My Pity Page

Like a lot of geeks, I love computers.

It may sound silly or shallow to love a machine, but I do. Not in the same way as I would love a person, of course, but there are few things in life that give me the sheer pleasure of using a computer. There is no other device that is so engagingly versatile, allowing you to call up information on almost any subject you could think of in a matter of moments. And unlike passive media such as radio or television, the computer lets you interact with that information in a way that's simply not possible with any other form of media that mankind has ever known. I can't deny that I find that exciting and fascinating.

Computers have been my passion in life since I got my first one at the age of 6. Even before then, I was fascinated by these machines, but when I finally got my own, I quickly learned that it was no passing fad for me. I found that I adapted quickly to the computer, and since those early days, computers have been an important part of virtually all my remembered life.

Like most children, as I got older, I began to consider ideas of what I would do for a career when I grew up. My family gave me advice on the usual ideas of becoming a doctor, etc., and while such ideas appealed to some degree, no idea appealed so much as that of working with computers. This prospect was made even more attractive by the fact that as I was growing up, being a computer programmer or technician was a respectable career at which one could be paid a decent wage. Of course other "professional" jobs like being a doctor or lawyer paid much more, but even as a child it seemed obvious to me that making a lot of money wasn't worth the cost of having to spend most of your days performing a job that didn't interest you very much.

And so I studied computers. Along with math, geography, and all the other subjects that children are normally taught, I made it a point to learn what I could about these machines that fascinated me so much. It seemed only logical; why wait until college to learn about your career? Why not get a head start? And I proceeded to do exactly that. All through my early years, and continuing through the entirety of my teenage years, I tried to learn everything I could about computers. I learned how to program them in several different programming languages. I learned about different software programs that were available for different purposes. I learned about hardware, and studied electronics, especially the digital electronics that are the foundation of modern computers. In short, I tried to learn everything about anything that had to do with computers. I can't say that I learned everything there is to know about computers (which of course is humanly impossible), but I did get a pretty broad scope of familiarity with many different aspects of the computer industry.

When I became an adult, the dream continued. As I gradually underwent the metamorphosis into an adult, learning how to drive and getting a driver's license, becoming of legal age, and becoming interested in the opposite sex, I also began to earnestly explore opportunities in the computer industry.

Of course, the center of the computer revolution was the south side of the San Francisco Bay Area, commonly known as Silicon Valley. In my teenage years, a great many people moved to that area in response to the computer boom, and I couldn't see a reason why I shouldn't do the same. So I did. Moving to a place where I could best pursue my career goals seemed like a winning move to me.

In 2003, I moved to Silicon Valley. In retrospect, I now know (and any person who lived in Silicon Valley through the entire life of the technology industry boom and collapse in California can confirm) that this was probably the worst possible time to move to that area. I moved in at a time when a great many people were moving out, forced out by terrible job prospects and high costs of living. Although I'd heard about the downturn in the technology industry, I somehow believed that Silicon Valley was still going strong. In my mind, it just had never seemed possible that the south edge of the San Francisco Bay, the location of almost every major innovation in the computer industry over the last 20 to 30 years, had actually lost its innovation. I felt sure that with all that I knew, I would be able to land a job once I got there.

It took me about a year or so to begin to understand the truth. So convinced was I that I was in the right place that even through much of 2004, I continued to think that I was doing something wrong because I hadn't found any ooportunities. It took me a long time to finally understand that the computer industry had really and truly changed.

Even when the realization finally hit home, for a long time I just couldn't understand it. How was it possible? How could the computer industry, arguably the most important technological and socioeconomic development of my generation, have just disappeared?

Many friends assured me that the industry would be back. They said that it was impossible for computer people to have bad job prospects for much longer, given how important computers had become in society. Certainly, given that we were still living in the near-aftermath of the worst terrorist attacks in the history of the United States, it was understandable that people's minds were on other things besides computers. So like my peers, I accepted that bad times in life are inevitable, and waited for the upturn that always seemed around the corner.

I'm writing this in mid-2005. The upturn I've been long waiting for still hasn't shown up. Indeed, the situation is progressively getting worse. Tech companies in Silicon Valley are still laying people off; jobs are decreasing, not increasing, and this is 5 years after the crash.

The collapse of the computer industry has been very sad for me, for many different reasons. First and foremost, of course, is the loss of livelihood that so many people have experienced. People forced out of their homes, unable to provide for themselves or their familiar because they are unable to get a job, is always a terrible thing to see. But there are other aspects of the tech collapse that make me sad as well.

One thing that deeply disturbs me is how many people seemed to have been in the industry simply because they perceived it as an easy way to get rich. While these people have always existed in the technology industry, it was not apparent just how many of them there were until the big money left. So many people, disenchanged with the idea of getting rich quick off the Net, have rather cheerily moved on to other prospects, without much apparent regret for what they've left behind. What that communicates is that a great many people who were involved in the computer revolution weren't really interested in what computers could do; they were just in it for the money. One of the things that made the computer revolution so wonderful was how many people there seemed to be who were enthralled not just with the money, but with the social benefits they were able to bring to the masses by creating and improving computer technology. What happened to those people? Were they just hypocrites all along, really only interested in the money? Or have they simply vanished, shocked into a stupor by the speedy loss of all that they held dear? Either way, it makes me angry when I hear people who used to work in the computer industry express attitudes like "Oh well, computers are no longer profitable. Boo hoo, time to move on to another industry," while deriding folks like me who mourn the loss of the industry, because it demonstrates that those people were, indeed, never computer people in the first place; they were simply in the field because they thought they might make a fast buck. It makes it abundantly clear just how rare real geeks were, and perhaps this explains why they have largely faded into obscurity.

It grieves me beyond words to see how much of the tech community has simply dried up. Countless websites, small shops, and local communities based on computer culture have vanished without so much as a goodbye. Some of them existed for decades, only to come to an abrupt halt in a matter of months. The loss of community is, to me, indescribable. It leaves me feeling very alone, as if I am a lone computer person in a world of non-computer people. And I am in Silicon Valley! It's like going to Disneyland and finding that somebody has bulldozed it all down.

The disappearance of the computer industry leaves me feeling empty in a way that I am at a loss to describe. I spent my entire life building on the idea that I would be a computer guy when I grew up. Never did a doubt creep into my mind that this might not happen; the computer industry grew steadily all through my childhood. Every year, more houses in America had home computers, and when the Internet became a household phenomenon, families went online in droves. It seemed that I had my work cut out for me. I felt so incredibly lucky and blessed to be presented with the opportunity to do what I really wanted to do, not just as a job, but as an occupation.

Now that it's all gone, it feels as though my entire reason for existence is gone too. My life's plan has failed, and there is nothing to take its place. It seems that I am obsolete, just like the computers that I grew up with. I seem to have no place in this world; I have nowhere to go and no apparent future ahead of me. I feel like a washed-up, burned-out relic, at an age when most people are still just getting started. To begin again and try to do something else with my life would be like throwing away the last 20 years. It would literally mean starting my life from scratch.

Even that wouldn't be so bad if there were something to start on. But there are no technology industries that are in development anymore, it seems. Commercial production of products involving nanotechnology or molecular biotechnology is still several years away, and even if it ever becomes a reality, working with such things typically requires a Ph.D. Those jobs are well beyond the range of being a simple low-end techie, which is what I always wanted to be.

If I could start all over again, if I could have foreseen the disappearance of the computer industry, I would probably have become a car mechanic. At least that's a job which still has high demand (lots of people have cars, and cars still need regular maintenance and repairs), and I enjoy working with machinery. I can think of no other job for a person who wants to be a machine worker, quietly tinkering with the machinery for a living. I may indeed end up becoming a car mechanic, but the loss of my lifelong fixation will remain with me for the rest of my life.

Why do I say all this? Why have I written this for others to read? I usually do not talk about myself, and I especially try to avoid publicly complaining about my own problems. There are two main reasons why I have written this for public consumption. One reason, I must confess, is to create a certain catharsis. These feelings have been inside me ever since the tech collapse of the year 2000, and simply being able to write them all out helps me get my thoughts in order. Like every person alive in this world, I've grown up with my own set of problems, but nothing has left me with such a profound sense of doubt in my own personal future as the fall of the computer industry.

I want to stress, however, that I am not looking for pity or sympathy. Although I call this my "pity page", it is really more of a page for me to feel sorry for myself. I am not hoping for people to send me messages telling me that they are sorry for my predicament; begging for sympathy achieves nothing, and I am not trying to make myself feel better by asking others to pity me.

The other reason why I write this is to touch a nerve of other techies who might see it. Surely, somewhere out there, there must be someone who has gone through these same emotions and is also wondering what to do next. Part of my intent in writing this page is to let those people know that they're not alone. Yes, I'm grieved by the loss of our promising computer industry too, and yes, I'm just as confused as anyone about it--seemingly more so than most, in fact. It wouldn't be so bad if it were just me, but knowing that an entire industry has come and gone, and left an entire generation of young people with shattered hopes and dreams, is truly devastating.

Having said that, however, the simple fact of the matter is that I am still alive, and so are many other people who will probably never have a future in the technology industry anymore. While I and they feel sad and lost, there is little point in spending the rest of life mourning for what once was. There is a third sort of minor purpose in this page: Suggesting a concept for the future.

There is an article by Daniel H. Pink in the February 2005 issue of Wired (a magazine which, like me, has been moved into marginal relevance with the fall of the tech industry) called "Revenge of the Right Brain". You've probably already guessed the gist of the article from the title, but to sum up: The article purports that since analytical and scientific reasoning can now be automated by computer (or hired out to lower-wage countries) more effectively than ever before, the age when Americans could make a living based solely on logical, scientific knowledge are over. Today, Americans must thrive on notional right-brain thinking, thought processes relating to art, language, and similarly fuzzy topics, which information-processing machines like computers still can't deal with as effectively as humans.

Now, right-brain people are nothing new. Artists and their ilk have been a fixture of mankind ever since the dawn of history. They were simply less of a media fixture for a few years as the geeks of science took over. However, now that geeks are back to being the unimportant, reviled outcasts that they were decades ago, right-brain people are back in the spotlight.

For better or for worse, life is not about purely logical formulas and programs. You can argue that science is behind everything that happens in the world, and this is true, but the human mind does not usually process the world in terms of the laws of physics. Rather, the human mind is naturally made to deal with more abstract concepts. Believe me, I like the logic of analysing things in terms of formulas and algorithms and much as anybody, but I don't think anyone can deny that in terms of math and science, a computer can out-calculate even the smartest person any day of the week. We may as well admit that the computer is good for a lot of things, and our brains are good for other things.

I don't really like being creative. It doesn't come naturally to me. I'm good at analysis; I can understand concepts, things, and how they work. That's always been my strength. Creativity, the art of coming up with new ideas, is something I prefer to leave to others. But if humans are going to be of any use on this world, they need to avoid becoming obsoleted by computers, and we won't be able to do that by sticking to analysis, because a computer can analyse faster and more accurately than a human.

That doesn't mean that analysis is no longer useful for a human: We still need to understand things. But understanding is not enough. Some people will be happy about this revelation, because they like being creative, and some will be sad because they don't like being creative and now are forced to be. Whichever camp you fall into (personally, I count myself in the latter), if people plan on doing something with their lives and not simply wailing in misery and withering away, they'll probably need to get in touch with their vague side.

For myself and a lot of other geeks, it will be a long road of recovery. The future is still as uncertain as it ever was. But to me, doing nothing with your life is a waste of life tantamount to suicide. As ever, people must know their own strengths and weaknesses, and use them to best effect as we venture into What Lies Beyond. I wish a rewarding journey to everyone who travels down that road.

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