Making Space for Monkeys
pirate wires #40 // apple's war on chaos monkeys, rewriting history, i think you love to be offended no offense, and the choice between outliers and stagnation
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On the proper care and handling of angry workplace mobs. In 1984, Apple released one of the most famous commercials in American history, declared itself the mother ship for “thinking different,” and set the creative standard for corporate branding:
In a brief, sixty-second scene, a small army of robotic-looking workers in drab grey uniforms march to a theater. There, they watch the projected visage of a scary old Orwellian strongman espouse the virtues of “oneness” until their fascist pride parade is interrupted by a beautiful blonde heroine wielding a sledgehammer. She swings it once, twice, and hurls it at the screen, shattering the very concept of groupthink — but really IBM. Macintosh, the underdog in personal computing, stood for being different. But last week the house that Jobs built set a new creative standard when, just days after Business Insider reported he’d been hired to Apple’s ads team, the company fired Antonio García Martinez for the crime of having produced, five years ago, the critically-acclaimed, bestselling book Chaos Monkeys. The news of his hire allegedly sparked an internal debate at the company (aka an extremely committed minority of politically-radicalized tech employees were once again consumed by performative outrage), where Antonio’s writing was retroactively characterized as deeply sexist. Apple tried to make the controversy vanish by ousting the newly-determined “bad tech man.” The controversy did not vanish.
To be clear, a woke mob destroying a man’s career for some little bit of casual crimethink would be nothing new. But ruined for a celebrated work of literature? Even I found this story surprising, and my opinion of our Stalinist HR executives is not high. The precedent Apple set here is significant. Chaos Monkeys is not an essay on Antonio’s views about working with women, or women in general, and by the way women — in general — are never generalized in the book. Chaos Monkeys is a literary portrait of Antonio’s life, written clearly — obviously — in a highly-stylized Gonzo voice. In other words, this isn’t really a firing for crimethink at all. We’ve crossed the borderlands, here, from the realm of problematic opinion to the realm of evocative art. A company that fires artists for art is not a company that values creativity or risk, two essential components of innovation, which, folks, is the entire reason we’re here. If the largest corporations in the technology industry are now hostile to creativity, what are we even defending from the vampires in Congress? Pack it up, we’ve already lost.
Apple’s canned, corporate-speak statement on Antonio’s firing was simply:
"…we have always strived to create an inclusive, welcoming workplace where everyone is respected and accepted. Behavior that demeans or discriminates against people for who they are has no place here.”
Separate from the firing, this was a spectacular blunder. Exactly what behavior are we talking about? In a lengthy thread worth reading in full, Antonio responded on Twitter (first tweet in the series below).
He characterized Apple’s statement as defamatory, as he engaged in no such behavior at the company. But, incredibly, what Apple appears to be asserting is Antonio’s having written Chaos Monkeys — which Apple leadership knew about, which Apple leadership in part recruited him for — itself constituted discriminatory behavior.
It’s worth noting that, as with most culture war spectacles, the original reporting on Antonio’s brief stint at Apple shaped the narrative on the controversy. First blood was drawn from The Verge, which predated the firing it almost certainly guaranteed (and congrats to their team for the successful assassination).
The Verge centered its reporting on an internal petition at Apple, which demanded something be done about the hiring process that brought in Antonio. Signatories argued the Chaos Monkeys author made them “unsafe” at work (explicitly this was the claim), and cited a handful of “racist,” “sexist” excerpts from the book as evidence. The petition was allegedly signed by 2,000 concerned Apple employees, which may only be a fraction of the roughly 150,000 people who work for the company (a figure that did not appear in the Verge piece), but is also not a small number. You may be wondering how a mob of 2,000 people could be made to feel unsafe for the presence of a single, moderately spicy writer now focused on ad privacy. This is a great question that was not asked by the Verge, and that I unfortunately can’t answer myself as whoever drafted the petition appears to be, let’s be honest, a little bit untethered from reality. In any case, let’s take a look at this terrifying piece of literature.
Written in a kind of “asshole guy” voice — an entire genre of American writing — Chaos Monkeys follows Antonio’s career and life. But more notably, at least until five minutes ago, it aggressively critiques the technology industry. Journalists, the class from which Antonio ascended, loved it (an NPR Best Book of the Year, a Business Insider Top 20 Book of the Year, and an Inc. Best Book of the Year for Entrepreneurs and Small Business Owners, with a sampling of glowing quotes everywhere from The New York Times and The Washington Post to WNYC, The Financial Times, and The Atlantic included here). But our culture has shifted significantly these past five years, and 2016 Antonio left 2021 Antonio wide open to a woke broadside. The problem is he wrote a handful of passages about sex, a forbidden topic now, and none of the passages were masks-on missionary. One passage in particular goes so far as to characterize most Bay Area women as weak and, were there an apocalyptic scenario, less useful than ammunition:
Most women in the Bay Area are soft and weak, cosseted and naive despite their claims of worldliness, and generally full of shit. They have their self- regarding entitlement feminism, and ceaselessly vaunt their independence, but the reality is, come the epidemic plague or foreign invasion, they’d become precisely the sort of useless baggage you’d trade for a box of shotgun shells or a jerry can of diesel.
This is the most damning evidence of Antonio’s sexism, shared out of context in just about every recent cheering tech press recap of his firing. I also just personally find it to be the cringiest passage cited in the Apple petition’s long list of “unsafe” sentences, or at least that last line — which, yeah I mean yikes — so I think it’s where we have to focus. If you’re interested in a broader look at the text, including everything from Antonio’s audacious critique of Bay Area fashion to his correct observation that East Palo Alto was once really dangerous, I’d check out Matt Taibbi’s first piece on the drama, which is basically a book review. But for my part, I’ll simply start by noting Antonio’s shotgun “sexism” was already litigated by the media. In 2016, it was considered worthy of a simple footnote in the broader Chaos Monkeys story, as evidenced plainly in an interview conducted by none other than self-appointed chief of the mall cops Kara Swisher.
In a brief exchange nested in the middle of a lengthy interview, Kara reasonably asks about the “misogynist” passage, which reads to her as wanting to trade women for guns (again, yikes). Antonio provides context: this passage is a sidenote in the middle of a far lengthier passage about British Trader, the mother of his children, who was ‘different than the other women’ in that she would be, he wrote in Chaos Monkeys, a tremendous ally in any future apocalypse. Antonio’s real crime here was employing a kind of cliched literary device to express how much he loved a woman — but explicitly for being an incredibly, uniquely strong woman. It’s essentially a kind of very weirdly-worded love letter framed inside an awkward disaster movie metaphor.
“I read the whole,” concludes Kara. “It’s very funny.”
The reason Kara was able to conclude in so amicable a manner is Antonio, at the time, was part of her in-group. He was critiquing tech, and therefore a friend of the tech press deserving all the nuanced reading of his work that any friend affords a friend. As is obvious in context, Antonio was joking about what he perceived to be a shitty local dating pool. I’ve lived in San Francisco for ten years. Almost every single straight man I know has complained about the local girls, almost every single straight woman I know has complained about the local guys, and by the way probably every person in America has made fun of the way we dress. Like, this is famously a thing we are bad at.
I don’t like when people blame their shitty love lives on others. I’ve always just thought the excuses were sort of embarrassing. Be great, and you’ll attract great people. But stuff like this is nonetheless common. If we scour the social media posts of every person who signed the Apple petition, will we not find a single instance of “men are assholes” in the context of… dating? That’s our dating discourse bread and butter. And anyway it doesn’t matter. The standing question is just, do you want to live like this? Does anyone want to work in an environment where this kind of relentless social policing is common?
Amidst the controversy, Katherine Boyle shared a great Hitchens quote.
A culture that values taking offense, and empowers the offended, is a culture with clear incentives to outrage. The most obvious target of this outrage will always be our cultural outliers. This is because outliers take the most risks — social risks included. Sure, sometimes outliers are jerks. Sometimes outliers deserve to be challenged, or stopped. Criminals are outliers, after all. But is Antonio really that kind of outlier? Was he ever? Does anyone really believe this? Have you found yourself wondering why, in the middle of a controversy so great, we haven’t discussed Antonio’s workplace behavior? Where are the aggrieved ex-colleagues demanding to be heard? Come on, I think we all know the answer to this question. Almost everyone who’s ever worked with Antonio, men and women alike, have found him delightful (if at times tediously verbose). So why are we destroying him for — again — a piece of critically-acclaimed literature written half a decade ago?
This is insanity. Push back against this insanity.
Every great artist and writer in history has been an outlier. Every great entrepreneur, scientist, and technologist has been an outlier. Without robust experimentation, and a culture that protects our weirdest handful, we will absolutely stagnate and decline into oblivion. Among people who feel out of control of their own lives there tends to be an impulse towards aggressively policing the perceived weirdness of others out of existence. Increasingly, such efforts are succeeding. But what’s America without a little chaos every now and then?
High-level, I think it’s always worth asking if you’re on the side that’s burning books, and try to be honest if you are: do you really think you’re the hammer-wielding heroine of this saga, or are you the aging Orwellian villain, terrified of change?
Steve Jobs would never.
Substack, the newsletter platform I write from here at Pirate Wires, is currently hiring engineers, a Head of Product, and others. This is an important team doing important work where outliers, at least for now, are still welcome. Please go and work for them, and keep them free and weird.
Link Library // May 18, 2021
It was a huge news week, with a lot of great, long pieces worth reading. A few things things that really stood out:
Bari Weiss wrote a fantastic piece on Israel, and the bad optics of fighting for your life.
This next is a series of tweets that didn’t fit into the monkey recap, but I want to make sure you all see it. Michael Shellenberger on California’s homeless crisis:
Speaking of California’s homeless crisis, we need to talk about mental health, especially in terms of what has NOT worked. I’ve been learning a bit about the state’s history of deinstitutionalizaion. Long, old piece here at PBS.
What about forbidden physics?
And last but not least, let’s get weird. Sasha Chapin, who you may remember from the great piece on fasting he wrote for Pirate Wires, is writing a serialized novel about vampires. You can check out the first chapter here.
I had never heard of Chaos Monkeys. Now Apple made me want to read it.
“Such a redefinition of public morality found its spokesperson in Robespierre, who wanted to ensure that the new government would be a "republic of virtue." In the late winter of 1794 he was willing to go so far as to enforce this virtue through the Terror, if necessary.“ -> the current climate of corporate america enforcing their morality on you under threat of being fired reminds me of a soft reign of terror sorta like the soft totalitarianism Tocqueville talks about. seems like a very unhealthy dynamic to let corporations decide questions or morality and virtue for us