Story ate the world. I’m biting back.

by Maria on September 23, 2020

A piece I wrote elsewhere in March is doing the rounds again. ‘The Prodigal Tech Bro’ is about the privileged place in professional interactions and public discourse given to men who used to work in senior positions for tech platforms and are now surprised and disturbed by what those companies do. It points out how the ex-tech executives’ “I’m was lost, now I’m found; please come to my TED talk” redemption arc misses out a key part of the narrative groove they use to slide back into our good graces. It’s the bit in the Biblical parable of the Prodigal Son where he hits rock bottom in a pigsty and decides to go home and beg to be taken on as one of his father’s servants. Ultimately, he’s forgiven, much to the chagrin of the brother who stayed home and did the work, but the original Prodigal Son understands where he went wrong, and more importantly who he has wronged, and believes all the long walk home that he will never regain his former status and comfort.

A new documentary on Netflix, The Social Dilemma, is about the harms of social media. It centres the wide-eyed gradualism of a former tech executive named in my piece, amongst others whose careers have followed a similar trajectory from poacher to … someone who thinks we should maybe sometime think about hiring some more gamekeepers, if that’s ok, though obviously not the radical gamekeepers, and definitely not gamekeepers who think their job is something more than game-keeping the herd so ‘we’ can conveniently shoot or farm it.

The film repeats the same failing of the former tech execs – it assumes that the privileged people who made the mess we’re all in should be at the centre of the conversation on how to clean their shit up, crowding out once again those who have suffered because of their shit, or who’ve wrecked their careers by speaking loudly about the existence of this shit, and – crucially – limiting our thinking about what we do now to the homeopathic solutionism of the slurry-drenched insider who is already defined by his insistence that what looks, smells and acts like shit is not, in fact, shit.

I’m labouring the expletives because I’m personally tired – both exhausted and fed up – of operating in a professional world where these guys weaponise civility, etiquette, professionalism and all manner of toxic, power-pointed pearl-clutching to passive aggressively coerce everyone else into pretending they and their companies don’t stink to high heaven.

But the reason I want to write about this here is not to rehearse the arguments about why centrism always loses when your opponent not only breaks the rules but owns the whole game, but about what it is I am trying to do.

Our era is drenched in narrative. From the beguiling flame spiral of neoliberalism’s end of ‘grand narratives’, to Trump’s three and four word (lock her up / maga) ultra-short stories of destruction, to our helpless fascination with the far right’s ability to govern by unverified sound-bite, to the fact that every shitty little marketer on the Internet now calls themselves a ‘storyteller’; story has eaten the world.

Our preferred form of storytelling is so obsessed with endings that we’re convinced we’re ring-side at the biggest, baddest, worst ending ever – that of the centuries of Reason and their faithful but unfortunately carbon-emitting Engines of Progress. We love endings, revere protagonists, and not so secretly long for their mutual culmination in a fiery end of glorious and gorgeously terminal self-actualisation. Our whole mode of future-imagining is a death cult. We literally cannot imagine the world after us.

So, in the medium-term, I’m working on a book-shaped thing about how we use story to actively imagine and build better futures than the nihilistic inevitabilism currently on offer (especially from Big Tech.) It’s currently got a LOT in the mix – from how my abusive convent boarding school revealed the intimate relation between privacy and power, to how the English state’s origin stories that justify state coercion and soften the peasants up for perpetual violence (Leviathan, Lord of the Flies) are historically and culturally contingent cries for help. All that stuff shows how the stories we mindlessly reach for to understand how the world works operate as gate-keepers of possibility and crushers of hope.

But the fun stuff, the truly important stuff, is about how utopias – be they of the Erik Olin Wright ‘real’ variety, the Charlotte Perkins Gilman feminist utopia some white feminists actually got to live in, for a while, the earthy and anthropological Ursula K. Le Guin ones that interrogate their own ideas of order even as they encourage our brains to generate more – are stories that not only imagine alternative futures but help us find friends and allies who also dream of them, to build coalitions and make them real. There’s also a fucktonne in there on how to generate new ideas about the future that don’t require ‘us’ to be the protagonists and our deaths or failures to be the end. Some of that stuff listens to the storytelling traditions of indigenous people who have gone on making new stories even as their collective future was murdered before their eyes. I don’t know if I’ll get to write this book, but I do know it’s a significant part of my life’s work.

Pieces like the Prodigal Tech Bro work for me as test-drives for how we take the stories many of us already share, and use them to re-frame the ‘facts on the ground’ in ways that a) give explanations that weren’t previously obvious, and b) point the way to what to do about them. Writing it, I very consciously took an existing story – a Biblical parable that seems well enough known outside of Christian circles to assume familiarity – and used it to tease out just what it was that grates about ex-Googlers hogging the public intellectual bandwidth of how to unbreak our shattered world. Unquestioned, the prodigal son also works as a trope that gives public figures quick and unearned redemption – but only if you don’t know the full story, only if you are unaware of or ignore the hinge around which the story turns; the rock bottom pigsty turning point. Once that frame is overlaid on the tech bros’ too-smooth redemption arc, the missing part of the stories they tell – sorrow, remorse, anguished regret and the relinquishing of power and status to those who did the right thing all along – becomes visible. You can’t unsee the bits they skip over and expect us to, also. I know it’s worked not because my article has gone mildly viral once more, but because the comments people make in response are of the ‘Aha, now I see it and can articulate what bugged me. Now I’m talking to other people about that.’ That’s my ambition, to find better stories that unite our intellectual and emotional capacities and direct them outward in ways that refuse the current order of power and its chino-wearing civility police.

At the very simplest, the Prodigal Tech Bro is just an alternative framing to the media-slick one most journalists – and documentary-makers – unthinkingly apply. The “Center for Humane Technology”, a Stanford think-tank of one of the well-got ex-Googlers featured in the Social Dilemma documentary, emailed me last week about how “humbled and in awe” the center’s ‘team’ was by the film’s reception, and encouraging me to “go deeper in the conversation” by using its “discussion guide” or even organising a viewing party with my friends. These people have always controlled the narrative by insisting there is only one acceptable form it can take, leading to a tiny range of acceptable endings.

That’s bullshit. The very least I personally can do as someone who knows a lot about tech and also, increasingly, something about storytelling, is offer ways to resist these bullshit framings and signal the way to spaces and possibilities that people better than me can build.

That’s my life’s work. I’m forty-eight and it’s just in the last year or two taken shape. All endings are beginnings and this is a moment when I feel we each need to figure out what we do in service of those who’ll come after us into this messed up world. I don’t think despair is an option; I think it’s an unearned luxury. But for some of us at this moment the life’s work may be simply to survive, to endure, and that has to be ok, too. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Actually it’s more of a relay race. Actually it’s not a race at all.

What’s your life’s work? Do you know it yet, or did you always? Have you found ways to do it, people to do it with? Do you have any sense that it will be enough?



J-D 09.23.20 at 11:59 am

Our era is drenched in narrative … story has eaten the world.

What, is there supposed to have been a time when it was different? Colour me dubious.

What’s your life’s work? Do you know it yet, or did you always?

I wish I knew. No, not a damn clue. Kurt Vonnegut wrote that we’re here to fart around: if that’s my life’s work, I’m doing okay, but is it? You tell me. Please.


Cory Doctorow 09.23.20 at 12:43 pm

This sounds fantastic, Maria. I can’t wait to read it.


steven t johnson 09.23.20 at 12:43 pm

The point of the parable of the prodigal son was that the resentment of the good brother was wrong. The point of the parable of the prodigal tech bro is that resentment at the restoration of privilege is justified. I agree that lots and lots of people actually reject Christian morality. The contempt bred by familiarity leads them to dismiss the manifest meaning…in favor of their own story.


Gregory Sanders 09.23.20 at 1:18 pm

@Steven T Johnson
I’d recently read a book by Amy-Jill Levine that argued, I think effectively, that parables are medium resistant to having a single point and that modern readings of them tend to be reductive. That they are met to be challenging to the audience and as they become familiar over the centuries we can often focus on a read that is unchallenging to us. Here’s a piece she wrote on the Prodigal Son in particular:


Russell Arben Fox 09.23.20 at 1:19 pm

[long and enthusiastic applause]

What’s your life’s work? Do you know it yet, or did you always?

I’m only 51. According to both Confucius and the Bible, I still have 19 more years to get it right.


Maria 09.23.20 at 1:26 pm

Thanks, Cory!


Cian 09.23.20 at 1:29 pm

Someone who’s been pushing back hard on the tech bro narrative is Wendy Liu. I find her work inspiring.

I’d also add Cory Doctorow as someone who’s experimented with exploring possible non-dystopian futures that relate very specifically to our tech moment.

There’s a possibility of utopianism contained within open source. Problematic in many ways (things like AWS would be impossible without Linux, and much of Web 2/3/4.o would be impossible without JavaScript frameworks), but still there’s something to value there.

My question would be how do you radicalize developers? A small minority already are radicalized. But all too often developers get excited by the tech and forget about the uses it’s put to.


John 09.23.20 at 1:29 pm

For another version of the prodigal rich redemption. see NYT Sorkin Dealbook 9/13 in which CEOs comment on Milton Friedman.


Gregory Sanders 09.23.20 at 1:30 pm

@Steven T Johnson
I’d recently read a book by Amy-Jill Levine that argued that as a medium, parables are meant to reframe our vision and be unsettling and that the modern take on manifest reading can sometimes be reductive. She tends to emphasize the context of rabbinical literature of the period. Here she is on the prodigal son:
(Apologies if this is a repeat post, tried it from Newsblur but I don’t think it went through.)


Maria 09.23.20 at 1:37 pm

Hi Gregory – I put both your comments through as I think they emphasise different things / I learnt something from each. Many thanks for this link. I didn’t know of Levine’s work and will seek it out.


Cian 09.23.20 at 2:04 pm

Thinking more about the story – recrafting a story for developers/tech people would actually be quite valuable. Thinking less of techbros who are just capitalists, and more the workers who build this stuff.

Currently their story is one of progress, where tech is (almost) always a good thing. It’s also a story where they’re the heroes, recreating the world for a mass populous that is not as grateful as they should be. It’s a world where mostly the ordinary masses are ignored, and instead tech is imposed given to them from on high.

There are alternate narratives. For example there’s the participatory design movement (which was a strong influence on early Human Computer Interaction/User Centered Design) that came out of the unions in Scandinavia, where technologists work with users to redesign a world that fits their needs and vision.


Doug 09.23.20 at 2:05 pm

Who’s ‘we’? What assumptions do you have lurking in your pronoun?


Sumana Harihareswara 09.23.20 at 2:27 pm

What’s your life’s work? Do you know it yet, or did you always? Have you found ways to do it, people to do it with? Do you have any sense that it will be enough?

Thank you for asking these questions.

At some point about six years ago I said that my gig was inculcating compassion in others and making processes that scale. In the short term I am doing this through my work in short-term project management in open source software projects, and it feels closest to “my life’s work” compared to anything else I’ve done for a job. I am slowly finding other people to do it with. I don’t know whether it will be enough in terms of making the changes I want to see in this corner of the world, but it’s enough to soak up all of my working time.


Phil 09.23.20 at 2:40 pm

The story of the Prodigal Son isn’t actually the story of someone who did bad stuff – he just threw his father’s money away on riotous living (then hit rock bottom, then went home and begged forgiveness, etc). So that doesn’t really fit the “repentant tech bro” story at all. (OTOH, the moral of the PS is that heaven rejoices when a sinner repents, so maybe that’s all that people are really drawing on.)

Another take on the PS is Rudyard Kipling’s; he imagines that the PS continues to get side-eye from his brother – and the rest of the family – to the point where he thinks, sod this for a game of soldiers, and heads back out to make an honest living as a pig farmer. I’m not sure what the moral of that story is, but it’s different.

I stumbled on my life’s work when I was 47 – it has to do with the rule of law in a Marxist perspective, and the negation and preservation of liberalism more generally. Currently contemplating retirement and working on the book. Well, a book.


Ray Davis 09.23.20 at 3:11 pm

Like Cory, I want to read that book.

This is a wonderful essay, and I’ll be returning to it. As for the parable, I wonder if it may support your point more strongly through a slightly different path than the one taken by your Conversationalist piece.

The parable’s simon-pure elder brother complains (in Tyndale’s pungent translation):

“Loo these many yeares have I done the service / nether brake at eny tyme thy commaundment / & yet gavest thou me never soo moche as a kyd to make mery wt my lovers: but assone as this thy sonne was come / which hath devoured thy goodes with harlootes / thou haste for his pleasure kylled ye fatted caulfe.”

To which the father responds:

“Sonne / thou wast ever with me / and all that I have / is thyne: it was mete that we shuld make mery and be glad….”

As you go on to write, these corporation redemption stories skip the assignment of all they have to those who did the right thing and suffered for it. That being done, sure, why not party?

(Also as you mention in your earlier essay, the workings of god-and-eternal-paradise significantly differ from the workings of CEOs-and-global-capitalism, but I suppose free-marketeers might find that overly contentious.)


Gregory Sanders 09.23.20 at 3:21 pm

@ Maria
Glad they were of use! Her work has definitely heightened my appreciation for the method of storytelling and I think it definitely can fit well with your calling.

What’s your life’s work? Do you know it yet, or did you always?
Still figuring it out at 40, in part because I’m terrible at making the sacrifices necessary to effectively focus. The closest thing I’ve got to a legacy thus far is my support as a one of many volunteers trying to get a circumferential light rail project built in DC’s Maryland suburubs. I’m the second generation working for it in my family and unfortunately my day job as an acquisition analyst is now all too relevant.

My day job vocation is quantitative analyst, working with larger datasets and trying to combine various sorts of public administrative data as if I were rolling a giant katamari. Since a lot of what I do is defense analysis, there’s a lot potentially problematic to the whole enterprise. I try to make open source datasets that allow a broader range of participation in the analysis and to stay connected with a variety of scholars that challenge the whole enterprise. But I haven’t truly made it work yet, in part just because statistics are hard and I’m bad at figuring out what’s truly important and focusing on that. But it pays my advocacy bills at least.


Poirot 09.23.20 at 3:22 pm

This is wonderful, Maria. Thank you for this.

It’s posts like this that keep me coming back.

On a slightly different note, are you aware of the Society for Utopian Studies? They’re an academic organization of professors who want to reclaim Utopia as a good thing. And their starting point is the study of science fiction–of alternative, possible worlds, much as you write, above.

Please keep posting your draft fragments of your book-like thing as you go forward. You just gave me a whole bunch of hope today. And these days, we need it more than ever.


nastywoman 09.23.20 at 4:00 pm

It seems to be that a lot of people –
with this… Virus – asked themselves:
What’s your life’s work?
Do you know it yet, or did you always?
Have you found ways to do it, people to do it with?
Do you have any sense that it will be enough?

Especially after – or during the lockdown

and I tried out a lot of different answers – in the spirit of Cory Doctorow –
”Never underestimate the determination of a kid who is” –
cash rich and time poor.


Dean Spears 09.23.20 at 4:12 pm

I’m really looking forward to reading this. I hope you’ll engage with the “longtermist” ideas in utilitarian thought, like Toby Ord’s recent argument in The Precipice that the next few decades/centuries are the critical time for survival. (Why, we might wonder, will big risks end then?)

I don’t know if I know what my life’s work is yet.


JimV 09.23.20 at 4:33 pm

Exploring, and hearing and telling stories. If it’s not enough, it will have to do until enough comes along.

“The Prodigal Son” happens to be one of the better guitar finger-picking arrangements I’ve found in my explorations. Nobody else in the world has ever heard it, but it’s on the plus side of my self-judgement ledger, balancing some of the red.

Message of the day: see the movie “Jojo Rabbit””. Now there’s a story! Favorite line: Anyway, fake-Nathan and I do have a plan.


steven t johnson 09.23.20 at 4:37 pm

Gregory Sanders seems to say the point of the parable, that the righteous are wrong to resent forgiveness of sinners, questioning the will of God, is a comfortable reading. I am puzzled by this, as so few of us identify with the prodigal. In this world, the rain blesses the unjust too. Who identifies with them?

As to the general question of how “reductive” readings of parables may be, this is strange to bring up when citing Levine. Levine literally reduces the parable of the prodigal son by omitting any discussion of the ending. You don’t get more reductive than that. In general, I believe the point of any art with a point is diffused when multiple readings are endorsed. Indeed, insisting on wildly disparate and irrelevant readings, or worst of all, contradictory readings, is a way of keeping away any discomfort. It’s denying the text.

In particular, Levine’s critique of allegorical anti-Semitic reading of the prodigal son as Christianity makes no sense, leaving the good brother, the Jew, the figure of righteousness, who never lost the love of the father, God. I have no doubt the story has been complicated by allegory by “commentators” to permit this misreading. Unfortunately, Levine does not criticize this for misreading, but joins in obfuscation with tedious nonsense about the prodigal’s sin, the father’s sin, ignoring the end of the parable. Levine’s Zen koan approach to parables directly contradicts the whole notion of parables as teaching to the simple folk, I think. The emotional impact (artistic effect, if you will) of a parable is strengthened by having a simple point, however uncomfortable, driven home without being dogmatically stated. Allegory a la prodigal=Christian, good brother=Jew, father=God is not just incoherent, it is dry and lifeless.

Levine wrote “Residual Marcionism, the view that God had a personality transplant somewhere between the pages of Malachi and Matthew, is still alive and well in churches today; it is also still a heresy.” Didn’t William F. Buckley write snide things about people so foolish as to immanentize the eschaton? Or was that an Onion parody? When I want to read about Marcionism I will go to my Kindle copy of Tertullian’s Against Marcion (in some antique public domain translation, of course.) I would be cautious in reading Levine.

My socially unqualified opinion of course.


Gregory Sanders 09.23.20 at 5:37 pm

@steven t johnson
I do think parables are writen for masses, but canonically, the disciples are regularly going to Jesus to say “we don’t get it” with Jesus then explaining in secret. Levine is of the school that the gospel writers trying to clarify what their prefered interpretation is, but I think is a point against the idea that they are supposed to have a point that is both simple and easy to understand for all.

That said, I do think that your interpretation is a straightforward reading of the text and in the book, Levine does more line up with your point on dry and airless allegory. I do think she is useful in helping point out ways parables can be challenging to us today in ways that are different than for the original audience, but I see that as supplementing rather than replacing the straightforward read you point out.


Shirley0401 09.23.20 at 5:54 pm

Cian @ 11

Currently their story is one of progress, where tech is (almost) always a good thing. It’s also a story where they’re the heroes, recreating the world for a mass populous that is not as grateful as they should be.

I think this is 100% true, and one of the big problems I can see with what you can generally call “the tech industry” is that so many of them are so rarely exposed to other viewpoints or framing. I know a few people who work in tech, albeit in positions (management, training) other than the truly technical (coding, &c), and I was telling one of them about the book Uncanny Valley, and recommending it to him, and his response was a version of “this a) won’t help me at work and b) doesn’t sound as entertaining as my preferred pure leisure activities.” The industry isn’t a baby any more, and afaict there is a mindset and ethos pretty baked-in at this point that infects almost everyone who exists in that ecosystem. It seems not to allow for much self-reflection or much in the way of non-“productive” activity, even off the clock. It’s self-reinforcing, and it’s dangerous.


Dave 09.23.20 at 6:03 pm

I love this and am very grateful you’re doing this


MisterMr 09.23.20 at 6:09 pm

So, not really my life’s job, but my hobby is drawing webcomics. Due to this hobby I recently read a lot of Jung, who is a rather unscientific but interesting dude who still sells well in theories for storywriters.

One concept from Jung that I found interesting is the concept of “mana”, a generalised magic force.

It seems to me that when we meet people who can do things we can’t, like if I meet a doctor while I have no knowledge of medicine, I can just think about what he or she can do as a sort of black box power.
Can this doctor heal me? If I trust him I believe s/he has the power/mana/skill to heal me, if s/he fails to heal me I’ll deduce that s/he has not the mana.
It seems to me that this is a very basic hermeneutic and that therefore we still think largely in these terms (even if when conceived as magic by other cultures it sounds stupid).

It seems to me that the Prodigal Tech Bro story is not so much about repentance, but about mana:
This guy created a famous program and became rich with it, he evidently has the mana, therefore we ask him for a solution and not other people who evidently don’t have the same amount of mana.

This holds in politics too: many Berlusconi followers thought “he is very succesful, he know what he is doing” and I believe many Trump supporters also think in these terms.

That is to say the problem isn’t really repentance, but the assumption of a competence that is not there (because mana doesn’t really exist so even if one is good at programming he isn’t necessariously good with social problems).


Dan 09.23.20 at 6:54 pm

Even more then The Prodigal Son this reminds me of “shooting and crying”…


Neville Morley 09.23.20 at 7:09 pm

That’s quite a doosra of a final question… I suppose that if I try to characterise my past, present and planned academic work – which to the unbiased viewer might look like the random flittering of a butterfly mind – it’s to get people to think about how we think about the past, and how, often, if we don’t, we get thought by it instead. A lot of it has focused on writing introductions for students on historiography and historical method, a lot of it explores specific examples of how people have used the classical past in different ways to think about the present; my current book aims to consider not just how modern political discourse and theory has drawn on the Ancient Greek historian Thucydides and his work but also how we might do it better. And in recent years, I’ve been trying a wider range of styles and forms of communication, from blogging to games to drama. And most of the time it all feels hopeless and trivial – I can’t even expunge one fake Thucydides quotation from the internet…


Trader Joe 09.23.20 at 7:42 pm

Such sweet schadenfreude watching the glorious long-triumphant workers of the technology profession experience the fear, greed and angst that workers in financial sectors have known since the 80s (and maybe before).

Sounds like a quite worthy project that will likely help many while even more deeply conflicting others.


PatinIowa 09.23.20 at 8:16 pm

Complicating the matter are the various ways in which people understand repentance. When I was a little Catholic schoolboy the metric was, “If you benefited from your sin, and you don’t give up the benefit, then you haven’t repented.”

See Claudius, in Hamlet:

“Then I’ll look up;
My fault is past. But, O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? ‘Forgive me my foul murder?’
That cannot be; since I am still possess’d(55)
Of those effects for which I did the murder—
My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen.
May one be pardon’d and retain the offence?”

One of the ways that the nuns slandered Protestantism was to suggest that their forms of repentance were cheap by comparison. I don’t know for sure, at the time, I suspected they were engaged in special pleading.

The outrage–not in the parable, but here–then, is that if the Prodigal Tech Bro were truly repentant, he’d (pronoun used advisedly) give up, among other things, the social capital he’s accrued. In short, shut the fuck up, and let the people he’s damaged have their say.

I found my niche I think. If I’m lucky, it will include given what you’ve written to a young scholar or activist and working through it with them.


Stephen Frug 09.23.20 at 8:45 pm

Sounds fabulous.

If you’re writing about utopias, can I strongly recommend Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel Pacific Edge? It’s the third book in a trilogy; it was just published as a single volume omnibus called Three Californias, with an introduction by Francis Spufford, well known around these parts. But is really and truly utterly independent of the other two & can be read alone. (It’s three possible futures; one is utopia. The connections are in thematic contrasts & aren’t necessary for a reading of the book.) It’s not only one of the best utopias I know of, it’s one of the wisest about utopias. It’s hard to say why without spoiling the ending (several of its best points are about the ending), but it’s really worth a read if you’re thinking about utopia as a genre.


John Quiggin 09.24.20 at 3:27 am


J-D 09.24.20 at 4:29 am

Complicating the matter are the various ways in which people understand repentance. When I was a little Catholic schoolboy the metric was, “If you benefited from your sin, and you don’t give up the benefit, then you haven’t repented.”

See Claudius, in Hamlet:

“Then I’ll look up;
My fault is past. But, O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? ‘Forgive me my foul murder?’
That cannot be; since I am still possess’d(55)
Of those effects for which I did the murder—
My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen.
May one be pardon’d and retain the offence?”

Or you could look at this–

–in a sort of modern confessional.


bad Jim 09.24.20 at 7:18 am

An atheist probably ought not to wade into a discussion about the gospels’ parables, but: it’s my understanding that they’re often explaining the counterintuitive universality of the offer of eternal life. That it’s available to everyone without regard to their past conduct contravened every norm. By excluding no one it’s utterly unjust.

Judaism hadn’t previously had heaven on offer, though, so the message was appealing, and the confident expectation of the apostles of the imminent return of the messiah continues to appeal, notwithstanding two millennia of absence.


Indian Jones 09.24.20 at 8:01 am

Well, If the rueful Tech Bro pursued with vengeance the truth about the SV power system, he would be denied a platform.


bad Jim 09.24.20 at 8:46 am

As to the question, “What’s your life’s work?” I can quickly describe my brief (23 years) professional work in embedded systems programming as productive (10 patents, many imitators, the respect of my peers) and remunerative (retired at 48). I loved immersing myself in coding for 8-bit microcontrollers, but I realized I was behind the curve even before I dropped out of the game. I also got some kicks out of working with networks and data bases (call me a promiscuous programmer), and I was privileged to be humbled by a couple of better qualified practitioners.

I wound up spending a decade taking care of my aging mother, and sharing my small fortune with my profligate or improvident siblings, and needy nieces and nephews. This may sound grim, and to be honest I felt ashamed whenever I had to call the bank to request a substantial transfer of funds to someone whose needs I would have disdained had they not been family. It has worked out, so far. Everyone in the family seems to be doing pretty well (we get together monthly on Zoom). This is gratifying.


dbk 09.24.20 at 9:11 am

Thank you, Maria, that’s a really interesting project, I hope you’ll publish snippets / drafts on CT on occasion and comment on them, too.

On one’s life work: I’m officially retired after three interrelated careers, none of which was ultimately very satisfying or fulfilling. Then in 2017, I started blogging – which I know for many here is a sideline, but for me it’s my “life’s work.” The blog focuses on health/environment/justice/education and mostly highlights the inequitable consequences of policies in these areas (I’ve recently added “housing” as a fifth). It’s the first time in my life I just can’t wait to get out of bed in the morning, and am sorry to go to bed. It’s just the most incredible feeling ever.

What I cover is mostly extremely disheartening – depressing, even – but I try not to lose heart; my motto is “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” – a motto which I have occasion to recall daily, though I think it’s somewhat easier for me to adhere to because I was always something of an optimist by nature.

Recently I’ve reached out to a local community garden non-profit in my hometown, and hope to support their efforts to re-group and re-envision their mission to include a whole raft of community support initiatives. Along with this, I’m following a couple of local elections (City Council, Mayor), where there are some young, progressive visionaries running – both come out of the community organizing movement. “Think global, act local” – trying to put that into practice.

@JohnQuiggin – I’d read the Guardian piece when it was first published, just re-read it and was inspired all over again.


Gareth Wilson 09.24.20 at 9:13 am

I didn’t watch much of The Sopranos, but I always liked that scene. I wonder if that’s the first time someone said the word “Mafia” to Carmela.


notGoodenough 09.24.20 at 12:11 pm

“bro-ishness” seems to be, sadly, an all-too-common phenomena. While it is, perhaps, more prevalent in some areas than others, there seems to be no scarcity of such personalities in the world. This may go some way towards explaining the propensity for forgiveness – after all, someone who is also a “bro” is likely prone to judging other “bros” with some sympathy: ”Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Mathew 7:1

Perhaps Proverbs 12:15 provides some useful advice such disgraced bros: “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but he who heeds counsel is wise.” Of course, the choice of counsel is also rather important…


Bill Benzon 09.24.20 at 1:05 pm

I finally managed The Social Dilemma after three or four sittings. Not sure just why I finished it but I did. Anyhow, I thought it was useless; the dramatization was cheesy and the interviews didn’t tell me much that I didn’t already know, Oh, golly gee, something’s really wrong! The whole thing struck me as an exercise in what Marcuse called repressive desublimation. There’s enough criticism (desublimation) that you can feel you’re doing something, but not enough to actually do anything effective (repressive).

My own complaint at the moment seems rather minor. Facebook is changing their user interface, no questions asked, you have to do it. They’re doing it, they tell us, to improve our user experience. Well, maybe they actually believe it. As far as I’m concerned, they’re doing it mostly because they can and thereby they demonstrate that users are powerless. Of course – I know, I know – I could leave. But I actually find FB useful to me, even in my “life’s work.” Just a month or two ago I got a tip via FB that opened up a whole new line of thinking. Might not have gone there without that tip. I mean, one good tip is worth a thousand journal articles.

As for my life’s work, I found it rather early in my career, and I’ve been revising it ever since. I’ve found a few colleagues along the way, but it’s mostly an uphill struggle, both frustrating and fulfilling.


notGoodenough 09.24.20 at 2:52 pm

As a general (and probably rather uninteresting) response to the final question, I doubt I have anything so grand as a life’s work. I do love my work as a scientific researcher, and find developing materials for energy storage (as well as the other sidelines I have) intellectually and personally gratifying. I have discovered an interest in the big picture, and have enjoyed trying to discover more regarding how things fit together – particularly from an environmental perspective (indeed, CT’s John Quiggin’s thoughts have been very helpful, and having a forum where I can learn and discuss is something of a pleasure and a privilege for me). In my non-professional life, I advocate for social well-being, environmentalism, and improving our understanding of the universe we inhabit – sometimes even successfully. I am, of course, a very small cog in a very large machine – but I flatter myself I have not always struggled in vain. While the picture is bleak, I’ve found several communities (on-line and off-line), and my propensity towards dark-humour (combined with the fortune of having good friends and family) has sustained me through it all.

I suppose, if pressed, I would say I try to aim to leave the world marginally better off for my having been in it (which may be the case), to enjoy my life (I am fortunate enough to do so), and to contribute positively to the lives of others (if possible). To follow the trend and also quote Kurt Vonnegut “There’s only one rule that I know of”[…[”God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”


Chris Herbert 09.24.20 at 3:15 pm

I’ve spent most of my time the past 5 years trying to tell people how Congress funds its spending. Congress creates new money every time it pays a bill. It doesn’t need to borrow. It doesn’t even have to raise taxes if it wants to spend more money. Taxes are used to extinguish money. Spend in, Tax out. Simply elegant, and an almost totally ignored reality. Oh Well, I’m old and embedded with patience. Nice essay, by the way.


Maria 09.24.20 at 4:30 pm

Doug @12 – who’s the ‘we’? Indeed. I use the term imprecisely and inconsistently to cover ( in my mind ) a pretty hand-wavy contemporary cultural critique as well as something more specific about long-form fiction structures. There’s a whole schtick I have in mind about conflict-driven three-act structures as the default way to write a novel or make a fiction film, which is obviously only one way of telling stories – e.g. le Guin is adamant in her craft writing that conflict is but one of many drivers – and stoking conflict as the most desirable way to drive plots forward doesn’t feel hugely healthy. OTOH I don’t think we have the political problems we currently have because of a failure to appreciate alternatives such as the picaresque. Short version – yes, ‘we’ is doing a lot of work in this piece, and that’s something I’m thinking about a lot.


Maria 09.24.20 at 6:35 pm

Thanks, Steven t johnson, for this; “In general, I believe the point of any art with a point is diffused when multiple readings are endorsed. Indeed, insisting on wildly disparate and irrelevant readings, or worst of all, contradictory readings, is a way of keeping away any discomfort. It’s denying the text.”

That’s a fascinating point to me as I’d assumed the reason parables have lasted a couple of thousand years already is the same reason myths, fairy stories, etc. last; their capaciousness in accommodating multiple readings for successive generations and, perhaps crucially, conflicting but compelling meanings to factions of each generation. But your comment does of course go back to their original intent (if only we could discern and agree on it) and is a useful steer. Tks.


Maria 09.24.20 at 6:38 pm

So much here to read further in – the Utopian Society not least – thanks to everyone, and I hope others find the comments as stimulating as I am.

Thanks also to people who have volunteered their responses to their ‘life’s work’.

That Sopranos scene – I’d forgotten just how good that drama was.


Maria 09.24.20 at 6:43 pm

Stephen Frug – yes, that KSR reissue has been on my list since it came out in the US earlier this year. I must check if it’s available in Ireland/UK yet.

Related, Tor’s project in that series to reissue SF classics on – broadly – the progressive pockets of the political spectrum is an even grander project of meta-story telling; not just a reminder to readers new and old that SF isn’t all 1950s ‘cold equations’ etc. but an attempted retro-active re-ordering of the field that gives back the ancestors many of us didn’t know we had. It’s a wonderful thing.


Stephen Frug 09.24.20 at 8:31 pm

Maria — a quick google indicates yes

I agree about the reissues. Wonderful to see so much great stuff back in print, for the reasons you mention as well as just great reading.


Kiwanda 09.24.20 at 9:14 pm

It is remarkably convenient that the good uses and aspects of technology (such as there are) came from richly diverse communities, or maybe the blue sky, while the bad aspects all came from people whose gender and color give us an excuse — no, not just an excuse, a righteously justified demand — to hate them. (Well, gender and color, and having worked at google, and being American, and not being Maria’s friends.) This hatred is justified even if, no, especially if, they are engaged in pointing out and trying alleviate those bad aspects.


PatinIowa 09.24.20 at 10:38 pm

J-D at 32.

Yes, exactly. I was thinking of that one too. What a great scene that is.


Doug 09.25.20 at 10:16 am

Maria @42 Thanks for the response! A lot the pieces I write publicly these days are book reviews, and “we” and “us” are extremely common in reviewing. I’ve found it helpful to do without as much as I can (which turns out be essentially always), and I am glad that you’re thinking about this sort of thing as well.

Very much with you on the conflict-driven, three-act structure. I see something related that happens in SF/F particularly, which is that writers (and probably down the line also agents and/or editors) say to themselves, well this world is all very nice and interesting, but why am I telling this particular story in it? And they decide to tell the most important story within that setting, which is one reason a lot of them start to look alike. Discworld, for example, got much much better when Pratchett left off telling stories about saving the whole Disc and got on with stories that were important to the people in them with larger effects mostly incidental.

Further to your comment @45, if my memory of Three Californias is relaible, you’ll find them worth your while. I hope the Suck Fairy hasn’t visited in the years since I last read them. China Mountain Zhang, too, if you haven’t before or haven’t recently; another wonderful example of something that isn’t all three-act-rush and escalation of “stakes.”


steven t johnson 09.25.20 at 2:22 pm

Parables (and fables, parables with talking animals,) are not so far as I know known for multiple readings. I suppose one could find multiple readings for the little mermaid but for the emperor’s new clothes? Nor are fables and parables widely known for variants, another way of changing the point. It seems to me that the Kipling variant cited above in another comment is what it means to talk about multiple readings of parables. But that this is modern and literary and not at all what we could mean by lasting thousands of years, or even being factional.

Fairy tales are widely known for such variants, but if I would be hard pressed to explain the “point” of any fairy tale, save wishful thinking on behalf of the vicarious hero. The common disdain for fairy tales is very often because they are “pointless” in the sense we’re talking about.

Myths are indeed multiply read or recast in variants. To take an uncontentious example, Arthurian mythology still lives in popular literature, though nowhere else so far as I know. It is being recast with multiple meanings over and over, with the same mythical material serving to give us the well-known T.H. White Once and Future King to the unknown Courtway Jones trilogy. The thing is, is this lasting thousands of years? This is something of the opposite of the ship of Theseus. The question then was, it it really the same ship if all the parts have been replaced? Here, the question becomes, is it really the same story when the “parts,” (names, etc.) are recycled into a new plan? If wood from the ship of Theseus was used to make a garbage scow, would people still call it the ship of Theseus?

At any rate, unlike fairy tales, myths do have a point. This is why myths are devised in the first place. The commentators who managed to impose an anti-Judaism interpretation onto the parable of the prodigal son did so from ulterior motives. In this case I don’t find them particularly admirable motives, but even if I did, I don’t think I could possibly make a case this kind of thing makes for a superior aesthetic.
Robert Graves on the Greek myths has a schematic one size fits all explanation, but no matter how one resists the imposition of his hobbyhorse, it never occurs to his reader to think, “Of course, the variants are all about different artistic ends and means!” (By the way, Graves is still to be commended for actually comparing the variants, a key step in good thinking about mythology, I think.)

I suppose sometimes myths are deliberately ambiguous, as when scribes interwove myths from multiple sources to create an official canon for the monarchy of Judah and it’s king’s temple. Or when the author of Acts simply blended a number of traditions to make Acts as an official history for a new religion. But, again, is this an aesthetic commitment? Or an irenic solution to factionalism?


notGoodenough 09.25.20 at 2:49 pm

Kiwanda @ 47

I find your remarks a little puzzling – perhaps you’d care to clarify?

“It is remarkably convenient that”

You appear to be implying an ulterior motivation or bias. Could you elabourate – remarkably convenient for whom, and in what way?

”the good uses and aspects of technology (such as there are) came from richly diverse communities, or maybe the blue sky,”

If Maria has made a statement about good uses and aspects of technology coming from soley any one source, I have missed it. Personally I would not say they come from the sky (blue or otherwise), but indeed do come from all around the world – do you disagree?

Purely anecdotatly, I have found environements with a diverse community tend to be more productive than those without, mainly as it affords a broader range of perspectives and experience to tackle a given problem. Now, this is from a researcher’s perspective (so I won’t generalise from the specific), but I would not be exceptionally surprised if similar trends were found elsewhere in the field of technology.

”bad aspects all came from people whose gender and color give us an excuse — no, not just an excuse, a righteously justified demand — to hate them.

Problems with this statement:

1) I can find no mention of race (with respect to tech bros) in either this post or the original article. Can you please quote the exact text from Maria’s articles which has led you to the conclusion that race is a factor here at all?

2) I can find no statement which could be construed as a demand to hate anyone. Indeed, quoting Maria’s Prodigal Tech Bro article “These guys – and yes, they are all guys – are generally thoughtful and well-meaning, and I wish them well.”

Where is the hatred, let alone a demand for the audience to hate?

This hatred is justified even if, no, especially if, they are engaged in pointing out and trying alleviate those bad aspects.

Again, you use the word hatred. Again, perhaps you’d like to justify that by quoting exactly where Maria’s call to hate is?

Final remark:

I read this (and the previous article) as an exasperated comment offering the following hypothesis

1) there seems to be people who engage in activities which cause damage
2) at some point, some of these people realise the damage they do
3) a subset which are typically men (Maria states in her experience exclusively men) then wish to alleviate the damage but rather than listening and offering support to those with relevant experience, expertise, and a history of doing so, these people instead self-determine that they should be afforded automatic respect and authority
4) this is unhelpful and demoralising to those already working to alleviate the harm
5) it would be helpful if, rather than go from position of authority causing harm to position of authority aiming to do good (e.g. from oil executive to wildlife preserve director), such people took the time to listen and learn from those with more experience

You appear to have a completely different reading, and I am a bit confused as to how you’ve arrived at such an interpretation.

(I should note I am not saying I 100% agree with everything Maria says – I am pointing out I have a very different interpretation than you and am curious as to how this disparity has occurred).


eg 09.27.20 at 2:22 pm

@ Chris Herbert #41

I find myself likewise drawn to engaging in the public discourse in an attempt to dispel the pernicious and persistent fallacies which inhibit an understanding of policy space available to monetary sovereigns in provisioning themselves for public purpose.

I am hesitant to identify this current obsession of mine (if that is the right word for the compulsion) as something so noble or grand as a “life’s work” though it has certainly occupied the vast majority of my unpaid time and attention for more than a decade now. I’m retiring very, very soon — if I find myself devoting the bulk of the time thus freed, perhaps it will indeed truly become my life’s work. Certainly there remain many, many years ahead of us before these ideas gain widespread public acceptance.


J-D 09.28.20 at 9:15 am

Thinking further about ‘life’s work’ brought this clip to my mind:

The exact expression ‘life’s work’ is not used, but that’s part of what it’s about, or something very like it or closely connected to it.

I listen to that and I wonder whether what I do in my paid employment is as honourable, or as useful, as building somebody’s house or fixing somebody’s car or cleaning somebody’s floor.

But thinking about this I do know that there is at least one thing I do outside my paid employment, on a purely voluntary basis, which is very much worth doing, and that’s donating blood. That saves people’s lives, and it’s hard to believe that anything else I do (or am ever likely to do) has as big an effect as that. What makes it hard to think of as part of a ‘life’s work’ is how little effort it involves.

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