places. We were sitting together, but we weren’t together….The world from which they’d come, and to which they would return, was lost to me.” Whoosh. The image is a little too on the nose for my recollection of my last few weeks at Google, which I spent hiding from everybody I knew in an empty glass-walled conference room on a sales floor, watching a couple of tall blonde saleswomen (they were probably just middling mud-brunettes like myself, but what can I say, my memory is a fabulist) click-clacking around, doing whatever “selling Google” entails, racking up bottles of champagne and desk plaques. I viewed their cheerful productivity with total contempt and a little envy. How could they possibly still believe in this / what was wrong with me that I couldn’t?

It certainly helped to know that tons of people at Giggles Inc. were Going Through It™. Meredith and I fielded so many emails from around the company in that last month or two, and met with as many people as we could. Many different stories, various levels of ~systemic critique~, but a shared experience of 1/ being the butt of a manager’s power trip and 2/ (correlation or causation to #1) trying desperately to stay ahead of end-stage disillusionment. The misery runs deep there—know that, sibling!—the totally inevitable mental health crisis that follows putting a million achievers/rule followers in fake jobs with fake rules where the impact on the outside world is so abstracted, it’s essentially negligible (or negative! Love to imagine the performance review process in the era of Google’s rabid, open pursuit of defense contracts: “Liz is a tireless advocate for helping the government kill people for money.”). Yet much of the angst is quiet/invisible because people are programmed to avoid doing or saying anything that might mar their long-term viability in the market and/or everyone has a voice in their head saying the stuff your friends do: “how bad can it be?” “Google does loads of cool things!” (as an aside, I’m struggling to think of one cool thing Google has ever done besides—big teen eye roll—Search?? In fact I think the only cool technological thing I’ve experienced in years is when my new AirPods worked straight out of the box….that did bring me to my knees, to borrow a Poogism….literally where did the future go?).

The gift of these dark convos was realizing how little I was actually losing by leaving Google, the place to which where I’d outsourced my entire framework for life purpose/meaning in lieu of generating my own. This is not to say you have to self-immolate your FTE career like I did or even leave Big Computer altogether: check out this thread in which an ex-Googler says that simply getting a new job at Twitter allowed him to calibrate his antidepressant prescription to its lowest level in years. This is what we’re working with in 2021, people!

Re: where your friends are coming from, all I can say is that it’s a lot easier to believe a bullshit, simplistic view of the world. Getting out of that box is absolutely scary and insane for awhile, but the rewards are big. Think of the opportunity to live life more authentically/honestly/fulfillingly and/or unlock the next level of consciousness on your dharmic journey to enlightenment (as good a time as any to reveal I’ve been listening to QUITE a bit of Ram Dass! ugh cherish you, Baba Ram... “Beyond Success” is such a wise/relevant fave: put it on at night, light some incense, and let it *doobie hand gesture* hiiiiiiiiiiiitttt).

It is really important to have other people supporting you and reinforcing this so idk, if people want me to “fire up a discord server” or whatever we can try that?! Otherwise my practical advice is to do the reading and radicalize yourself (come on in, the water’s fine :). My friend Dan Raile recently described this as the task and obligation of “assembling a history to situate yourself in” (“it’s not for everyone,” he added solemnly). I read the Jakarta Method this summer (which plumbs recently declassified documents to give a comprehensive look at how the US government violently subverted leftism around the world in the name of the Cold War), open-mouthed and humiliated to realize how little I know/knew (also a 101 on how American media baby-brains us all—there’s many a link to Big Tech here, if you know where to look!). Algorithms of Oppression by Safiya Noble to understand the ever-higher stakes of Google. The Burnout Society by the hot German philosopher Byung-Chul Han for the academic explanation for why we’re all depressed to function (yeah, I mean physically hot—normalize saddling men’s work with tidbits about their appearance! What have you done for the women’s movement today?). Chaos by Tom O’Neill on the Manson murders for a rollicking ride through the general WTF/”ok, we officially know nothing” of it all. More grounding perspectives/people/things: I listen to TrueAnon all the time, and CushVlogs, Blowback pod, any crumb we get from the aging sage Mike Davis, Sarah Miller’s newsletter always, the resplendent Talkhole column for the left-leaning lols!! Doesn’t hurt that people who openly acknowledge/appraise the ugliness of the world and care enough to fight for a better one tend to also be—in my experience—absolute sweeties.

In sum, you are not alone, Alone. To quote Thomas Pynchon, “Every weirdo in the world is on my wavelength.” I promise, it’s a good wavelength to be on.