A Review of Corey Pein’s “Live Work Work Work Die”
If Tech Ruled the World …
Some people argue that Ottawa, Ontario, Canada is Silicon Valley North. Others argue that it’s Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Since I’m based in the former, let’s assume for the heck of it that I’m in the heart of the digital technology space in Canada. The stories I could tell you … . Let me regale you with a couple: I went for a job interview with a tech startup as a writer here in town a few years back, only to be told during the interview that a university graduate had popped up on the founders’ radar and was willing to work for free. “This is a no-brainer,” said one of the founders, referring to hiring the graduate, after having me sign an NDA and buying me a Starbucks coffee card as a means of paying me off for singing the NDA (and, I would assume, was meant to prevent me from complaining about them publicly). Why this firm couldn’t just tell me that over the phone they were looking at someone else and spare me from putting on a suit and jacket and coming down in person, other than to humiliate me, baffles me.
Then there was the time I showed up for another interview with another company — albeit a little early for the interview, so that made the interviewer particularly confrontational. When it came out that I took a cab, he said, “That’s a knock against you. That shows me that you are not tech savvy enough for this job. Why couldn’t you have used Uber?” Uh, maybe because I have a fundamental problem with ride sharing with someone who hasn’t received training and isn’t licensed by the local government, you know? There are plenty of good reasons not to use Uber. That job didn’t pan out — probably a blessing in disguise there.
So Ottawa is full of buffoon-like sharks, I’ll grant you that much, and journalist Corey Pein doesn’t paint a much more flattering picture of the real Silicon Valley in California in his new book, Live Work Work Work Die. Silicon Valley is a town, he writes, of hustlers who are toiling away at large tech companies where basic labour rights are being eroded away while each one is hoping to be the next unicorn billionaire with their own startup on the side. As Pein writes, a lot of these startups get funded without anything in the way of an idea or business plan — if you have the marketing savvy, you, too, can get venture capital funding. He doesn’t really explain why, despite that, 95 percent of all startups fail. Or maybe that was just me in my reading, because this is a very dense book. There are actually two or three books waiting to break out of Live Work Work Work Die, so there’s a lot of ground to cover in a scant 300 pages.
Pein is something of an “adversarial journalist” so he uncovers the not-so-pretty side of technology and tech journalism. I’m of two minds about this. As a former freelance journalist myself, I know that you have to be skeptical of the people you’re covering. But skepticism doesn’t mean you go to war with your sources. (In fact, many of the sources in this book were not told that Pein was a journalist and that their comments would be on the record. To that end, Pein employs pseudonyms for them, which makes me a tad uncomfortable because there’s no way to verify that Pein isn’t simply making this stuff up.) Still, I did find Pein’s chapter on tech journalism to be illuminating. If you’ve ever wondered why so many tech journalism pieces are puff pieces, well, it’s because tech journalists harbour a hope that they may get hired on eventually by one of the companies they cover at double the salary. (Though there are a ton of other reasons as well.)
This mirrors my own experience as a tech reporter for a large daily newspaper and a smaller biz magazine. When Nortel was floundering in the early 2000s, I had access to their office through a friend and could have run a piece on a “Day in the Life of the Company.” My editor at the daily newspaper shot it down, presumably because Nortel was still buying ad space there, or the editor might have feared some kind of libel suit or other repercussion. (It was nice that my editor was looking out for me, though, as it was pointed out by the paper time and time again that, as a freelancer, my libel protection was non-existent, meaning that the paper would not look out for me if I got sued. So nice of them to tell me!)
The chapter on working conditions is equally revealing. I didn’t know that the beer so flowed freely at no cost in Silicon Valley along with the catered meals — things the tech companies do to get their workers to work insane hours. I mean, I’ve worked at digital design agencies in the past which offer some of the things that, say, Google offers its employees, but the hours there — for me at least — were comparatively normal. (Maybe that’s why I didn’t last long at any of them?) I knew that things were pretty bad for Amazon employees, but I didn’t know before reading this book that the company keeps hired paramedics close by in case someone drops on the shop floor.
Pein also has a sharp pen for how tech companies, in being “disruptive”, have run afoul of just about every law on the books, but collude with legislators to smooth things over after the fact. The theme is to break laws first, and then suck up to lawmakers later. But the strangest bit is towards the end of the book, where Pein notes that many of tech’s biggest starts are essentially fascists in training and support some pretty questionable ideas and philosophies, including eugenics — making it clear that their bid for all things power-related must be watched with a critical eye. However, the final chapter on the Singularity — the period in the future where artificial intelligence supplants human intelligence — was a bit murky. I think I know where Pein was going with this — that all the things in tech are pointing towards complete domination of the human species, and the rest of us peons will be cubical slaves until we die — but I think the idea got whittled down too much. (The acknowledgement section notes that an earlier draft ran 600 pages or double the length of the current tome.)
Overall, I was fascinated and creeped out by the book. Pein doesn’t have much that is flattering to say about Silicon Valley or tech in general, so that can also make the book a difficult read. If you’re looking for fair and balanced journalism, you’re not really going to find it here. Instead, this is a screed about a guy (the author) who seems forlorn that his attempts to create a startup for the sole purpose of making a whole lot of money doesn’t go as planned. (Which is really the thrust of this volume.) The book might have been better if Pein was slightly more objective and didn’t institute a slash and burn policy. But maybe Live Work Work Work Die is what it is because it has to be — nobody is keeping tabs on tech generals who are out to supplant presidents and kings. To that end, the book is a must read for any young people interested in working in technology. As for me, even though my living these days is as a technical writer (for government), I don’t know if I’m going to be joining the real techie ranks anytime soon. This book shows that my experiences in job interviews are far from unique and echoes the notion that even Silicon Valley North has its share of dubious people to work for. If working for Shopify means I have to support or at least tolerate the neo-Nazis who run Breitbart, which this book would casually suggest is part of a much larger issue in the technology world, I want no part of that. Too bad I had to read a book to reach that conclusion.
Corey Pein’s Live Work Work Work Die: A Journey Into the Savage Heart of Silicon Valley was published by Metropolitan Books / Harry Holt and Company on April 24, 2018.
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