As our corporate overlords in Silicon Valley have increased their wealth, power and influence, so, too, has scrutiny of their impact upon society increased. Yet although we hear a lot about Facebook, Amazon, Google, Uber et al, few people seem to have a very good handle on the extent of the “disruption” they are causing. It’s a situation little helped by the speed of change, nor the fact that most American journalists don’t understand tech, barely understand business, live on the other side of the US, and tend to base their critiques along Leninist “who, whom” lines.
Thus, when Obama utilised “big data” and social media to win an election it was a hugely sophisticated, progressive thing; but when Trump did the same, it was a sign that Orange Man Bad was in cahoots with Sinister Putin to exploit the bottomless stupidity of the unwashed masses.
With Biden hiring former Facebook execs and current Big Tech mega bosses to his transition team, and around 98% of Internet company donations during the last election flowing into Democrat coffers, I cannot shake the suspicion that we may now see an administration which is quite friendly to Silicon Valley.
Meanwhile, America’s fascination with ultra-wealth means that the genre of puff pieces on tech billionaires and “unicorns” (startups valued at $1 billion or more) will continue to thrive in venues such as Fast Company, Fortune and Forbes, where “journalists” will continue to perform their valuable function as court stenographers for the charismatic founders building our shining future one app at a time.
And yet, despite all the useless stuff out there, we do from time to time get truly insightful takes on the world of tech. I still remember reading about grown men crying at their desks in The New York Times’ 2015 expose of Amazon, and was fascinated by The Inventor, the documentary tracing the rise and fall of doomed-from-the-start blood test startup Theranos.
A few years ago, Dan Lyons’s Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start Up Bubble made a splash, as did Antonio Garcia Martinez’s Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley. For my money, however, the best take on Silicon Valley is Silicon Valley, the sitcom created by Mike Judge of Beavis and Butthead fame; its six seasons track the fortunes of the not terribly likeable founders of Pied Piper as they seek to protect their invention from a pretentious, megalomaniacal tech oligarch who is surrounded by unctuous boot-lickers. It is ruthless in its selection of targets and frequently hilarious in its ridiculing of Bay Area absurdities.
A more recent report from the tech interior, Uncanny Valley, is Anna Wiener’s memoir of several years spent working for startups in Silicon Valley. It is rich in detail about everyday life in startup land, but it is low on the high-grade weirdness of the sort some of tech’s more colourful CEOs can provide. Wiener always remains an outsider looking in; she did not, in the end, work for very interesting startups, never got close to any of the truly strange, charismatic/messianic types that gravitate to this environment, and, remarkably, fails to find any humour in the absurdities and grotesques of Silicon Valley.
Reeves Wiedeman’s Billion Dollar Loser, by contrast, is rich in high grade weirdness. One of those super dense examples of American journalism in which a magazine features writer talks to hundreds of people and then condenses all those voices into 300 or so pages of tightly packed narrative, the book tells the tale of the rise and quasi-fall of Adam Neumann, founder and erstwhile CEO of WeWork, the real estate leasing firm that somehow managed to pass itself off as a startup unicorn to rival the likes of Uber, and which by early 2019 was valued at $47 billion, despite never having made a profit, and having no proprietary technology of any significance.
Neumann’s is at first an almost too perfect immigrant-made-good-in-America story. Born to Israeli parents who split up while he was young, he was raised by his mother and had a highly peripatetic childhood, including a stint spent living on a kibbutz. After serving in the Israeli navy, he follows his super model sister Adi Neumann to the US at age 22, where he almost immediately sets about looking for the idea that will make him rich. His first — baby clothes with knee pads — is terrible, yet he has a knack for persuading people to believe in him and before long he has parlayed this into a luxury brand called “Egg Baby”. This is but a prelude to the main act, however, which is co-founding WeWork in New York with Miguel McKelvey, owner of an ESL website called “English, baby!“
WeWork is a better idea. Neumann and McKelvey set about opening coworking office spaces where they hope cool, hip knowledge workers will rent a desk and work on their world-changing ideas all day, while getting to know each other and participating in a creative community. It is, however, not a new idea. In fact, coworking spaces were pioneered by a UK firm called Regus (est. 1989); Regus went bankrupt in 2003 but returned in rebranded form as IWG and by the end of 2014 was bringing in $2 billion in revenue from 2,000 locations.
WeWork, it is true, had better design and branding, but coolness does not a different business model make. Wiedeman details Neumann’s attempts to find ways to fuse his real estate leasing business with technology, but these efforts are never integral to the business. In fact, when WeWork was founded its first CTO was a teenage boy not yet out of high school who went by the name of “Joey Cables”.
The fact that he is owner of a New York real estate leasing business does not, however, prevent Neuman from going full Silicon Valley CEO-guru in the grandiose yet vague utopian vision he pitches to employees and investors, or in the culture he builds, or the eccentric, New Age style-beliefs he adheres to. Having been introduced to the Kabbalah by his fiancé, Rebekah Paltrow (cousin of Gwyneth), Neumann goes all in for the ancient Jewish mystical tradition.
Only the version he adopts is the Hollywoodised Kabbalah, which was founded not in the 12th century by Jewish rabbis, but in the 1960s by Philip Berg, an insurance salesman from Brooklyn, who sold candles to his followers with names such as Sexual Energy and Dialling God and later attracted those such as of Madonna and Demi Moore to his highly profitable esoteric operation.
Neumann drinks deep of this “spiritual technology” but in addition to raising his consciousness he also meets lots of wealthy people who become WeWork’s early backers. He also encourages WeWork employees to study the Kabbalah, and, according to Wiedemann, uses it as a “…guide to running an organization with devoted adherents”. Meanwhile he rambles on about “superpowers”, describes his life’s work as to “prepare for the the arrival of the messiah”, and treats WeWork as though it is not so much a machine for getting rich, as a vehicle for the spiritual transformation of the human race.
WeWork, Neumann insists, is not a real estate leasing company but rather a “physical social network” à la Facebook or a “platform” à la Uber. He also establishes WeLive, to lease apartments designed to foster a more communal style of living, and WeGrow, a private school dedicated to “progressive” ideas. Towards the end of the book Neumann is even meeting with Elon Musk to suggest that they collaborate on establishing communities on Mars; the firm’s mission? To “Elevate the world’s consciousness”.
Neumann, clearly, is one of the great bullshitters of the age. According to Liedeman, WeWork employees described Neumann as having an “aura”, which they compared to the “reality distortion field” that an Apple employee “…once described as emanating from Steve Jobs, convincing anyone within its radius that the impossible was not only plausible, but exactly what they were going to do”.
This reality distortion field serves Neumann well for a long time, as he is able to deploy it not only to persuade millennials at the start of their careers to work for low wages, but also to get hard-headed Venture Capital types to pour money into his “unicorn”. It goes into hyper drive when he encounters Masayoshi Son, the founder of Japanese technology conglomerate SoftBank, who runs a mammoth VC fund and dreams of a 300-year plan that might culminate with SoftBank becoming a “telepathy company” rather than a mere technology company.
Indeed, it all goes wrong for Neumann when he is forced to engage with people outside of his reality distortion field. When he is unable to talk any more private investors into giving him more money, he is forced to go public and WeWork submits an investor pitch to the federal government’s Securities and Exchange Commission, which exposes just how much money the company is losing and that it is in fact a real estate leasing company after all. Confronted with bad press, Neumann embarks upon a speaking tour of investors, but his reality distortion field does not work on those predisposed to scepticism. From that point his downfall is swift, he barely lasts a month before he stands down as CEO and WeWork’s evaluation is revised drastically downwards.
Billion Dollar Loser is a fascinating book, and even though, or perhaps especially because Neumann never developed a “killer app”, his story represents the apotheosis of Silicon Valley as idea, as pure myth. Whereas Anna Wiener saw life at the unglamorous ground level in companies that actually had technology to sell, Neumann, by combining mimesis with his own charisma and appeals to investor greed, was able to create an imaginary reality that, rather like Tlon in Borges’ famous short story, left the world of fiction and, for a moment, threatened to supersede reality.
Reading about this period of madness that gulled so many, I feel grateful that we live in a society where prestige and power is attained through business rather than war or religion.
Had Neumann lived in a different time, where the incentives were different, who knows what he might have achieved? He certainly has some of the traits of a demagogue or cult leader. Meanwhile, there are far more skilled, and more ruthless, empire builders out there; we are fortunate that their energies are channeled into manipulating our desires and insecurities for profit and selling us shiny toys. It could be so much worse.