‘We are meat puppets, tethered to an algorithm’

Dan Lyons, Lab Rats: How Modern Work Makes People Miserable

Atlantic, 272pp, £16.99, ISBN 9781786493927

reviewed by Samuel Gregory

The 'always on' office culture enabled by smartphones and laptops is coming under increasing scrutiny. A steady stream of books and papers have nudged anti-work ideas into the mainstream in recent years, notably David Graeber’s irreverent 2013 essay ‘On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs’, David Frayne’s 2015 book The Refusal of Work and most successfully, Rutger Bregman’s 2016 bestseller Utopia for Realists. Joining them is Lab Rats by US tech writer Dan Lyons, who wrote about his time at trendy start-up HubSpot in 2016’s Disrupted. In this sequel, Lyons regales us with workplace horror stories drawn from the Silicon Valley start-up scene, along with glimpses into how modern corporate culture has evolved since it was popularised in the early 20th century by industrialists like Henry Ford.

As a lifetime prisoner of the public sector, some of the cult-like behaviour in these start-ups sounds outlandish. But the basis of this stuff is now so ingrained in modern work that it has even trickled down to the unsteerable oil tankers of government. I’m sure that the long-suffering employees of every local authority in England have been subjected to deep dives, agile ways of working and away days where they’re asked to construct their ideal workplace out of Lego. While this drivel deserves every kicking it gets – and as Lyons shows, it can have a serious effect on the mental health of the people exposed to it – the author misses an opportunity to examine the structural problems that make modern work so intolerable. By and large he picks easy targets. After all, who enjoys a team-build?

When Lyons does attempt a deep dive into the causes of office discontent, his explanations are found wanting. At one point he says it would be nice to believe that ‘tech geniuses’ are treating their staff badly because they are ‘a little bit Aspergery and lack the social skills needed to manage people effectively’, but concludes that they are doing it knowingly out of greed. As well as being mildly offensive, the lazy implication that men like Bezos and Zuckerberg are uniquely gifted feeds the image of ‘Silicon Valley exceptionalism’ that has led to so many failing start-ups being propped up with eye-watering injections of cash.

Lyons is on firmer ground when discussing the ‘gamification’ of work. This is particularly relevant to the so-called gig economy, as pioneered by taxi apps Uber and Lyft, where non-contracted workers are subsumed into the all-powerful software. Rather than battling the bosses for better pay and conditions, the modern serfs in the gig system are pitted against each other to fight over scraps. ‘The humans are ancillary to the machine’, says Lyons in a memorable passage. ‘We are meat puppets, tethered to an algorithm.’

While reading Lab Rats I kept flicking back through Mark Fisher’s 2009 book Capitalist Realism, which still warrants an annual re-read. It contains a more incisive and rigorous analysis of work than Lyons’ book, at a fraction of its length. Fisher goes beyond surface-level observations to explain how the apparatus of surveillance in the modern workplace is present not by accident but by design. This, he argues, comprises a new hyper-authoritarian stage of late capitalism. These ideas have only become more relevant since Fisher’s death in 2017, dovetailing with Shoshana Zuboff’s pioneering study, The Age of Surveillance Capital (2018). From Fisher’s own experience, he cites as an example the constant assessment of teachers and the commercial expectations placed on them in the lucrative English education sector. While eye-opening, Lyons’ focus on the self-contained bubble of the tech industry limits the relevance of his observations beyond sun-soaked Santa Clara. Unlike Fisher’s sixth-form lecturers, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for Californian creatives who willingly enter this toxic environment for overinflated salaries.

How does Lyons propose we fix this ‘frat boy’ culture run amok? His solution seems to involve winding back the clock to a pre-iPhone era that peaked sometime in the mid-1970s, when global behemoths like Hewlett-Packard prioritised worker welfare and ditched the management fads – the so-called ‘HP way’. Lyons cites numerous examples of successful companies that have treated their employees well, relatively speaking, as evidence of a direct correlation between worker welfare and business success. If only tech start-ups treated their staff as generously as Publix supermarkets or cleaning company Q, Lyons argument goes, then perhaps they would finally turn a profit. But this neat solution conveniently ignores Amazon, which has become the most valuable company in the world despite treating its workers appallingly. There are countless other examples.

‘It turns out that a quiet movement has been taking place’, Lyons writes, ‘led by people who see how things have gone wrong and believe that business might be the solution.’ Rather than through trade unions – which are barely mentioned in this book – or through aggressive state intervention, Lyons imagines the saviours of cowboy capitalism to be a new generation of benevolently minded CEOs, weaned on Nick Hanauer and AOC. This 'movement' is so quiet as to be inaudible. The companies Lyons holds up as exemplars, such as Q and web app company Basecamp, are bit players in the tech economy. Among the big beasts of the Valley, cruelty pays handsomely. Why would companies like Uber, whose entire business model relies on playing their drivers off against each other in a race to the bottom, change their ways unless forced? There is no evidence either that Apple or Amazon will experience a Damascene conversion to the new form of benevolent capitalism the author dreams of. Lyons heaps praise on companies that don’t expect their staff to work unpaid overtime, but he barely touches on the significant changes to the world of work that are infiltrating the mainstream thanks to writers like Bregman and politicians like Natalie Bennett.

Leaving aside the more all-encompassing idea of a Universal Basic Income, movements for work reform have coalesced around two similar proposals: the six-hour day, and the four-day week. These ideas constitute a more convincing vision of work after automation than Lyons’ return to ‘the HP Way’, which would see benevolent bosses freely distributing paternity leave to their non-existent employees. Lyons paints a darkly comic picture of a work culture that’s on its last legs, but he offers no real answers as to what will replace it when it collapses completely.