Temple of Bros

pirate wires #38 // the return of travis kalanick, what exactly is a tech bro?, quinoa is a bridge too far, baby bust, and beating back american entropy

Oh no not Uber. I realized something strange this week: I’ve worked in tech for just about a decade, but I’ve never met a “tech bro.” I’ve met a lot of math guys and operators. I’ve met engineers and artists. I’ve met men and women in the industry from every corner of the country and from countries all around the world. I’ve met founders of every color, creed, and faith working on companies spanning everything from social media and SaaS to synthetic biology, artificial intelligence, and defense technology. I know a woman who spent her twenties working on a new model for nuclear reactors. I know a man building an army of robot lawyers. I knew Dan Kaminsky — and I’m sorry, but I still don’t have the words. I’ve met kind people and honest people and brilliant people. I’ve met grifters and actual crazy people. But I’ve never met a “bro.” At least, I haven’t met the kind of guy I grew up thinking was a bro: college frat vibes. Loud, drunk, maybe in sales? Are all the “tech bros” sales guys? I’m not in sales, is the problem, so it’s at least possible my experience in tech has been unique. But I think what’s probably more likely is the phrase “tech bro” is a meaningless tech press pejorative that simply means “man, who I don’t like, working in an industry I don’t like.” This would at least account for the bizarre diversity of interests and qualities ascribed to the “tech bro”: ping pong, expensive, scooter-side coffee, ruthlessly dominating the poors of the world for pleasure and profit. Craft brews and ubiquitous snacks while gaming? Yes. Tradcore paleo cross-fitters who only eat between the hours of 3PM and 6? Yes again. “Tech bros” are angry nerds, too terrified of women to speak to them, but it’s important to remember they’re also serial womanizers. The archetype is complex. The archetype is layered.

The archetype is incoherent.

But while it’s difficult to define the tech bro generally, any casual fan of the tech press (me (really (I honestly promise you))) knows the “tech bros” (who literally don’t exist) have a king, a man who somehow both embodies the tech industry and exists outside of it, a uniquely toxic exception to the rule who is himself the only rule, a ruthless robber baron, and the embodiment of the out of control American male. His name is Travis Kalanick, the founder of Uber, and as of last week the king has returned — at least, he’s returned to the news.

In 2017, after the multi-billion dollar company Travis built was stolen, the press assured us the villain they invented was defeated. But for several years now he’s been working on a new venture, and this week Business Insider’s Meghan Morris breathlessly reported that CloudKitchens is — *gasp* — “Uber all over again, ruled by a ‘temple of bros.’” In the spooky opening of what the Bluecheck Media Gang told me was a stunning, important piece of reporting, Travis allegedly set the following values down for his new company: "always be hustlin’,” “big bold bets," "super pumped," and "champion's heart." These were characterized as, and I quote, “radioactive values.” The argument here is Uber, a known evil entity, had similar values at the time of Travis’ departure, and therefore these values are bad. Morris continues:

“The message was clear: The Kalanick leading CloudKitchens was not changed, humbled, or reformed. He was the same Kalanick who in just a few roller-coaster years had turned Uber into a global juggernaut — at one point the world's most valuable tech startup — by barreling full speed ahead and ultimately crashing out.”

Of course, Travis didn’t “crash out,” and Uber didn’t fail. A small faction of powerful people weaponized 2017’s uniquely blood-thirsty media environment while Travis’ mother was dying, and seized control of his company. It’s a common trick in the press: an argument that was never true — here, ‘the work culture Travis created ultimately hurt his company, and destroyed his career’ — cited later down the line as history. But it’s not history. It’s simply a story the tech press likes telling because it allows them to straddle business reporting, which is ostensibly their job, and woke culture grifting, which for at least a few of them appears to be a personal obsession. Now, the story goes, Travis is back, and for some reason the lesson he learned from having everything he built taken from him while the media cheered on what was probably the worst year of his life was not “be more docile, and listen to journalists.” The laundry list of tired complaints continues: Travis is “secretive,” he doesn’t like the press, and because he isn’t interested in coddling the most privileged employees in the history of the world, who are themselves more interested in what the cafeteria is serving for lunch than growth metrics, he’s too aggressive. Evidence of his “hard-knock” culture? He’s the first person in the office every morning and the last person to leave, setting the terrible example of working too hard. Really, this is the thrust of Morris’ argument. But the anecdote at the heart of it all? The horror story within the horror story? Some people at the company have worn t-shirts that say “no quinoa.” I’m not kidding. My god, I wish I was kidding.

“There are no nap pods, free laundry services, or any of the other perks that have become hallmarks of tech campuses trying to woo and retain top talent,” writes Morris. But the leadership surrounding Travis is even more problematic than the dearth of comfortable places to sleep at work. “[Barak Diskin, the] 37-year-old MeUndies cofounder leads a real-estate team considered particularly bro-y by some employees, even by CloudKitchens standards,” Morris continues, “one that works, drinks, and curses hard.” Again, the “standard” here we’re talking about is literally shirts that say “no quinoa,” a grain that improbably appears in this story no less than four times. But this team is drinking, now, and “cursing hard” (???). A little later, we discover, one of the executives yells.

I’m from a middle-class Catholic family — Spanish and Irish. We drink and we “curse hard” (my mom more than my dad), and pearl-clutching on the matter always reads to me as essentially classist and sheltered. Like, did you grow up in a dollhouse? Why are you so delicate? And why do the rest of us have to grade our speech like Puritans because you personally find cursing uncouth? Yelling, on the other hand, is either a sign of instability or a controlling, intimidating behavior, and when it’s chronic I do believe it borders on abusive. It’s also pathetic loser shit, which I credit not to masculinity, toxic or otherwise, but to insecurity. Yelling is only a performance of power, almost never required by the real thing. If that’s the CloudKitchens culture, a culture of screaming at employees, the CloudKitchens culture indeed seems shitty. But chronic yelling is not what was reported, and we also have no real context here. Who did this man yell at, and for what reason? How often does the yelling take place? Once? Twice? Every day?

The single piece of news in the story, which might have simply been the story were “bro culture” not so tempting a treat, is the fact that 300 people have left CloudKitchens since January. But we still don’t have an exact sense of why these employees left. Morris cites a lack of bonuses as the common theme, and an unusually long vest. But have no employees been given bonuses, or were the departed simply not living up to Travis’ standards? Again, there’s a lot of context missing here, including for example the number of total employees at CloudKitchens, and information pertaining to how well the company is doing. Or not!  

Travis became the media bogeyman he did by performing things the media loathes: unapologetic “baller” business ambition, masculinity (as defined, at least, by nega-masculine writers living in Brooklyn and San Francisco), and an apparent contempt for local government. But none of these things are necessarily bad, and it’s actually quite bizarre our cultural gatekeepers have internalized a sense that phrasing so uncontroversial as the “champion’s heart,” for example, should be termed a “radioactive value.” I’m not sure where everyone else has been living for the last year, but it seems to me the United States is presently embroiled in an existential fight with rot. Champions are in short supply. The champion’s heart? I don’t hate it.  

Quinoa, on the other hand, I could do without.

Battling entropy. President Biden’s new tax proposals garnered quite a bit of attention last week, with the President’s intention to double the federal capital gains tax specifically attracting the ire of many in tech. Does it make sense to disincentivize investment after printing trillions of dollars in the middle of what is looking just a little too uncomfortably like a housing bubble — or, I’m sorry, a “housing boom”? Probably not, no. Biden’s policies strike me as short-sighted, and vaguely punitive (“rich people bad”). But the real problem I’m having with the conversation is not actually the tax increase. Mostly what I’m frustrated by is the continued abdication of responsibility for the state of our country. Where is the comprehensive plan for what we’re doing with the increased revenue, and why are discussions of this kind always the secondary or tertiary topic in the tax discourse? Almost every American city is broken, from the highest budget per capita to the lowest. We have been very creative across the spectrum of our specific civic failures, which implies to me we have less of a funding problem than a leadership problem. Where is the plan to fix everything? It’s like we stumbled into quicksand, and all anyone wants to talk about is how fast we’re sinking.

But folks, hear me out for a minute: what if we tried to get out of the quicksand?

I’ve been thinking about the ways in which our government’s policies accelerate our trend toward entropy. Let’s talk about babies. Key takeaway: we aren’t having enough of them. This year, the pandemic crashed birth rates, with an expected 300,000 fewer American babies in 2021 than 2020. But our baby bust is an older story than the COVID-19 pandemic. For the last half decade, the American birthrate has been in a steady state of decline, which is a demographic challenge that will haunt our generation for the rest of our lives. Now, our failure to birth could certainly have something to do with the last two decades’ mysterious decline in male testosterone levels, or our national spike in obesity, or the last few decades of anti-humanist propaganda dressed up as environmentalism (anyone else grow up terrified of overpopulation?). But might declining birth rates also have something to do with our policy decisions?

In the early 2000s, Bush the Second’s Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act guaranteed young people could no longer discharge their student debt. This predictably accelerated a dramatic rise in the cost of education, as well as a dramatic rise in the debt that young people carry. The trend has continued for twenty years. A decision. What about our housing policies, from prohibitively expensive zoning and building codes to printing cash by the trillions, which accelerates inflation, and frightens the wealthy — both at home and abroad — into gobbling up property to store their wealth, which in turn bloats the cost of housing? Have you noticed everything’s getting more expensive? Hmm, what could be causing this! What about a system of taxation that targets earning over inherited wealth? In the special case of California, what about a system of taxation that lifts up a landed gentry class of property owners over first-time home buyers? These are all decisions.

America is antagonistically structured against the young and upwardly mobile — exactly the people we need to start families.

To raise a trite but nonetheless important point: children are our future. A desire to have children represents a belief in the future, and starting a family represents a commitment to help create a better future. A world with no desire for children is not a world worth living in, let alone a world worth fighting for. This brings me back to that goddamn quinoa story.

The challenge of our time is not an abundance of masculinity. Our culture lacks virility, empirically, and the masculinity of our men is in decline — again empirically. Culturally, we have no sense of where we’re going, and our leaders are too cowardly to lay down any kind of vision. We’re treading water here, with no thrust. For years, the technology industry has been a single, cultural bright spot, a place where change was still welcome, and where things could still be built. Generally, I think the technology industry is still that place. But listening to the mall cops will be the death of growth, and at precisely the moment we need a forward charge. Ambition is good. Hard work is good. You want to be a champion? Hell yes, sounds good. Just remember it’s mating season, and it’s also good to take a break every now and then, to meet a beautiful stranger in a field of flowers, and to start a dynasty.

Do tech bros exist? I really don’t think they do, or at least not in any meaningful sense. But even if they did, would they really be worse than stagnation and decline? There’s a lot going on right now. Perspective, please.  


Link Library // April 13, 2021

On the topic of babies, and having them: anyone out there having trouble keeping their (beautiful, cherished) hell spawn down for the night? Carrie-Anne McQuade, a trained behavior therapist and mother of two, wrote a fantastic piece on sleep training. Highly recommend, and not just because she’s my little sister and A+ favorite person in the world.  

The Senate inched closer to broad antitrust legislation this week with a hearing on app stores, and a focus on Apple and Google. What’s interesting here is we’re almost four months into Biden’s presidency and the Democrats still aren’t sure precisely *how* they’d like to dismantle tech. Worth paying attention to:

Ah, yes, and Gavin Newsom is definitely up for recall. Caitlyn Jenner is running against him! As per the last recall, we can expect 1) many, many more people to run, and 2) yet another international embarrassment for the state of California. Let the circus begin.