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Under the Influence

Want some work with those drugs?

By Annalee Newitz

A few years back I used to hear third-hand rumors about the drug-friendly atmosphere at groovy San Francisco web design company Organic. Supposedly--according to the usual unreputable sources--there were bongs aplenty and even the occasional delirious moment which ended with, "Oops, I accidently pushed this munged page live because I was stoned."

But of course there are vague intimations of stoner-hood everywhere in the Valley and the Gulch. I've heard whispers about Yahoo and Cisco and even straight-laced Sun--supposedly there are hidden spots at practically any large and liberal-minded corporation where people can be found smoking the weed that dare not speak its name. And it's always somebody else's company where joints are passed from workstation to workstation, or where the Christmas party ends with an ecstasy-induced dance frenzy.

Everybody has a workplace drug story. The fact is that the computer industry is young (i.e., jam-packed with that drug-taking demographic) and was founded by a bunch of UNIX hippies who sat around in beanbag chairs and took acid. So it's no surprise that illegal drugs, like UFOs, are always being sighted somewhere just over the horizon.

In reality, however, you're probably not one of those people who works in an office where Friday afternoons mean breaking out the Sega Dreamcast and chilling out with a joint out on some hidden back balcony. Well, you might be playing Toy Commander, but you're probably not on drugs. Or are you?

Nearly every respectable company has a coffee machine for a reason. The ugly chunk of code that's been straining your eyesight all morning ain't going to compile itself cleanly until you have another cup of delicious, steamy stimulant. Just a few mouthfuls can sometimes do it--your heart races, your brain slides into higher gear, and suddenly you feel like everything's going to be OK. You can hack it; you can patch it; you can come in at 4 AM to reboot the fucking NT servers and still sit through an entire afternoon meeting with clients who understand "Internet branding" but have no clue how difficult it is to maintain a vast online database of prices, items, and retailers that needs to be updated every twelve hours.

After a hard day of coffee, of course, you'll be needing alcohol--especially beer. Somebody's always reciting Homer's line from a long-forgotten episode of The Simpsons: "Brain, just help me through this, and then I promise I'll go back to killing you with beer."

Beer is the reason why I found myself drunkenly reciting the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle at The Irish Bank in downtown San Francisco the other night. Things were going swimmingly until I forgot the word "particle" and ended up saying, "You know, light behaves like waves and that other thing." Although the evening began auspiciously enough with discussions of LINUX and vertically-integrated open source accounting packages, my two geeky companions and I quickly degenerated into implausible meditations on half-forgotten scientific theories. Get geeks drunk, and all they want to do is talk philosophy. Why is that?

Maybe it's because technoculture is one big can of ethical worms. When my roommate Ed was on the market for a job that paid (unlike his much-loved position hacking shiny little bits of code for Apache), he finally realized that the very first question he needed to ask any recruiter was: "Does this job require me to do drug tests?" It's not that Ed was worried about failing the tests. It was the principle of the thing. Like many maverick geeks in the biz, he didn't want to work at a place that considered his bodily fluids anyone's business but his own.

So they pump us with coffee to make us work, drown us in beer to make us sleep, and then they want to test us for drugs? Er, does that seem like some kind of philosophical conundrum to you? Let's get drunk and talk about it.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who couldn't stop grinning when protesters shut down the WTO meeting in Seattle. You can send her the readme file for your thoughts at [email protected]

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From the December 23-29, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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