Earlier this week, I read the book Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble by Dan Lyons, a former Newsweek tech writer and editor and now a writer on HBO’s and Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley. I picked it up from the “new books” section mostly because I have a like-hate relationship with Silicon Valley – I think it’s brilliant satire at times, but at other times it’s just stupid and too filthy for its own good.
I enjoyed Disrupted. It’s an entertaining and even enlightening evening read – a longish Atlantic article could have probably covered most of the same ground, and Lyons’ idealization of journalism is annoying but that’s fine, and the time I spent with the book was more entertaining and fruitful than a couple of hours furiously scanning furious political commentary online. Although almost as frustrating, considering the insanity Lyons is writing about.
Short version: Lyons was fired from Newsweek in his early 50’s – the story of so many journalists – and eventually landed at HubSpot, a company that sells marketing software to other companies – as a “marketing fellow,” a title which sounds kind of cool but actually, as he discovers is expressive of the shadows of this tech-based economy in which no one is really committed to anything or anyone and everyone is landing somewhere for just a bit, until the next thing.
The book is very funny, not only because Lyons is funny, but because the culture he describes is so deeply insane and he’s a 50-something thinking he might be able to fit in, just a little bit. HubSpot’s workplace is culture is just what you expect: 20-somethings brought in to have meetings and stare at screens for not a lot of money, but hey – there’s a music room! And a candy wall! And Tequila Tuesday!
Moving past the employees – er, team members – Lyons takes a look at those behind all of this craziness, from the founders of start-ups who sometimes have an idea for a product or service, but just as often don’t – to the venture capitalists. Lyons’ description of DreamForce – a huge networking/pep rally/afterhours orgy sponsored by Salesforce.com in which literally tens of thousands of online marketers get together in San Francisco – is jaw-dropping.
The whole thing makes me depressed, in part because Benioff is a buffoon, a bullshit artist, and such an out-of-control egomaniac that it is painful to listen to him talk. He lives in Hawaii and signs his emails “Aloha.” He’s a Buddhist and hangs out with Zen monks from Japan, and he gave his golden retriever the title “chief love officer” at his company. He is the Ron Burgundy of tech…”have you transformed the way you innovate?’ was Benioff’s big line at the 2012 Dreamforce show. Note that you can switch the two buzzwords in the sentence and it still sounds good and still means nothing.
And Dreamforce continues with Huey Lewis and the News, Green Day, Alec Baldwin, Tony Bennett, Jerry Seinfels, CEO’s of Dropbox, Facebook and Yahoo, and the President of Haiti. It’s crazy.
If you’ve watched Silicon Valley, you’ll recognize some of the types and quirks, but I have to say – I think the world Lyons describes is even wackier than its fictional version.
Lyons’ critique is of an economy built on non-profitable entities selling intangibles – again, at a loss, most of the time – so that a few people can profit from this weird transfer of wealth going on. It’s of workplace cultures that are not only lame and distracting, but attract and sustain immaturity and are among the least diverse workplaces in the country. It’s about deception all around, about claiming, “no, we don’t send spam,” when actually, you facilitate sending millions of pieces of spam every day, it’s about calling aggressive selling “lead nurturing” and selling “lovable marking content.” That you’re not selling product, you’re leading a revolution…a movement.
It’s about this new thing, but it’s also about the old thing that has always characterize most workplaces, everywhere: Egomaniacs with tunnel vision exercising power over other human beings just because, whether those egomaniacs be CEO’s, department managers or the two blog editors twenty years your junior who have declared war against you – the turf being a blog run by a company that’s read by no one except a few hundred customers. Because that’s worth a war, definitely.
The stupid workplace trends that Lyons eviscerates are amusing to read about, but raise some serious points. First, what Lyons himself constantly points out – it’s almost like a shell game. Employees being given treats instead of more pay and greater job security. He tries to point this out to the employees three decades his junior: that instead of the treats they could actually be paid more..but they will have none of it. They prefer the candy.
The whole scene also made me think (of course) of (surprise!) church and faith and such.
The appeal of new management and marketing trends, bursting with buzzwords and exclamation points is strong for churches. Evangelical churches, with their emphasis on, well, evangelization, have always been particularly strongly tempted by American business culture, narrowing that line between evangelism and marketing to the point of invisibility. And because American Catholicism doesn’t trust or understand its own tradition of evangelization, and might even despise it, a few years after the evangelicals have pounced and wrung a trend dry, you can trust that the Catholics will be along to mop up the puddles and squeeze out what’s left in lameness that is no less lame for being two generations removed from the original and having schematized rosaries on the Awesome!
Engagement! Materials! with which they can hack and blow UP this ministry.
Not to speak of the management stuff, which too many Catholic school systems, in my experience, embrace. I mean…this was…familiar, even if the characters we encounter in the church world have a bit more years on them.
Try to imagine the calamity of that: Zack, age twenty-eight, with no management experience, gets training from Dave, a weekend rock guitarist, on how to apply a set of fundamentally unsound psychological principles as a way to manipulate the people who report to him.
And then, there is the question of the soul and what seeks to bind it and what it mean to be truly counter-cultural.
It is not a new story: in seeking security in this world, we find ourselves bound to entities that want to claim more than our labors, that set themselves up as idols demanding our highest loyalties. That might be the lord of the manor, the factory owner, the farmer, the office manager. That might be elements of a culture that don’t demand our labor but rather the fruits of that labor as they work hard to convince us that our wholeness and happiness depends on how well we fit.
It just seems to me that it’s the role of this Church of Jesus Christ to stand astride all of these idols, knock them over and quietly, constantly, faithfully point to the truth. Yes, this the world in which we live and work requires running and doing, and sometimes all of that is creative and interesting, but most of the time it’s not, and most of the time it just is. Work hard, give your best, make good things, no matter how small they are, and build each other up. But don’t be fooled. If this entity – this job, this organization, this culture – asks the world of you so it can save the world – remember that it can’t do that, you don’t have to and only God is God, and yeah, well, he’s…awesome.