Dan Lyons is one of the more unlikely critics of Silicon Valley culture despite being a long time satirist, making his splash with his Fake Steve Jobs (FSJ) blog (and mediocre novelization). His irreverent portrayal of a smack-talking, faux new-age Steve, seems a bit short in retrospect. It was clever, candid and most of all funny, but never eclipsed the caricature of the on-the-spectrum, eccentric, once-hippie tech billionaire. In the end, in the cannon of Steve, Lyon helped lionize (yeah, you had to see that coming) Jobs, with the endless speculation of who FSJ real identity was. It was a simpler time.
As a seasoned tech journalist, watching tech giants cannibalize his own industry, Lyons ended up regurgitating in the soliloquy, "if you cant' beat 'em, join 'em," and thus fully embraced the mantra when he took a tour of duty at Hubspot.
What followed was his book, Disrupted, a highly cynical view of the lauded unicorn companies of the Silicon Valley, where ageism, sexism, and even old-fashioned systemic racism run amok. Lyons learned the brutal truth behind the smoke-and-mirrors act, where Hubspot succeeded behind banal new-age corpo-speak, armies of call-center drones, using the oldest sales techniques in the book. His experience struck a nerve, that perhaps our so-called unicorns weren't special, other than the ability fib that they were more than anything than a donkey with a paper cone, making an ass out everyone who for buying into such a shallow sham.
This go around, Lyons drops entirely his satirical lens refocused to far serious with more precision, with a deeply skeptical view of tech companies of all stripes, and argues that they are accelerating the wealth-income gap (Spoiler: they are), sowing the seeds of worker discontentment, destabilizing the economy and dehumanizing people by treating them as actual cogs in a machine, or lab rats in an experiment.
There are interviews from anonymous interviews, to people willing to go on the record about their personal stories in the churn of the new workplace. The cast is extensive and of many backgrounds, be it newly minted fresh college grads suffering depression from being fired for not being a culture fit, workers feeling the burn of masked-racism, to the truly dystopian, workers who have to camp in freezing weather in England to save money while working for Amazon warehouses.
The most poignant chapter is the damning of Amazon, who's piddly $15 raise still is insufficient, ending on the eerie Nick Hanauer interview about Jeff Bezos.
“Hanauer, the billionaire-turned-activist, was at one time close to Bezos. I asked him if he had ever talked to his old friend about paying workers better and treating them more humanely. “I took a crack at getting him to care about it,” Hanauer said. Apparently, Bezos wasn’t persuaded. In recent years, “I have lost touch with Jeff,” Hanauer said. He was reluctant to say more.
For years Hanauer has been trying to convince legislators to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, more than double the current minimum wage of $7.25. Even that $15 wage would not be enough to make things square, but it would at least be a start.
“If the minimum wage had tracked the growth of productivity since 1968, it would now be $22,” Hanauer says. “If it tracked the top 1 percent, it would be $29.”
“The reason to give back the money, he says, would be so that the one percent can save their own skins. As Hanauer sees it, the election of Donald Trump might be only the first step toward something much worse. “People were hurting, and they lashed out—by voting for the guy who was lashing out, too.”
If we don’t shift wealth back toward workers and just keep carrying on the way we are now, Hanauer predicts we will end up in a real-life Mad Max movie: “If you don’t give it back, things are not going to get better. Oh, dude, we are in for a bumpy ride. This is going to get way worse before it gets better. I think the country is in trouble. The West is in trouble. We have institutionalized a set of dynamics which benefit the few and immiserate the many.
“People are not going to get less pissed. People’s lives are going to get worse. People are going to be even more angry and more polarized. The talk will get even crazier. Plan on violence. Plan on it. People do stupid shit when they’re angry. It’s not going to be good. I think we’re going to have a lot of civil unrest. Hopefully we will avoid a civil war. The last time the country was in crisis like this was 1968. Remember that? We had hundreds of bombings. We had riots. Well, it’s been fifty years. We’re right on cycle.”
It might sound alarmist or even silly out-of-context, but listening to NPR's Morning Edition with person-on-the-street-interviews, the idea of civil-conflict is often echoed by both the right-wing and left-wing alike. This isn't some lame "horseshoe theory" armchair analysis. Both sides blame each other for the problems, being divided on wedge issues instead of class issues.
After so many books on my reading list, from Chris Hedge's America the Farewell Tour, Charlie LeDuff's "Sh*tshow: The Country's Collapsing and the ratings are great", Anand Giridharadas' "Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World" all in the past two months, there's one very loud reverberating echo: The rise of populism can clearly be laid at the feet of the fear or reality of being left behind. James Carville campaign strategist of Bill Clinton once said, "it's the economy, stupid." He's correct, and yet wildly-off-base, as our neoliberal economic platform ushered by Reaganomics was realized in the under the tech-happy hand of Clinton. The economy, stupid, is now the cross-to-bear with the Silicon Valley being the chief architect of its demise.
The final chapters focus on companies bucking the trend and succeeding while doing so. There's also a fair amount of evidence cited that companies with actual diversity and well-compensated, fairly treated employees tend to perform better. There’s a bit too much faith in companies with social agendas, but his end thesis supports this view. Lyons’ in the end doesn’t suggest an end to capitalism, (as the saying goes, capitalism is the worst system until you consider all the others) but an end to Miltonite religious zeal for shareholder capitalism. It’s a mammoth ask, but it is a salient point: maximizing short term gains for the quick buck isn’t the way to build the future.
Most of all, the book is easily digestible for a dreary topic and made me laugh out loud... which probably wasn’t intentional.
I originally posted this on GoodReads. I like GoodReads, but the community features are of little interest to me beyond reviews. I've had very little interaction with the community. It's mostly a place for me to log the books I read and leave notes to myself.
I noticed yesterday though, five months ago I had a comment on my review of Lab Rats. The comment in question was about a particular phrasing that I never recalled using. I didn't see it in my original review (maybe I edited it out? I have a habit of obsessively reediting things, chiefly this blog but have done so elsewhere). So I replied, not expecting a reply after a 5 month old comment but what ensued was gold, better than I ever expected. I figured it was worth screen-capping this exchange. It actually goes on further, but I deleted his later replies as he started name calling, using pejoratives for lack of mental acuity and the like. Plus, it really upset the guy which was amusing in its own right and proceeded to rate this book to get me back apparently. I originally I was going to obfuscate the names on the whole thing, but the troll in question's hobby is making America great by one-starring books on topics he disagrees with. Oh the internet...