If you want to know why Silicon Valley is evil, you need to understand startup productivity culture

Richard Whittall
Against Productivity
5 min readNov 23, 2017

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Here is an untested thesis: if you want to understand the moral vacuum that currently pervades Silicon Valley, you first need to read up on productivity literature.

When most of us think of ‘productivity,’ we imagine to do lists and project management software, David Allen’s Getting Things Done and Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

This is still principally true, and much of that productivity culture is intact. But with the rise of the ubiquitous tech startup company and the emergence of the gig economy, the concept of the importance and definition of productivity has changed. The scope of the literature has, in the age of neuropseudoscience and behavioural psychology, morphed into something more totalitarian.

In fact, productivity culture has blossomed into a church, and like any church, it maintains a consistent set of beliefs about the world. The cornerstone of this new faith lies in the unlimited power of individual agency, which will not only improve your life but bend the world around you, Matrix-like, to suit your will.

“Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it,” said Steve Jobs, arguably one of the Church’s principal (unwitting) founders. “You can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”

To that end, the Church of Productivity holds that the quality of our lives — which is measured, of course, by our social and financial status — is entirely determined by the decisions we make as individuals every day. These decisions can make us more efficient, help us overcome personal obstacles, and translate big ideas into concrete achievements.

The trick, however, is to find the appropriate mental framework with which to make these decisions. We might call this framework a ‘productivity system,’ but that is no longer ambitious enough. Today, we call it a ‘mental model.’ These models are process-oriented, and if carefully designed and religiously adhered to, they will help protect our work from ‘bias’ and ‘cognitive errors,’ and unreflective ‘System 1 thinking.’ For this reason, they will sometimes run counter to conventional wisdom about the best course of action.

Critically, these models are also meant to take into account random variation or luck, whose effects on our outcomes are merely additional inputs in the system. In fact, the Church of Productivity has little regard for the influence of chance on outcomes, as it diminishes the power of our agency, a view summed up well by Peter Thiel in his lecture, “You are not a lottery ticket.” Random variation and the survivor’s bias are, in the Church of Productivity, a sucker’s game.

Who are the Church of Productivity’s patron saints? There are many of them, and some will no doubt be familiar to you — Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Ray Dalio, Tim Ferriss, Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett and, of course, Steve Jobs. The work habits of these enormously wealthy people, no matter how trivial, have been endlessly pored over by legions of lucre-minded followers with their tiny consultancies and Medium blogs, as well as non-stop fawning coverage from the likes of Business Insider, Inc and Fast Company. They, of course, mean to convince you that by emulating the processes of these CEOs and startup founders, you too will enjoy the fruits of their success. And trust me: this shit is everywhere if you know where to look.

But the Church of Productivity is not merely a set of instructions on how to work. It is also, increasingly, a school of ethics. The Church, for example, has an affinity with Stoicism, the Greco-Roman philosophical school which emphasizes accepting your present circumstances and limiting your circle of concern to matters entirely under your direct control. However, the Church tends to strip out the pesky bits of Stoic thinking that involve dedicating your life to furthering the public good, or the altruistic elements of Stoic virtue. Instead, this Startup Stoicism is yet another mental model, “built,” as Tim Ferriss put in it 2009, “for action, not endless debate.”

As an entrepreneur, you can harness Stoic tricks to steel yourself against the irrational fear of things that are not under your control, and train you to endure hardship for a greater good. As Ferriss puts it, Stoicism allows you to “practice what you fear, whether a simulation in your mind or in real-life. Then you, your company, and your employees will have little left to keep you from thinking and acting big.”

And if people such as citizens, regulators, the working poor, react negatively to your ‘acting big,’ that is merely an obstacle to be turned over, an element that is outside of your control and therefore ‘nothing to you,’ to quote the Stoic writer Epictetus. You’ve got to keep your eyes on the prize: an IPO, a buyout, another startup.

The allure of productivity, driven by the pervasive scientism of the present age, is that by surrendering to a system we can achieve what we want in life. There’s nothing inherently wrong about this, of course. And to some degree, this line of thinking is essential for entrepreneurs, who must find a way to contend with incredible risk, self-doubt, and uncertainty.

The problem is that the Modern Church of Productivity of Silicon Valley does not permit the idea that human beings — and that includes startup founders — are far more than individual agents on a solo mission for endless growth and profound wealth, but part of a greater social whole. Steve Jobs realization — that you can influence the entire world and get them to buy your shit — is also a grave and awe-inspiring power, one that should come with tremendous responsibility and considerable care. The obsession with disruption or market monopolies as intrinsic goods ignores the incredible social consequences. The accumulation of massive wealth that follows a successful startup never occurs in a social vacuum, but almost always affects the individual lives of countless unseen millions.

Sure, many startup founders will justify the public interest of their ‘missions’ with the claim that they are only giving the public what they want, whether Uber cabs or Airbnb rooms or smartphones or whatever and that the attendant disruption to local economies is not under their control and therefore not their concern. And yes, some tech company founders are, on the face of it, sincerely moved by the belief their product or idea will make the world a better place.

But startup productivity culture — and the voluminous aspirational self-improvement literature that accompanies it — is fundamentally predicated on the idea that the sole unit of motivation, influence and concern is the Betterment of the Self. For the Church of Productivity, there is no productivity that is not also not profoundly and exclusively personal. This is capitalism, after all. Owners own, the fewer, the better, and workers produce, the less well-paid and the more anonymised, the better.

That’s why I want to use this space to explore, expose and critique the culture, in part to get a better understanding of the roots of tech capitalism’s unique brand of megalomania, disregard for rules and regulations, and rampant self-interest. In doing so, we might begin to understand the insidious motivations and egotistical instincts of Silicon Valley.

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