REVIEW: "Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble" -- Journalist v. Silicon Valley, Dawn of Insufferables

This is a complicated review, because Disrupted is sort of a weird book (at least in its class of "much talked-about for about ten minutes and then forgotten" extended think-pieces). On the one hand, it's a memoir of Dan Lyons' forced midlife crisis, getting kicked out of a cushy job at Newsweek, languishing in the Millennial Animal Farm of a Boston tech startup, then landing a writing gig with HBO's Silicon Valley. Okie dokie.

Except that Lyons is kind of a dick.

I mean, I expect that he's pleasant enough as a person; I bet his wife and kids love him and all that; but in the absence of the true institutional psycopathy on display at Hubspot, Lyons is the avatar of every FOX News pundit's gripe about smug East Coast liberal journalism. He was Newsweek's technology editor, so he maybe has cause to feel a bit superior―maybe―but after a while his insinuations that journalists are just better people who are hip and sarcastic and don't have sticks up their asses and don't enable the exact sort of bullshit he's witnessing... well, it all starts sounding a bit arrogant.

Of course, his observations and critique of Hubspot's corporate culture are pretty scathing. Hubspot is a "tech company" in the same way that McDonald's is an agribusiness: while it uses Web technology, it's really a marketing outfit, and―as Lyons discovers―ultimately adheres to the outbound marketing status quo.

Okay, but a lot of businesses are sort of lame once you peel away the marketing hype. The mind-boggling part is that Hubspot has a $1bn market capitalization and successfully raised millions of dollars in venture capital.

Disrupted is more than a simple memoir: it's also an argument that "Silicon Valley" (Lyons uses this term to mean the current tech-startup paradigm in general) perpetuates a toxic attitude towards work, employment, and wealth; that tech companies are valued without any basis in reality; and that many founders, buoyed by obscene amounts of VC money, seem to be high-functioning sociopaths.

On that score I thought the bits about the market dynamics were the most surprising. Did you know that many companies' investment contracts with VCs contain a clause that insulates the investors from 100% of the risk if the company tanks? "But who loses money, then?" You may ask. Well, it's the rank-and-file employees, of course! And many tech companies infamously ask their code monkeys to accept low salaries in exchange for equity, often at a rate of vestment in excess of the median length of employment! Wheeeeee!

As for the culture, well, it's truly Orwellian, Kafkaesque, even Stalinist at points; take your pick. But I really think the single literary analogy that comes closest is Animal Farm―not the Orwell book you were expecting. The irrational exuberance, the redefinition of words, the subtle accumulation of exceptions for a privileged few, it's all there at Hubspot.

I listened to the Audible version, which Lyons narrates himself. I liked his extra emotion and disdain when describing the more incredible aspects of Hubspot's workplace, from the Eloi-and-Morlocks split between the Marketing and Sales floors, to the Idiocracy-worthy exchange he has with his twentysomething coworkers about the literal wall of candy dispensers in the break room.

Lyons' narration also smoothed over some of the less-polished aspects of his writing, like his tendency to write each chapter as if we hadn't read any of the previous chapters, including his various repeated dystopic references. Maybe it's his background as a journalist. Or maybe it was just a rushed editing job.

Overall I'd say this is a good book to get from the library if you don't feel like you hate "Silicon Valley" culture enough. For free digital versions of the same sort of critique, see (e.g.) Michael O. Church's personal blog, and the "Our Incredible Journey" Tumblr.

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