Tech Bro Algal Bloom

It's not so much that tech bros are bad in and of themselves, it's that they're a indicator species for an ecosystem. Like an algal bloom, their overabundance is a sign that the balance is amiss.

The Silicon Valley startup ecosystem depends on venture capital. If VCs are putting in money, they want to see a return (and a big one, because of the expectation that nine out of ten companies, at a minimum, will crash and burn). And they want to see it ASAP, because that's how the time value of money works, and because companies are burning money like liquid hydrogen as they try to achieve lift-off. So there's an enormous pressure on founders to produce, which inevitably selects for people who are prepared to sleep under their desk for the chance of having a breakout company (and, not incidentally, making an enormous return for their VCs, who are presumably sleeping soundly in their nice Design Within Reach beds). The system doesn't select for women, for people who have families or lives outside of work, for thoughtful people. And by not selecting for them, it actively pushes them out, creating a culture that rejects and is intolerable for them [...]

But there's more to it. What makes a startup a startup isn't that it's new (we call that a 'small business'), it's that it grows rapidly, ideally exponentially. That pushes startups toward bits, not atoms (near-zero incremental cost), towards anything that leverages Metcalfe's Law, towards dark patterns of nonconsensual behaviour towards users (like strip-mining Contacts lists), towards eroding user privacy, to dumping everything users have created when the startup is acquihired, and towards falling back on invasive online advertising because having a viable business model was a distant second to growing a user base.

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18 Responses:

  1. Thomas Lord says:

    I think this bit is wrong:

    What makes a startup a startup isn't that it's new (we call that a 'small business'), it's that it grows rapidly, ideally exponentially. That pushes startups toward bits, not atoms (near-zero incremental cost), towards anything that leverages Metcalfe's Law, towards dark patterns of nonconsensual behaviour towards users (like strip-mining Contacts lists), towards eroding user privacy, to dumping everything users have created when the startup is acquihired, and towards falling back on invasive online advertising because having a viable business model was a distant second to growing a user base.

    A hint that it might be wrong is simply that those are words that could have been written by Paul Graham, Marc Andreeson, Peter Thiel, or any other celebrity sadist. Even though the author of this piece is trying to be critcial ("nonconsensual behaviour") he says nothing here that in any way contradicts the valley elites' own narratives about themselves and what they are doing. Since that narrative is a promotional tool of the very people perpetuating the evil, we should suspect it might not be exactly true.

    What could be the truth?

    I note, first, that a corollary to Metcalfe's Law is this: Monopoly networks tend to be more useful for their users than competing, balkanized network systems. User's have a tendency to flock to the monopolies.

    Traditionally, a counter-veiling force diminished the use value of network monopolies: price gouging. More or less the entire history of anti-trust can be read as trying to resolve this problem. Today, the gouging problem is obscured by the advertising model, lock-in mechanisms, and illusions of choice. There is essentially no threat of really effective anti-trust prosecution to bust up the party.

    What that implies is that for investors, the absolutely last thing in the world they want is for a new network system to succeed. For example, if the libre software folks were to every succeed at building a distributed and decentralized, hard to surveil, successful competitor against Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc. -- if that ever happened the investor gravy train would halt.

    What can investors do about that threat? They key lies in the fact that their existing monopolies enjoy some of the highest income-to-employee ratios in the history of capitalism.

    In other words, to the valley investment class: the human lives of tech workers are bargain basement cheap. Yes, yes, tech salaries are so high compared to many other workers pay. Nevertheless, relative to company incomes, tech salaries are insultingly low.

    Therefore, one of the strategic options in the valley is to over-hire, both directly at the big firms and through various start-up money laundering schemes.

    At big firms, over-hiring has two beneficial effects: First, it helps to create brain drains, preferring to waste years of tech worker lives on doomed projects rather than let them go do something useful for a potential competitor. Second, the over-hiring gives CFOs a certain amount of ballast headcount, people who can be tossed overboard to float the rate of profit during a downturn.

    At start-ups, almost the only game in town is to try to get bought out by one of the big firms. This is just the brain-drain game extended in a way that gives a lower class of employees -- at start-ups -- fewer benefits and wages and heightened insecurity. In the end, though, the point is still to protect the existing network monopolies by subsuming all potential threats to them.

    And so techbro "culture":

    The core money-making business at any of the network companies is tiny compared to the full tech workforce. At some level, this must be obvious to nearly every valley techbro.

    Techbros live in a world in which their fundamental uselessness is both inescapable and taboo to even mention. When they grow older they are less of a threat and will be kicked to the curb if they have lasted even that long. When there is a random, whimsical rearrangement of capital flows, they'll be dead ended, laid off, assigned some miserable tasks, kicked out of the incubator, ...

    Everyday is a thousand humiliations meant to constantly remind techbros that they don't really belong here, don't understand what their bosses are really doing, don't have respect from anyone but each other, and are probably -- just by the odds -- going to wind up going bust in the valley, or walking away with a really tiny, not-worth-it prize.

    And yet, just to cling to that -- the only way they have figured out to survive at all -- they must pretend it is the most delicious shit sandwich ever served up.

    When they are assholes in the office, in the park, at the bar, on the sidewalk, in the "comments section" just look at it that way: Every waking moment they are engaged in a huge act of repression, chowing down on that shit sandwich, and trying to make sure everybody knows how really great tasting and exclusively rare it really is.

    Techbros is chumps and they are holding back humanity by allowing a small handful of rich assholes to monopolize techbro potential -- a monopoly the valley hoards mostly to insure it accomplishes nothing that might rock the boat.

  2. M.E. says:

    ...we as a culture socialize boys to be over-confident in themselves and to be deeply messed up about gender...

    But I certainly know smart, thoughtful, committed people ... and they are working and succeeding in tech culture despite it being a system that's stacked against people like them, in exactly the same way that (go figure) women who succeed in tech do so despite the structural barriers in place.

    I love how she casually associates women with the virtuous people in Silicon Valley, and boys are (through no fault of their own, it's culture, mind you) just a bunch of egotistical sexist assholes.

    If she were writing these same words about Jews or Black people (e.g. "Black people are lazy, but that's because they're brought up to be") she would be rightly seen as anti-Semitic or racist.

    If she met an overconfident, sexist woman, would she even recognize her? Would she make excuses for her overconfidence and sexism ("she's just doing what she has to in order to fit in") while associating the qualities she doesn't like in men with their masculinity (always Toxic, obviously)? In any case, if she wants to meet such a woman, she doesn't have to go far...

    • raven says:

      Damn, I didn't get that memo that women don't sleep under their desks at work. :( too bad, because it certainly wasn't worth it, and no one appreciated it.

      • human says:

        Of the people I know working at startups, overwhelmingly the one who springs to mind as being ridiculously overworked and having no work-life balance is female.

        FWICT, she basically takes zero days off, is always on call, and usually works from like 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. most days. I guess it's not technically a startup, anymore, because that's how things have been with her for like the last two years.

  3. jwz says:

    I'm pretty sure "Reverse Sexism" is on the Brogrammer Bingo Card. Maybe you should try for Not All Brogrammers next!

  4. TravisD says:

    Dissapointed to not see any of the old gruntle material in the Previouslies.

  5. apm74 says:

    There's always soul-affirming defense contracting work.

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