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From Issue #1 October 11, 2012

Alone Together, Again

Technology is just people. And sometimes, we get it wrong.

By Alex Payne Twitter icon 

I am in a stranger’s apartment in Reykjavik, and for the first time in almost five years, I am truly alone.

Two months ago my life was as per David Byrne’s enthusiastically confused yelps: beautiful house, beautiful wife, not one but two large automobiles. I had a job that seemed like the job I should have at a company I was proud of. I lived in a city that I had carefully chosen to live in, a city that I thought was going to be my home for some time.

Nobody’s life ever really falls apart, exactly. Lives unravel, thread by thread. First, I came to realize that the job wasn’t the right job. Then the city wasn’t the right city. Two threads loose, easily stitched back in; there are other jobs, other cities. Our house went on the market. I resigned.

Then, a month ago, the person I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life with came home from a neighborhood-scouting trip to a place we were intent on moving back to. “We need to talk”. Never good. “I can’t do this anymore. We’re just too different”. The seam, ripped.

That was Saturday evening. There was no going back and no way forward. By Tuesday afternoon we’re in a lawyer’s office, drawing up a settlement. The court moves quickly when there’s no children and no disagreement over who gets what. The divorce should be final by the time this is published. I will probably hear about it by email, wherever I happen to be. I will look at my iPhone, wince, hit “Archive”, close my eyes, and breathe.

The next four weeks disappeared like a long weekend spent sick. I went to the other side of the country while she moved out. Family and friends did their best to hold me together as the stages of grief washed over me in no particular order. The last listed stage of grief in the literature is Acceptance. It didn’t take long to accept that this is all for the best. A gift, wrapped in barbed wire. I just wish I had seen it being wrapped.

Teeth gritted, I went back to the city that was no longer our city, back to the house that was no longer our house. I packed up what was left, put all but necessities into storage. Sold my car. I could have stayed, but I couldn’t stay. The whole city was our life together, brief as it was. Coupled a little over four years total, just a bit over two of which was spent married. We moved mere weeks after the wedding, bought the house not long after. Friends have been engaged longer than our entire relationship lasted. It was something small that we foolishly made into something big, and it’s already receding into the distance. I’m filling my vision with fields of lava, mossy valleys steamed by hot springs. Trying not to look back.

With my life in that place done, I got on a plane, and then another plane, and now I’m alone in an apartment in Reykjavik. Now, this is my life. Not the apartment or the city or travel, but the laptop I’m typing on. We are alone together, again.


I owe my life to technology.

I first realized it in my early twenties. Everything important around me at the time, I’d found on Craigslist: my girlfriend, my job, my apartment. It was a powerful realization: I could sit down with my laptop and, in a matter of hours or days, change my world in both superficial and fundamental ways.

That was years ago. Technology specializes over time. The life I just finished packing up wasn’t courtesy of Craigslist. It wouldn’t be, now. The modern web has six sites for everything, branded and polished and localized and full of options. House from Redfin. Cars negotiated online before ever walking into a dealership. Wife from OkCupid. Wedding invitations by email. Date-night dinners booked on OpenTable. Fast and friction-free.

I spent four years telling anyone who asked how we met that OkCupid’s matching algorithms must have been off. “We were only a seventysomething percent match, with like a twelve percent chance of being enemies. Guess they need to work some bugs out!” The joke’s on me, of course. I emailed the right person at OkCupid to apologize for the years of disparagement.

I could blame technology. Maybe stitching together a durable life takes physical work, needle calluses. Maybe technology made it all too easy to slide into a life I wasn’t meant to have. It would be so convenient to think that way. Marriage didn’t work out? Blame the dating site. Bad experience at a restaurant? Blame Yelp.

Technology is just people, though. People like me. We get it wrong. And even when we get it right, people are people: they ignore the algorithms and recommendation engines and scores and weightings. People do what makes sense to them, then and there. What else are we to do? All the specialization, all the options, and we still have to choose. We still have to make our way in the world, alone, save for our technology built from other people’s frozen choices.


I will owe the next part of my life to technology, but I will owe it more to experience.

I tried to imagine what my life would be like in the wake of all this if I had been living two hundred years ago. Most likely, I would be trapped. I would be living in the scraps of the life that had unraveled around me. I could not seek the support of friends from around the world at any time of day or night. I could not book passage to wherever I felt I needed to escape to. I couldn’t work from wherever I happen to end up. Trapped.

I am grateful that I live in this time. For all the loose threads in my life, I don’t feel trapped. Technology allows me to make choices that can shape and reshape my world. I don’t yet know what I will do, where I will live, or who I will love. For each of those decisions, though, there are tools, and the tools present options.

The trick, of course, is having the experience to inform the selection of the right options. For that, we have no technological substitute. You simply have to live, work, love, explore, fail at all of those things, and learn.

From Reykjavik to Berlin. Then on to New York City, maybe for a month, maybe for a lifetime. Airbnb, Hipmunk, TripIt. Messages in my inbox suggesting new ventures, new possibilities. Choices. Threads to be sewn together, making something whole again.

Alex is a programmer, writer, angel investor, and an advisor to several startups. He recently helped launch Simple, an online banking service with a focus on better technology, design, and customer service. Previously, he was Platform Lead at Twitter.

Alex organizes the annual Emerging Languages conference, a showcase of new programming languages. He co-authored O'Reilly's Programming Scala (2009). Alex has been writing online for over a decade.

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