You’re no snowflake

Mock-meritocracy and Ireland’s tech boom

Last week, a job-hunting friend sent me a LinkedIn job ad. It started “If you have come here looking for a ‘job job’ you are on the wrong page.” We’re told that what silly plebs know as a ‘job’ is no longer what ‘truly talented people aspire to’. The company isn’t offering a super-job, packed with perks and a handsome salary.

It’s neither a co-founder role nor a potentially useful internship (both of which are valid ways for a broke startup to build a team, if done right), but an unpaid job. It lists a skillset so fantastical that anyone who actually was this rockstar ninja front- and back-end developer and designer who is also a mega-expert in branding, also builds apps, and has a mastery of both planning and implementation could march into almost any company and demand a corner office with a massage chair, a puppy, and a lifetime supply of free champagne.

The company (whom I won’t name because hey, no free publicity if you don’t even have any ethics) is some kind of dating pyramid scheme that allows you to book creepy “group dating parties” and make money off them, like Amway for horndogs.

The lucky winner of this shitty stick will work alongside some unpaid interns, and you’ll get paid if they ever make money. The ad says that equity is “an option”, but it’s not much of one if the company never has any cash and their getting any is contingent on you building their core product for free. But hey, you’re willing to forego material reward for the chance to help someone else become one of the pantheon of celebrity techies, aren’t you? Or are you just one of those greedy proles who wants a salary? Why don’t you believe in yourself? Where’s your passion, friend?

If you’re a real entrepreneur, or “‘trep”, as Entrepreneur Magazine would call you [vomit], you are far too real to care about money. You are post-money.

What makes companies think they can do this? Unfortunately, we are the ones who enable this fucked-up situation, where you have to “try out” for a job by seeing how long you can survive on passion for someone else’s idea before you are deemed worthy of any precious company cash.

Beware of the boy-kings

We’ve created an embarrassing, quasi-religious cult of workaholic, advice-peddling boy-philosopher-king-gods, in which we elevate billionaires to positions of wisdom and power that are nothing to do with tech entrepreneurship. When Elon Musk visited Ireland last year, even he looked uncomfortable with the near-Papal deference he was shown by the tech community, the media, and government officials, and I doubt he struggles with self-esteem.

We can admire their intelligence and inventiveness, even feel inspired by their achievements, but it is up to us to ensure that the political influence of tech entrepreneurs is kept in check, especially if they’re fond of a techno-libertarian ideal that peddles a myth of meritocracy and makes people like them richer than is healthy for our society.

Yet, Ireland’s Taoiseach Enda Kenny interviewed “Iron Man” (seriously?) on stage at the Dublin WebSummit, and straight-up asked Elon for advice. Elon said he wanted more engineers. Enda told him “our workers won’t let you down.”

I tried to live-tweet sarcastic things, my usual way of shielding myself from the full horror of something like this, but I was too nauseated to see the humour in it. When will we stand up and call bullshit on what has gone beyond celebrity culture, and is now a dangerous pedagogy of the billionaire?

And many people hang on every word of a boy-genius when he talks (and it is almost always a “he”), as if he has the answers that can fix a broken country. The media uncritically reported on Musk’s every move, including his walk among mortals in a nightclub. A refreshingly large percentage of us cringe and roll our eyes, but our silence allows these people way too much influence.

We don’t need another superhero

When we heroise someone for being rich, we assign too much genius and too little luck to the success narrative, and inadvertently fuel a race to the bottom, where demanding a living wage is uncouth because isn’t triumphant self-denial and aggressive self-belief so much more authentic? Never mind that unpaid developer non-job you can’t afford to apply for, the billionaire likes us! He really likes us!

We have the floor, and we’re using it to laud ourselves and talk about how ballsy and world-changing it is to sell software, even if in private, most of us will admit that stuff is the bullshit we feed ourselves. You can’t pretend this is a bottom-up movement operating for the greater good, when it’s elitist and resistant to engaging with critical voices, and you don’t succeed by building a useful thing, you succeed by making your investors richer. And when nobody seems to ask why the media has time to follow Elon Musk into a nightclub, and we’re too distracted to worry about the pay and conditions of the people around us, that’s feeding this race to the bottom.

I think the big tech companies who’ve set up in Ireland have culturally improved the place, and it is professionally and socially better with them here. Some of the tech startup people I’ve met since I stumbled into the industry are among the best, most generous, interesting, and hilarious people I’ve ever known. Most of these people are concerned that this culture has also contributed to widening income inequality, and it’s up to us to fix it. Many are, like me, raging socialists and social democrats who want to make stuff and make money, but find it hard to fit in in a world that values a capitalist model that looks terrifying to us mortals.

But not enough people care enough to talk about it when we most need to, which is when someone is trying to pat us on the back.

Step one, we need to acknowledge the role of luck, and the kind of privilege that helps entrepreneurs get luckier than most. And we need to accept that you don’t get there by wishing hard, nor by drowning out critical voices with self-congratulatory hashtags about positivity. Magical thinking only masks the real problems.

Why do lucky people matter more?

This luck is impossible to compensate for with good ideas or 80-hour weeks, and most people know this. Even the professional advice-givers would warn you not to follow startup advice like it was catechism. And still, slide decks, lectures, and twitter streams are full of contemporary aphorisms about success, and about living a meaningful life, from people who are actively shaping a world where Silicon Valley CEOs like Greg Gopman can stand over rants in which he calls extremely vulnerable people “human trash” and people still give him business and money afterward.

Go to any startup event, or any event involving “business leaders”, and people will quote this sometimes borderline martial shit at you as the response to a question, as a counterpoint, or even as their whole point. I have a rule for myself, which is that whenever someone expects me to accept something they read on BrainyQuote or offers “I got an A in History” as support for an argument, I have to walk away from that person before something gets thrown. Every time you confuse business advice with political philosophy, a kitten is eaten by other, more materially successful kittens.

If we cared about people winning against the odds, we wouldn’t sit by as the government cuts support to people with disabilities or the elderly, or as teachers, doctors, and people taking care of the precious young human resources we are determined to turn into budding ‘treps [vomit] are hamstrung, and we wouldn’t turn so viciously on people who’ve fallen on hard times. When we elevate billionaires while shaming people in precarious positions as scroungers, we are turning into terrible people.

If a person’s value to society is aligned so closely with their wisdom, or the economic value they are seen to create, then that, disciples of Gary Vaynerchuk, is when your shit is truly fucking broken. We all know many successful people who genuinely care and don’t want to be part of this cargo cult (so there really are no excuses for doing a Helpless Randian Shrug), but too many of the loudest ones are platitude-spouting, misanthropic plutocrats and are still deemed perfectly acceptable to work with.

This world of innovation that we’re celebrating is disproportionately influenced by utter douchebags who hate poor people so much that they call them garbage, and there are no meaningful consequences for their shitty attitudes. We have to make consequences happen, especially when a prime minister asks a billionaire how to run a country, and he just says “send more engineers.” I know, because I talk to startup people all the time, that most of us agree that this is bullshit. You probably know this, too.

You need a little bit of self-mythology to get through the day, but this is delusional

I love seeing good people succeed, but a startup’s hard work is not more valuable than, say, nurses, daycare teachers, home carers, or workers from the electricity company braving dangerous conditions to keep our precious routers on so we can tweet each other about the horrible weather.

When we allow the myth of meritocracy to persist, people end up voting for “pro-business” politicians with the mistaken belief that erosion of supports paves the way for success, when, in fact, it is support that enables success in the first place. When we acknowledge the role of privilege, we can change the terms for participation and help more people maximise their chances of getting lucky.

Maybe we’re creating illusory correlations between our actions and our successes because we’re trying to shield ourselves from the reality that most startups fail, just so we can get out of bed in the morning. We need a little bit of cargo cult to keep us from feeling like we’re just firing blindly, but we not only have to remember that our work isn’t what’s doing most of the work.

Maybe we heroise startup success because it’s easier than admitting that objectively, living on subsistence wages (or no wages) and your savings while chasing a business idea is kind of ridiculous. I won’t launch into some martyr-like description of 75-hour weeks because I’m not a martyr. Besides, I refuse, as I near the age of 40, to work a 75-hour week just to prove I care. I’ll do it if that’s what needs to get done, but not just to prove I am committed.

Yet, when Gary Vaynerchuk came to speak in Dublin and spouted a kind of “come back with your minimum viable product or on it” attitude, people I spoke with came away feeling like they’d just got a valuable lesson in tough love. But this is work, not a hazing ritual or a Spartan survival test. And making that kind of macho heroism core to the industry leaves a lot of potentially great people unable to participate. Also, that’s a dumb attitude because we sell fucking software and goddamn social media games.

This is not political philosophy

Business advice from VCs and successful founders is useful for running a company, but let’s not confuse lucky gamblers with philosophers. The good ones wouldn’t want us to do that, and the douchey ones certainly don’t deserve it.

Tweetable platitudes are not aphorisms to live by (and even aphorisms aren’t supposed to be catechism), and while Paul Graham and Dave McClure have some pretty great stuff to say about how to run a startup, neither of them is Hippocrates. Besides, as my friend who sent me the LinkedIn ad pointed out, “A culture that reveres entrepreneurs this way probably doesn’t think very highly of philosophers.”

I don’t want to live in a society that can’t support a culture of self-starters and creative thinkers doing things on their own terms, whether that’s in business, the arts, intellectual life, entertainment, or all the other things that go to make up a healthy society with a robust economy. I like what I do. I feel like we’re living in a time when, even if proportionately more stuff isn’t being invented, we get to hear about more of it than ever before, and it’s fucking exciting.

But we’ve created an insufficiently critical culture within tech startups and about tech entrepreneurship that overvalues a version of capitalism that’s on a massive sugar high, at the expense of basic needs, and which treats founders like oracles of wisdom on subjects about which they know jack shit. And it goes to some of their heads so much that they think they know more than experts in public policy.

Impresario or would-be emperor?

The wealthiest 20% of Americans own 89% of the wealth. We measure the US’s economic success in stock market terms, but only 50% of the population have any stock holdings, and most of them are probably their pension plans. Watching the markets to see economic improvement means you’re only watching for improvement among the half of the population that needs it least.

In Ireland, 50% of individuals earn €18,000 a year or less. Do you hear me? If you make more than €1500 a month you are in the top half of the country, economically. You probably can’t pay all of your bills, and the majority of your income is likely going on your rent or your mortgage, driven up in part by the last time we thanked entrepreneurs for their service to the country by letting them do whatever the hell they wanted. Celebrating rich people as examples to follow in public life just makes income and wealth inequality worse. And it is making more poor people.

Mark Zuckerberg just gave nearly a billion dollars to charity, and I guess that’s nice, but I’d rather live in a world where rich people pay their taxes, rather than making people rely on showy donations to charity that wouldn’t be so essential if rich people just paid their goddamn taxes. And those kinds of donations give tech giants a hell of a lot more influence than I’m comfortable with. We can’t disrupt poverty through neo-colonialist social enterprises or charity, we do it by reducing the cultural value of billionaireness itself.

Because a company may feel like a community, but a community is not a company. You can fire a team when you need to downsize and save money, but you can’t make whole categories of people redundant without committing a set of interlinked and unforgivable crimes against real people. And it’s bad for business, too, isn’t it? I mean, how can we promote Ireland as a hub for health startups while, for example, working conditions in our hospitals put the health of our junior doctors at risk? How can we disrupt educational technology when teachers are being replaced with interns, and Special Needs Assistants are seen as a special treat?

I refuse to believe or accept that public service is anathema to successful entrepreneurship, and we are at risk of becoming the floating techno-libertarian utopia that gives dudebros such a boner if we don’t take a bit more care to get our priorities into line. In fact, if we want a thriving culture of innovation, we have to build a better safety net.

The war at home

Dublin is home to one of the biggest and most successful tech events of the European calendar. Even if it has a disproportionate amount of support, coverage, and far too much hype, I think it’s been good for the confidence of a lot of small startups. I’m glad I went last year — I got to meet a lot of like-minded, interesting people. But why are the WebSummit’s male founders ever asked about sexism (and a soft-touch interview is not a “challenge”), and why are they asked to give business advice about solving wider societal problems? Especially when conquest-driven, constant-growth-at-all-costs business like theirs is the problem?

Why do so few journalists call bullshit? Why is so much tech writing just uncritical PR? Why, when handed the mic, do so many entrepreneurs just put on the green jersey and give each other awards?

And take this post, which was originally titled An Honest Letter to Irish Startups, and was mostly a self-aggrandizing story about triumph over made-up adversity, but also some calling of bullshit on unnamed startups. If this is brutal honesty, what do the delusions of grandeur look like? (Wait, what I’m doing right now — this is why I’m never invited to anything, isn’t it?)

The day after Christmas, we were treated to a publicly-funded radio documentary called Ireland’s Tech Takeover. “Google, Facebook, Twitter (to name a few) have all chosen Ireland as long-term hubs so, tax-breaks aside,” the blurb says, “what is it about Ireland that appeals to these superpowers?” In other words: this documentary wants to know what makes us such special snowflakes.

The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) funding is something I’m really proud of (and have benefited from), as an Irish documentary maker, and our country’s producers have an international reputation as formidable critical long-form, audio storytellers. But this piece, which could nearly be IDA advertorial, displaced money from what could have been a genuinely critical look at what’s transforming our society and our economy.

Some of the only critical comment comes near the end, from a developer who very wisely warns about the dangers of seeing tech as a universal saviour. But this insight, which should have been the basis of the whole story, comes after 40 minutes of bleating on about how great it is to have free lunch in Google, and you can bring your dog, too.

So if even Ireland’s only source of potentially independent, critical media is desperately trying to toot horns, and nobody is really questioning Ireland’s boy-kings, who is ever going to ask the necessary questions about the impact of unpaid jobs, a terribly implemented national internship scheme, and the eerie resemblance between Dublin’s Silicon Docks and a separatist libertarian testing ground for Silicon Valley dudebros? The more you grasp that microphone and spout neo-liberal self-help platitudes, the more you are helping that happen.

Not in our name

This isn’t just about criticising the corporate tax breaks or hammering anyone on the data protection question, or hating on rich people out of some sense of envy. But we’ve collectively used a “tech boom” to bypass all but the most rudimentary employment laws. We’re forcing people into unpaid jobs that actually generate revenue for companies who can well afford to pay them, and we’re doing it under the banner of “entrepreneurship” and a “pro-business culture”. We’re the best little country in the world to do business in, as long as you’re a foreign multinational, or you’ve got some billionaires in your network.

In Ireland, SMEs make up 99% of Irish businesses, and account for 70% of employment, and it’s not so great for anyone at home financially right now. Export-led businesses get priority for support and funding, and people within Ireland have a lot less to spend, since most SMEs serve their own communities. Nobody is asking them how to do better for those communities. Fewer people still are asking communities who don’t “create economic value” what would help them do better.

Many of those in the tech sector who are winning right now are doing so thanks to investment from teams of VCs and angel investors, inside and outside of Ireland. I’m very happy for them, and some companies I really like are getting funded and doing well. Before you accuse me of being anti-business or anti-tech, I love it, sincerely. I have been known to write professional love notes about the joy I get from a product’s super-smooth UX, and I get sort of giddy when someone I like announces a funding round. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a huge problem.

We can unpack and dismantle the myth of meritocracy and “progress”, and stop thinking that tech businesspeople know something about running anything outside of a technology company, without losing our collective or individual entrepreneurial edge. In fact, if tech founders were a little more Hippocratic, we could have a culture of startups that swears to “first, do no harm”. Instead, people say things like “Make uncomfortable the new comfortable” (yes, that’s a real one).

As I write this, 12 people have applied on LinkedIn for that not-a-job-job-nor-a-job-nor-even-a-’job’ for that terrible dating site idea. Last week, it was up to 18, which suggests some people might be having second thoughts.

I don’t blame those applicants. There’s a tremendous pressure on unemployed people to prove they aren’t lazy, and if they’re turning down “opportunities”, even unpaid ones, they risk being accused of not trying hard enough. They don’t have the leverage right now to speak up about it, and the people who have that leverage do them a disservice by shouting “STEVE HOLT!” into the microphone.

Pass the mic for a fistful of truth

We also have to be a hell of a lot better at understanding our own impact, and that includes the discourse we are influencing, especially whenever a public official solicits the input of a tech leader. Not only are those officials looking for advice off someone who essentially won big at the blackjack tables, they are using a celebration of entrepreneurship and “innovation” as a cover for cutting the safety net and forcing people to choose between entrepreneurship-poverty (if that’s even open to them) and poverty-poverty. Neither of these look like a route to the Tesla dealership.

As we’re celebrating the successes of people around us, we can at least keep an eye what the other hand is doing in the name of tech entrepreneurship, and use our privileged platform to ask hard questions. We need to tell them what they need to hear, which is that a country is not a company. Brutal honesty is not patting yourself on the back for your own monetarily successful bullshit, and using your platform to tell the startups you don’t want to anoint that they are bullshit — that’s actually just snobby, smug, and mean.

Honesty is admitting that you are not a special snowflake and handing the mic off to someone who needs to be heard more than you do. You can start being part of the change when you see that standing up very often means taking a seat. If we even bought our own rhetoric, we would tell them to listen to the unhappy “customers” and make sure they are meeting their needs. But we’re not even doing that much. It isn’t about changing your tune, it’s about sharing the stage, sometimes with people you don’t like, or who might be a little uppity for your taste.

A hundred years ago, the nascent Irish labour movement was shoved aside in the name of a grand nationalist narrative. Now that narrative is tech entrepreneurship, and what remains of a labour movement has been all but erased. And again, the people who hold the cash enjoy disproportionate influence, and they’re calling the shots and calling themselves outsiders at the same time. Listen, if you are on the Rich List, you are not an underdog.

How did we get to a point where a company that hasn’t built anything can feel comfortable, not only advertising an unreasonable job at zero pay, but suggesting that salaries are for proles? This is how. This is the shit that is broken, and how do we, not as businesses (because we don’t know jack shit about running a country), but as a community of human beings who live in a society that is not just an potential workforce to be pivoted on a dime, get the fuck out of this mess?

Hm, I guess this is why I don’t get handed the mic that often. It’s a good thing I always carry this megaphone.

This started out a longer version of my column for the Sunday Business Post. But then I got carried away and drank too much coffee, and I’m sorry. If you read this far, thank you, and also, please send coffee.

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