Some thoughts on hope and despair
My despair that my company is not what I believed and hoped it was diminishes into insignificance compared with my despair that my country is not what I believed and hoped it was.
It's been easy for me to conflate the two, but they're not the same thing.
I find it really difficult, at this point in my life, to see that anything is a net positive. My experience with my past enthusiasms has been that all the while they were doing real damage that I couldn't (or wouldn't) see.
Is the internet a net positive? Who can say? (When Henry Kissinger asked Chou En-Lai what the Chinese thought about the French Revolution, the answer he got was, "It's too soon to tell.")
I feel like my profession made me this way. Working at Google has made this tendency even worse. (Or better. Being attentive to failure modes is useful.)
A generation ago, the TV journalist Eric Severaid observed, "The chief cause of problems is solutions." I feel like in our business, this is literally true. Everything that we push out the door either disappears without a trace or changes the world in ways we couldn't foresee.
In the early days of the atomic bomb, the physicist Freeman Dyson was an avid proponent of nuclear testing. Every controlled detonation of an atomic bomb answered a fundamental question about physics. Our knowledge of the physical world advanced one explosion at a time.
In time, Dyson observed that every test that answered a fundamental physical question also produced data that raised multiple new fundamental physical questions. Using this method to explore physics would lead to an exponentially growing number of atomic explosions. Once he worked this out, he switched to opposing nuclear testing.
I have never been able to watch this ad without tearing up.
(I just watched it again, and I am wiping my eyes, again.)
It's a true story. I don't mean that it's a story that actually happened in exactly the way that it's portrayed. But it's true. This happened. It is happening all the time.
So are a lot of other stories that aren't quite as idealized or charming or upbeat, sure.
Mikhail Zoschchenko said, "Man is excellently made, and eagerly lives the kind of life that is being lived." What we do is woven into that, everywhere. The good we do, and the ill we do, is, above all, a function not of the things we've built but of the uses to which people put them.
That is out of our hands.
That's not an excuse for being irresponsible, where we've been irresponsible. It doesn't exonerate our wrongs.
But in a real sense, the question, "Is Google a net positive?" has the same answer as, "Is humankind a net positive?"
The United States is operating concentration camps. Children are dying in them. Americans appear to be collectively incapable of preventing this, not least because a substantial minority of Americans support the effort.
At the time I'm writing this, I don't even know whether or not we've started our war with Iran.
It keeps getting hotter and hotter, and we're running out of road.
There's a truism floating around, a reaction to a certain kind of blithe assholery that's gotten a lot of traction in American business: Your job is not your family.
This is self-evident. And the things that go along with that truism - you shouldn't feel obligated to attend social functions with your co-workers, you should disconnect at the end of the day and not let your job take over your life, HR is not your friend - are, themselves, also self-evident, or should be.
You can slip into work, do your job, and go home, and not ever connect with your co-workers.
But you can also involve yourself in the drama that is their professional and personal lives. You can empathize with them. You can care about them. You can help them.
I can't tell you that you should do this. Everyone's different.
What I can tell you is that every time I have extended myself in the service of helping another person, I have gotten a little happier. My co-workers at Google have been funny, depressed, prickly, glowering, opaque, tragic, loving, inattentive, lost, ambitious, and really, really weird. There isn't a one of them that I haven't been able to help.
My actual job job, the one I get paid for and measured on, is often boring and frustrating. When I think, "Is my work a net positive for the world?" it's a good day if my answer is a shrug of the shoulders.
But I love my co-workers. Even the ones I don't like very much.
This is the most important thing for me. For all my doubts and fears and confusion about the massive institution that employs me, the regime I live under, the world that seems spiraling into oblivion, I've got people around me whose lives I can make a little bit better.
Marguerite Yourcenar: "When we strike a child, or speak to it harshly, or treat it in a way that diminishes its enthusiasm for life, we betray our fundamental mission as human beings, which is to leave the universe better organized than we found it."
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