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August 10, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Guest Opinion: Recovering from the 'speed addiction' of the dot-com boom Guest Opinion: Recovering from the 'speed addiction' of the dot-com boom (August 10, 2005)

by Stephanie Brown

The plane touched down and a fellow passenger and I began to talk. He travels a lot, at least 60 percent of the time. Of course he's in tech.

I travel a fair amount, maybe six speaking trips a year. But business travel is still the exception, not the norm.

He's an engineer, coming from Boston via Minneapolis. I'm a psychologist, in Minneapolis to promote my new book and teach.

"About what?" he asks, hitting the next right note in this ritual, limited-space-of-time exchange. Addiction is my field.

"I've just stopped smoking -- two weeks without," he says instantly. I congratulate him and note what a difficult withdrawal it is. He agrees, says it was time.

"What do you do with addiction?" he asks.

I work with all addictions, every aspect of loss of control, I reply. It's everywhere. Knowing he is in tech, I add that as an observer of the culture of Silicon Valley over the last decade I witnessed a growing loss of control in the tech industry well before it crashed in 2000 and 2001.

Silicon Valley lost itself in a world of speed. It became lost in pursuit of capturing and controlling cyberspace, this "new frontier of unlimited possibility." It was the unlimited aspect of the tech world that offered the lure to the explorer, the risk-taking entrepreneur and the gambler alike.

Silicon Valley produced a high that wouldn't stop, a high that knew no limits.

It also produced a full-blown experience of addiction for nearly everyone involved. This high-on-speed addiction spread through and beyond each company, crept over city boundaries, filled up the business and cultural space of an entire county, became a regional virus.

Here was a society captivated by its belief in the absence of limits, by grandiosity about the human potential to control what has no limits and can't be controlled.

Just like the alcoholic. Just like the "addictive mind."

My seat-mate stared at me, nodding in recognition as I described the tech culture of the 1990s. No one could see what was happening, just as in an alcoholic family. No one could see that this crazy push for speed -- speed of the technology itself, and speed to discovery -- would also be the root of personal disasters, the root of uncontrollable compulsivity, the root of endless pursuit culminating in an ultimate depression and despair.

Just like caged rats engaged in experiments of endless bar-tapping for food rewards, many people of Silicon Valley would fall by the wayside or simply drop dead from exhaustion.

They became lost in the race and promise of reward, and there was no stopping point on this out-of-control spiral -- just as with the alcoholic, the perma-stoned pot-smoker, the meth speed freak, the compulsive eater/dieter, the hyped-up shopper, the gambler.

And then the letdown. So -- start the chase all over again.

I hoped the crash would give people insight. I hoped they'd recognize what happened, how an entire culture became out-of-control. Some saw this. But most retreated, licked their wounds and set about to wait it out, hoping and preparing for the next ride, "the next big thing" -- the next big chase. Many say it will be bio-engineering, or nanotechnology. There is salivation, a warming of the engines as people get ready to jump on board. Limits? No way.

As we taxied up to the gate, my new friend looked sad. He said quietly -- this man without tobacco for two weeks -- that he'd lost his wife and two children because he couldn't stop. He was gone all the time, and could focus on nothing but his tech world. He lost it all, or all that was most important to him.

Nice to chat, we both agreed as the engines quieted and people rose from their seats to stand, waiting, facing limits: The plane unloads in its own time, each person retrieving luggage, proceeding row by row out the door.

The line doesn't move any faster than the next person. As I stood up and moved into the aisle of our exit row, we exchanged sad smiles.

Over the next few days I thought about this man a lot. I remembered the pain of loss and loneliness I saw in his face as we shared this brief, instant intimacy.

And I thought of the countless thousands of people just like him, all over Palo Alto and Menlo Park and Silicon Valley -- in hotspots all over our country and elsewhere that are afflicted by this Age of Loss of Control. Awareness is the first step toward recovery.

Stephanie Brown, Ph.D., is director of the Addictions Institute in Menlo Park and is a frequent lecturer on addiction and recovery locally, throughout the United States and in other countries. She can be e-mailed at [email protected]

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