Monday, September 23, 2019

Silicon Valley Tries Therapy

Think of it as a business opportunity. For therapists. You have a bunch of very wealthy, very successful people who are suffering the pangs of mental torment. You you set up a business to help them. You offer a veritable smorgasbord of treatment possibilities, from shamistic cures to psycho apps to mindfulness meditation to cognitive behavioral treatment.

One suspects that these “woke” high tech oligarchs are being scammed… but who are we to say? 

The patient population is crazed and ready to plunk down some serious cash. After all, they are living in a splendid contradiction. They are kings and queens of the world. They have built extraordinary businesses. They are wealthy beyond belief. And they go home to beautiful downtown San Francisco and discover that they are living in an open air toilet.

And they are riddled with guilt. How did it happen that their best laid plans produced the chaos that is surrounding them? The drugs, the needles, the homeless encampments, the filth and the piles of excrement. Naturally, they blame themselves. Especially if they are white or Asian males. They learned it in college. So it must be true. They are the problem, not the solution.

They cannot function on the job any more. They are seeking solace in the arms of the latest therapy app.

And besides, Donald Trump has rendered them stark raving crazy. They loved Hillary Clinton. They counted among the few who actually believed in the nation’s leading enabler of sexual harassment, a no account loser who never accomplished anything. The barons of Silicon Valley believed that they could put Hillary in the White House. When they failed, they threw an epic tantrum and joined in with other resistors in an effort to destroy the Trump presidency. 

Of course, you might say that anyone who is dumb enough to believe in Hillary deserves to be disembarrassed of some portion of his or her wealth. The striking thing is not as much that these tech oligarchs keep falling for the latest therapy scam. More striking indeed is their lack of judgment about the state of the world, the condition of the nation, their role in the nation. Singularly lacking in patriotism-- Google refuses to work for the Pentagon-- they feel disconnected from their nation, rudderless, purposeless. They are not sure about whether or not they belong to the nation.

Do they know that radical leftist tripe that they have glommed on to, as a substitute for religion, is really designed to make them crazy, depressed and anxious. One understands that gullible teenagers are be crying in their porridge over stories about climate change, but their elders, the millennials who are filling the ranks of high tech companies, should know better. They do not. A movement designed to produce anxiety and depression has produced anxiety and depression. 

Even if they are persuaded that the sky is falling-- my best to them-- they also believe-- because their philosopher kings have told them-- that America and Silicon Valley are part of a vast criminal conspiracy, designed to generate inequality and to undermine humankind’s natural propulsion toward diversity. If you have bought the nonsense about how the only right way to feel is to feel guilty, you are ripe for the latest therapy scam.

Such is my own take. I offer it as a preamble to a fascinating New York Times story by Nellie Bowles. She tells us how Silicon Valley decided to go into therapy. In reading some of its more succulent excerpts you may decide whether I have offered an accurate reading.

Bowles opens:

Silicon Valley told itself a good story, the best one, really: It was saving the world. For nearly a decade, this gave the modern tech worker purpose, optimism and self-confidence.

Then came the bad headlines, followed by worse headlines — about the industry, about the country, about the world. In search of reassurance, tech workers commandeered the old hippie retreat Esalen, co-opted Burning Man, got interested in psychedelics and meditation. It wasn’t enough.

Now, across Silicon Valley, anxious tech workers are finally admitting they have a problem. And they are going to therapy.

“The questions that are percolating in the national consciousness are making tech work not as glamorous or as noble as it was,” said Meredith Whittaker, a Google researcher who resigned in June, in part to protest the company’s military contracts and its ethics around artificial intelligence. “There’s a lot of anxiety. How could you not have that? Tech companies are fueling some of the most egregious human-rights abuses.”

Let’s see. If they really thought that they were saving the world, they deserve our pity. They were building great businesses. Yet, their intellectual puppeteers told them that the only value of work was to do good, to do charity work.

But, ask yourself this: how well are they doing in the coming competition with China? Are they going to be able to compete with the Middle Kingdom or are they going to self-deconstruct with their own guilt.

Would it not be a pungent irony if they were really worrying about their inability to compete in Artificial Intelligence and 5G technology? And that they asking therapists  to help them to rationalize their coming failures.

For their part therapists are playing along with the techies. They are pretending to offer data driven treatments, often delivered by apps. What you really need, bunky, is a happiness analysis, an analysis of your very own happiness quotient, your HQ!

Even therapy start-ups offering the familiar elements of care — talking with a licensed person in an office, surrounded by succulents — emphasize streamlined paperwork, a data-driven approach and happiness analysis. The cure for tech’s ills, they hope, is more tech.

“The best therapists get you better 10x faster than average ones,” promises one such start-up, Kip. “We took world-class providers, supercharged them (and you) with our smart software tools, and designed a seamless experience for both clients and providers.” Another recent venture, Reflect, calls therapy “the gym for your soul.”

Bowles continues:

Traditional therapists scribble notes and review them later, possibly with a mug of chamomile. In the Kip system, notes quickly turn into data. Weeks of therapy are broken down with quizzes to determine exactly how happiness and anxiety levels are progressing, and how quickly.

But, more traditional therapists note the downside of all this mind reading. Your most intimate information is out there in the cloud, next to the naked pictures you sent your high school lover:

The new data could provide insights that typical therapists would not come up with on their own. But there are risks. Elizabeth Kaziunas, a postdoctoral researcher at New York University, studies mental health tech and privacy. She noted that these apps gathered and organized data that you might not want gathered.

“There’s no guarantee or legal protections built in,” Ms. Kaziunas told me. “This mental health data could be bought or sold.”

For example, an anxiety diagnosis could raise my life insurance rates, she said, adding something new for me to be anxious about. “It’s kind of scary, isn’t it?” she said. “Like when you think about it?”

Now, you will have something new to be anxious about. And you will need more intense treatment. Does the notion of a scam entered your mind?

Bowles tried one of the apps herself:

Recently, I downloaded Stoic, a new mental health tracker app. It promised that after a few days of logging my moods, I would get “charts and insights.” I did a fear-setting exercise, based on a TED Talk by the life-hacking guru Tim Ferriss. The app asked me to pick a fear (the oceans rise and create an uninhabitable world for my unborn children), then imagine the worst that can happen (we all die) and decide what I can do to prevent it (nothing) and repair it (again, guys, I’m dead). I closed the app.

Frankly, this reminds me of astrology, only slightly less scientific.

As for explanations, some therapists believe that the techies are suffering because they are under assault. It feels curious to imagine that these masters of the universe fear something, as in, their future viability or perhaps the fate of their immortal souls, but apparently they do. 

Those funding the therapy start-ups see an entire cohort of tech employees who long ago fused their sense of self-worth to their work, and who are emotionally adrift now that the industry is under assault.

“It’s one thing to be grinding for a big tech company that you believe in, but once you start questioning that company’s motivations, that can make the eight hours a day that you work not feel as fulfilling,” said Michael Seibel, the chief executive of Y Combinator, the start-up investment fund and adviser.

Others feel anxiety or even despair about the environment, democracy, or just the everyday crucibles of work and status-mongering.

Among the wondrous discoveries of the new therapists is: hypnotherapy. You might recall that hypnosis and Mesmerism were very big in the nineteenth century. Now they are having something of a tech revival:

Their father suggested in-person hypnotherapy. It gave them the idea for Mindset.
I downloaded their app ($64 for an annual membership), clicked into the Calm Down section and started a session called Change as a Process. As a first step, the app suggested that I text a friend or tweet to the public the quote “He who conquers himself is the mightiest warrior.” For the next 19 minutes, a soft male voice told me that my mind can slow down. It can convert concerns to decisions. The process can even become second nature. And if it does, I can be a person of action. A person of action.

I did another module, Increase Productivity, which is voiced by a peppy younger man — a start-up bro right in my ear asking me to repeat after him: “I give myself permission to know what I want to be and what I want to do and do it efficiently.”

Surely, this is mental drool, filled with banal platitudes and bromides: “He who conquers himself is the mightiest warrior.” The next time you are in a fight blurt that one out and see how long you remain standing. Besides, is the alternative: he who loves himself is the best lover, also true?

And, some technies still believe that they ought to be doing charity work. They have confused tech work with a religious calling. Producing valuable technology does not suffice. They need to be offering charity, to the homeless in San Francisco. In truth, their sense of not helping befalls them when they scamper around mounds of excrement on the streets of San Fran:

“I have seen an increase of people in tech feeling more hopeless. They often say, ‘I don’t know if my job is helping anybody,’” said Krista Regedanz, a psychologist in Palo Alto. “People who want to change the world and have good energy around it — I’m seeing a lot of them come in saying: ‘I don’t know. Does it matter?’”

Last year, May Bartlett, a life coach, started Global Impact Coaching to answer questions about how one’s work might be helping or hurting the world.

“They come in and say, ‘I feel like I’m floating in this vast universe, alone, with no purpose,’” Ms. Bartlett said. “And there’s a lot of this existential dread.”

Therapy for the guilt ridden masses. Therapy for the masses that therapy has rendered emotionally dysfunctional. Has the word scam crossed your mind yet:

It’s a big revival,” said the organization’s leader, Kirk Schneider.

Dr. Schneider, 63, cited technology itself as one reason for ambient emotional chaos. But he said clients were also suffering from broader social forces — a fear that inequality will lead to violent uprisings, a panic over global authoritarianism, a sense that they are not contributing to the common good.

“The goal is to move from a sense of abject terror and paralysis,” Dr. Schneider said, “to a gradual sense of intrigue and eventual wonder.”

So, shine up your crystals, tune into Marianne Williamson, call up the local shaman… you are on the way to wonder… that is, to wondering how easily these new therapists separated you from your money.


trigger warning said...

Forgive the laughter. I'm just thinking about a decade+ old Bay Area neo-aphorism that cleverly turned an old saying on its head...

"Doing good by doing well."

I heard it first from the lips of a Bay Area small-cap managed fund investment guru.

Sadly, it appears the aspiring do-gooders aren't doing so well. More subscription-based cloud cowbell, please!

Sam L. said...

“There’s no guarantee or legal protections built in,” Ms. Kaziunas told me. “This mental health data could be bought or sold.”

Can you say "Blackmail", boys and girls? Yes, I knew you could.

UbuMaccabee said...

I’ve always wanted to run my own cult. It seems like an opportune time to create one. So many sheep, so little time.

Anonymous said...

The irony is, they're exactly right. They should be worried about authoritarianism. They're silencing people they disagree with and trying to overthrow the last election -- all the while, "contributing" by things like helping create the crummy common core and giving laptops to all students so they can collect their personal data.

They make ordinary, esp middle-Americans, feel like crap because we want to continue our traditional lifestyles (like rural living and electing our own president) and frankly, their billions and technology are being used by THEMr, mind you, to control the world. They go before congress and lie their asses off in denial.

They're pretty much a crummy, self-entitled bunch with waaaay too much money (and I'm a Capitalist); they should give half away -- they'd still be living like no beings in known history, while helping others instead of trying to rule over them.

I have a multi-millionaire uncle in Silicon valley. He sends us 1,000 at Christmas, as we slowly pay off student loans and a mortgage. I don't resent anything and appreciate the thousand, but he's also an uber leftist who has had a major influence on his working-class brother in Pittsburgh who now believes Trump is the devil (right after the left-leaning Fox News).

Meh.....not impressed by these people. Get a life.