February 15, 2017

Chaos Monkeys: Pay No Attention to the Scam Behind the Curtain

I've spent half my working life trying to convince anyone who would listen that the utopian promises of technology enthusiasts are now, as they always been, a bunch of hooey. The odor of grandiose self-regard emanating from Silicon Valley has been especially noxious. For the last thirty years or so the digerati have been proudly proclaiming that their products will save the world while their main achievement has been to harness the power of their tools to the engines of capitalist greed.

Those of us who have taken on the role of pointing out that the emperor has no clothes have been, with a few exceptions,* outsiders. Last year, however, a book called Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley provided perhaps the most revealing insider look so far at the true character of the digital revolution as practiced in that rarified corner of northern California.

Antonio García Martínez
Written by Antonio García Martínez, a veteran of the startup wars who became a product manager at Facebook, Chaos Monkeys shows, not surprisingly, that just beneath the Valley's idealistic pronouncements (which, as García Martínez points out, are taken quite seriously by those who utter them) lie far more self-serving ambitions, pursued with degrees of amorality directly in proportion to the scale of riches to be won. 

Unlike other insiders who have written critiques of Silicon Valley culture, García Martínez doesn't exempt himself from the cupidity he describes. He is a willing participant in the scramble for wealth as well as an observer of its internal contradictions and ethical vacuities.

But why not let García Martínez himself tell the tale? What follows are selected quotes, mostly from Chaos Monkeys (CM) with a few comments from post-publication reviews and interviews.

"I mean, the book isn't nice because Silicon Valley isn't a nice place. That's the reality." 
      (From Kara Swisher's interview with García Martínez for Recode Daily.)

“I was wholly devoid of most human boundaries or morality.” 
      (From CM, quoted by David Streitfeld in the New York Times.)

On García Martínez's negotiations with potential buyers of his startup company, AdGrok: "I lied…I still can’t believe the investors believed my numbers, but they did." (CM, p. 142)

“Anyone who claims the Valley is meritocratic is someone who has profited vastly from it via nonmeritocratic means like happenstance, membership in a privileged cohort, or some concealed act of absolute skullduggery." (CM, p. 229)

“I marveled at a world in which well-meaning, industrious, but naïve engineers are routinely manipulated by the glib entrepreneurs who seduce them into joining their startups, then relinquish them when they are no longer useful.” (CM, p. 73)

Truth is "a rather rare commodity" in the tech world, García Martínez says, and those he met who most vigorously declared their principled adherence to truth were "unusually attached to whatever well-groomed pack of lies they held dear.” (CM, p. 457-458)

“Even at the rarefied heights of economic elite, [the players you meet in Silicon Valley] are in truth scared, needy children playing at dress-up and pretending to be grown-ups.” (CM, p. 196)

“As I observed more than once at Facebook, and as I imagine is the case in all organizations from business to government, high-level decisions that affected thousands of people and billions in revenue would be made on gut feel, the residue of whatever historical politics were in play, and the ability to cater persuasive messages to people either busy, impatient or uninterested (or all three).” (CM, p. 8.)

"Everyone in Silicon Valley lives in what I like to call 'the eternal present.' It’s the urgent now of the next start-up, or the next cool technology or the next fundraising round or the next media event. No one ever pulls back and thinks: "What are they going to think of us in ten years or a hundred years?" 
      (From an interview with journalist Steven Levy, published on Amazon.com.)

"For all their presumptions of being subversive and bohemian and counterculture, whatever, Silicon Valley people actually maintain these very well-manicured exteriors, and frankly everybody has too much to lose. At the end of the day no one wants to pay the opportunity cost of saying the truth and missing out on, you know, being employee 70 at the next Pinterest or whatever. And so, yeah, they've just got too much skin in the game and they really don't care about posterity...They are complete reactionaries, very conservative and not nearly as liberal and tolerant as they think they are." (Recode Daily)

“Morality, such as it exists in the tech whorehouse, is an expensive hobby indeed.” 
      (CM, quoted by Bloomberg Business Week)

* Among the exceptions, Clifford Stoll, Allucquére Rosanne Stone, Ellen Ullman and Jaron Lanier come to mind.


  1. Depressing! I want to believe in utopian promises! What about Bill Gates? Are his foundation's worthy goals not sincere? Or is he simply atoning for past sins?

    1. I don't know enough about the Gates Foundation to comment intelligently on its goals. I'm sure Gates and his wife are sincere, which doesn't mean they aren't misguided. Teachers I know have objected to their ideas on education, and their support of synthetic biology solutions to climate change (by inventing non-polluting sources of energy) supports ongoing consumerism rather than the far better solution: conservation (de-growth).