Silicon Valley: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso

Rare indeed is the insider account of life within one of America’s inner sanctums of power whose close observation is matched by a talent for critical interpretation. Much less, a fly-on-the-wall who simultaneously is a participant in the antics going on. In this instance, Antonio Garcia Martinez is endowed with the additional asset of being liberally educated – actually, largely self-educated. A brilliant writer with an irreverent if self-serving turn of mind, he takes us on a Dante-esque tour of Silicon Valley introduced by a “36 hour” excursion to Wall Street.  This is Divine Comedy as anthropology.  (Antonio Garcia Martinez Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune And Random Failure In Silicon Valley 2016).

His circuit follows two intersecting circles: the institutions he inhabits/occupies and his personal experience of them.  The personalizing of the story is of crucial value since he is at once a man of uncommon insight into the odd and diverse fauna of post-modern society and a living registrant of its influences in shaping individuals. As a result, this account of what actually goes on within the temples of our IT religion lifts the many masks that conceal the dismaying truth from the faithful and the priesthood alike.  Shocking – but more than muckraking. For Martinez is not an apostate; he is a heretic whose clear-eyed vision sees a celestial disorder wherein Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso overlay each other – like shades of grey.

The master tour guide left Cuban Miami to become a not quite PhD in Physics at Stanford. After passing his comps on the third try, he concluded that a Nobel Prize was out of reach – as was any successful academic career. So this free spirit bent on the satisfaction of his many impulses and desires, set off to accomplish what so many bright, striving youngsters do these days: he reached for much coveted riches by joining Goldman Sachs. The Octopus’ attraction was less the excitement of financial wheeling and dealing than it was the prospect of joining the 1% by the quickest route open to someone who lacked the showbiz pizazz  – and body – of Beyonce or the athleticism of Stephen Curry.

GS proved a bore, his colleagues cardboard characters, and the intrinsic significance of financial shenanigans invisible. So he left, carrying with him a bit of worldly wisdom about the sinister sides of human nature along with an enhanced aptitude for partaking of the Great Game that is 21st Century singles culture: sex, boozing, sex, partying, sex and back-stabbing.

Silicon Valley beckoned. Back to the Peninsula. IT was the next Promised Land. chaosmonkeyMartinez embarked on a whirlwind career that, in a very few years, hit all the high lights (and quite a few of the low lights) on a contemporary Grand Tour of the Valley’s movers and shakers. Its port of entry was Adchemy – a dubious, ill-fated company whose name says it all. Then, along with two pals, he formed a “start-up,” AdGrok, whose embryonic product was a data driven, code-grounded method for more efficiently and accurately targeting the objects of electronic advertising. That, by the way, turns out to be what a very large fraction of the famed IT Revolution is all about. Surprise! Tell the marks subliminally what they want deep down; then sell it to them

Martinez is an aggressive, turbo-charged and talented entrepreneur. Operating on a shoe-string, CEO of a phantom company of three, he manages to meet and to persuade some of the most renown characters who populate the hyper-ventilating Valley. They include venture capitalists, lawyers, geeks with a practical side, and a flock of shady intermediaries. The most influential of the last is an IT icon, Paul Graham, who heads something called Y Combinator. That Mountain View dream machine is a unique meld of foundation, angel, spiritual guide, dating service, matchmaker, and – not least – source of seed money for start-ups. It is an organizational species all its own whose native habitat is a roughly 10 square mile zone of suburban sprawl 50 miles south of San Francisco. It has no natural predators since it serves them indirectly by adopting and then offering an array of niblets for the alphas of the Valley food chain.

Martinez pictures Graham himself as sui generis.   One of the first IT wonks, PG (as he is known from San Mateo to San Jose) made his stash building Viaweb which became Yahoo Shopping. (Ed: Yahoo Shopping should not be confused with the electoral strategy followed by Republican primary candidates).

The Martinez odyssey gets the wind in its sails. His start-up connives to be acquired by Twitter; he himself bails out to accept an offer to join Facebook as a Product Manager (PM); betrays his two bosom buddies and his main venture capital benefactor in the process; spends an event-filled, and lucrative, two years in Zuck’s paternalistic autocracy; leaves in a tempest; and “retires” to be a sometimes consultant and to write this book.

The dramatic climax has him walking the plank with the sharp end of his boss’ sword pricking his back. The Captain Flint part is played with verve by Martinez’s  Indian nemesis with the blessing of Sheryl Sandberg who urges ‘Flint’ to “lean in.”  One imagines that as he steels himself for the plunge into the briney deep, he fleetingly wonders if this will get a chapter in Sheryl’s next book – and whether his survivors can claim a share of royalties.

This being Silicon Valley, there is an element of falsity to the scene. In fact, beneath the plank is a cushy safety net rather than ravenous sharks. In addition to stock and severance pay, our protagonist need only trundle up Highway 101 a few miles to snare a juicy gig – “consultancy” – with another IT firm to whom he manages to sell his Facebook honed “monetarizing” skills along with a few corporate jewels, all within 72 hours.

Along the way, Martinez fathers a couple of children with a not-so-significant other; abandons them in an admittedly selfish act rationalized as better for the youngsters to have no father rather than a bad, absentee father. At the moment, he is fine-tuning plans to sail his 46 foot boat/residence single-handedly to Australia via Fiji and Bali. All the while whining that he can barely make it with his 75,000 shares of Facebook stock, among other assets, since the Feds insist that he pay taxes on it and he has to fork over a wad of child support dough each month.

In a sense, Martinez is the embodiment of the culture he experienced in Silicon Valley. In another sense, he is the sharp-eyed critical observer of the natives among whom he not only lived but had been assimilated. Therein lies the source of the book’s unique value. In can be read profitably from a number of angles. The would-be start-up entrepreneur will find a detailed, wise guide on how to go about it – step-by-anguished step. On this score, even the program notes on the Valley’s cast of characters could be helpful. For the voyeur, there are endless graphic vignettes depicting customs, décor and decorum of the local cross-breeding tribes. For the nerds, there are abundant explanations of how to write code for the sundry “products” that breath life and impart direction into all those otherwise inert electrons (however unworthy the destination).

For the rest of us, there are two messages of cardinal importance.

First, thanks to Martinez, we have been given more than a glimpse of our present and our future – and what we see is stomach churning. This is Inferno from a Bosch angle of vision. There are the self-driven worker bees who sweat and strain in the cause of building a New Jerusalem – open, transparent, connected. An antidote to our impersonal, unfeeling culture – an entirely original human experience.  The prosaic reality is actually more like the “Lonely Crowd” being transmuted into the “Somewhat Less Lonely Crowd.” But in the Facebook Atrium, the Propagators of the Faith are roused to ecstasy by the passion and prophetic vision of Mark Zuckerberg.

Yes, this is the same scrawny, gawky guy whom the world has always puzzled over as the unlikely hero-founder of Facebook. It’s all in the eyes of the beholder – evidently.

When Facebook confronts the unforeseen mortal challenge from a Google that launches its own comprehensive system for personal exchanges, Zuckerberg marshals his troops for a do-or-die struggle that entails 16 hour days, the abandonment of families, reversion to a junk food diet, and waves of exhortation a la 1984. Addressing the throng of employee-crusaders, he pronounces: CARTHAGO DELEDA EST! – Carthage Must Die! The slogan appears everywhere in electronic and tangible versions – all bearing an uncanny resemblance to Soviet wartime propaganda posters. Obediently, the Facebookers don their sky blue FB t-shirts with the little birdie logo to form a phalanx of corporate patriots.

These are America’s “best and brightest” from our elite schools. Yet, they march to the tune of a Pied Piper who has instilled in them the belief they are building a wondrous global community wherein all humanity are in touch with each other – albeit leaving one hand free for writing code.

The overwhelming impression left by this excursion through Silicon Valley and its annex, the San Francisco sandbox, is that of a world populated by juveniles. The phrases that jump to mind are: instant gratification; impulsive; narcissistic; thin-skinned; inability to empathize; naïve; foreshortened time horizons.  These immature traits are not just tolerated; they are encouraged and, when features of successful Valley personalities, exalted. So, we read of the influential venture capitalist who dresses up as a cowboy; the high-powered executive who wears nothing but khakis, striped blue shirt, slide buckle belt, powder blue topsiders with no socks – every day; the nerds and wonks who live on snickers and lemonade – now supplanted by kale souffles; and so on. Conversation is all about shop: the next ploy, the next gadget, the next “product,” the next sales campaign, the next promotion, the next personality clash, the next bash.

Few outright thieves; although quite a number are in the habit of finding things before people lose them.

Mature adults – of any age – are distinguished by their absence. Anyone so inclined immediately gets identified as an alien. Of course, IT companies do hire thousands of ordinary grown-ups to perform the humdrum tasks that any big business requires. They are stashed in barrack offices and by tacit agreement segregated far from the maddening crowd who romp in the “field of dreams.”

Second, money is what the IT world is all about. Forget the slogans that conjure up utopias never before imagined; forget about the cult of electronic technology; forget about trailblazing new frontiers. At the end of the day, the one and only denominator of success, of reputation, of status – and the pleasures that money alone can provide – is a) cold, hard cash and b) stock options.

Where do these masses of lucre that propel the IT world come from? The hundreds of millions, a billion plus for Facebook, who are holding hands and gazing at each other from the impoverished hovels of India to the Creamery in San Francisco’s “South of Market District” where Martinez and his pals play. They don’t pay overtly; they pay indirectly. Being a citizen of the Facebook empire is pretty much free. You are also a consumer, though. All those code writers, venture capitalists, and Nawabs at the summit of the Silicon Valley pyramid have you in their sights.  They want a precisely defined target whose features and preferences you gladly provide every time you post a blog comment, click on a hub-bub site, search for a hot number in Mule Shoe, Texas who shares your passion for rattle snake round-ups, or reach out to some stranger in the desire to create a better connected world. (Within 8 minutes, ‘X’ sees a pop-up offering vials of anti-venom serum which also works for copperheads, water moccasins, coral snakes and rabid liberals).

A lot of brain power devising sophisticated techniques is deployed in the operation – metadata, key word filters, algorithms, dummy variables, etc. Just as the NSA relentlessly pursues menacing persons, so does Facebook et al pursue the buyer. The net result is that vast amounts of national wealth are funneled into the pockets of the Zuckerbergs, Gateses, Thiels, and numerous other, minor Rajas of less renown. They, in turn, use their wealth to achieve their own, self-defined larger purposes: for Gates: replace the nation’s public school system with a motley array of Charter schools established by whomever for fun or profit or indoctrination; for Thiel: to destroy Gawker; for others, to endow Presidents, Senators, Governors and similar devotees to government of the people, by the people, for the people. (Google is an exception; they, and their super-rich founders, do generously fund worthy causes, in particular environmental ones, with a minimum of posturing of the Zuckerberg variety).

Then there are the legions of talented persons who are the worker bees of the IT hives. Most are well rewarded in salary, perks, stock options, and multiple gratifications derived from being part of the SM/Valley scene – at least until their hormones and metabolism start to give out at the age of 38. It is not they whom we should feel sorry for. It is the rest of us. Their talents, their strength and also whatever measure of true goodwill they might have, is being siphoned off into activities that do not serve the national community’s welfare.  Some will argue vigorously that, as individuals, we gain much from the satisfactions that Facebook et al provide.  That opens a big, complicated subject. It obliges us to consider individual vs collective, the second order effects of prioritizing certain wants while neglecting others, and resource allocation trade-offs.

One thing is indisputable: there are important collective needs that are not being met. That the shortfall is due to a lack of financial means, a lack of will, a lack of the communal sense that is a prelude to actually doing something concrete rather than wallowing in abstractions, and the lack of talent in what we call “the public sphere.” There is not much that is done well, efficiently and when needed in the United States nowadays. Infrastructure, “Obama Care” websites, commuter transit systems utilizing cutting edge 1980s technology, regulatory officials up to confronting the powers they must contend with, architects capable of designing halfway interesting buildings,  journalists and writers with the skills and verve of Martinez, etc., etc.

In the old days, red-blooded American kids dreamt of becoming police detectives, building bridges or writing the great American novel. Today, the vision is of “monetarizing” data brokerage skills. So the world turns.

Reading his book, it is hard not to regret what opportunities are being wasted by having such a large fraction of the nation’s resources swallowed up by the antic world of Silicon Valley (and equally unproductive antic worlds of Wall Street, the Pentagon and the NSA). The crumbs and cast-offs that are left cannot prevent the long decline on which we already are embarked.

Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.