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The Self-Serving Myths of Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley's boosters say it's an innovative, meritocratic wonderland that rewards brilliant visionaries and just might save the world. That's nonsense.

Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference on September 8, 2014 in San Francisco, CA. Steve Jennings / Getty

Capitalism is an effervescent elixir. People clamor to catch a lift upward on the latest bubble even though deep down, most know there is only air beneath them. Stocks, tech valuations, real-estate speculation — it’s not the stuff of the economy that really matters, but rather, the timely exit from each overvalued market. A few people win, most lose, and the victors tend to be those already advantaged by their class position. Nevertheless, we suppress that knowledge, because facing the truth is too painful. It’s nice to have something to hope, and to work, for.

In his new book, Live, Work, Work, Work, Die: A Journey into the Savage Heart of Silicon Valley, journalist and writer Corey Pein offers us a glimpse at the apotheosis of contemporary capitalism, Silicon Valley. The narrative cheekily casts Pein as a freshly unemployed prospector, going West to strike venture capital gold. The word is out that Silicon Valley is practically minting millionaires and billionaires — who’s to say he can’t be one of them?

Pein documents his Valley quest for tech-billionaire-dom, taking readers on a gonzo-lite tour of pitch meetings, recruitment fairs, Captain Morgan–soaked networking happy hours, and Airbnb flophouses. Wise to capitalism’s fizz, the book is an important exposé of the supposedly innovative, meritocratic tech industry — a refreshing antidote to the fawning encomiums the sector usually receives from the media and politicians.

As Pein’s book makes clear, there is nothing (in many cases, literally nothing) undergirding the valuations of scores of tech companies. The coders Pein meets barely know how to code. Most only know how to copy-paste together script written by others into unwieldy, buggy apps that they hope to sell in a hurry. No one really knows, it turns out, how many website users — the sought-after “eyeballs” that drive the digital advertising industry — are customers-in-waiting and how many are miserably paid digital sweatshop workers clicking “like” ten thousand times per day.

The innovations that attract staggering sums of venture capital dollars are not holy grail wonders that solve intractable social or medical problems, but things like Clinkle, a mobile payments app that stood apart from PayPal and Apple Wallet because it allowed users to pay . . . no one except other Clinkle users. Clinkle garnered $25 million in venture capital cash before flaming out.

At times, such emperors-new-clothes innovations are met with widespread ridicule once they leave the tech echo chamber. Juicero — which received $118 million in venture capital from supposedly serious investors like Google Venture and the Campbells Soup Company — was roundly mocked when it was revealed that the $400 juicer simply squeezed pouches of already juiced juice. Its very existence rebutted the notion that the Valley tech brain trust is thinking on a higher plane than the rest of us — people from every corner of humanity spew nonsensical bullshit every moment of the day. Most, it goes without saying, do not get millions of dollars for it.

If only boondoggles like Juicero were the extent of the Valley’s ills. The real problem is that the tech industry — both its culture and its products — cause real harm.

Pein occasionally puts his freewheeling tone on hold to tell some of these stories. He meets a developer, Adrian, whose startup fails and later, drowning in debt, attempts suicide. “The saddest thing about people like Adrian was that they hadn’t suffered from some outsize ambition,” Pein writes. “They were only doing what they were told. Obama’s White House embraced Silicon Valley’s ‘learn to code’ campaign — it was an official government job-creation program.” By the time regular people like Adrian arrived in the Valley, the gates to the big money had already been thrown up, and would-be entrepreneurs without connections or Stanford degrees were left to mainly provide cheap labor, conference fees, and audience padding.

Then there are the outright dangerous products, like the useless and misleading Theranos blood testing machine. Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes pushed the machine to market despite being aware of its ineffectiveness. In other words, Holmes was completely unbothered by the thought of people drawing their blood with her faulty apparatus and making medical decisions based on the inaccurate readings it provided. Holmes has since settled with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which charged her with fraud, but the agreement did not require her to admit wrongdoing. As of June 2018, she was glad-handing in the Valley, apparently still welcome in moneyed circles, and raising cash for another business venture.

Most of the people that Pein rubs shoulders with aren’t tech royalty, but other dreamers lured by the prospect of “getting funded,” foregoing basic biological needs like sleep and basic sources of joy like relationships, out of the belief that working harder and longer will bring them closer to that alluring Big Break. They have flocked to the Bay Area from around the world — Russia, India, Norway — to endure weirdo roommates and ludicrously high rent, hyping themselves up on motivational entrepreneur-speak. They blur together in Pein’s telling, but that’s precisely the point. In the Valley, they — Pein included — are a dime a dozen. A mob of Willy Lomans.

Pein leaves the Valley while it is still in full froth. He didn’t become a billionaire, but he didn’t lose his shirt either. For his cohort, we already know how this story will end. A correction will come. Rumblings of a new economic downturn are already stirring. Throngs of people will lose their life’s earnings and be left saddled with underwater mortgages and six-figure tuition debt in a society with hollowed-out public services. The Peter Thiels and Robert Mercers will probably be fine.

And yet, there might be an alternate ending to this story. Recently, twenty thousand Google workers around the world walked off the job for a few hours. Spurred by anger at the multimillion-dollar payouts given to high-level executives accused of sexual harassment, the global organizing effort came together in under a week. Some of the San Francisco contingent expressed solidarity with the city’s striking Marriott workers, a marked disavowal of the industry’s typical hyper-individualism. If tech workers keep traveling down this road, and manage to elicit class consciousness in America’s white-collar professionals — a cause long thought to be hopeless — now that would be a true innovation.