Confessions of a chaos monkey

(Alternate post title: In which I continue my descent into anti-technology crankdom.)

You may have noticed, gentle readers, that I’ve been on a bit of a kick lately reading and writing about technology, social media, Silicon Valley, etc. I ran across the name Antonio García Martínez in an article about the same, which pointed me to an interview with him that I can no longer find in my bookmarks, but which at least served the purpose of leading me to his recent memoir, Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley. García Martínez tells all in this chronicle of his own Silicon Valley days: from the trading floor at Goldman Sachs, through a few years at ad-related startups, to his two all-consuming years at Facebook in the early 2010s. And what is Silicon Valley really like, at least as far as Chaos Monkeys shows us? As it turns out, it seems less a centre for incredible innovation than the kind of dystopian subculture you might find if a) Machiavelli ran your high school, b) everyone in said high school had millions of dollars of other people’s money to play with, and c) the only ethical/moral question that needs an answer is “is this legal or not?”. It’s not pretty. Actually, I had to stop reading Chaos Monkeys before bed because it was giving me bad dreams. I wish I were joking.

First, a word on the title: what, exactly, is a chaos monkey (besides a little phrase that’s pretty fun to say)? As García Martínez explains it, Chaos Monkey is a software tool developed by Netflix that tests whether your system can stand up under the stress of random failures. As a metaphor, it extends to the Silicon Valley ethos as a whole, as technology entrepreneurs look for society’s weak points in order to either fix or exploit them, depending on your point of view:

In order to understand both the function and the name of the chaos monkey, imagine the following: a chimpanzee rampaging through a data center, one of the air-conditioned warehouses of blinking machines that power everything from Google to Facebook. He yanks cables here, smashes a box there, and generally tears up the place. The software chaos monkey does a virtual version of the same, sutting down random machines and processes at unexpected times. The challenge is to have your particular service — Facebook messaging, Google’s Gmail, your startup’s blog, whatever — survive the monkey’s depradations.

More symbolically, technology entrepreneurs are society’s chaos monkeys, pulling the plug on everything from taxi medallions (Uber) to traditional hotels (Airbnb) to dating (Tinder). One industry after another is simply knocked out via venture-backed entrepreneurial daring and hastily shipped software. Silicon Valley is the zoo where the chaos moneys are kept, and their numbers only grow in time. With the explosion of venture capital, there is no shortage of bananas to feed them. The question for society is whether it can survive these entrepreneurial chaos monkeys intact, and at what cost. (103)

Chaos Monkeys provides a fascinating inside view of this social-norm-breaking chaos monkeydom, many aspects of which Jaron Lanier warns about in Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (my review here). One of Lanier’s strongest arguments has to do with the way the big, secretive algorithms at social media companies work to ever-refine the content that you see in order to maximize your engagement with the platform in question: feeding you mostly things you like (your best friend’s baby pictures) along with carefully calculated small doses of the rage-inducing (your crazy uncle’s political rants). All of the news and other content we encounter on Facebok only crosses our feeds because the algorithm has decided that it will keep us engaged; besides the very real problem of fake news, this also leads to a thoroughly myopic vision of whats going on in the world. We miss a lot, and because we only see what we’re shown, it gets harder and harder to even know what we’re missing. All of this is on purpose. García Martínez recounts the rousing speeches at his new employee orientation/on-boarding at Facebook, and the pictuer that high-ups in the organization painted of the brand new world Facebook was (and is) working hard to construct:

Facebook was the New York Times of You, Channel You, available for your reading and writing, and to everyone else in the world as well, from the Valley VC [Venture Capitalist] to the Wall Street banker to the Indian farmer plowing a field. Everyone would tune in to the channels of their friends, as people once clicked the knob on old cathode-ray television sets, and live in a mediated world of personalized social communication. That the news story in question was written by the Wall Street Journal was incidental: your friend Fred had posted it, your other friend Andy had commented on it, and your wife had shared it with her friends. Here was the first taste for the new Facebook employee of a world interpreted not through traditional institutions like newspapers, books, or even governments or religions, but through the graph of personal relations. You and your friends would redefine celebrity, social worth, and what should be churning through that restless primate brain all day.

Andy Warhol was wrong. In the future, we wouldn’t all be famous for fifteen minutes, we’d be famous 24/7 to fifteen people. That was the new paradigm, even if the outside world didn’t realize it yet. Facebook employees — we few, we happy few — knew what world was coming, and we’d help create it. (261)

In his two years at Facebook, García Martínez worked for the Ads department, in the early days of Facebook’s ads monetization projects. Perhaps because he’s an ad man, García Martínez is not impresed with people who use ad blockers in an effort to cut down on some of the noise they see online. Nor is he impressed with those who  are concerned with online privacy: in a point late in the book, he essentially makes the argument that we should all be grateful that Facebook captures and holds all our data, because otherwise facebook wouldn’t exist. I remain entirely unconvinced that this would be the disaster he purports it to be. If Facebook had kicked the bucket back in 2011 or so, when most of the book is set — well, so what, exactly? Their software engineers etc. would have moved on to other companies and users would have moved on to other platforms. Are any of us still mourning the death of MySpace or Friendster? It’s an interesting position for him to take, especially given the way he now looks back at his time with the big blue social media giant:

I could barely remember what my life was like before Facebook, and there was a trail of destruction I had caused by spending my entire life there: two children neglected, two different women whose worthy love I’d spurned, two boats rotting in neglect, and anything like an intellect or a life outside campus nonexistent due to indifference and my dedication to the Facebook cause. Don’t be deceived by my whithering treatment of Facebook in this book; inside every cynic lives a heartbroken idealist. If I’m now a morant critic, it’s because at one point […] I, too, lived and breathed for Facebook, perhaps even more than most. (458-9)

García Martínez’s time at Facebook didn’t end well; he was fired after a bitter internal battle over two different products/directions the Ads department was considering. That fact seems to fuel much of the book’s bitterness (and it is a deeply bitter book), as well as the occasional ambiguity of his positions. In truth, I didn’t find him a sympathetic narrator. García Martínez describes himself as “high-strung, fast-talking, and wired on a combination of caffeine, fear, and greed at all times” (161) and despite his avowed distate for the Silicon Valley lifestyle, he certainly appears to have lived it to the fullest measure, questionable ethical mores included. For example, he relates the following story from when his startup, AdGrok, was courting/being courted by two different companies: Facebook and Twitter, both of them still relatively nascent. Twitter was interested in buying the company and its three founders (in what’s called an acqui-hire), while Facebook wanted García Martínez but not rest of his team. How should he decide which company to work for? Here’s how:

Here’s another data point for you: As part of our push to woo Facebook, I had been getting Google Alerts on the company for months. One in particular had caught my attention. In October 2010, a mother in Florida had shaken her baby to death, as the baby would interrupt her FarmVille game with crying. A mother destroyed with her own hands what she’d been programmed over aeons to love, just to keep on responding to Facebook notifications triggered by some idiot game. Products that cause mothers to murder their infants in order to use them more, assuming they’re legal, simply cannot fail in the world. Facebook was legalized crack, and at Internet scale. […] Facebook it was. (228)

(I found a news article about the incident in question. It’s incredibly disturbing. I don’t recommend reading it, but I will leave the link here so you know that this isn’t something García Martínez is making up for the shock value. It happened.) But consider the attitude that looks at a story like that — social media-driven infanticide — and decides that the company that inadvertently facilitated this truly horrifying incident is the one to work for, not the one to avoid. “If Facebook can do this, then Facebook can’t fail, therefore I should work for Facebook.” I… can’t even imagine making that decision. But that was his choice and his plan, which he enacted with some serious machinations that resulted in Twitter buying out his AdGrok co-founders while he escaped to Zuckerberg-land. According to Chaos Monkeys, this is the sort of decision that many Valley types would make:

As every new arrival in California comes to learn, that superficially sunny “Hi!” they get from everybody is really, “F— you, I don’t care.” It cuts both ways, though. They won’t hold it against you if you’re a no-show at their wedding, and they’ll step right over a homeless person on their way to a mindfulness yoga class. It’s a society in which all men and women live in their own self-contained bubble, unattached to traditional anchors like family or religion, and largely unperturbed by outside social forces like income inequality or the Syrian Civil War. “Take it light, man” elevated to life philosophy. Unfortunately, the Valley attitude is an empowered anomie turbocharged by selfishness, respecting some nominal “feel-good” principals [sic] of progress or collective technologcal striving, but in truth pursuing a continual self-development refracted through the capitalist prism: hippies with a capitalization table, and a vesting schedule. (232)

There’s a lot more to say about the world of SiIicon Valley and the world it is trying to build, but I need to cut this off at some point — Chaos Monkeys clocks in at over 500 fascinating and depressing pages. In many ways it is not an easy read, and it certainly isn’t an uplifting one. But as we consider questions about how we develop and use technological tools, it’s also worth interrogating the culture behind those tools. “Move fast and break things” (an early Facebook motto) may work for shipping software, but it’s a poor way to construct a society, and we would do well to be wary of embracing the technological innovations that come our way without serious thought. Chaos Monkeys contributes to that discussion, filling in a lot of the background for us as we think about how to shape techonology, and how it in turns shapes us.