If many of us were Zuck’s friends until recently, we should lay the blame not on Silicon Valley but rather on one of the industries it disrupted, Hollywood. For a decade we have learned from films like Sorkin’s and shows like Silicon Valley that the technorati’s greatest sin isn’t a callous disregard for democracy and the law, but a far more forgivable social ineptitude. Tech titans like the Zuck are depicted as Citizen Kane, not as Big Brother. We thus let the techies get rich and mistreat one another on their quest to transform our world, so long as they appear more alienated, clueless, sloppily dressed, and precariously employed than the rest of us. Focused on the nerds, we disregard that we’re being transformed into their petty effigies: Uber-driving “entrepreneurs,” CEOs of precariously individual “brands.” Many of us still think we’re just like them, minus the money, the influence, and the leaning in.
But the backlash has finally arrived, thanks to works like Anand Giridharadas’s Winner Takes All, Noam Cohen’s The Know-It-Alls, and Corey Pein’s Live Work Work Work Die. Some of these critiques continue to focus on Silicon Valley’s social foibles; the best-selling work in the genre, Bloomberg reporter Emily Chang’s Brotopia, shows how rampant toxic masculinity is in the tech industry, and plots reform. But the sharpest-edged new works do not simply question the personalities and business decisions and workplace behavior of tech titans, but ask whether their ideology — which is by now, our ideology — is itself an app worth deleting.
That ideology is, of course, capitalism, fortified with libertarian utopianism, spritzed with just enough do-gooder paternalism to make it palatable for an entire generation. Even its activists. Throughout my adult lifetime — the anti–War on Terror activism, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and even #MeToo — Silicon Valley has ducked the heat. I suspect it’s because so many activists have seen social media as history’s long-awaited tool of disruption. As Jill Lepore wrote a few years ago, Silicon Valley has made itself the incarnation of the “disruptive innovation” model promoted by business school geniuses a generation ago, during the first dot-com boom. In the process, the most successful disruption has been the very language of social criticism. At the ubiquitous university innovation and technopreneurship centers that have siphoned off resources from the very sciences they are meant commercialize, college students are encouraged to innovate and disrupt. Never mind whether one is Nelson Mandela or the CEO of a nearly billion-dollar company like Theranos, which disrupted an industry without an actual functioning product. One suspects that if Trump had described Frederick Douglass as a “social entrepreneur” rather than as “somebody who’s done an amazing job,” he would have gotten away with it.
No industry, not even Hollywood, has enjoyed more power to shape its own image and undermine the crucial barrier between PR and journalism. At the journalism school that I attended alongside Pein, I learned that reporters who become hacks don’t get to come back. Apparently not so in Silicon Valley, where journalists regularly go from covering start-ups at Bloomberg to serving the same start-ups as strategists and “influencers,” then back to providing “content” for a news-gathering industry now camped out on Silicon Valley’s feudal lands (“media platforms”). It’s profoundly easy for Silicon Valley to persuade well-intentioned tech journalists to promote its vision, for the same reason that it’s easy enough for Big Pharma to convince well-intentioned doctors to over-prescribe fentanyl: it’s all one big industry, bent on improving the world.
The outsider journalists who have dared question the techno-utopian faith have been received as scolds and sensationalists, while the industry’s rare whistleblowers rarely go far enough in their criticism. My guess is that Pein’s Live Work Work Work Die may evade much of that criticism, largely because Pein adopts both poses at once: he heads to San Francisco both as a longtime investigative journalist and as the founder of a failed news service start-up, seeking a second chance at becoming a billionaire. (A third chance, actually. The second start-up to employ Pein was indirectly purchased by Bill Gates and sold to a Chinese distributor, along with the rights to Tiananmen Square protests’ famous “Tank Man” image. “Gates sold this iconic portrait of courage and dissent to a company that would be obliged by the Chinese government to censor it,” Pein recalls.) Given Pein’s fluent, entertaining sarcasm, many readers won’t know how seriously to take his self-proclaimed quest to get rich and transform the world. But as he is tepidly welcomed into the first of several deceptively advertised Airbnb rentals by a couple of other recent arrivals from Bangalore and Norway, we’re reminded of how many do buy into the Silicon Valley fantasy.
Live Work Work Work Die begins by showing us the lower end of the food chain, which lives in conditions at once brutal and self-inflicted. Shifting between shabbily rehabilitated former crack houses, enjoying the freebies and fun at mandatorily attended start-up parties, and spending money to attend humiliating idea-pitching competitions, Pein encounters the weird, aspiring proletariat of the tech universe: a social spectrum of “clowns” (would-be entrepreneurs who adopt garish clothing and stupid gimmicks to gain attention), “drones” (industrious, earnest, and utterly uncreative), and “bullies” who emulate the “performative, coked-up machismo of their overlords in the finance sector” so as “to avoid the old stigma of the computer nerd as a simpering eunuch.”
One of the narrative’s necessary insights is that the first patsy of Silicon Valley is Silicon Valley. Few of the tech bros Pein meets seem aware of, much less daunted by, the astonishing failure rate of start-ups (95 percent, according to one Harvard study); one Silicon Valley veteran takes Pein aside to share his pity for the “‘fresh-off-the-boat’ entrepreneurs who lacked elite connections and still believed the hype about meritocracy, opportunity, collaboration, and geek camaraderie.” It isn’t just the freshly arrived tech bros who are clueless, but the investors who throw money at start-ups that frequently don’t even have an idea, let alone a plan to profit from it. Such was the case with Elizabeth Holmes, the Stanford dropout founder of the aforementioned Theranos. In Pein’s tellings, it was Holmes’s university connections and excellent branding (included adopting Jobs’s trademark black turtlenecks) that helped her bilk hundreds of millions in investment capital for a machine that didn’t work.
Midway, Silicon Valley’s pursuit of its own mythical inventive genius takes Live Work Work Work Die to its satirical peak: a pitching contest. Scrambling to come up with a workable idea that will attract investors, Pein eventually settles on something called Laborize, a start-up that promises, for a fee, to unionize its client’s competitors. Laborize’s slogans are over the top: “Their solidarity is your opportunity” and “Labor agitation anytime, anywhere,” but Pein drew inspiration from the real-life example of Uber’s attempt to put its competitor Lyft out of business by making life miserable for its employees: ordering and then canceling thousands of rides, and dispatching undercover recruiters to hail Lyft rides and persuade their drivers to defect.
The latter operation, code-named SLOG, “Supplying Long-Term Operations Growth” is the capitalist version of union salting, in which labor organizers take jobs at companies with the intention of converting their co-workers. Before the near-demise of organized labor, most businesses never would have considered adopting such tactics. Today, operations like SLOG are common enough to be satirical grist for comedians like Nathan Fielder, a Canadian comedian whose Comedy Central show Nathan For You dispenses hilariously bad advice to struggling small businesses. In a recent episode, Fielder helped convince a group of disgruntled independent taxi drivers to organize into an ISIS-like cell, signing up as Uber drivers, providing terrible service to the passengers, and tearing down Goliath from within. We laugh nervously as we try to distinguish innovation from terrorism.
As William Deresiewicz and others have observed, the “disruption” Silicon Valley celebrates and universities purport to teach is pure doublespeak; the last thing free market capitalism wants is fundamental change. One might therefore expect Pein’s audience to recognize a threat in his pinko scheme, or at least grasp that he was calling the bluff of “disruptive innovation.” Instead, his fellow techies saw just one more business opportunity. A pair of listeners offered web design services for Laborize; another explained how Pein could pay strikers in Bitcoin. Others suggested ways of scaling up Laborize and improving its market penetration strategy: “expand into, like, Occupy Wall Street and other places.” But first, Pein was urged to seek the advice of unions themselves. Pein did, only to learn that unions can’t take corporate money, other than employee-paid dues less than $25. As Uber has demonstrated, it’s easier to organize a strike as a corporation than as a union, bizarre and hilarious though it sounds.
Laborize is funny, but the last third of Live Work Work Work Die simply frightens. Pein steps away from his experiences among the grubs of the Valley to expose the astonishing views of many of its titans: their flirtation with (or outright embrace of) an updated eugenicist worldview that favors the tech industry’s white and East Asian composition; their intellectual admiration for certain “neoreactionary” thinkers’ call for the abolition of universities, nonprofits, and the federal government. I won’t name these thinkers, even if the author does; suffice it to say that one recurrent fantasy of Silicon Valley is replacing democracy with a technocracy of its own brightest minds. But in so many ways this has already begun:
Tens of millions of Americans already are effectively citizens of Apple, citizens of Uber, citizens of Amazon; the policies of these corporations mean as much to their daily lives as all the laws on the books, and their brand identities certainly inspire more loyalty than the national government does these days.
The left has paid far too little attention to this in the age of Trump, seemingly distracted by Silicon Valley’s liberal pose and charitable initiatives and geeky eccentricity. Many now deleting their Facebook accounts in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica (and, often as not, gravitating to similarly operated social media platforms) miss the underlying problem. Trump is not an unfortunate and accidental by-product of an industry in need of regulation, but an example of the very disruption that many in Silicon Valley have sought to create. “If Americans want to change their government, they’re going to have to get over their dictator phobia,” argues one programmer-turned-ideologue revealed to be influential over the MAGA-supporting mega-venture capitalist Peter Thiel.
Exposés like Live Work Work Work Die do not always have their intended impact. Instead of drawing the public’s attention to the dangerous and exploitative condition of Chicago’s meat-packers, as its author had intended, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle primarily led the American public to wonder what was in its meat. There’s reason to be pessimistic about the extent of regulation we’ll get in the near-future, for a very simple reason. At the height of Big Tobacco’s influence, only two out of five Americans smoked. Today, almost twice that percentage of adult American internet-users have a Facebook account. Two-thirds of Americans get part of their news from social media, and about the same percentage of households subscribe to Amazon Prime. Pein himself isn’t hopeful about waking the public. “[I]t is unfortunately true that this hyper-elite class will reap the benefits of any new technologies society develops, while the costs will fall, as ever, on the rest of us.” Even so, he suggests there may be a great disruption coming. “[I]f history teaches us one thing, it’s that complex problems often have simple solutions. Off with their heads.”
Justin Tyler Clark is assistant professor of History at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He is the author of City of Second Sight: Nineteenth-Century Boston and the Making of American Visual Culture (UNC Press, 2018).