when the world is on fire and you feel like nothing you do matters
on wrestling with hopelessness
Welcome to another edition of How to Work in Tech Without Losing Your Soul, a newsletter that explores the messy relationship between humanity and technology. Before you read this newsletter (7 min read) written from my angry broken heart, here are two projects that are giving me hope right now:
This Friday, June 3, I’m co-hosting a free webinar with Hmnty Cntrd on one of the most requested topics: Leaving Corporate for Entrepreneurship. We’re gonna get candid and practical about what we’ve learned making the jump and staying resilient in a wild economy–even if you don’t intend to leave corporate. Sign up here. (If you can’t make this time, you’ll get a recording.)
In a few weeks, I’ll be teaching the course, ‘Design in a World of Chaos and Uncertainty’ to students at Harbour Space University in Barcelona. The course focuses on how to alleviate fear and build compassion into technology, especially amid chaos, uncertainty, and information fatigue. It also includes an all-women cast of guest speakers from around the world. If this sounds interesting to you, I’d love to teach this course in more professional and academic spaces, so if you know of any, let's chat.
Alright, on to the letter. Content warning: guns.
I keep thinking about that footage of Senator Christopher Murphy standing on the Senate floor, begging his vampire colleagues to “spare me the bullshit” and finally pass legislation that addresses the gun violence in the US. What are we doing he repeated. Why are we here if not to solve a problem as existential as this?
I want to believe that Senator Murphy’s voice of reason and the fact that there have been more mass shootings in the US in 2022 than days in the year, and that 321 people are shot everyday in the US, and that sixty percent of registered voters support banning semi-automatic weapons including nearly half (48 percent) of gun-owning households, and that firearms are the leading cause of death for American children and teens, and that little kids and teachers continue to be killed on the battlefield of their elementary schools, will finally light a garlic-spiced fire up their vampire asses. But I know it won’t.
I’m part of a generation(s)–not only in the US but globally–that didn’t merely lose faith in the institutions of my country and the people who control those institutions; I grew up without any faith in them.
I haven’t shared this story with many people, but to demonstrate this point, I’m sharing it now. At five years old, I was almost killed by a shotgun in Grandma’s living room in rural Michigan. Dad had been out in the woods with Papa, hunting for bucks, when he came back and placed the shotgun in the garage. He put the safety lock on, but it didn’t work. The bullet exploded through the wall, from the garage to the living room, where I was sitting on the couch with Mom, Grandma, and my baby sister. I froze. Dad came running in the house, scrambling to see if we were okay. We were lucky the bullet missed us.
Years later, I learned that five days after this incident, President Clinton signed the Brady Act, mandating background checks for anyone buying a gun, to keep guns out of the wrong hands, away from the bad guys. But Dad wasn’t a bad guy.
Then I learned that the Consumer Product Safety Commission–created by Congress in 1972 with the intention of imposing health and safety standards on consumer products–specifically exempts firearms and ammunition from its requirements.
Perhaps you’ve faced a similar story–up close and personal–because the number of shootings in the US have skyrocketed, because the technology of firearms have advanced without federal safety regulations, because guns are motherfucking everywhere (that incident wasn’t the last time I was around guns and semi-automatic rifles growing up; the US alone owns more than 40 percent of the total number of guns in the world) and because the legislation to address gun violence has either focused on the wrong problem, or, it is being held hostage.
The lack of faith in the political institutions of the US is only getting worse: if you haven’t seen this yet, it’s worth noting that Harvard’s Institute of Politics reported in an April 2022 poll a sharp increase in the last four years in the percentage of 18-to-29-year-olds who believed that “political involvement rarely has tangible results” (36 percent), their vote “doesn’t make a difference” (42 percent) and that “politics today are no longer able to meet the challenges our country is facing” (56 percent). Do the vampires even read these polls? Do they care? Maybe they do care to the extent that they want us to believe there’s nothing we can do so they stay in power for longer? You’re not alone if you feel like there’s not enough garlic in the world to stop them.
BTW, did you know that garlic is prohibited at Buckingham Palace? It all makes sense now.
As we face–not just a couple years but an era–of global political upheaval, bans over our own bodies, violence, vampires, and viruses, we’re also reckoning with obscene wealth disparity, economic instability, and murmurs of another recession. Within tech, its effects have been anything but kind: there’s been a slew of hiring freezes and layoffs, ongoing reorgs, employees at Twitter losing their job while on paternity leave, job offers getting rescinded for new Gen Z graduates like this one from Meta and this one from Redfin and this one from Coinbase, and painfully juxtaposed announcements on LinkedIn from employees listing “We’re hiring!” underneath their name while their message reads, “My team was #laidoff today.”
It’s hard not to feel utterly hopeless. It’s exhausting to try to maintain hope. I wonder whether my own creeping nihilism is a mechanism my nervous system enacts to protect me from the minute-by-minute trauma of the news and our collective reaction to it. Hopelessness–and burnout, its close relative–are frightening facets of the human experience that flourish in conditions like the present day: when you keep trying to change things or claim any sort of agency in this world–even taking risks to do so–but you see no or opposite results, when you see the same calls to action splash across social media but there’s no substantive change, and when it feels like the day-to-day work you’re doing to make a living doesn’t matter in relation to the moment.
Senator Murphy’s “what are we doing” speech lives rent-free in my mind not just because of how haunting it feels to listen to a grown man beg for the safety and survival of humanity, but because of how much the “what are we doing” question could apply to just about everything right now.
What are we doing asking Gen Z which screen of boxes and lines they prefer or creating corporate campaigns to win their favor while offering little to no support for their mental health, organizing efforts, or economic future? What are we doing advancing technology at lightning speed and massive scale with such scant investment in research and safety? What are we doing overworking our tech products to their gills with incessant notifications, ads, marketing emails, and a menu system that requires a complex choreography of mental gymnastics to complete a simple task when all of us are being bombarded with information–traumatizing nonetheless–by the hour? What are we doing obsessing over the number of times someone clicked, or even just looked at, a button? What are we doing going back to work the next day when nineteen children were killed the day before? What are we doing still working five days a week or more when our communities, our families, our schools, our neighborhoods, our health, and our local legislation urgently and consistently needs our time, attention, resources, and care? What are we doing?
The day after the shooting in Uvalde, Texas, AOC called for people to “reject dystopia ‘til the end” and that “hope is an existential decision.” It certainly is, but in times like these, hope can feel distant, vague, another empty wish to toss into our thoughts-and-prayers bucket. I think we have to give hope a shape, so we don’t lose it. I don’t know what shape that is yet, only that I feel the pull to stay curious for what a safer and equitable future looks like–even if I may not see that future in my own lifetime. I stay curious, not just for myself, but for the little kids growing up in this charred world.
Who do we want to be in relation to this moment? What does our anger mean to us and what forms should it be taking? What do we want our technology and industry to do–and not do–in relation to this moment? What will it take for us to work less and return our attention to our communities and local legislation? What actions will we commit to beyond voting and donating? What are we doing to build–not only a safer future–but a future?
Maybe every damn thing we do matters.
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