tech brain

in school when we learned about computers they were intricate and abstract: transistors assembled into raw logic, compilers that compiled themselves, networks of matrices that found patterns in shapeless masses of data. we celebrated simplicity, but complexity was part of the beauty of the thing too, and it was a challenge and a joy to put on some techno at two in the morning and try holding entire systems in my head, anticipating bad inputs and edge cases, searching all night for that elusive maestro feeling when all the threads lined up just perfect.

it is very hard to reconcile my best experiences of computers with certain realities of the tech industry, particularly the one where i log onto twitter and rediscover each day that everyone is being a big fucking baby all the time. i experience a lot of cognitive dissonance here, because while in my day-to-day i am lucky to work with some brilliant, generous engineers who make me want to sink hours and hours into figuring out how to understand my work better and build cool things, the larger tech ecosystem — by which i mean the unending pandemonium of startups, venture capital, hacker news, tech twitter, elon musk, that kind of thing — feels deeply infected by a shitty, demoralizing mindset i am going to call “tech brain.”

what is tech brain? there are lots of things to point to, but if i had to come up with a thesis it would be that tech brain is a sort of constant willful reductionism: an addiction to easy answers combined with a wholesale cultural resistance to any kind of complexity. most of the time it manifests in ways ranging from the annoying but mostly innocuous (the trend of measuring human relationships with scalar metrics and OKRs; the way tech types always want to “pick your brain” instead of reading words themselves) to the scammy and frustrating (the obsession with tweet-length aphoristic “wisdom”; the industrywide tendency toward band-aid solutions for everything from faulty code to company culture to society itself). when i think of tech brain in this mostly-benign common form i think of this tweet, which has been bouncing around my skull endlessly since i saw it a few months ago:

to me this is one of the purest distillations of tech brain that i can imagine. it’s got everything: meaningless words disguised as insight by a short, catchy sentence structure; the flattening of “pessimism” and “optimism” into a simple binary (pessimism, optimism about what?); the implication that ideas like success and hope boil down to just making money; the devaluation of critics, who can only “sound smart” and not actually be smart or have real concerns; the total decontextualization of the quote (big-time CEO said it, what else do you need); the massive reach in retweets and likes of this post in comparison to other, actually interesting thoughts from the same person; and finally, the whole mind-numbing, self-aggrandizing culture that leads not just grifters but also otherwise curious, thoughtful, admirable people to make posts as silly as these in the first place. it’s a perfect tweet. i think about it all the time.

there is also a much more malicious form of tech brain, which has gotten itself a lot of airtime recently in a variety of increasingly absurd online fights about tech and the media, tech and politics, and so on. in its worst form, tech brain is reductionism in service of bad-faith arguments and persistent hypocrisy and, sometimes, straight-up hatred dressed in a thin layer of shitty logic. more and more discussions on tech twitter and forums like hacker news these days are just unbelievably simple cesspools of ahistoricism and false binaries, propped up by a truly insane level of credulity from people watching who i guess think bad logic is okay if the guy posting the bad logic made a few million dollars once or something. people who in theory spend all day on moving systems and edge cases suddenly forget that immigrants can be noncitizens, that authoritarians take many forms, that saying something is bad doesn’t imply all other things are good, that rejecting hypocrisy doesn’t somehow entail unilateral support of any one side.

i don’t know how we got here. maybe we’re drunk on instant easy code, maybe we’ve gone stupid from the california sun. part of it, maybe, is that lingering naiveté from the early days of computing, where we thought we could make utopia just by forgetting where we came from and leaving all the old world’s messiness behind. part of it is the constant corrosive decontextualization of platforms like twitter, especially the insular, yes-men-filled circles of tech twitter. a lot of it is the increasing cultural dominance in tech of “business,” or the relentless pursuit of wealth and capital, which can be a powerful and generative incentive force but which i am more and more convinced causes brain rot at its extreme, such that one forgets how to see things beyond their projections into the single flat dimension of “value.” all of this probably happens in every field to some degree, but it’s especially sad when technology holds so many fascinating and difficult questions, and so much potential to shape and undergird the entire world.

when i get too deep into it i think i’m going insane. i guess a lot of this sounds like i think i’m smarter than everyone else, but like so many other young adults entering the world i am mostly desperately searching for guidance all the time, and it’s an odd and brutal kind of demoralizing to be constantly let down by shitty reasoning and cargo culting and empty hero worship everywhere. you start wondering, am i crazy? am i just dumb? am i infected by tech brain too, digging myself into my own equally malformed and one-dimensional logical holes? the VCs sure don’t seem to struggle with these questions. it’s an exhausting state of mind. it doesn’t feel good to be tired and frustrated and dismissed by people and systems that refuse to change. it doesn’t seem right that so many of my friends in this industry, who legitimately love computers and building and designing new things on them, are always talking about all the things we’ll do when we finally get to leave.

lately i have been trying to extricate myself from tech brain as much as i can. on twitter, this means muting most VCs and founders and everyone participating in the endless bullshit economy we’ve made for ourselves — i’d mute myself if i could — and instead following the people who choose to embrace complexity and thereby actually build things: systems experts, game designers, chip engineers, hackers, artists. turns out most people who actually build things are thoughtful and sincere, and very few of them give a single shit about whatever bad takes are circulating VC twitter that day. i try to remind myself that instead of reading tweets that make me feel like my synapses are collapsing one by one i could be learning new programming languages, reading papers on arxiv, debugging systems at work, reading poetry, listening to music, hanging out with my friends and engaging in messy human drama, which resists reduction more than anything else there is. i haven’t really come close to achieving this goal — every few weeks something gets to me, and i’m writing this sad, stupid post after all — but i’m trying, i think, i really am. check back in a few months to see if i’ve managed to stay sane.