Think Trump is a fascist? Portland journalist Corey Pein says the president's got nothing on Silicon Valley.
"They want a state where they can essentially experiment on people without any interference from the U.S. government or any other government. That is called a 'corporate fascist dictatorship,'" Pein says. "They can call it whatever they want, but we already have words for it. This is a very strong strain of thought among upper management and venture capital elites."
For his new book, Pein, a former WW staff writer, wanted to truly understand the dark machinations of the industry that had fundamentally altered his own profession. So he resigned from his startup job, moved from London to San Francisco, and tried to make it as a tech billionaire.
"Every city's trying to brand itself as Silicon Valley—[Portland] is the Silicon Forest, or is that Seattle?—but nothing really compares to the center of that universe,'' Pein says. "'I knew I had to do something real old-fashioned and go assess the situation, and interact with the people if I wanted to write about it."
Pein attended networking events, trying—and ultimately failing—to come up with the next hot receptacle for venture capital cash. The resulting book, Live Work Work Work Die (Metropolitan Books, 320 pages, $28), is equal parts hilarious and terrifying, filled with descriptions of squalid Airbnbs, chauvinistic brogrammers, dismal pitch competitions, and a whole lot of aspiring autocrats.
We spoke with Pein about capitalism's boom-and-bust cycle, how Silicon Valley is changing the way we work, and how to resist our techno-overlords. JAMES HELMSWORTH.
WW: People talk about tech as a "boom." Is there an accompanying bust coming?
Corey Pein: This generation of tech giants has learned from their predecessors' mistakes in many ways. They've been careful to hoard cash and take other hedges against an eventual bubble. On the other hand, in the last few months, it sure looks like a lot of the big tech companies are struggling to preserve their image. I think the Cambridge Analytica scandal really pointed to major issues in Facebook's routine business model.
I think you could see a bust if more of these companies are revealed to have shaky foundations. The big question mark over all of that is how deeply the rest of the economy is intertwined with the operations of these tech giants. That could make a bust less likely—they're all "too big to fail," in a sense. It could also mean what happens is much more devastating for the broader economy than just a stock market crash.
How is Silicon Valley changing how we work?
It's turning us into a nation of rickshaw drivers—no benefits, no insurance, no protections. Everybody's a self-employed, small-business owner to which corporations have no obligation to provide any sort of basic employee protections that have been the norm for the last 60 years or so. The work is much more routinized and surveilled. You hear a lot about robots taking our jobs but not a lot about how tech is making people behave more like robots at their jobs.
What hope do we have of resisting this?
There's no tech solution for the problems the tech industry has created. We need political solutions. I think the way to resist is true organizing of people in person—doing direct actions and doing boycotts. Doing very simple things like calling your member of Congress and letting them know why you're not happy to be treated as a contractor when you're in fact an employee, or that you're not happy having these tech corporations sell your data to whomever they want.
What's the biggest misconception people have about Silicon Valley?
That it's about technological innovation or having a good idea. It's not about that at all. It's about marketing and who you know. And really, what was the last thing they developed for us since the iPhone? Twenty or 30 years of government-funded research went into that.
In the penultimate chapter, you take a look at some of the authoritarian political impulses in Silicon Valley. Are they all just a bunch of fascists?
I was pretty horrified to see a fascist subculture in the valley rise to power very rapidly. I think the political spectrum there runs from libertarian to fascist. I think that it's been that way for a long time.
If you look at the history of Stanford University, sort of the heart and brain of Silicon Valley and the training ground for the managerial class, it shows how they carried the torch for a lot of the worst ideas of the 20th century into the 21st, from eugenics to technocratic management to the idea that a dictatorship is a more efficient way to run a society than a democracy.
Then you look around and you see what a poor job the government is doing, and what it means to rely on government services after 40 years of sustained assault on the public sector. It makes you think hard about some of the ideas that are coming out of Silicon Valley, like a corporate-run minimum basic income, which will probably be just enough to make sure you can buy your Amazon Prime rations or whatever. I see why that would be appealing to some people, given the status quo. I think it's pretty urgent that we have a change in government so we don't have Silicon Valley's vision of corporate dictatorship looking like the better option to the flaming pile of racist garbage that the Trump administration is offering us.
But under Trump, the assault on the public sector just keeps coming. So what hope do we have?
The bright spot is that there's a lot of people in these companies—not just in San Francisco but in Portland and Seattle, as well—who understand and embrace the critique I offer in the book. In fact, they got there themselves through firsthand experience. This is an industry that treats its employees, even if they are well-compensated, by working them like dogs. And there tends to be a pretty high turnover rate among anybody who's not a young, Ivy League-minted white male. And even those people from the privileged castes burn out. The shine will come off. For a lot of people, it already has. I don't see the backlash going away. There's a new awareness that people like Mark Zuckerberg are the robber barons of our time.