Negative Space

Ed Zitron 6 min read

There's gotta be someway back to earth
I'm drifting away as the world turns
We'll never get back to where we were
Facing oblivion, there's no words

We are, as a society, in mourning. The last three years were a conscious attempt to return to a form of normal — a pre-2019, pre-pandemic economy that sort of worked, where things were hard, but not as hard, and where society was unfair, but significantly less graphic with said unfairness. We’ve been subjected to over a year of decision-making based on “challenging economic conditions,” a continual coda of excuses and justifications for why things are both more expensive and markedly worse.

The pandemic showed how deeply inequitable society has become, with the richest people in the world doubling their wealth as Republicans threw their hands up at the possibility that somebody might not have to pay their onerous student loans. Business freaks complained about how we were “losing the magic of the office” by allowing people to work remotely, and now the company that everybody used to work remotely is asking workers to return to the office twice a week, claiming that “a structured hybrid approach…is most effective for Zoom”

It’s a big win for executives that don’t do any work after a three-year-long battle against reality, aided by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and other major media outlets that spent years manufacturing consent for the office. Emma Goldberg of the New York Times had a brief stint with reality for a few months, only to return with her piece around Zoom’s return to office (RTO) policy, hitting every cliché possible — listing unquestioningly the “tightened” RTO policies of Amazon and Google without any reference to any stats around productivity, ending with a quote from Nicholas Bloom (the Stanford professor who is the only person that reporters appear capable of quoting on this subject) and a vague reference to “studies confirming some benefits to in-person work.” Did she quote a worker affected by these changes? Of course not.

The media has also been losing it over a paper that claimed there was a 10% to 20% drop in productivity in full-time remote workers, burying deep within the body of every article that these stats were taken from a study of data-entry workers in India. The specific statistic used to measure productivity was “net speed,” referring to the number of correct entries a minute — an insanely specific metric used to make an extremely broad, sweeping gesture that can be applied to every single job that can be done remotely.

Bloom’s own research paper on the subject — which, to be clear, does not seem to have any of its own data — has come to a massive conclusion based on the vaguest data, extrapolating that because two studies said that one very specific job, in another country has lower productivity when performed remotely, fullly-remote work is generally worse than the in-person alternatives.

While studying remote work at the scale it would take to actually evaluate productivity is tough (after all, of the many jobs you can do remotely, each one is quite different), Bloom himself has said that it’s more productive, and remote work has never seemed to get a fair hearing from the media.

Vast economic forces (such as those invested in commercial real estate) have been placing unrelenting pressure on workers since 2021 to return to the office, making repeated, baseless claims around a “lack of productivity” that never quite gelled with 2021 (and part of 2022)’s economic opulence. Yet the second the economy tipped, landlords, silicon valley ghouls, and politicians quickly found ways to blame remote work for their own poor decision-making. There was a narrative from the very beginning, one peddled by major corporations like Microsoft (which, like Zoom, makes software for remote working), that workers were “better” in person without any real evidence to back it up beyond extremely questionable uses of data and corporations saying that “serendipity is good for workers that I do not speak to or work with.”

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Rotten Logic

My anecdotal sense about the remote work debate — at least within the tech industry — is that despite it arguably creating better outputs, something about it felt icky to tech’s elite. As I wrote earlier this year, tech’s loudest assholes have been crying for a “great reset,” realizing that workers had accumulated too much power, flexibility, and leverage (a more palatable explanation than the fact that big tech companies used their massive post-pandemic gains to overhire people) and that something had to change.

Remote work wasn’t a problem when Jason Fried wrote about it in 2010, but the second that interest rates no longer benefitted venture capital it became something that had “fooled smart people” and had to be reigned in.

The tech industry, despite their obsession with data-based outcomes, seems to have reached a point where emotional reactions and vibes are more important. Amazon’s SVP of Prime Video and Amazon Studios Mike Hopkins, when challenged on this very issue, said that workers should “disagree and commit” to coming back to the office, and said that he didn’t have the data to back up said decision, but knew it was better.

To be clear, Amazon is a company that automatically tracks and fires workers based on their productivity using robots, but when it comes to remote work, things are just too difficult to understand.

What’s actually happening is that the tech industry — and possibly the economy at large — desperately wants to return to the pre-pandemic world. Venture capitalists are sitting on over $270 billion of uninvested capital, yet claim that’s a result of a “market reset” rather than the “new market realities” caused by the very same venture capitalists that invested billions of dollars in non-companies.

There are plenty of companies to invest in, companies that have good ideas that generate revenues, but venture is still enamored with AI and very little else. “New market realities” are not the problem — a venture capital industry that hoards and, has no pressure to invest is. Venture is desperate to return to the time when companies could be fattened up for slaughter and then dumped onto the public markets rather than turned into sustainable enterprises.

The problem the tech industry faces is that there is very little likelihood we ever return to this model. The public markets have not been kind to tech’s “burn cash, grow userbase, never profit” mantra, with companies like Snap continuing to search for a business model six years after going public, and HashiCorp (the last major tech IPO, and a software company that has never turned a profit) seeing its stock drop from over $85 on its debut to a depressing $28.85 as of writing this sentence.

Venture capital is mourning the death of a world where happy accidents were interpreted as strokes of genius, and where every idea that they pumped money into became a valuable company through association and a wire transfer.

Tech’s valuations have been utter bullshit for over a decade, reaching a crescendo in 2021 and 2022 where simply existing and saying “metaverse” or “crypto” was enough to make oneself a multi-millionaire on paper, and I truly believe that the richest men in the industry believed these good times would last forever,  to the point that many of them ignored basic due diligence.

On a personal level, I do feel as if I’ve been in mourning for an easier time — a time when it was easier to get business, easier to pitch stories, and easier to hope for the future.

While I am not totally bereft of hope, I do not fault those who have lost it after seeing three years that dangled the potential for a better world — a booming economy, pandemic stimulus, unemployment insurance, healthcare subsidies and student loan forgiveness — and saw these things peeled away along with basic civic rights being stripped based on the whims of the most loathsome humans alive.

I do believe things can be better. I do believe, in fact, that they will be better. We are in a trough of realignment, where the foolish and rich are finally (albeit briefly) being punished for their hubris. I believe that the result of the death of the zero-interest economy will chase out a certain kind of charlatan from the tech ecosystem, and make it difficult for their cronies to take root.

And regardless of what happens, we should always seek to discuss their actions — to critique stories that push a specific kind of agenda that suppresses basic freedoms or elevates the voices of worthless bigots. Those who do the most disgraceful things thrive on claiming they are victims as they victimize others, and they deserve your critiques as much as your ire.

The most vile people in the world crave your silence and passivity. Don’t let them win.

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