Month: May 2017


The happiest lot on earth

“The happiest lot on earth is to be born a Scotchman.  You must pay for it in many ways, as for all other advantages on earth… You generally take to drink; your youth, as far as I can find out, is a time of louder war against society, of more outcry and tears and turmoil, than if you had been born, for instance, in England.”  – Robert Louis Stevenson

Last Friday afternoon, after quitting technology journalism, I packed a small suitcase and headed North up the 101 towards Napa.

An hour and a half later, stopping only for chicken and rice in Vallejo, Sarah and I arrived in Calistoga. Our plan: A weekend of cycling, hiking, fine dining and – first among equals – wallowing up to our necks in geothermic hot springs.

We’ve made the trip to Calistoga a dozen times or more – the little town in wine country has become our sanctuary from the city – but this particular escape seemed especially symbolic. A farewell to Silicon Valley – to Facebook, Google, Twitter and most of all to Uber – and a hello to Napa Valley whose riches still come almost entirely from the soil.

Of course, once you start looking for symbolism, you see it everywhere. So as I lay neck-deep in volcanic water, it suddenly seemed profoundly significant that one of Calistoga’s most famous early visitors – so famous they named a state park after him – was a fellow Scotsman. A Scotsman who, having fallen in love with – and in – California, despite the State’s deleterious effect on his already fragile health, headed for Napa in search of recovery, rehabilitation and re-inspiration.

I am, regular readers will testify, no Robert Louis Stevenson. But, for that matter, neither was the Robert Louis Stevenson who arrived in Calistoga, also via Vallejo, in 1880. The Robert Louis Stevenson of 1880 was not yet the author of Treasure Island or The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde or much else of note. Rather he was a penniless travel writer, whose career had hit the skids and whose lifelong bronchiectasis was threatening to put him in an early grave.

Unable to afford even the cheapest hotel, the Stevensons – Robert and his new wife, Fanny – found an abandoned bunkhouse in the foothills of nearby Mount Saint Helena and, for two months, made it their home.

It’s easy to understand what Stevenson saw in Calistoga, not least because much of it can still be seen today. Here’s how Stevenson described the town in his travelogue, The Silverado Squatters

The street of Calistoga joins the perpendicular to [the railroad and the highway] —a wide street, with bright, clean, low houses, here and there a verandah over the sidewalk, here and there a horse-post, here and there lounging townsfolk…  Here are the blacksmith’s, the chemist’s, the general merchant’s, and Kong Sam Kee, the Chinese laundryman’s; here, probably, is the office of the local paper (for the place has a paper—they all have papers); and here certainly is one of the hotels, Cheeseborough’s…

Today, the “Chinese laundryman” has been replaced by a sushi restaurant, and Cheeseborough’s by Indian Spring and Dr Wilkinson’s but the description of Calistoga as a sleepy town, heated by thermal pools and centered on a single main street mostly holds. The local paper, The Weekly Calistogan (“since 1887”), still maintains its little office, next to the railway terminal which has been converted to a cluster of antique shops and cafes.

In the late 1880’s, California’s wine industry was just as nascent as the tech industry was in the late 1980s. And yet today’s tech disrupters will recognize Stevenson’s description of the  iterative process of finding the most fertile ground for growing…

The beginning of vine-planting is like the beginning of mining for the precious metals: the wine-grower also “Prospects.” One corner of land after another is tried with one kind of grape after another.  This is a failure; that is better; a third best.  So, bit by bit, they grope about for their Clos Vougeot and Lafite.  Those lodes and pockets of earth, more precious than the precious ores, that yield inimitable fragrance and soft fire; those virtuous Bonanzas, where the soil has sublimated under sun and stars to something finer, and the wine is bottled poetry: these still lie undiscovered; chaparral conceals, thicket embowers them; the miner chips the rock and wanders farther, and the grizzly muses undisturbed.  But there they bide their hour, awaiting their Columbus; and nature nurses and prepares them.  The smack of Californian earth shall linger on the palate of your grandson.

Familiar too is the barrowload of branding bullshit required to fertilize a new industry…

“You want to know why California wine is not drunk in the States?” a San Francisco wine merchant said to me, after he had shown me through his premises.  “Well, here’s the reason.”

And opening a large cupboard, fitted with many little drawers, he proceeded to shower me all over with a great variety of gorgeously tinted labels, blue, red, or yellow, stamped with crown or coronet, and hailing from such a profusion of clos and chateaux, that a single department could scarce have furnished forth the names.  But it was strange that all looked unfamiliar.

“Chateau X—?” said I.  “I never heard of that.”

“I dare say not,” said he.  “I had been reading one of X—’s novels.”

They were all castles in Spain!  But that sure enough is the reason why California wine is not drunk in the States.

“The smack of Californian earth shall linger on the palate of your grandson.” Stevenson predicts, and of course he was right. Almost a century and a half later, we have the $35bn California wine industry to thank for keeping the Napa Valley mostly unspoiled: Scenery and greenery as a billion dollar profit center.

Familiar too, then and now, is the town’s Frontier relationship with technology. It was in Calistoga – not Edinburgh or San Francisco – that Stevenson first encountered the telephone.

Next moment, I had one instrument at my ear, another at my mouth and found myself, with nothing in the world to say, conversing with a man several miles off among desolate hills…

So it goes in these young countries; telephones, and telegraphs, and newspapers, and advertisements running far ahead among the Indians and the grizzly bears.

In today’s Calistoga, if you were to throw a bread roll across the dining room at Solage, you could be reasonably sure of hitting a tech venture capitalist. And yet, in our hotel room a little card folded around a candle warned of frequent power outages thanks to the town’s rickety electrical supply.  And, again, this is a place where the swimming pools are heated by lava.

On Sunday morning, Sarah and I set off for Mount Saint Helena, and the five mile uphill hiking trail which passes directly through what was once Stevenson’s bunkhouse.

The shack itself has long gone – in fact it had already mostly collapsed by the time Stevenson moved in – but its location is still marked by a large stone monument in the shape of a book. That addition notwithstanding, the mountain has stood mostly unchanged and undeveloped since 1880 – eagled-eyed hikers can still spot the opening to the Silverado mine and splash in the same trickling stream in which Mrs Stevenson washed her husband’s shirts. (Sidenote: Modern readers of The Silverado Squatters should note that Stevenson’s sexist treatment of his wife is bested only by his anti-Semitic treatment of the “jolly Jew storekeeper,” Kelmar)

The Stevenson monument is sheltered by dense overhanging greenery which blocks out most of the sun and fooled us into thinking that our early afternoon climb would be cool and breezy. Birds cheeped high in the branches, a brook babbled and for large stretches of hike we didn’t see another human soul.

But if I’m giving you the impression of two hikers trudging silently and contemplatively towards a peak, I don’t mean to. In fact, as we trudged past the two mile mark, Sarah and I were in the midst of a heated argument – albeit a good natured one – about the New York Times columnist Bret Stephens. In particular the question of whether Times subscribers (like ourselves) should cancel our payments to protest the hiring of a man who denies climate change, parrots racist tropes and recently told Vox he rejected the notion of a campus rape “epidemic” on the grounds that young women still enrolled in large numbers. “If sexual assault rates in, let’s say, east Congo were about 20 percent, most people wouldn’t travel to those places.” (On Stephen’s awfulness we entirely agreed, the debate was on how best to respond to it.)

But then suddenly the trees thinned away and we were stuck both by the oppressive heat of the sun and the exact same unspoiled view that prompted Stevenson to describe Mount Saint Helena as “the Mont Blanc of one section of the Californian Coast Range…”

It looks down on much green, intricate country.. to the south, San Francisco Bay, with Tamalpais on the one hand and Monte Diablo on the other; to the west and thirty miles away, the open ocean; eastward, across the corn-lands and thick tule swamps of Sacramento Valley, to where the Central Pacific railroad begins to climb the sides of the Sierras; and northward, for what I know, the white head of Shasta looking down on Oregon.  Three counties, Napa County, Lake County, and Sonoma County, march across its cliffy shoulders.  Its naked peak stands nearly four thousand five hundred feet above the sea; its sides are fringed with forest; and the soil, where it is bare, glows warm with cinnabar.

The argument evaporated on contact with the sunlight and scenery.

“Holy shit,” I said.

“Yeah,” Sarah agreed.

And then we just stood and stared at the beauty of it all. And if Bret Stephens suddenly seemed irrelevant in the world’s grand scheme, so too did any other short term media awfulness, or any of the crimes committed by the tech giants far away in San Francisco.

And it was in that silence, breathing in that landscape, that I finally found it. The feeling I’d been expecting to find weeks earlier when I dopily deleted my Apple and Amazon accounts thinking that alone would bring relief from tech awfulness…

And so when my gut said it was time to remove myself from the Silicon Valley swamp I listened. I deleted all my online accounts and promised myself I’d only think about the swamp during work hours.

The cull complete, I waited for the familiar wave of relief: For the “you made a good decision” chemicals to flood my brain.

And waited.

But the relief didn’t come.

Standing on that mountain, the “good decision” chemicals came flooding in like a tidal wave. My shoulders untensed, my teeth unclenched and fifteen years of swamp snorkeling was forgotten in an instant.

It helped, of course, we were standing in a physical manifestation of disconnectedness. As if God himself were sending a message from the sky: Look, you idiot, this place was here the whole time. Why the hell do you need Facebook or Twitter or Google when you have this tree and this bird and these hot springs and all this motherfucking solitude.

Not for the first time, God had a point.

There are still large parts of the planet where breathtaking scenery can be found in abundance. But most of us have forgotten how to experience it, except through a screen or the lens of a camera phone. Forgotten how to be truly isolated — despite all the evidence, stretching back through Stevenson and beyond, that solitude increases creativity and wellbeing while opening our minds to new and challenging perspectives.

There’s a reason the best ideas tend to come in the little artificial solitudes that we find in the shower, or the daily commute, or while lying awake in bed. Just like there’s a reason why Christopher Knight – the North Pond Hermit of Kennebec County, Maine – spent much of his 30 year isolation reading stolen novels and a listening to NPR news programs on a portable radio.

It’s one of the great ironies of the modern age that, as technology has made us less socially isolated – both by sapping the physical distance between humans but also creating digital connectivity through social networks and smartphones – so too it has increased our intellectual isolation. It’s impossible to go an hour without some kind of social interaction – a ping or a nudge or a poke – but that same technology encourages us to go days without encountering a single uncomfortable idea or opposing viewpoint. It’s no coincidence that the boycott campaign to remove a controversial writer from the New York Times is being organized on Twitter.

Also likely not a coincidence: the restorative effect that isolation in Calistoga had on Robert Louis Stevenson way back in 1880. The hot pools and fresh air worked their magic and soon Stevenson was well enough to return to Scotland. Just as important as his physical recovery was his mental recovery: He quickly set to work weaving the Silverado scenery into a fictional land he called Treasure Island. Two more novels followed in quick succession: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Kidnapped. Those works established his international reputation and today the land on which Mount Saint Helena stands is known as the Robert Louis Stevenson State Park.

Two hours after we began our hike up that same mountain – after a break for ham sandwiches and still more gawping across that same State Park – Sarah and I arrived at the peak with just enough daylight remaining for the return journey.

There we found a second monument, much newer but no less imposing. Another reminder of Stevenson’s maxim that technology thrives best when there’s nothing standing in its way. Another testament to the magnifying effect of solitude on signal.

Rooted firmly on the mountaintop: A towering cellphone mast, silently beaming a million text messages, status updates and Tinder profiles across the valley below.


Schadenfreude Tourism? Cash me in!

Brexit means Brexit!

With those words British Prime minister Theresa May confirmed to British voters that the country’s exit from the EU would be total and irreversible. Also confirmed: May’s place amongst the worst sloganeers in British political history.

In fairness to May, the bar for excellence in British political soundbites is set stratospherically high. This, after all, is the country that rallied the world with “We Shall Fight on the Beaches,” then chilled it with “Big Brother is watching you.” The birthplace of Churchill and Orwell, of Shakespeare and Wordsworth, and of Billy Bragg.

Britain isn’t cool, you know
It’s really not that great
It’s not a proper country
It doesn’t even have a patron saint
It’s just an economic union
That’s past its sell-by date

cf. “Brexit means Brexit.”

It’s not just that the phrase is borderline illiterate, a made-up word presented as its own definition. Far worse is the sentiment behind it: A petulant, tautological “fuck you” to the millions of voters living in hope that Britain hasn’t entirely retreated up its own arsehole. It neither rallies, nor chills – just annoys. It’s the “Miley being Miley” of political slogans.

And so I suppose it’s depressingly appropriate that “Brexit means Brexit” has now become global shorthand for a baffling, self-destructive decision made by seemingly intelligent people.

Witness the New York Times’ announcement that it is organizing – I’m not making this up – a “Brexit Means Brexit!” tour of London this coming October.

Yes, for just $5,999 (£3.50), Americans who – for whatever reason – might wish to a) flee the United States right now and b) visit a place which is likely even more economically, politically, and socially fucked, can visit the British capital and spend five days listening to journalists and politicians answer questions like “Did the voters really know what they were voting for? And what of the impact on Europe and the strength of the union?”

With the guidance of Steve Erlanger, the London bureau chief of The New York Times, and other experts, meet with politicians, journalists and historians to discuss Britain’s decision to leave the E.U. and the financial, legal and social implications for Britain, Europe and the world.

As a Brit who made his home in Obama’s America, and now is hunkered in Trump’s, I understand the impulse to understand how things got so globally fucked. Still, patriotism obliges me to suggest the American media might dredge its own cesspool before sploshing about in ours.

Moreover, where does the Times get off mocking my homeland for making ugly, cynical decisions just to appease a populist minority? Will Bret Stevens be along for the tour?

And yet, the numbers don’t lie. The Brexit Means Brexit trip has proved so popular that  the Times has added two more departure dates, now booking through 2018.

At a time when the world is careening toward nuclear holocaust, and newspapers are tumbling toward bankruptcy, clearly the New York Times Company has found the perfect response to both: Schadenfreud Tourism! 

And not just to London. Next month – and again, I’m not making this up – the Times is offering a six day vacation to sunny… Chernobyl.

Visit the remains of the hospital that accepted contaminated firefighters after the accident, the town hall, the ruins of an amusement park that was never opened, a football field that has transformed into a forest over 30 years and many other strange sights.

Wowee.

And also: Sign me up!

One of my jobs here at Pando is to figure out new ways – subscription offers, Patron Walls, 419 scams – to make sure our writers get paid for the work they do. Despite the fact that I recently quit tech journalism, I have to admit this whole Schadenfreude Tour has potential.

I mean, what place more than Silicon Valley combines the self-destructive hubris of Brexit with the undiluted toxicity of Chernobyl? Where else could an executive, say, the oil or tobacco industry visit to instantly feel better about his or her own choices?

The ad copy practically writes itself…

* * * *

Pando Tours Present: “Nobody Would Know It Was Us!”: A Deep Dive Into the Silcon Swamp

Cost: $19,995; Deposit $19,994

Itinerary: 6 days, 5 nights

Silicon Valley was supposed to be the future of American capitalism: Disrupting corrupt industries, cutting through special interest and lobbyists, using technology to give voice to oppressed minorities. A true meritocracy!

The reality turned out somewhat differently. As the trial between Uber and Google kicks into gear, and Valley companies are being exposed as hotbeds of sexism, corruption and plain stupidity, the world is asking: How did things go so wrong?

On this exhilarating six day tour, organized by Pando, you’ll meet Valley tech bros in their natural habitat – the co-working spaces, the Mission dive bars and the rock-climbing walls. You’ll enjoy authentic Valley cuisine – Soylent shakes and delicious juices hand-squeezed from fifty dollar plastic bags.

You’ll see the actual Palo Alto conference rooms where Steve Jobs and Eric Schmidt colluded to fix the wages of millions of tech employees, the very park bench where Travis Kalanick (possibly!) encouraged Anthony Levandowski to steal Google’s self driving car technology, and Gurbaksh Chahal’s actual bedroom, preserved exactly as it was the day he savagely beat his girlfriend 117 times. And still got another job! At night, you’ll spend two hours trying to Postmates a simple fucking sandwich before retiring to your luxury ten-to-a-room hacker house accommodation, where you’ll be authentically sexually assaulted by a front end developer called Ryan.

But it’s not all relaxation and molestation: Guided by our team of professional swamp-snorkelers, you’ll learn how “don’t be evil” gave way to “don’t get caught” and find out what Mark Zuckerberg really said on his regular phone chats with Donald Trump. When your trip is over, you’ll be left with a lifetime of happy memories and the smug satisfaction that, while your workplace may not offer nerf guns and free egg freezing, at least your boss­­ almost certainly never came up with anything so cynical as “grayball,” and he especially didn’t do it while rating hookers in a Korean karaoke brothel.

Places are limited so book today to disappointment. Prices start at $20,000 including all “meals,” “accommodation,” counseling and an authentic convertible note from Ron Conway.

All participants agree to sign an arbitration agreement prior to departure. Bring your own mace.


The Beat

Did you see Trump fired Comey?

Did you see Trump gave secret intel to the Russians?

Did you see Trump told Comey to stop investigating Flynn?

Did you see they’ve appointed a special counsel?

Did you see Trump called the investigation the biggest witch hunt in American history?

Did you see / Did you see / Did you see. It’s the new soundtrack of American life. The repetitive thump undercutting every American breakfast, the throbbing beat accompanying every American commute, and punctuating every American workday, dinner date and bedtime.

The beat, like all beats, is rhetorical. But for most of us living on the media coasts, the answer would be  yes. You did see. Your Twitter news feed isn’t so much different than anybody else’s. Your gym or airport lounge no more or less likely to have installed a gigantic flat screen television, tuned permanently to CNN. Your friends and colleagues are no less or more hooked on the cataclysmic reality TV show that is American presidential politics. Right or left, young or old, woke or bigot, we’re all in this together.

Did you see Sherriff Clarke is joining the Trump administration?

Did you see the Department of Homeland Security says Clarke isn’t joining the Trump administration?

Did you see? Did you see? Ooomp-tsss / ooompf-tsss / ooompf-tsss…

Even if you wanted to escape the beat – dig your fingers into your eardrums and shout lalalala – you can’t. I know this because I recently deleted all of my online accounts, threw my smartphone into a lake (not a real lake, a drawer-shaped wooden lake) and started leaving my laptop in my office at the end of the day.

Doesn’t matter.

Wednesday night, half a block from the office door, I passed two startup kids in startup hoodies. One saying to the other: Did you see Trump’s speech to the Coast Guards?

Yeah. Crazy.

Ooomp-tsss

Wednesday is pub trivia night. Dan Raile and me; our two-man team against the world. I arrived a few minutes early – there’s too much background noise to eavesdrop on other conversation, no CNN on the TV just some trippy TV show where kids win big prizes by shooting basketball hoops from the back of motorcycles. Jarringly, just for a second, the beat seemed to stop. Until…

“Did you see the House Majority Leader apparently accused Trump of taking money from the Russians?”

Ooomp-tsss

Dan doesn’t even have Twitter. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him with a smartphone.

Doesn’t matter.

Yesterday morning I was woken up by my girlfriend with these words:

“Did you see Roger Ailes died?”

Did I see it? The man had died while I was asleep.

Does matter. No reason to think the beat wouldn’t have penetrated my dreams like an alarm clock or a street fight heard through an open window.

Don’t misunderstand me: I like the beat. I find it comforting. Those occasional brief moments of silence feel as unsettling as a heart palpitation. I’m no less hooked on the reality show than anyone else. But occasionally I want to at least believe in the possibility of silence. I want to know I still have the option – as I wrote back in 2015 – to step out of The Room.

 Douglas Coupland’s has a new book out. It’s a collection of essays and republished short fiction called “Bit Rot” which, as every reviewer feels obliged to explain, describes the phenomenon of digital storage media gradually decaying over time. And it’s an especially apt title given the fate of whatever floppy disk once held Coupland’s talent and relevance.

Anyone who has read the Upgrade will know I’m not a huge fan of Coupland. I’m not a fan because he makes ludicrous claims like this (in the Financial Times)…

“I write novels and I write about my observations and I produce all sorts of artworks, but I never write about myself.”

…presumably hoping that no FT reader even picks up one of his novels and reads an opening line like this one from JPod…

“Oh God. I feel like a refugee from a Douglas Coupland novel.”

“That asshole.”

But I will happily admit that Coupland did, for a very brief period, capture the voice of a particular subset of a particular generation. A generation which, I also acknowledge, he was first to brand as “Generation X.” The Coupland generation embraced technology only in the hope of smothering it; they were aware of its dangers and they were deeply cynical about corporate culture and its encroachment on our private lives. Most importantly, they felt powerless. In her excellent review of Bit Rot, Slate’s Laura Miller identifies the defining traits of Generation Coupland as “cynicism, irony [and] a melancholic sense of having been sidelined by major forces of social history.”

As such, Coupland was part of a band of “corporations have taken over the world, and I want off” writers that also included Brett Easton Ellis and Mike Judge and Chuck Palahniuk and Irvine Welsh.

“Choose a life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers… Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit crushing game shows, stucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away in the end of it all, pishing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourself, choose your future. Choose life… But why would I want to do a thing like that?” 

The things you used to own, now they own you

“TV and the Internet are good because they keep stupid people from spending too much time out in public.” 

But whereas Easton Ellis and Judge and Palahniuk have retained their cynicism (if not their relevance – as Miller points out, voices of a generation never do), Coupland has gone native. Today the man who wrote that the Internet is good because it keeps “stupid people from spending too much time out in public” is a grateful financial beneficiary of the Google Cultural Institute. He recently announced an  “art and written project on post-Google art and post-Google society.” Also: Douglas Couplan  fucking LOVES Uber – unironically and passionately – and has no truck with those who fear sexual assault in the back of one. Here he is in the Financial Times, again… (And also self-plagiarized in Bit Rot.)

Yes, but you could get raped by an Uber driver! They could be psycho murderers… Well, you could get raped by any driver, really. So why are you focusing only on Uber? That seems strangely convenient… There’s no real argument to not have Uber drivers. They are superior to taxis in all possible ways.

In the words of Douglas Coupland, he has become that asshole.

He has also become lazy, although he’s dressed his indolence up as “with it”ness…

As he told the Globe and Mail

“I wanted to create a sensation in fiction that you get when you’re online and you fall down a rabbit hole and you’re like, what the hell just happened, and you fall down another rabbit hole.”

Or, to put it a different way in the Guardian

“I asked myself a few questions: how can I imbue fiction with that same fractal sense of falling down a rabbit hole that we all experience when we’re online?”

Oop, no, you’re right. That’s the same way. Like I said: Lazy.

And that’s a shame. Because the last thing we need are more writers who want to mimic the Internet. Who want to embrace Snapchat or Slack or Uber in their work not to smother them, but to feel their warmth. To provide an easy veneer of “realism” to their cast of millennial characters whose biggest technological dilemma is how to respond to an unsolicited dick pic, or whether their Uber will arrive on time to get them to their next plot point.

The last thing we need are rebels-turned-joiners like Coupland who recently boasted “I don’t miss my pre-internet brain. I no longer remember it.” Writers who have been nodding along to the beat for so long that they can no longer imagine – no longer have any interest in imagining – what the world might be like without it. As Miller points out, that’s how every asshole writes today. That’s Thought Catalog.

Generation X was a revelation because the kind of people Coupland wrote about didn’t have a platform on which to publicly vent their alienation. Now they have more platforms than anyone can count. Not surprisingly, everything in Bit Rot has the half-baked texture of a Facebook post (“I sometimes wonder what selfies would look like in North Korea”), because nearly everything that Coupland has ever written settles at about that level.

So where are they? The twenty-something Couplands or Palahniuks or Welshes of today who are able to imagine an alternative to – a rebellion against – the technological beat they’ve been exposed to their entire lives? They must be out there – I fully expect (and welcome) a barrage of emailed links – but where?

Not on the front tables of my local book store (which does, pointedly, feature copies of 1984, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale and Fight Club.) Not in my most recent Book of the Month Club package (recent selections included a Slack-n-Uber-packed novel called “Start Up,” which also featured prominently in last week’s New York Times Book Review.) Wherever they’re hiding, it isn’t in plain sight.

Perhaps the problem is that millennials – as a generation of writers – don’t have enough to rebel against. When two millennials (Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump) are pulling the strings in the White House, assisted by a memeified alt-right movement that fights its greatest battles on Facebook. When Facebook itself (proprietor: A.  Millennial) is vying to become the world’s first trillion dollar company. When it’s just as likely that your boss will be a 20-something tech bro as a 50-something “bleeding ponytail” who is “is gonna need you to go ahead and come in on Saturday.” What’s a Voice of a Generation writer to do when he or she looks in the mirror and realizes that The Man looks a lot like him or herself?

And perhaps this is another Teen Vogue situation – where we have to look to the next next generation – Gen Z, or whatever they’re called – to find the next voice of opposition to all that. Perhaps in the coming years we’ll see a slew of books – novels, essay collections, and the rest – from today’s teenagers, calling for a return to silence, or at least a change in beat. A mass rejection of smartphone and selfies and Tinder and hoodie-wearing billionaires who won’t even cover your gas money at the end of your twenty hour Uber shift. Perhaps we – that is, those of us on the Gen X/Millennial rim – are too close to see it, or too dependent on its products and its taskmasters.

Perhaps we’re too hooked on the beat to remember what it was like before it started, or to imagine what it might be like if it stops.

Did you see Anthony Wiener is pleading guilty?

Did you see Steven Miller is writing Trump’s Islam speech?

Did you see Trump called Comey a “nut job”?

Did you see Comey has agreed to testify?


The happiest lot on earth

“The happiest lot on earth is to be born a Scotchman.  You must pay for it in many ways, as for all other advantages on earth… You generally take to drink; your youth, as far as I can find out, is a time of louder war against society, of more outcry and tears and turmoil, than if you had been born, for instance, in England.”  – Robert Louis Stevenson 

Last Friday afternoon, after quitting technology journalism for good, I packed a small suitcase and headed North up the 101 towards Napa.

An hour and a half later, stopping only for chicken and rice in Vallejo, Sarah and I arrived in Calistoga. Our plan: A weekend of cycling, hiking, fine dining and – first among equals – wallowing up to our necks in geothermic hot springs.  

We’ve made the trip to Calistoga a dozen times or more – the little town in wine country has become our sanctuary from the city – but this particular escape seemed especially symbolic. A farewell to Silicon Valley – to Facebook, Google, Twitter and most of all to Uber – and a hello to Napa Valley whose riches still come almost entirely from the soil.

Of course, once you start looking for symbolism, you see it everywhere. So as I lay neck-deep in volcanic water, it suddenly seemed profoundly significant that one of Calistoga’s most famous early visitors – so famous they named a state park after him – was a fellow Scotsman. A Scotsman who, having fallen in love with – and in – California, despite the State’s deleterious effect on his already fragile health, headed for Napa in search of recovery, rehabilitation and re-inspiration.

I am, regular readers will testify, no Robert Louis Stevenson. But, for that matter, neither was the Robert Louis Stevenson who arrived in Calistoga, also via Vallejo, in 1880. The Robert Louis Stevenson of 1880 was not yet the author of Treasure Island or The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde or much else of note. Rather he was a penniless travel writer, whose career had hit the skids and whose lifelong bronchiectasis was threatening to put him in an early grave.

Unable to afford even the cheapest hotel, the Stevensons – Robert and his new wife, Fanny – found an abandoned bunkhouse in the foothills of nearby Mount Saint Helena and, for two months, made it their home.

It’s easy to understand what Stevenson saw in Calistoga, not least because much of it can still be seen today. Here’s how Stevenson described the town in his travelogue, The Silverado Squatters

The street of Calistoga joins the perpendicular to [the railroad and the highway] —a wide street, with bright, clean, low houses, here and there a verandah over the sidewalk, here and there a horse-post, here and there lounging townsfolk…  Here are the blacksmith’s, the chemist’s, the general merchant’s, and Kong Sam Kee, the Chinese laundryman’s; here, probably, is the office of the local paper (for the place has a paper—they all have papers); and here certainly is one of the hotels, Cheeseborough’s…

Today, the “Chinese laundryman” has been replaced by a sushi restaurant, and Cheeseborough’s by Indian Spring and Dr Wilkinson’s but the description of Calistoga as a sleepy town, heated by thermal pools and centered on a single main street mostly holds. The local paper, The Weekly Calistogan (“since 1887”), still maintains its little office, next to the railway terminal which has been converted to a cluster of antique shops and cafes.

In the late 1880’s, California’s wine industry was just as nascent as the tech industry was in the late 1980s. And yet today’s tech disrupters will recognize Stevenson’s description of the  iterative process of finding the most fertile ground for growing…

The beginning of vine-planting is like the beginning of mining for the precious metals: the wine-grower also “Prospects.” One corner of land after another is tried with one kind of grape after another.  This is a failure; that is better; a third best.  So, bit by bit, they grope about for their Clos Vougeot and Lafite.  Those lodes and pockets of earth, more precious than the precious ores, that yield inimitable fragrance and soft fire; those virtuous Bonanzas, where the soil has sublimated under sun and stars to something finer, and the wine is bottled poetry: these still lie undiscovered; chaparral conceals, thicket embowers them; the miner chips the rock and wanders farther, and the grizzly muses undisturbed.  But there they bide their hour, awaiting their Columbus; and nature nurses and prepares them.  The smack of Californian earth shall linger on the palate of your grandson.

Familiar too is the barrowload of branding bullshit required to fertilize a new industry…

“You want to know why California wine is not drunk in the States?” a San Francisco wine merchant said to me, after he had shown me through his premises.  “Well, here’s the reason.”

And opening a large cupboard, fitted with many little drawers, he proceeded to shower me all over with a great variety of gorgeously tinted labels, blue, red, or yellow, stamped with crown or coronet, and hailing from such a profusion of clos and chateaux, that a single department could scarce have furnished forth the names.  But it was strange that all looked unfamiliar.

“Chateau X—?” said I.  “I never heard of that.”

“I dare say not,” said he.  “I had been reading one of X—’s novels.”

They were all castles in Spain!  But that sure enough is the reason why California wine is not drunk in the States.

“The smack of Californian earth shall linger on the palate of your grandson.” Stevenson predicts, and of course he was right. Almost a century and a half later, we have the $35bn California wine industry to thank for keeping the Napa Valley mostly unspoiled: Scenery and greenery as a billion dollar profit center.

Familiar too, then and now, is the town’s Frontier relationship with technology. It was in Calistoga – not Edinburgh or San Francisco – that Stevenson first encountered the telephone.

Next moment, I had one instrument at my ear, another at my mouth and found myself, with nothing in the world to say, conversing with a man several miles off among desolate hills…

So it goes in these young countries; telephones, and telegraphs, and newspapers, and advertisements running far ahead among the Indians and the grizzly bears.

In today’s Calistoga, if you were to throw a bread roll across the dining room at Solage, you could be reasonably sure of hitting a tech venture capitalist. And yet, in our hotel room a little card folded around a candle warned of frequent power outages thanks to the town’s rickety electrical supply.  And, again, this is a place where the swimming pools are heated by lava.

On Sunday morning, Sarah and I set off for Mount Saint Helena, and the five mile uphill hiking trail which passes directly through what was once Stevenson’s bunkhouse. 

The shack itself has long gone – in fact it had already mostly collapsed by the time Stevenson moved in – but its location is still marked by a large stone monument in the shape of a book. That addition notwithstanding, the mountain has stood mostly unchanged and undeveloped since 1880 – eagled-eyed hikers can still spot the opening to the Silverado mine and splash in the same trickling stream in which Mrs Stevenson washed her husband’s shirts. (Sidenote: Modern readers of The Silverado Squatters should note that Stevenson’s sexist treatment of his wife is bested only by his anti-Semitic treatment of the “jolly Jew storekeeper,” Kelmar)

The Stevenson monument is sheltered by dense overhanging greenery which blocks out most of the sun and fooled us into thinking that our early afternoon climb would be cool and breezy. Birds cheeped high in the branches, a brook babbled and for large stretches of hike we didn’t see another human soul.

But if I’m giving you the impression of two hikers trudging silently and contemplatively towards a peak, I don’t mean to. In fact, as we trudged past the two mile mark, Sarah and I were in the midst of a heated argument – albeit a good natured one – about the New York Times columnist Bret Stephens. In particular the question of whether Times subscribers (like ourselves) should cancel our payments to protest the hiring of a man who denies climate change, parrots racist tropes and recently told Vox he rejected the notion of a campus rape “epidemic” on the grounds that young women still enrolled in large numbers. “If sexual assault rates in, let’s say, east Congo were about 20 percent, most people wouldn’t travel to those places.” (On Stephen’s awfulness we entirely agreed, the debate was on how best to respond to it.)

But then suddenly the trees thinned away and we were stuck both by the oppressive heat of the sun and the exact same unspoiled view that prompted Stevenson to describe Mount Saint Helena as “the Mont Blanc of one section of the Californian Coast Range…”

It looks down on much green, intricate country.. to the south, San Francisco Bay, with Tamalpais on the one hand and Monte Diablo on the other; to the west and thirty miles away, the open ocean; eastward, across the corn-lands and thick tule swamps of Sacramento Valley, to where the Central Pacific railroad begins to climb the sides of the Sierras; and northward, for what I know, the white head of Shasta looking down on Oregon.  Three counties, Napa County, Lake County, and Sonoma County, march across its cliffy shoulders.  Its naked peak stands nearly four thousand five hundred feet above the sea; its sides are fringed with forest; and the soil, where it is bare, glows warm with cinnabar.

The argument evaporated on contact with the sunlight and scenery.

“Holy shit,” I said.

“Yeah,” Sarah agreed.

And then we just stood and stared at the beauty of it all. And if Bret Stephens suddenly seemed irrelevant in the world’s grand scheme, so too did any other short term media awfulness, or any of the crimes committed by the tech giants far away in San Francisco.

And it was in that silence, breathing in that landscape, that I finally found it. The feeling I’d been expecting to find weeks earlier when I dopily deleted my Apple and Amazon accounts thinking that alone would bring relief from tech awfulness…

And so when my gut said it was time to remove myself from the Silicon Valley swamp I listened. I deleted all my online accounts and promised myself I’d only think about the swamp during work hours. 

The cull complete, I waited for the familiar wave of relief: For the “you made a good decision” chemicals to flood my brain.

And waited.

But the relief didn’t come.

Standing on that mountain, the “good decision” chemicals came flooding in like a tidal wave. My shoulders untensed, my teeth unclenched and fifteen years of swamp snorkeling was forgotten in an instant.

It helped, of course, we were standing in a physical manifestation of disconnectedness. As if God himself were sending a message from the sky: Look, you idiot, this place was here the whole time. Why the hell do you need Facebook or Twitter or Google when you have this tree and this bird and these hot springs and all this motherfucking solitude.  

Not for the first time, God had a point.

There are still large parts of the planet where breathtaking scenery can be found in abundance. But most of us have forgotten how to experience it, except through a screen or the lens of a camera phone. Forgotten how to be truly isolated — despite all the evidence, stretching back through Stevenson and beyond, that solitude increases creativity and wellbeing while opening our minds to new and challenging perspectives.  

There’s a reason the best ideas tend to come in the little artificial solitudes that we find in the shower, or the daily commute, or while lying awake in bed. Just like there’s a reason why Christopher Knight – the North Pond Hermit of Kennebec County, Maine – spent much of his 30 year isolation reading stolen novels and a listening to NPR news programs on a portable radio.

It’s one of the great ironies of the modern age that, as technology has made us less socially isolated – both by sapping the physical distance between humans but also creating digital connectivity through social networks and smartphones – so too it has increased our intellectual isolation. It’s impossible to go an hour without some kind of social interaction – a ping or a nudge or a poke – but that same technology encourages us to go days without encountering a single uncomfortable idea or opposing viewpoint. It’s no coincidence that the boycott campaign to remove a controversial writer from the New York Times is being organized on Twitter.

Also likely not a coincidence: the restorative effect that isolation in Calistoga had on Robert Louis Stevenson way back in 1880. The hot pools and fresh air worked their magic and soon Stevenson was well enough to return to Scotland. Just as important as his physical recovery was his mental recovery: He quickly set to work weaving the Silverado scenery into a fictional land he called Treasure Island. Two more novels followed in quick succession: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Kidnapped. Those works established his international reputation and today the land on which Mount Saint Helena stands is known as the Robert Louis Stevenson State Park.  

Two hours after we began our hike up that same mountain – after a break for ham sandwiches and still more gawping across that same State Park – Sarah and I arrived at the peak with just enough daylight remaining for the return journey.

There we found a second monument, much newer but no less imposing. Another reminder of Stevenson’s maxim that technology thrives best when there’s nothing standing in its way. Another testament to the magnifying effect of solitude on signal.

Rooted firmly on the mountaintop: A towering cellphone mast, silently beaming a million text messages, status updates and Tinder profiles across the valley below.

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