Monday, June 25, 2018

Who Will Disrupt the Disruptors? A Review of Live Work Work Work Die

The final words of Corey Pein's Live Work Work Work Die are, "Off with their heads." In an engaging, hilarious, and gutwrenching first person account of the netherworld of Silicon Valley startup culture, Pein implores the reader to consider seriously the titans of tech are leading us into. By his account, it is a highly stratified society in which the toiling masses take turns pretending that they are among the tech elite.

What Pein produces is not an indictment of tech entrepreneurship per se, an elision of technology and technician he says that justifies Silicon Valley's intense stratification as meritocracy. Rather, he warns of an elite-driven venture capital culture in which the rich pick winners and losers among fraudsters, grifters, and hustlers. Where his book begins with apps like AirBnB and Uber skirting the law, he ends with apps like Paytm and Palantir that have managed to integrate themselves into the law itself, mediating the already mediated relationship between state and citizen.

The author is no luddite, however. Despite having downgraded to a talk-and-text-only Blackberry, Pein believes that technology, given the right incentives, can provide a great deal of benefit to all rather than trickling down from those who are so wealthy as to be able to afford it. Currently, the topography of tech is a wasteland of wanton law-breaking in the interest of short-term profits. On their own startups would be prone to permanent collapse. With the assistance of venture capital funds, startup companies can bear the risks of their own criminality while the VCs can suck up whatever profits they can skim off the top.

In the aggregate, however, the system does collapse. Routinely. Pein talks to veterans of the industry who explain the cycles of funding oases and financial desertification in the Valley. Like the financial macroeconomy overall, Silicon Valley is driven by a Minskian boom-bust cycle. VCs begin by taking safe bets that become continually more risky. Pein traces three such bubbles: the dot-com bubble, the sharing economy bubble, and the current personal data brokerage bubble. As consumers wise up and protect themselves from the startups and as the law catches up to them, opportunities for profits dry up and so too does the confidence of VC executives.

What little hope Pein leaves us with is perhaps hyperbolic: revolution. While he makes no attempt to chart a path for revolution, he does stipulate its basic terms: a world in which individuals are in control of their digital lives as well as their physical ones.