Work, work, work … until death?

Review by Heather Mendick

 

Corey Pein – Live Work Work Work Die: a journey into the savage heart of Silicon valley

Our culture’s inspirational figures are technology entrepreneurs. There’s been backlashes against our political and financial elites but the tech elite have escaped largely unscathed. While I was researching youth aspirations a few years ago, one young woman told me that Jack Dorsey had saved her life by creating Twitter. When Tesla boss Elon Musk laid off 3000 workers last year, this was reported as necessary for the good of the company and its environmental mission. Some of the downsized workers even went on Twitter to praise their former boss expressing gratitude that they’d had the chance to work for him. So the story goes, we too can make billions simply by having a good idea and working hard. Corey Pein systematically destroys these myths of benevolent entrepreneurs and a technological meritocracy in his 2018 book Live Work Work Work Die: a journey into the savage heart of Silicon Valley. It’s a brilliant account of his attempts to strike it rich in the modern California gold rush.

The veteran of two internet startups, in 2015, Corey Pein decided to travel to Silicon Valley both to endeavour to become a technology entrepreneur and to write a book on the subject. He uncovers a depressing world of slum airbnb accommodation, exploitative jobs where employees happily work a few hours overtime in exchange for a free meal, and thousands of people enduring these conditions so they can repeatedly pitch their startups to abusive venture capitalists, often paying for the privilege of doing so, until they burnout.

This environment was fostered by Barack Obama’s policies in which Silicon Valley’s “learn to code” campaign became “an official government job-creation program. With the traditional U.S. job market still a smoldering charcoal pit after the 2008 crash, computer programming skills were promoted as one sure way to attain the sort of prosperity and stability Americans had over many decades come to expect” (p.76). But programming is now less lucrative as more people can code and the activity is increasingly being automated. The promise of prosperity and stability has moved to founding startups, to creating the next big thing.

This has shifted wealth and power to elites, as secure well-paid jobs were destroyed in the aftermath of the 2008 crash, due to “Silicon Valley’s timely opportunism, the country gained an endless bounty of gigs” (p.77). Over a third of US workers are now freelance, compelled to become “entrepreneurs” combining multiple part-time gigs, renting out space in their homes via airbnb, driving uber in their “free” time, attempting to monetise a YouTube channel, hiring their labour to strangers for bargain-basement prices via TaskRabbit, or being drawn in by online con artists who promise to sell them the secret to becoming a millionaire.

Pein attempts to find a USP in this crowded startup market. He notices that most successful startups depress wages and devises a platform which has the opposite effect. Laborize offers “strikes as a service”. A business such as Uber could pay Laborize to organise workers in a competing business such as Lift. As Lift’s workers join unions and go on strike demanding improved pay and conditions, Uber’s market share will rise. Pein doesn’t highlight to potential investors that Laborize asks union-busting corporations to fund efforts to unionise workers (albeit not their own workers). Nobody on the startup circuit discusses the morality of his proposal. This reflects a wider absence: “Most people in the industry were convinced that their work was moral because it increased choice and therefore freedom. New technologies were evidence of progress and therefore innately good. And any criticism of the industry’s practices or motives therefore threatened freedom and progress” (p.106).

In the final chapters, Pein explores the broader political context of Silicon Valley including its links to misogyny, white supremacy and eugenics (Google has even patented designer baby technology). The internet has brought huge opportunities for the left. Would Jeremy Corbyn have even made it onto the ballot to become Labour leader in 2015 without social media? But it has also created platforms for far-right views which were previously outside acceptable discourse. As Angela Nagle tracks in her book Kill All Normies, the right has been more successful than the left at exploiting online spaces and the tech giants are complicit in that. Facebook spread propaganda supporting Trump’s election in the US and genocide in Myanmar. They sold users’ data to Cambridge Analytica. These and other revelations mean that we are less trusting of technology companies than when Pein was doing his research.

However, this book is more relevant than ever. Tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang is running in the US Democratic Presidential Primary. His support for Universal Basic Income has attracted the attention of some on the left but he plans to use UBI to replace benefits and to fund it via VAT rather than by progressive taxes on wealth and income. He is promoting a variant of the techno libertarianism analysed by Pein which combines white nationalism with technocratic solutions and opposition to democracy. Last month he tweeted “Deaths now outnumber births among white people in more than half the states in the country. … We need to do much more”. His vision of government is one which cedes even more power to unaccountable corporations. Yang will not win but his candidacy shows our direction of travel towards greater corporate control dominated by tech companies and sustained by ideologies of progress and freedom. Without a powerful unified opposition, most of us will be consigned to “just work, work, work, work, work, work … until death” (p.284).