Tag Archives: Commentary

Nostalgia Is Fake

26 Mar

CharlieIn a few years, I would have spent as much time in the US as I have in my native Bulgaria. I consider myself pretty well adjusted to my new home. Coming to the US as a graduate student and finding a job right after graduation, I never really suffered through the hardships of the “traditional” immigrant, building her life from scratch. True, when I arrived here, I had a comforter and a set of knives (in retrospect, strange choices and a ridiculous lack of airplane security), but I was not leaving much more behind. It is here that I started my career, had and am raising my children, bought a home. And while I have avoided the constant comparisons of petty details that is quite pervasive and I find quite annoying in my fellow country men and women (In Bulgaria, kids never wear bike helmets and they are just fine!), part of me always thinks that if I was back there, I would feel more on my own turf. I would fit right back in the spot that I left, with the people and conversations resuming from that point forward like a Sleeping Beauty, whose court was frozen while she was napping.

This, of course, is an illusion.

I came across an article in a woman’s magazine that one of my Facebook friends from Bulgaria had shared. When I read it, it hit me — I may not belong here completely, but I will be an odder duck there. If you know Bulgarian, the article is here. If you do not, you would have to trust me to give you the key points. A Bulgarian psychiatrist is interviewed on the value of an apparent recent fascination in Bulgaria with positive thinking. He stopped short of calling positive thinking the “opium for the masses,”* but he surely meant it when he called it “housewives’ metaphysics.” Can you just stop to imagine Self publishing an article right that? Would Facebook even exist if we rejected housewives’ metaphysics?

BaconThe fact that positive thinking is an obsession in Bulgaria in and of itself is ironic and alarming. It is like seeing a tribe of life-long, committed vegetarians in a serious discussion about the benefit of bacon. That was one of the immediate signs that my Bulgarian cultural compass is completely off. But then the language itself has either changed dramatically, or the Internet publication was not good enough (happens worldwide on the worldwide web), or I have lost my year for some of the finer points of my own native language. I find it hard to talk in Bulgarian about what I do, because my entire career has been in the US, so I lack the terminology to explain Public Relations, technology solutions, Cloud services and so on. But surely there are some real Bulgarian words for “positive”, “genesis”, “permissive”. The last straw was the realization that while in my context here I consider myself pretty negative and critical, I did not agree with him. Positive thinking may be an easier way out than reading Seneca and Marc Aurelius as the author recommended, but there is nothing wrong with that.

So for the three Bulgarians, two personal friends and one lost American soul who are still reading this – what does it mean? Time passes and changes you, but it also changes the things you have left behind. Nostalgia is fake. It is for something that was, but would never be, even if you had stayed the same.

*As every self-respecting person with former communist education will tell you, “religion is the opium of the masses.” That is what Karl Marx thought. He had a point.

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The Bottomless Glass of Evgeny Morozov

4 Mar

Eastern Europeans have a natural (or, as we will argue, historically necessitated) proclivity to be negative and I fit that stereotype pretty well. I am not a glass-half-full person. “Tell me what you are doing, and I will tell you what is wrong with it” is a pretty accurate description of my attitude. So, you can’t blame me, if I get fixated on someone whose glass is so empty that it makes mine look like it’s overflowing.

Meet Evgeny Morozov – a fellow Eastern European and “a writer and researcher, who studies political and social implications of technology.” It is an amazing field to dedicate your career to. On one hand, technology changes so quickly that, by the time you have discovered a phenomenon to study (music sharing via Napster, anyone?), it is gone. At the same time, our understanding of individual and group psychology and behavior is growing exponentially. One would imagine that the combination of these two factors would provide a researcher with plentiful opportunities to observe, investigate, develop and test hypotheses, build and tear down assumptions.

And then you have Morozov. He does not exactly study and research technology, he speculates about its impact. All of us in the tech world do a lot of that, but his bias is so strong that to describe him as a researcher is as accurate as to say that the American Family Association is about family. Judge for yourself:

  • In his latest New York Times piece, The Perils of Perfection, he argues that we should not use technology to fix our imperfections unless we are confident that the technology solutions Silicon Valley comes up with have pure intent. On the surface, that makes sense. And then you think about, where medicine would be right now, if we took the same approach with pharmaceutical research. Should we ignore progress, if it is driven by the desire for business success?
  • Earlier in 2012, he lamented about the Death of Cyberflaneurism, that ancient art of browsing the Internet for useless information. I guess, sites like Brain Pickings, which does an amazing job of finding interesting information; Prismatic that curates news content for you, or even Facebook (let alone Pinterest), where friends share a lot of useless stuff, make the art too easy.
  • And then there is his recurring column, Future Tense, on Slate.com. If someone reads his posts a hundred years from now, they would conclude that the Internet is killing us.

ImageTo be fair, Morozov does have a nose for the silliness and over-the-top enthusiasm of technologists. His ridicule of pointless services that Tweet after you die, products that “erase” the homeless from your view, or forums (TED) that make a communist parade seem propaganda-free, are absolutely on target. Yet, when I read his pieces, I can’t help but think of agent Nelson Van Alden, Boardwalk Empire’s puritanical government official, whose obsession seems a tad unhealthy. Does Morozov denounce technology because he likes it too much?

In one of his pieces, Morozov quotes Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, who argued that being inconsistent is the only way to avoid becoming a doctrinaire ideologue. Morozov writes with admiration:

“For Kolakowski, absolute consistency is identical to fanaticism.”

Smart man, that Kolakowski.

Yahoo!’s No Working from Home Move — a Strategy for Self-Selection

26 Feb

“They pretend they are paying us, we pretend we are working,” went the old communist joke that accurately described the attitude towards the state-run economy and the dead end “careers” it provided. But while they lacked prestige and growth potential, they offered stable if meager compensation and security. Can this be the philosophy of Yahoo!’s army of “remote” workers and what has prompted the company to ban working from home?

ImageIn a decade, Yahoo! went from a shining star and an innovator, to a company with a mirky vision with no clear path on how to get there. As a result, there was a period in the late 2000s, when BusinessWeek and The Wall Street Journal reported regularly on the Yahoo! talent exodus. It happened so often that it stopped being newsworthy. Executives came and went, strategies changed and as the board pretended to have found the latest path to recovery, the people that remained lost their sense of direction.

Those of us, who have had the misfortune (or, if you are a half-glass full person, valuable learning experience) of toughing it out at a dead end job, know that how long you put up with it depends on various factors — from how experienced and good you are at what you do, to what stage of your life you are in. But no matter what the reason for staying is, if you think that you are making a compromise with yourself and your career, you inevitably start “pretending” to work.

This might be the real reason for why Yahoo! wants everyone back on campus. It is hard to fire everyone and rehire the people that really want to be there. But by summoning them back, it hopes to weed out the true believers from the pretenders. As everyone from a former communist country will tell you – there is no better shake out than when we stop pretending we believe our own propaganda.

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