Is Silicon Valley destroying the American worker? Tech writer Dan Lyons makes the case.
In new book Lab Rats, Lyons finds festering problems and few solutions within the tech work force.
Dan Lyons describes himself as a little “constrained” and “serious” in his new book — Lab Rats: How Silicon Valley Made Work Miserable for the Rest of Us. Lucky for us, we ran caught up with a more candid, looser version of Lyons who is admittedly inclined to “tear his hair out screaming” after taking a good look behind the curtain of the Silicon Valley work world.
Lyons, formerly of Newsweek and Forbes, is a New York Times best-selling author who dives deep on the subject of the tech industry and the treatment of its workers in his latest work. Lab Rats… is a follow-up to his 2016 book Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble, his first takedown of the hyper-competitive, high-end money tech field. His observations on tech also landed him with a writing stint on the early seasons of HBO’s acclaimed comedy series Silicon Valley.
The Six Fifty spoke with Lyons recently to discuss issues of diversity within the industry, how tech is intertwined with homelessness in the Bay Area and how Silicon Valley can do much more for their workers and the region as a whole.
(Interview edited for length and clarity).
One of the lines from the book that embodies your main premise is the idea that silliness and cruelty are the benchmarks of this new economy and modern workplace. Can you give some examples of this for someone who has never worked in tech?
I worked at a start-up where they fired people but they called it graduation. ‘Hey, we’re all excited that so-and-so just graduated, we can’t wait to see what they do on their next big adventure.’ You fired the dude! Or having foosball and game rooms and beer and parties and team building stuff but ultimately they don’t treat you very well, they burn you out and get rid of you. These new rules of engagement between labor and capital, between companies and employees, that is scraping away a lot of stuff that was really good that people used to have, like child care or benefits. They shift to a workforce that’s built a lot on contractors or temps that don’t really get the benefits of working for a company. They are disposable…but hey, there are free snacks.
There is a constant low-grade pressure from this kind of contract work that you explain adds up to a PTSD effect. Do you feel beyond workers, tech is having a PTSD effect on the culture at large?
I do. The numbers on anti-depressant use has skyrocketed. Suicide rates have gone up. I think work is what is driving a lot of that. That’s the one thing we all have in common, we all work. Some of it is the effect of technology encroaching in the workplace. Another is the business model that grows out of Silicon Valley, which is sort of anti-human in some way. It’s the idea of people being turned into robots. Robots have become more like humans and humans have become more like robots. I think at some low-level it’s hard to prove or quantify but it feels very real anecdotally. That sense of alienation from ourselves is driven by technology and there’s a cultural unhappiness or anxiety.
I was curious if your mentions (or lack thereof) of unions is indicative of their ability or inability to address the problems that stem from tech?
I mention in one chapter how one reason workers have less power is union membership has declined. I don’t know why people have turned away from unions. I think there might be a shift back to organizing in some form, especially in Silicon Valley. The line there is they don’t want unions or collective bargaining. I don’t know, sorry.
There’s a coin of phrase you have, that touches on the human condition, the workforce and human rights: meaningfulessness. Can you define that related to what stands out most to you today?
There are people who love to talk like that: ‘we’re going to conquer fears!’ It’s stuff that sounds profound but when they say it, it means nothing. Everyone nods their head like, ‘Yeah! Yeah!’ I can’t tell you how many times they’ve talked about conquering fear. What are these people afraid of? You’re a social media marketing person. You Tweet for a living. There’s nothing wrong with that but it’s not like you’re a Navy Seal or firefighter. More and more of that has creeped into the workplace.
Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff is kind of being lionized right now for framing homelessness in San Francisco in kind of black and white terms — you either want to help or you don’t — do you feel that’s a line in the sand that can further tech’s conscious?
I think Benioff is right on about that. In Lab Rats, one specific example I have is that specific problem in San Francisco and even down the Peninsula. I describe going to lunch at Google with some really nice people, good people. These people were talking about being rich versus being Google rich. By the standards of society at large, these people are rich. They have a net worth of millions, a few million anyway, and their families all think they are rich. ‘But out here, we’re not rich. We’re not Google rich. To be Google rich is to have a private jet. You don’t fly private jet. You own a jet.’
There’s this weird bubble of what means rich. I drove two or three miles next to Rengstorff Park and there’s an encampment of people living in mobile homes. Basically, people who were forced out of apartments, they are surviving, barely hanging on. They are working people living in trailers. I researched I think there are 10,000 homeless people in Santa Clara County, one of the richest counties in the world in a way. We have Apple, Facebook, Google, they are hoarding hundreds of billions of dollars in offshore accounts so they can avoid paying taxes. You live out there, you see all these people living in trailers and under bridges.
The other example is in San Francisco there is a very visible homeless population. Some tech bro always glibly, says, ‘we gotta get rid of these people, it’s disgusting.’ Do you not realize you’ve caused this problem? You’re the cause of this or at least amplified it. You guys should be fixing this instead of complaining about it.
What amazes me is the tech guys always like to say, they like to solve big problems. Here’s a big problem. It actually seems imminently fixable, may not be super easy. You like big, difficult problems. Here’s one. You have all those brains and all that money, wouldn’t you like to fix it? Then you can replicate it around the world.
It’s hard not to see it as the most out front issue gone unaddressed by tech. Your book references a Bloomberg stat, it’d take $10 billion to fix homelessness across the U.S., well if the Bay Area has Apple, Facebook, Google, worth trillions, and their founders have personal fortunes worth hundreds of millions…
The same thing happened in Seattle. The city council actually passed a tax — a head tax…[Amazon] fought tooth and nail. ‘We’re gonna leave Seattle!’ The city backed down. $275 per employee. Amazon would have had to pay $12 million dollars a year. Jeff Bezos has about $150 billion. You’d think he’d pick up the tab for that. You don’t have to take it out of Amazon’s books. I’ll pay it. Here’s $20 million every year — forever, for life — and it wouldn’t dent him.
Apple doesn’t provide child care at their new spaceship. There’s no child care. They have a really nice gym. I did the math, Apple could provide in-home, live-in nanny child care to all of its employees — everybody — it’s such a tiny number, compared to what Apple has in the bank, it was ridiculous. Why not provide child care?
You note a study there’s a 35% higher average return for company in the top one-percentile for racial and gender diversity. Yet across Silicon Valley diversity remains single digit for blacks, Latinx, etc. There’s a lot of serious issues. Why does the Valley remain so white and male?
You know, I wrote more on this in my book and the editor sort of cut it out because we’re supposed to be writing about stuff that goes on in the work place. What goes on in the work place is blacks can’t even get into the fucking work place. ‘We’re talking about how workers are treated, it’s a different issue.’ I believe it is active segregation. I think it’s bullshit, the numbers, specifically with blacks and Latinos. I started with age bias because that’s my thing. The gender bias, a lot had been talked about. I did a lot of interviewing for this book that mostly didn’t get in and it is appalling.
You know this movie Hidden Figures, about the women who went to work at NASA in 1960’s segregated Virginia? The situation for a black woman engineer today in Silicon Valley is worse than those woman had in 1960’s because at least there was three of them and there is an African-American population at that company. The young woman at the tech company today is the only black person in sight.
I interviewed the President of Spellman College about this, people on the ground, people of color in Silicon Valley who tried to raise money and can’t. I came to believe after thinking about the Hidden Figures thing is this isn’t happening by accident. You’d have to actively try to have that few black people in your company.
Statistically, you’re across the Bay from Oakland, one of the highest black populations in the country and you don’t have any black employees?…They do this thing of, ‘we can’t find anybody, there’s no pipeline’ — fuck you! Seriously, that’s absolute bullshit. Everyone puts up with it because no one wants to call these people on this bullshit.
I think we’ve grown beyond the point, a couple years ago we all lionized these tech CEOs and we wanted to believe they’re good people. We’re past that now. We know they’re assholes. We know that. We still don’t want to believe they are actively racist but I can’t come up with another explanation, you must be trying not to hire black people.
You quote Henry Ford’s 1928 autobiography where he stated his industrial responsibility is to “build lives and homes.” 100 years from his publishing, nine years from now, can tech have a similar practice and philosophy?
I think it could happen. It did happen. Look at a company like Basecamp, which I write about in Lab Rats. They’re a tech company. They’re a software company. From the very start, they’ve had ideas, you want to call them radical except they are the most traditional ideas you can imagine — we’re not going to be huge, grow at all costs. We’re not going to take any venture money. We’re going to turn a profit to support ourselves. We’re going to charge money for our stuff so if they find it useful they’ll pay for it.
They have a great business and philosophy and they treat their employees very well because they can afford to. I can really imagine more companies turning up like that.
You have a chapter on Kapor Capital, which does impact investing, gap-closing investing that sounds great, but how does it become the norm?
I don’t think they’ll ever become the norm. Venture capitalists are in it to make money. I don’t expect them to invest with an eye on making the world a better place. Making things better for working people. [Kapor Capital] might always be fringe people, but if the fringe got a little bigger, that would be nice.
You use the term “gaslighting” in the book to describe how workers are abused by managers. That stood out to me because the secrecy of the tech industry is likely how this abuse continues, right?
You don’t really get a sense of what’s going on inside there. They make people sign these NDAs. They send out messages saying if you talk about work, you will be fired. I’m not talking about leaking trade secrets or people bitching. It’s this company isn’t what it’s made out to be.
You quote Amazon early investor Nick Hanauer, who said this level of inequality seen now has only led to a police state or an uprising with no counterexamples. That really said everything to me because look where we are as of yesterday with the President saying he’s a nationalist on TV. It’s only enabled by these worker conditions or lackthereof.
I should have drawn a better line to that in the book because that’s exactly right. Here’s how we got Trump. Here’s how Silicon Valley gave us Donald Trump. People being miserable, unhappy, immiserated — being made both miserable and poor — you immiserate a vast part of the population and then up springs a populist to take advantage of their anger. Who did that? That would sell a lot better than a book about lab rats and the workplace. This is the direct line from Silicon Valley and immiseration of people to Trump and Brexit. And Hanauer saying where does this go next? This is very scary.
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