Jake LaCaze

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#essays #books

I've been rethinking my relationship with technology since I started reading Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport.

After mentioning this book is usually when a blog tells his audience he's deleted his social media accounts and can now be reached only by smoke signal.

But this is not that kind of post, dear reader.

I appreciate that Digital Minimalism is not a book of prescriptive, one-size-fits-all advice for living with technology in the 21st century. While Newport himself is no fan of social media, he leaves it up to individuals to define their own relationships with the tech they use regularly. Newport's most important message is that you think about where technology fits in your life, not that we all reach the same conclusions and use or avoid all the same services.

Digital Minimalism is not a how-to guide. It is instead a guide calling its readers to develop their own philosophy about where technology fits into their lives.

After I started reading the book, I deleted from my phone nearly every app not related to calling, texting, or navigation.

Newport suggests suspending use of any problematic apps for a month. He refers to this time as the “decluttering” period. Once the decluttering period is over, you re-introduce the temporarily banned tech back into your usage and observe whether you think it still has a place in your life. Newport claims that often people realize they no longer need the tech, making their decluttering periods permanent.

I made it a week before I reversed my declutter, because I'm lacking in moral fiber. But I have kept most social apps from my phone this go round.

And though I have deviated from Newport's recommendations, I have started creating distance between myself and my phone. I've started leaving it behind in other rooms of the house. And my short break does seem to have made putting my phone down much easier when I know I need to.

My declutter has made me realize how much I prefer the desktop (or laptop) experience over the mobile experience in most situations. I'm an elder millennial, so I'm better with a traditional keyboard and mouse than I am with an onscreen keyboard.

I recently got a couple a couple used (or “previously enjoyed”) laptops through my job. The laptops are nowhere near the latest and greatest specs. They can't upgrade to Windows 11, but they run Linux just fine (currently Solus).

Still, these laptops are thin and powerful enough for everything I need. Ten or fifteen years ago, it would been impossible to think of how I could ever need anything more. Especially when you consider the near ubiquity of public wifi.

But now, in the age of smartphones, we want the same conveniences once reserved for laptops at our disposal through these devices many of us keep in our pockets at all times.

Perhaps it's easy to gush over tech like laptops when propping it against the smartphone. Perhaps the smartphone is a scapegoat, the villainous flavor of the week.

a robot from my sketchbook

I do not believe eliminating smartphones will fix everything. We would find a substitute for distraction, perhaps laptops and desktop computers.

But that's a problem we can address when we've improved our relationships with our smartphones. This acknowledgment makes us better prepared in the war for our attention.

While Newport doesn't say everyone should delete all social media, he doesn't hide his opinion that social media holds little to no value. These days it's fashionable to jump on Newport's side and crap on social media while ignoring any benefits.

The reason I fell in love with the Internet way back in the late '90s is the same reason I stick around on social media and related platforms in 2022: The potential for connection that's harder to find offline.

Connections made over the Internet are not a substitute for connections with my family and other people I see offline. While I can get along with almost anyone I meet face to face, there are very few I can nerd out with on anything that truly interests me. Or at least not to the depth I want to go. Also, I tend to hop from interest to interest. It's always nice to know I can find other parties interested in the same things, on the Internet, often in the form of social media.

Perhaps I would feel differently if I were part of some sort of establishment I could fall back on.

But I would be disingenuous to gloss over my gripes with social media, which relies on sloppy algorithms to decide which content is worth promoting. (I'm looking at you, Meta, LinkedIn, Twitter . . .)

When I think back to my favorite times in online communities, they were often in communities that hadn't yet been adopted by the masses. And while that may make me sound like an idealistic hipster who wants to keep his hangouts under the radar so that he can have them all to himself, I find my defense more practical than that.

The simple truth is that, in most cases:

Mass adoption = commoditization.

And once you start catering to everyone, you end up serving no one. And, at some point, the experiences all run together, as the users and their avatars do. And you get an experience similar to what you likely find offline, in which few of the experiences stand out above the rest.

Before reading Digital Minimalism, I was becoming convinced that a return to smaller online communities was the best path forward. I still believe that in theory, though I haven't begun practicing it as well as I should.

I'm not sure of the exact limits of this practice either. Obvious candidates include places like micro.blog and niche Mastodon servers. Maybe even the smaller subreddits. I suppose you can create an insular experience on Twitter if you follow the right people.

While I would like to see a break from the worst of Web 2.0, I'm thinking Web 3.0 is most likely not the answer.

Does that mean Newport's preference for walking away from social media is the answer?

I'm not ready to jump on that train. But I can't blame anyone who does.

I hope this essay shines some light on the need for philosophy—perspective over advice—in all aspects of our lives, even in technology.


This post first appeared on Jake LaCaze's blog.

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If you had to sum up in only a few sentences the WeWork debacle to someone unfamiliar with the situation, how would you do so? The following quote from The Cult of We: WeWork, Adam Neumann, and the Great Startup Delusion by Eliot Brown and Maureen Farrell would be my candidate.

But prior to the prospectus becoming public, bankers and other advisers had continued to shower [Adam] Neumann with praise—giving him criticism too infrequently and too meekly. These advisers either ignored or danced around the company's obvious warts and red flags.

Now, at the eleventh hour, they finally spoke up. But the IPO was already on life support.

If you have any interest in investing time reading about business train wrecks rather than investing your money into them, then pick up a copy of The Cult of We. Throughout the book, I often found myself shaking my head in disbelief, amazed at how many smart and successful people overlooked what should have been obvious red flags, such as CEO Adam Neumann's selling too many shares too soon, Neumann's constant power grabs, a private company buying a $63 million private jet even though it was hemorrhaging cash despite having had plenty time to find a path to profitability—the list goes on.

WeWork's business model was simple. They leased up office buildings, prettied the spaces up to attract Millennials, and subleased the space at a premium. Their plan was hardly unique, as Regus had done the same a couple decades earlier. No matter how you cut it, WeWork was a real estate company. Yet many viewed it as a tech company, which justified the crazy valuations it had received before its IPO. WeWork would not have been valued so high if it were seen as a real estate company, since real estate companies are unable to scale as well as tech companies. It was the era of the visionary founder, and if the founder said WeWork was a tech company, then it must be a tech company.

Neumann and Masayoshi Son, the head of SoftBank, had convinced themselves that WeWork was a $10 trillion company, basically because they dared to dream so. The authors point out that, in 2018, the entire value of the U.S. stock market was $30 trillion. (Take a moment to let that sink in.)

Neumann and Son laid out a plan to reach the ambitious valuation while never acknowledging all the obstacles they would face. Neumann believed he could change the world in myriad ways: from how people work and live to how they educate their children.

Neumann and his wife Rebeka had convinced themselves they were environmentalists despite riding freely on the aforementioned private jet and even taking an abundance of WeWork's unused couches to landfills. Rebeka had described the family as minimalists despite having at one time owned at least eight homes.

In summary, the delusions ran far and wide.

The story was a reminder of a crucial life lesson: Don't be afraid to question the herd; just because the herd buys into the same narrative doesn't mean they're right. And you're not wrong to question the herd.

The story also reminded me of similar moments I've experienced in thirteen years as a petroleum landman.

The first such moment came early in my career, when I was working in Dallas-Fort Worth's Barnett Shale play. In the shadow of the Great Recession, the natural gas play was a bright spot and a boost to the local economy. Everyone involved in the industry was in high spirits, some even claiming the boom times could last 20 years. I remember raising an eyebrow at that declaration. I couldn't make a convincing case for why the boom wouldn't last 20 years, other than a feeling in my gut that such good times are unlikely to last so long. Within 13 months, my employer had closed its Fort Worth office and most of the former occupants were looking for jobs, as natural gas crashed from all-time highs and is only now, over a decade later, showing signs of significant recovery.

The second such moment came when I moved to West Texas in 2012. The Permian Basin is no stranger to boom-and-bust cycles, so the narrative wasn't exactly the same as the Barnett Shale in 2008-2009. Instead, the collective wisdom was: This boom is different, whatever that meant. While the Permian Basin does not appear to be at risk of going the way of the Barnett, the area has still seen fluctuations in the near-decade since. The cycle of booms and busts is more frequent than in past decades, but the cycle still exists.

The Cult of We is not just a business book or a biography of a company that went from rising star to laughing stock in the blink of an eye. The book is also a warning: Never underestimate someone's ability to be out of touch with reality.


This post first appeared on Jake LaCaze's blog.

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