Trying To Sell His Soul in Soulless Silicon Valley

Photo by Ales Nesetril on Unsplash

My spouse saw this book, Live Work Work Work Die: A Journey Into the Savage Heart of Silicon Valley, by Corey Pein, in our living room and he said, “Kudos to you, another depressing nonfiction book.”

(I read almost exclusively investigative journalism, true crime, and sociology books, and my husband rolls them all into one genre: “Depressing Nonfiction.”)

Which I think is rich, coming from him. He’s actually way more bleak than me, but he hides it better, mostly because he’s very, very quiet.

But: He was right. This book was super depressing.

Image from Macmillan. At https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781627794862/liveworkworkworkdie

Author Corey Pein set out to live and succeed in Silicon Valley, figuring there’s tons of venture capitalist cash available there for whatever kind of start-up he might be able to dream up (and then kind of vaguely start, and then cash out of). In other words, and as the jacket copy proclaims: “To truly understand the delirious reality of the tech entrepreneurs, he knew he would have to inhabit that perspective — he would have to become an entrepreneur himself.”

And so he does. The first hurdle, of course, is finding a place to live on a journalist’s budget in Silicon Valley. It’s pretty much impossible, and it involves either living with many, many other tech workers in tiny, tiny, tiny (and shared) living spaces, or actually in a tent that somebody is renting out as an Airbnb. The second hurdle is dreaming up an idea for a start-up, and then getting that idea in front of investors. Third? Try not to lose your soul.

I think I checked this book out from the library and then ignored it for a long time because I knew it was going to be hard for me to do it justice in a review. It’s sort of a strange concept, but there’s no doubt that Pein does a very good job of dropping the reader right in the middle of Silicon Valley culture, and WOW, I find that a hugely scary place to be.

The most disturbing story in a book of disturbing stories came at the end, when the author describes his and his spouse’s life in India, where they lived in 2016. At that time, the prime minister, Narendra Modi, implemented a policy of “demonetization,” because he wanted people to move to smartphone apps for all of their transactions. So Modi’s government announced that two denominations of Indian currency — two denominations that comprised nearly 90% of all cash in circulation — wouldn’t be considered legal tender and had to be turned in for larger bills.

That sounds fairly benign until you learn that the Indian government partnered with a tech company on a start-up app called Paytm, that was in no way able to handle the massive amounts of Indian citizens’ daily transactions. It was a disaster:

“In the cities, many sick and elderly people died in the long ATM lines — in at least one case, a doctor refused treatment after demanding cash, which was, of course, what everyone was waiting in line for. It was easy to spend an entire day traipsing from one machine to another, only to find them all out of cash. But these problems were largely invisible to India’s wealthy and middle class, who hired servants to do their shopping and thus escaped the battle of will and endurance that suddenly characterized routine commerce.” (p. 290.)

Does that last bit sound like anywhere you know? Maybe everywhere during the pandemic, when wealthier people paid desperate people (not enough) to go out and do their shopping or driving or other basic commerce for them? I thought, huh, I’m surprised no politician here has demanded that we all turn in our cash or our credit cards and use only a Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos approved/created payment app.

Then I remembered, that just hasn’t happened YET.

I know, it’s depressing. Read this book anyway.

Live Work Work Die: A Journey Into the Savage Heart of Silicon Valley, by Corey Pein (2018, 320 pages). Available from Macmillan.

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