Corey Pein, “Live Work Work Work Die: A Journey into the Savage Heart of Silicon Valley” (2018) – I picked this up because I’m a fan of Corey Pein’s podcast, “News From Nowhere,” and have liked some of his writings a lot. Pein’s a journalist covering what you could think of as the “high-concept political awfulness” beat, and has some of the better short-form writing on contemporary fascism and the altright around. After publishing an article on the embrace of “neoreactionary” thought in tech circles, Peter Thiel called Pein a conspiracy theorist- a few weeks later, we found out Thiel was bankrolling and orchestrating the lawsuit that destroyed Gawker.
“Live Work Work Work Die” combines first person gonzo-style memoir/journalism and more conventional journalistic writing. Pein depicts himself at his wits end by early 2015- journalism increasingly in shambles due to the impact of social media, getting dicked around by the tech-industry types increasingly calling the shots in his industry, he lights out for Silicon Valley with the sort of confused non-plan that characterizes a great many tech industry success stories. He’s going to become a billionaire and write a book about it- perhaps he’ll become a billionaire by writing the book?
He’s not clear about that in the book and one gets the impression it doesn’t matter. Hope and fear both drive people to the tech gold rush in the Bay Area and are basically indistinguishable. This is because your two options are basically become rich or slide down the slope of exploitation and misery- there’s no way to just be in San Francisco, as Pein tells it, or increasingly in the rest of the US, or the world.
So, like the those around him, even (especially) those who sincerely believe in what the tech industry says about itself, Pein bounces from plan to plan, between insanely expensive shitty short-term housing situations, around startup parties to get free food, and through all kinds of profoundly banal pitch meetings and networking groups. No one who isn’t already rich has any more control over their lives than he does, even as numerous gadgets and apps provide the illusion of control through structuring your tiny range of choices- the same way one tries to get toddlers to do what one wants by giving them two choices to do the same thing.
What Pein concludes during his time in Silicon Valley is that no startup succeeds because it’s brilliant or innovative or actually helps anyone- to the extent that describes any of them, it’s purely incidental. Successful startups either: – rip off an existing idea that a venture capitalist wishes they funded earlier; leverage government-funded research or infrastructure for private gain; or simply “disrupts” a given field by committing substantial breaches of regulations and law, and hoping they get big enough fast enough so that no one will stop them in time. That’s what happened with Uber and Airbnb, after all- taxis and hotels without those pesky regulations, insurance, etc. Pein’s own best idea along these lines is called Laborize- for a price, they’ll go start a union drive at a rival company, giving the client a competitive advantage. His motto- “disruption is not a dinner party.” Alas, it doesn’t get far beyond the pitch stage- too novel, probably, for venture capitalists, and perhaps their class consciousness was pricked by the specter of worker organization, even if weaponized against competing firms.
Pein’s description of his journey through the degradation and banality of non-billionaire life in the tech boom complements his discussion of what the tech industry means for the rest of us. The spectacle of a great city being swallowed by an industry that both fetishizes its authenticity and is in the process of destroying it is a reasonably good metaphor here. Notionally, all of these tech products are meant to enhance our experiences, including the social media platforms on which I am posting this review. But really, like what the industry is doing to San Francisco, the products are doing to us- parasitically mediating our experiences in an effort to produce dependency and extract endless labor and profit from every aspect of our lives. The people amongst whom he lives — the supposed pioneers of a new way of living — live like hamsters, in Pein’s telling, with no conception of agency in their own lives except for demanding goods and services- push the button and get your pellet from grubhub, or your streaming tv. Presumably, the fact that this is still considerably harder for needs such as human connection or sex helps produce the sort of violent “incel” misogyny we see among nerds…
Moreover, tech’s metabolization of the world is working, and unlike virtually every other major institution in our lives, people still by and large trust the tech industry, if polls are to be believed (it wouldn’t surprise me if this ardor has cooled in the last year or two). Given this, the last chapter of LWWWD is a baffling one. It describes the bizarre fantasies of the tech elite. This includes singulatarianism as well as the “neoreactionaries,” figures like Curtis “Moldbug” Yarvin, Balaji Srinivasan, and Peter Thiel who want to see something like a tech-CEO-monarchy and the breakup of contemporary power structures to be rebuilt on the basis of strict hierarchies. This might be naive, and I can think of answers, but I think it’s worth wondering- our society piles money, power, and adulation at these people’s feet and has bent itself in knots to please them, including literally giving them the government-funded architecture of the internet as a gift. What more could they possibly want? How can they possibly be as upset as they purport to be with the shape of a society that has blessed them so thoroughly?
At the end of the day, the more concentrated power is, the less capable it is of being truly secure. Among other things, as they themselves will tell you, these guys are nerds- with major insecurity and chips on their shoulders. Society has rewarded them for following their adolescent impulses for accumulation and control, why should they grow out of anything now, or even just reign in any of their other impulses? Moreover, there seems to be some awareness on their part — however papered over by a mind-numbing fog of biz-babble and techno-optimism — that their fortunes, positions, and most importantly senses of self rely on massive and increasing inequality and immiseration of the rest of the population. Perhaps they feel in that situation, they can’t afford to leave well enough (for them) alone. They need to keep going until they have secured all the resources and all the power, even power over death, time, space, etc, for themselves.
Apparently, the original draft of this book was 600 pages. I’d like to see that- you get the feeling in a few places that stuff has been cut, that you’re looking at an abridgment. In particular, the sections of first person description and of reporting of the ideological oddities of the Silicon Valley elite are joined a bit awkwardly. I even get the impression the frame — Pein seeking his fortune, not getting it, then having these epiphanies (as though he hadn’t been writing about this stuff for years) — is basically a device to squeeze a longer, more original work into a narrative the publisher felt comfortable with. Either way, it’s a fast read with a strong voice, appropriately angry and alarmed, avoiding the twin perils of febrile wailing or condescending dismissal of the “nerds” that you so often see in writing about tech, fascism, and the confluence of the two. Given how sensitive the likes of Thiel and Elon Musk are, I can only hope more writing like this gets out there- let’s give these people something to cry/tweet about. ****’