As I See It: The Final Escape
August 11, 2014 Victor Rozek
Lauren, Danielle, Lily, Rosco, and Zosia have at least two things in common: they are siblings, and they no longer have a father. Their Dad had been rather successful by all accounts, able to secure the bounty of Silicon Valley for himself and his family. But it wasn’t enough. Or perhaps it was too much. His death aboard his yacht at the hands of a distasteful-looking, tattooed prostitute will forever filter whatever his children thought they knew about their Father.
Forrest Hayes’ demise had all the requisites of a media carnival: wealth, scandal, and drugs. Add to that a whiff of Internet prostitution, looming manslaughter charges, and a suspicious history whereby a former boyfriend of the woman involved met a strikingly similar end, and the tabloids became unhinged. A prostitute injecting a Google executive with a heroin overdose, watching him spasm into oblivion, and then â€“ with all the compassion of a cinderblock â€“ stepping over his body to drink the last of her wine on her way out the door, well, that’s what passes for headline news these days.
Amid the sad and salacious tapas served up by a frothing media, the larger, contextual story was lost. No one had the time or the inclination to examine a corporate culture that would drive people to self-destruction.
Almost no one, that is.
Patrick May and Heather Somerville are staff writers for the San Jose Mercury News. They live and work at ground zero in the cutthroat, adrenalin-riddled gumbo that is Silicon Valley. They understood that the drug overdose, while sensational, was not an anomaly. From frenetic startups, to industry giants, everyone in IT is looking to deliver the next global sensation. Where pressure is a way of life, stress is a relentless affliction, and in Silicon Valley self-medication had become the fashionable cure.
May and Somerville got curious about Silicon Valley’s coping strategies. To begin, they queried the San Francisco Department of Public Health and discovered that in the Bay Area alone, there are a mind-bending 1.4 million prescriptions for hydrocodone. That figure suggests there are either a lot of people in chronic pain, or a lot of doctors suffering from chronic lapses in ethics. Regardless, prescription pain pills are just one drug of choice. Add black-market favorites like Adderall (uppers to get through long, demanding days) and oxycodone (downers to escape the strain of long, demanding days), toss in an occasional dose of meth and some white-powder nose therapy, and let the coding marathon begin.
When pills are no longer enough, there’s a more powerful and less expensive opioid that has found favor among Silicon Valley’s glitterati: heroin. May and Somerville report that a half a gram of heroin sells for “about $20, whereas some painkillers run $60 or more a pop.” (Incidentally, they got that information from the Drug Enforcement Agency, since it’s not the kind of thing easily explained on an expense report.)
If price is not a problem, neither is availability. Heroin “is now the second-most common drug, after alcohol, reported by patients at treatment facilities in San Francisco.” And in the Bay Area, about five times the national average visit hospital emergency rooms for substance abuse treatment.
A new Valley favorite is Provigil, developed to treat narcolepsy and other sleep disorders. People report working 20-hour days on the stuff, although why that would be desirable is not clear. Side effects are said to be mild, but include upper respiratory tract infection, nausea, nervousness, anxiety and, of course, insomnia. Not to worry, there are pills for those symptoms, too.
It is impossible, the authors say, to estimate the number of techie addicts. But the confluence of disposable income, extreme deadline pressures, and a work ethic that demands super-human efforts on a recurring basis, coupled with a vigorous drug trade, have made abuse all but inevitable.
Management, note the authors, is under its own pressures to generate results and is willing not to look too closely at how those results are being produced. In fact, based on percentage of the workforce, executives are likely among the most frequent abusers. The three martini lunch has been replaced by the snort, the pill, and the injection. The authors report that in one company drug use was so normalized that “Friday morning board meetings included a plate of cocaine being passed around the table.” Gives new meaning to employee benefits.
Silicon Valley is now dotted with elite drug treatment centers catering to those who have more money than sense. Most companies also provide some flavor of employee assistance, confidential programs designed to counsel â€“ and in some cases treat â€“ workers for a variety of health and behavioral issues. But employees remember how easily Silicon Valley sold out their users’ privacy when the government came calling. So they have reason to be suspicious: they work in an industry that has all but eliminated guarantees of confidentiality. Ultimately, there are no secrets, and trusting in-house counselors with addiction issues carries career risks most are unwilling to take. And so, like an iceberg, the vast majority of drug use remains hidden.
Drug use as a competitive way of life may be troublesome, but it is certainly not unusual. At the upper echelons of reward, recognition, and status, any edge â€“ even a dangerous one â€“ has siren appeal. Heavy drug use is found at the top of many professions. Professional athletes have become walking pharmacies; Wall Street is paved with recreational drugs; and physicians, practicing assembly-line medicine, forced to see upward of 30 people per day, are five times more likely to abuse prescription drugs than their patients. For techies, the “work hard/play hard” ethic has long been part of the Silicon Valley culture. In the early days, playing hard often involved drugs. Now, working hard does.
In the coming era of open-source genetics, with designer drugs and somatic gene enhancements that promise to improve performance and amplify intelligence, drug use will not only persist but will doubtless become a competitive requirement. Job history will be less important than genetic history. Everyone will become their own lab rat.
I can’t help but wonder what passed through Forrest Hayes’ heroin-corrupted brain just before his heart stopped beating. He must have realized something was terribly wrong. Was he concerned about the possibility of receiving medical care and thus being found out? Did he realize he was about to lose everything in an ill-advised moment of release? Or, in a flash of frantic regret, did he think about his family? Whatever his focus, he was probably too far gone to appreciate the final irony of his life â€“ working in a culture so bent on diversion, here he was passing through the portal toward the last great unknown aboard a yacht called Escape.