21st Century Serfs

29 Dec|Tom Hodgkinson

Dan Lyons is the author of a new book, Lab Rats: Why Modern Work Makes People Miserable, which accuses Silicon Valley of wrecking work for everyone with its crazy work ethic and “bro” culture. Tom Hodgkinson gets the lowdown.

TOM HODGKINSON: So how is it that these idiots came to dominate the workplace and create its culture?

DAN LYONS: There is a certain type of founder, a certain personality type, who venture capitalists really like. One VC called Paul Graham apparently said: “I can be fooled by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg.” That means a young college dropout, very confident. The most extreme example is the “Thiel fellows”. These were funded by Peter Thiel [the Facebook investor and PayPal founder]. He paid each one $100,000 to drop out of college and pursue their start-up idea. Tom Wolfe’s daughter Alexandra wrote a book about them called Valley of the Gods. She followed a class of Thiel fellows. They all have stupid ideas and go broke. One 17-year-old says he is going to mine asteroids. Then there’s James Proud, he was an obnoxious little prick. He had a gadget for helping people to sleep called Sense. It was the size of tennis ball and utter bullshit. He raised $40 million dollars from investors. It collapsed.

There’s a little cabal of weirdo alt-right, trolling, AI guys from places like Stanford and Michigan, people like Thiel and his friends David Sacks and Keith Rabois [who also made fortunes from PayPal]. They were misfits at university in the 1990s. Thiel and Sacks wrote an anti-PC book called The Diversity Myth. Then they all hijacked the industry and took over the Internet. At the same time, Silicon Valley went backwards in terms of lack of regard for its employees. Look at the culture at Uber: they work themselves to death.

Peter Thiel’s big revelation is: forget about the competition and get a monopoly, competing is a fool’s game. But that’s hardly innovative, even a child knows that.

TH: And San Francisco is packed with homeless people.

DL: I was ranting on Twitter recently, saying something along the lines that it was laughable how the techies don’t act on the homeless problem. They just say, “Please get rid of them for us!” I am thinking: “The big three companies are sitting on $400 billion of cash and are surrounded by 10,000 of the poorest people in the country.”

This guy on Twitter said to me: “If you have a start-up idea with great ‘unit economics’ for homelessness, pitch it to some Venture Capitalists and make money, otherwise don’t sit around and complain.”

20,000 people walked out of Google. Google is the most progressive of all and the employees are well paid. But if those people walk out, what does that tell you?

TH: And San Francisco is packed with homeless people.

DL: I was ranting on Twitter recently, saying something along the lines that it was laughable how the techies don’t act on the homeless problem. They just say, “Please get rid of them for us!” I am thinking: “The big three companies are sitting on $400 billion of cash and are surrounded by 10,000 of the poorest people in the country.”

This guy on Twitter said to me: “If you have a start-up idea with great ‘unit economics’ for homelessness, pitch it to some Venture Capitalists and make money, otherwise don’t sit around and complain.”

TH: Do you see any hope in the future? Will we emerge from this mess?

DL: Well 20,000 people just walked out of Google and it wasn’t really the ones at the bottom. Google is the most progressive of all and the employees are well paid. But if those people walk out, what does that tell you? Even being paid very well, and enjoying great working conditions, is not enough. Also, there are two classes of workers: the employees and the contract workers, who are second class citizens in these places. Little by little they’ve shifted work on to contractors till the number of contract workers is greater than employees. Will the regular employees lock arms with their contract brethren?

A longer version of this interview appears in Idler 64, Jan/Feb 2019. Buy a copy here.