High-Tech Bildungsroman: The Hysterical Optimism of Silicon Valley

May 12, 2018   •   By Daniel Pearce

Live Work Work Work Die

Corey Pein

SILICON VALLEY’S CONTEMPORARY CRITICS are being proven right at a speed that seems increasingly breakneck. Measuring the gap between a dark warning and its validation is easy enough: take any high-profile example of technological overreach or data abuse, and peruse Google until you find the individual(s) who identified this danger as latent within the technology itself, if not also within the permissive regulatory regime nominally tasked with preventing such offenses. Once in a while, however, you’ll be reminded of some clarion call you had previously dismissed.

Thus, I recently had occasion to recall a profile of one of Silicon Valley’s most persuasive and rigorous detractors, the Belarusian writer Evgeny Morozov, which appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review in 2014. The profile’s author, Michael Meyer, seemed to imagine a reader sympathetic to Morozov’s critiques of “solutionism” — “the idea,” as Meyer puts it, “that we should recast our problems, from political gridlock to weight loss, as things to be solved primarily through technological efficiency” — and “internet-centrism,” which Morozov defines in his book To Save Everything, Click Here (2013) as “the firm conviction that we are living through unique, revolutionary times, in which the previous truths no longer hold,” but a reader also wary, as I probably was myself at the time, of what Meyer calls Morozov’s “bombast.” Suggesting that Morozov might be overzealous in his readiness to trumpet the sinister possibilities of emergent technologies, Meyer writes:

The most benignly progressive ideas can, in Morozov’s hands, become gloomy and confounding — for instance, he believes that people trying to lose weight with fitness-tracking apps are setting a dangerous precedent that could foster abusive practices by health insurers.

There’s a seductive, if potentially faulty, syllogism in play here, one that I regularly use to calm myself: if a given prediction evokes dystopian science fiction, and if science fiction often projects a hyperbolic future that is, at best (or worst), only partially borne out, then that prediction is therefore unlikely to be accurate.

But to trivialize such concerns as “gloomy and confounding” risks sacrificing a valuable alertness, or so it seems to me now. For it was “abusive practices” along these very lines — underwritten, as it were, by a “benignly progressive idea” — that helped catalyze this year’s inspiring West Virginia teachers’ strike. As one teacher explained to The New York Times:

They implemented Go365, which is an app that I’m supposed to download on my phone, to track my steps, to earn points through this app. If I don’t earn enough points, and if I choose not to use the app, then I’m penalized $500 at the end of the year. People felt that was very invasive, to have to download that app and to be forced into turning over sensitive information.

Considered in context, these remarks provide a misleading index of our society’s collective willingness to fight back against weaponization of the data that we passively engender as we go about our daily lives; needless to say, such large-scale organized resistance in our right-to-work era is not the norm. Furthermore, the incursion upon individual privacy represented by Go365 was not the teachers’ only grievance, or even their principal one: West Virginia’s public school teachers are among the lowest paid in the country. But as separate as the workers’ grievances might seem — with stagnating wages on the one hand, and the unsolicited monitoring of extracurricular activity, which then becomes the basis of a significant penalty, on the other — they are related, and this relation helps tell a story about American precarity writ large, with the state ceding certain vital functions to private corporations whose work is, by and large, poorly understood and minimally overseen.

Corey Pein’s brisk and entertaining new book, Live Work Work Work Die: A Journey into the Savage Heart of Silicon Valley, attempts to tell this story, presenting the linked erosion of the public sector and of organized labor as at once accelerants and symptoms of Silicon Valley’s economic ascendancy. Equal parts memoir, ethnography, reportage, and jeremiad, Live Work Work Work Die starts as an account of Pein’s abortive effort to become a startup entrepreneur, widening into a bleaker, more holistic portrait of Silicon Valley — its history, economics, politics, dominant personalities, and vision for the future. “Silicon Valley,” one of the United States’s best-known metonyms, functionally extends beyond the geographic region itself, into San Francisco, which has in some sense become Silicon Valley’s suburb; local literary eminences Rebecca Solnit and Ellen Ullman have both lamented the city’s new status as a “bedroom community,” an inversion that, as Solnit has observed, harkens back to earlier days when Gold Rush arrivistes flocked to the city in hopes of getting rich nearby.

The opening chapter sees Pein, a seasoned journalist and regular contributor to The Baffler, moving to San Francisco in 2015 with little but a nebulous determination to cash in on the tech boom. What distinguished him from his fellow aspirants, however, was his plan to convert this experience into a book, as well as his fundamentally adversarial stance toward the very boom he hoped would make him rich.

Pein sets up Live Work Work Work Die as a nonfictional bildungsroman, the literary-historical form that, in its focus on one (typically male) individual’s arduous self-actualization, most precisely panders to Silicon Valley’s image of itself. But it soon becomes clear that Pein’s deployment of this form is sarcastic, as when he recounts an early entrepreneurial failure that, because he had so fully imbibed the Valley’s insistence on its own meritocratic ordering, he initially interpreted as a harsh measure of his own worth:

My first startup had failed. Thus I had failed. What other explanation could there be? As everyone knew, the internet was a level playing field, a free and frictionless medium for exchange, where the best ideas would inevitably rise to the top. Such was the foundational rhetoric of the internet, repeated like scripture, questioned only by cranks and cynics.

Pein comes to see the regional doctrine of heroic self-sufficiency and “hysterical optimism” as a “specious ideology.” As this early passage indicates, the book is the story not of one young man achieving success through brute force of will, but of one young man realizing that such success stories — for which there is a sizable market — largely miss the structural point.

But if, as literary scholar Joseph Slaughter argues, the typical bildungsroman narrates one individual’s journey toward becoming someone capable of narrating that very journey (a circular process Slaughter calls “narrative self-sponsorship”), this is one feature of the form Pein’s book adapts earnestly, if problematically. “When I started writing this book,” he writes,

it was provisionally titled “How to Make $30 Billion the Silicon Valley Way.” My idea was to pitch a tech startup and get obscenely rich while writing a book about how to pitch a tech startup and get obscenely rich — the Silicon Valley way!

And yet was there ever really a chance that the resultant book would tell a more sanguine, upwardly mobile story? The degree of self-satire here, along with Pein’s unabashed left-wing politics, makes the premise appear disingenuous. “Was I going as a journalist or a businessman?” he asks.

I had fooled myself into believing that I could carry out both roles without creating irreconcilable conflicts. Not so. My journalistic mission was inspired by an overwhelming sense of hostility toward the tech industry.

This journalist/businessman hybrid identity reads as a pretense about to be abandoned, not one sincerely maintained. Such an abandonment is welcome: while Pein’s pursuit of startup fortune is funny and engaging, it is rarely more than half-hearted — merely a useful way of surveying the landscape and describing what he sees. (The clever — and patently illegal — startup he tries to found, Laborize, allows companies to fund unionization drives within competing companies, with the somewhat ironic goal of using “disruption” to make such drives a permanent condition in every American workplace.)

Still, if he’s to be taken at his word, Pein is a genuine member of the cohort of comers he’s diagnosing, and so it can be perplexing when his characterizations of this cohort preclude sensibilities like his own:

To the spoiled middle-class consumers flooding Silicon Valley and the Bay Area, everything came down to a matter of preference. The assumptions of cutthroat libertarianism were so embedded in the worldview of these lucky newcomers that they spoke as though the victims of tech-fueled displacement and gentrification had chosen to live in poverty and squalor, just as they themselves chose to learn to code.

As generalizations go, this one seems accurate enough — it at least accords with my own limited perceptions as a San Francisco native who doesn’t work in tech — but should his assessment be slightly more expansive when this group ostensibly numbers himself in its ranks? Douglas Rushkoff’s Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus (2016) encourages a more generous view in this regard, suggesting that most tech workers, although constituting an elite, remain laborers, with many of the relevant trappings: long, uncontrolled hours and high rates of burnout. In Pein’s telling, however, such considerations are merely mitigating factors, for the personalities that populate this rank-and-file are unsympathetic. (“I’m going to wait until the next recession and buy up all the houses here,” one Google intern tells him.)

Besides, there is labor and then there is labor, and delineating the strata of tech work is a task Pein carefully undertakes. (The manners of work he describes, however, are limited to those he can see or easily do himself — there’s no substantive treatment of the Amazon warehouse worker, for example.) Pein discusses in detail the business models of Fiverr, the online marketplace for services and products that are uniformly five dollars apiece, and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, which pays online workers mere pennies to complete small, almost (or eventually) robotic tasks. (When Pein briefly joins the ranks of the Fiverr merchants, it’s unclear whether his motive is economic desperation, curiosity, research, or some combination thereof — part and parcel of his somewhat muddled reasons for coming to the Bay Area in the first place.) Pein suggests that the most significant consequences of such businesses are to drive down wages and contribute to social atomization. There is, however, the possibility that disaffection breeds an awareness of certain power relations that remain more opaque during slightly better times: in one Tom Friedman–esque sequence, a Lyft driver concisely explains her disillusionment to Pein, her passenger, by saying, “I’m just making someone else rich. I know I could be putting that time into my own company.”

This is, of course, a familiar diagnosis of capitalism’s familiar problem. One powerful refrain within the book is that much that defines this “new economy” is actually quite old, if in some ways now more extreme, and that a patina of novelty permits or conceals a number of retrograde practices. Pein’s cynicism as both a journalist and an entrepreneur manqué is a valuable asset in this regard, allowing him to detect exploitation, charlatanism, and immorality where others might see innovation, genius, and complexity. His discussion of “regulatory arbitrage,” for example, begins with a succinct definition: it is, he writes, a “clever coinage” that refers to “the practice of using the internet to make money doing something that might be illegal if you did the same thing without using the internet.”

The broader public’s unconcern for such things Pein lays squarely at the feet of the news organizations (or sections of those organizations) that have long gently covered tech businesses — the “tech press.” It is through the tech press that we understand these companies, and, specifically, that we understand them in terms of spiffy gadgetry and improved convenience (though this rosy view has changed considerably since the 2016 presidential election). Pein speaks with Gregg Pascal Zachary, a former tech journalist, who describes the quintessential early members of the tech press: “former trade journalists who … got in through the trade world, moved up the food chain, and were never trained in adversarial journalism. They don’t even know what it is.” For many members of the tech press Zachary describes, favorable or uncritical coverage seemed to promise a lucrative exit from journalism altogether. Zachary posits Michael Moritz — who wrote an early profile of Steve Jobs, and then a book about Apple, which led to a partnership at a venture capital firm, and then to a seat on Google’s board — as a perfect object lesson in this regard. At one convention of the Startup Conference, Pein finds proof that this journalistic orientation persists. He talks to an editor-in-chief of CNET (current or former Pein doesn’t specify), a conversation he summarizes thusly:

I made a critical remark about Facebook’s manipulation of users’ news feeds. He responded with the company line, a fine example of the sort of circular reasoning that eliminated the need for moral judgment. “Facebook is a reflection of what you see on the internet,” he said, “so if you don’t like what you see on Facebook, it’s your own damn fault.”

Fred Turner, in his 2006 book From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism, the definitive account of how computing shifted in the American popular imagination from a gray, bureaucratic endeavor to a highly individualistic and liberatory one, offers a slightly less macabre and more nuanced explanation of the tech press’s emergence. The instrumental figure in this story is Stewart Brand, whose techno-utopian Whole Earth Catalog managed to gather in its pages, Turner writes, “the fringed deerskin jackets and geodesic domes favored by the communards, but they also included the cybernetic musings of Norbert Wiener and the latest calculators from Hewlett-Packard.” This became the basis of what Turner calls “the Whole Earth network,” the members of which

developed a shared language for their work. Out of that language emerged shared understandings — of the potential social impact of computing, of information and information technologies as metaphors for social processes, and of the nature of work in a networked economic order.

Turner continues:

[M]embers of the Whole Earth network made themselves visible and credible spokesmen for the socio-technical visions that they had helped create. […] Brand and other writers and editors associated with the Whole Earth publications developed extraordinary reputations as journalists […] They did so, however, by building the communities on whose activities they were reporting.

Turner presents this early tech press — the avatar of which was Wired — as involuted and bright-eyed, almost evangelical, as befits both its inward communitarian origins and its presence at a vanguard that only it purportedly possessed the language to describe. (Evgeny Morozov has offered a more dyspeptic description of how a contemporary figure like the influential investor and publisher Tim O’Reilly adopted a similar strategy to shape how technology is discussed, reported, and, ultimately, regulated.)

That these qualities could curdle into Silicon Valley’s endemic sense of itself as belonging to a kind of elect — misunderstood and demonized by an ignorant public, undeserving both of regulation by clueless legislators and of complaints from the ungrateful workers in its part-time–contracted employ — makes a kind of sense, and the most fascinating sections of Live Work Work Work Die address this embittered libertarian outlook. Pein traces it back to the founding of Stanford, Silicon Valley’s original incubator, whose first “president David Starr Jordan […] authored a eugenics pamphlet titled The Blood of the Nation: A Study of The Decay of Races Through the Survival of the Unfit.” Pein mentions a speech Jordan gave to the class of 1907 in which he asserted, “An aristocracy of brains is the final purpose of democracy.” Jordan’s remarks show how a superficially colorblind meritocratic worldview, which dictates that those with greater intelligence should wield more power, can bleed into a more overtly eugenicist, racist, and antidemocratic one.

Jordan’s clear ideological successors are the Nobel laureate and Stanford physicist William Shockley, who even after World War II remained a staunch eugenicist, and, more recently, Curtis Yarvin (a.k.a. Mencius Moldbug), the computer scientist and unofficial leader of the “neoreactionary” movement. Revanchist figures like Yarvin openly lament our “chronic kinglessness,” ideas that are then amplified, albeit in a slightly diluted, cryptic fashion, by prominent figures like PayPal and Palantir founder Peter Thiel, who confessed: “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” (Pein writes, somewhat vaguely, that he “can confirm that Thiel is in communication with Yarvin on matters political.”) To Pein, concepts like Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity, which Pein calls the “theological expression” of Silicon Valley’s attitude toward innovation, along with technologies like Google’s 23andMe, all fall within David Starr Jordan’s troubling lineage.

All of this, to say the least, should arouse skepticism about the future that the merchants of Live Work Work Work Die are hawking. But the crucial question, to my mind, is not “will we be better off?” but “are we?” The absence of a coherent “we” is largely the point. After deindustrialization, after the convulsions and disruptions of our labor force induced by finance and then by tech, after intense political polarization assisted by social media, the operative question to be answered is not the one that a caricatured tech press might ask — namely, “Have these products and services meaningfully contributed to our lives?” (although we might ask some version of that as well) — but one of net value, of whether, in light of the social consequences, this great reordering was altogether worth it.

The individual agents of change might regard such a question coolly, for its asker, they might reply, has missed the point: these forces are practically biological, evolutionary — their moral neutrality is a given. But such a reply simply refurbishes (another verb tainted by tech recuperation) American capitalism’s cold logic of inevitability, by which we perceive as natural what we might otherwise see as inhumane and preventable. Meanwhile, as I work through these hypotheticals, their utility uncertain, humans become further instrumentalized as data, ever closer to reaching their planned obsolescence.


Daniel Pearce is a writer and musician living in San Francisco.