Live Work Work Work Die: A Journey into the Savage Heart of Silicon Valley
By Corey Pein, Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company, 309 pages, $28
It was not long ago that it seemed as if the companies of Silicon Valley were poised to renew and reshape American capitalism. In the late 1990s, companies like AltaVista and Razorfish received the most extraordinary valuations in the history of the stock market, and their foosball-table-filled offices were the subject of breathless coverage. Their employees were rich — congenital dorkiness having become phenomenally lucrative — and a “new economy” was on the horizon.
The proof? In some parts of the country, you could log onto America Online through a dial-up modem, sign into Kozmo.com and order a Coca-Cola to be delivered in about an hour. Ah, liberty! In 2001, the bubble burst, but the dream of a genuinely profitable, internet-fuelled economy remained.
That economy is now here, most visibly in the form of a sleek slab of phone on which you might be reading (or, really, scrolling) this, and the bloom is off the digital rose. You can still get a Coke delivered, but it will be handed to you by an independent contractor for Caviar, cycling around town with a humiliating giant orange box on his back, as he makes well under minimum wage. Or it will eventually come in the back seat of a robot UberEats car, which might well have slammed into a few pedestrians on the way — the price of progress.
Now, or soon, anything you want can be paid for and delivered, virtually at any time, at nearly any speed. For this great convenience, Amazon can now pretty much gull every mayor in America into selling their schools, transportation systems, birthrights, etc, in order to draw 50,000 tech employees — among the least beloved specimens of humanity — to invade and comprehensively ruin their city, block by blessed block. Those employees will be mostly white, mostly men, and mostly known for upholding an industry whose sexism is towering, peerless and, according to charmers like James Damore, not even as sexist as it should be.
The effects of this bargain on all of us have been well documented — even if some of its political consequences, as with the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal, are continually ramifying — but the lives of the people who work in the industry and have foisted it on us are less well known, and this is where Corey Pein’s Live Work Work Work Die attempts to fill in the picture.
Pein, a staff writer for the caustic and essential little magazine The Baffler, is a former newspaper reporter, who experienced the depredations of tech “disruption” firsthand. Thinking he was following the money, in 2012 he joined a Seattle-based “avant-garde online news service” called Demotix as its editor-in-chief.
Soon into his tenure, Demotix was bought by Corbis, an online photography database, which proceeded to reassign photographers from war zones to “chase reality TV stars around red-carpet events”; not long after, Pein learned that Corbis also planned to lay off half of Demotix’s employees.
So, in the spirit of gonzo journalism, he decides to high-tail it to the Bay Area to sell a start-up and document the horrors of his temporarily adopted home along the way. The idea he comes up with is called “Laborize,” a company that would hire itself out to one organisation to unionise a rival — it would, say, contract with Uber to unionise Lyft — and therefore ruin the competitive advantage that comes from denying health care, steady wages and other benefits of unionisation.
It is a clever ploy that cuts to the heart of what makes Silicon Valley a very pure example of capitalism: the fact that it screws over, or tries to automate into the digital ether, a vast proportion of the American work force, in order to enrich, artificially and enormously, a small proportion of investors and owners, whose companies are — more often than not — profoundly unprofitable.
It probably doesn’t ruin the surprise to point out that Pein’s efforts are a failure: His start-up plans stall out. Nor does his exhaustive, scathing description of what Silicon Valley companies do make for a serious contribution to journalism about the tech industry. More than gonzo, an aura of laziness pervades the exercise.
In an emblematic passage, Pein visits the Googleplex in Mountain View, but doesn’t manage to get inside any of the buildings, which in my experience is not so hard to do. Instead he wanders around outside, telling us that it “looks like pretty much any other dismal suburban office park” and that “the real story hid behind the blackened windows of the squat office buildings.” The real story — digitising, data mining, etc — turns out to be what is already widely available in reporting elsewhere, in any case uncited in Pein’s book.
Still, despite and perhaps a little because of its lackadaisical approach to its subject, Live Work Work Work Die manages to capture something essential about Silicon Valley that has eluded other authors.
This is because Pein starts from the grimy underbelly of tech and never makes it out, which accurately reflects the experience of many tech workers. We only learn of those who make it big — Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg. We rarely hear of the people who fail, or work uselessly and endlessly hard, without much in the way of reward.
Struggling to find an apartment in San Francisco’s stratospherically overheated rental market, Pein settles for an Airbnb in which he has to share a room with four people and, because of what appears to be its uncertain legal status, has only one key.
Calling it the Hacker Condo, he notes that all four residents are “immigrants or the children of immigrants, and therefore accustomed to getting jerked around,” and that the foreign-born residents are on H-1B visas, an arrangement that requires them to stay employed. But the lure of making it big keeps everyone working insane hours.
Many of the people he meets “had a mysterious ‘side project’ — a start-up in the making — that was inevitably too ill formed to talk about, or far too technically complicated to remember.” Pein realises that most of these “tech bros” were “doomed to be desk jockeys for life, forever dreaming of their star turn as Job Creators.”
This is an exhausting, one-note book, but the tinny, grating note Pein repeatedly strikes may nonetheless be one the world needs to hear more often. As Pein migrates from the Hacker Condo to, eventually, a literal tent ($35 a day on Airbnb), he passes through lurid publicity parties for companies like Nerdwallet, which raised $64 million in its first round of fund-raising and makes money from advertising and referral fees earned when it steers users towards certain loans or insurance policies. Its employees describe their executives (on the review site GlassDoor) as “treacherous, languishing souls who want to claw as much money as possible” from their investors and clients, and claim not even to know “what the product is.”
He pays $29.70 to join a start-up pitch competition — a kind of live “Shark Tank”— whose theme is captured in the downer of a phrase “Hack immigration.”
His failed journey around the depressing periphery of the tech industry, its warrens suffused with the distinct scent of unadulterated bull, is a preview of the bleak, airless future it aims to deliver, by driverless car or drone, to all of us.
–New York Times News Service
Nikil Saval is the author of Cubed: The Secret History of the Workplace.