I wrote this article a while ago but didn’t publish it because I didn’t want to give the book free publicity. However, I’ve just found out that the author, Antonio García Martínez, is now a writer at WIRED. I’m terrified to think what will happen when someone like him is a gatekeeper to how Silicon Valley is represented.
While looking for books on the tech world, I came across Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley. The book is advertised as “exposé of life inside the tech bubble.” A glimpse into his mind and the rave reviews of his male-dominated audience, I suddenly understood why there aren’t more women in tech.
The first two chapters of the book explain the author’s journey into the tech world. Dropping out after five years in the physics PhD program at UC Berkeley, he became a quant at Goldman Sachs. After three years, he returned to the Bay Area to work at a startup that optimizes ads. Together with two of his colleagues there, he built his own ads optimizing startup, not without a lawsuit from his former employer. When his team was negotiating an acquisition offer from Twitter, he deceived his cofounders to negotiate a separate deal with Facebook, royally screwing everyone in the process. He became a product manager for ads at the social network giant until he was fired two years later. He eventually landed at Twitter.
There are certain aspects of his personal and professional life that I find troublesome. He devoted a chapter to his drag race on the 101 to Stinson, swerving on “the wrong side of the road doing low triple digits … as traffic was thick on a Friday afternoon”, risking the lives of many commuters just because “losing is worse than death.” He relegated the responsibilities of child rearing to the mother of his children because he believes “better no father than a bad father.” A common theme in his career is that everyone around him seems to be an insufferable asshole, upon whom he lavishes his extensive vocabulary of profanity. This reminds me of a quote by Raylan Givens: “If you run into assholes all day, you’re the asshole.”
Given that the author seems to live in a world where people are judged based on their levels of testosterones, I shouldn’t have been surprised by the way he perceives women. It surfaced unequivocally early on in the book:
“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.”
Whenever a female character appears in his book, he makes sure to comment on her looks, preferably with creative phrases like “jaw-droppingly hot”, “‘got lost on the way to New York Fashion Week’ hot”, “jeans-clad ass.” When a woman isn’t ugly, her sole purpose in the office is to be ogled at. He nicknamed one female coworker at Facebook “PMMess”, which, any Audible listener will recognize, is a high-school spelling of “PMS”.
“PMMess, as we’ll call her, was composed of alternating Bézier curves from top to bottom: convex, then concave, and then convex again, in a vertical undulation you couldn’t take your eyes off of. Unlike most women at Facebook (or in the Bay Area, really) she knew how to dress; forties-style, form-fitting dresses from neck to knee were her mainstay. Her blond hair was offset by olive skin, and bright blue eyes shone like headlights from her neotenic face.”
To make sure that readers understand how many sperms he is capable of producing, the author takes pain to highlight his sexual escapades. He described in disturbing details a drunken romp with a female coworker in a Facebook broom closet. He proudly declared himself as a male “who’s played it fast and loose with the safe-sex rules”, yet his PhD level of physics doesn’t seem to help him understand that unprotected sex leads to pregnancy (not to mention STDs – having godparents who have spent their whole lives fighting HIV has conditioned me to respond violently to unprotected sex). He seems unable to sympathize with a woman’s pregnancy scare: “Look, woman, unless you’ve got a screaming infant in your arms and it looks like me, we have nothing to talk about.”
When he got a woman he had just met on a dating site a week ago pregnant and she confirmed her desire to keep the child “whatever my thoughts on the matter”, he lamented that he “had been snookered into fatherhood via warm smiles and pliant thighs.” “Smiles” rhymes with “thighs”, he must have felt like a poet. I thought this species of men has gone extinct in the bubble of higher education, but here we encounter one, thriving in his natural habitat of tech bros: a man who has unprotected sex with strangers and expects women to have abortions on demand.
Women aren’t the only minority the author has problems with. He’s also uncomfortable among people of color. He compared a coworker who has a “thick Indian accent” to “bored auto-rickshaw drivers in front of Connaught Place, Delhi, who’d overcharge you a hundred rupees to go down the street to Paharganj.” He evoked his disgust for East Palo Alto, “the local slum that once had the highest murder rate in the Bay Area” by mentioning that “two of the local schools are named after César Chávez and Ron McNair, an African American astronaut”, as in, “how low could this neighborhood be if the best people they knew were colored.”
What particularly bothered me is not his disparaging view of people of minorities, but how this view is perceived. On Goodreads, the book gathers an average rating of 3.73. While this isn’t a great number – the average rating on Goodreads is between 3.8 and 4.0 – it doesn’t make any sense given the abundance of misogyny in the book. If an article on the New York Times or Wired calls its female readers “soft and weak, cosseted and naive, generally full of shit” and refers to “feminism” as “self-regarding entitlement”, it would have no doubt be forced to be taken down with profuse apologies from the editors. Yet, we have this book published by one of the top 5 publishers in the US. Somebody must have edited it, reviewed it, cut out excerpts to promote it – and nobody saw a problem? TechCrunch called it “this year’s best non-business book about business.” The New York Times cautiously opened with “there is plenty not to like” about the book, but still gave it a lukewarm review.
I decided to delve into the reviews section to see who his fans are. As of Jan 15, 2019, the book has 787 reviews but Goodreads only allows me to see 299 of them. Goodreads has more female users than male users, which isn’t a surprise given that Pew research has shown that women read more than men. According to the site, in the first year of publication, women make up 80% of a female author’s audience and 50% of a male author’s.
Curiously enough, Chaos Monkeys’ audience is made up mostly of men. Out of 299 reviews, 16 were written by users whose genders I couldn’t verify. Among the other 283 reviews, 215 (76%) were authored by men.
The distributions of ratings are staggeringly different. On average, men give the book a rating of 3.6 while women give this book a rating of slightly below 3. One in 6.8 women feels compelled enough to give the book a one-star rating, while that number is one in 16.5 for men. When it comes to misogyny, men are apparently more tolerant than women.
A common reaction of female readers to this book is revulsion. Elyssa gave the book a two-star: “His language and attitude is solid evidence of why there are so few women in tech. If I had to work with men like him, I would leave the field, too.” A less flattering review comes from Neda, who gave the book a one-star:
“I wish I could give this book a lower star. I absolutely hated every single word of this book. misogynistic, arrogant, self serving, an absolutely horrible example of a human being and what passes as a software engineer these days. Antonio should be a model for how not to bring up your sons and not allow your daughters to meet. Every single phrase in this book reeks of his egotism and self gratifying life style. He is the prime example of the era we live in, driven by money, power and narcissism… shame on the publisher who killed trees to get this out onto the bookshelves.”
Reviews among his male audience are more polarized. There are men who hate the book. There are men who live in the author’s mindset and wholeheartedly give the book 5-star. What I find most worrisome are the reviews in the middle of the spectrum, those along the line of: “Well there’s misogyny but it’s a fun read.” For example, Shashwat gave the book a four-star with the review: “Great book by an honest writer, even though some parts may classify as chauvinistic.” Albert who gave the book a three-star after admitting that the book belongs to the “gonzo tech-testosterone lit genre.”
There should be no “but” after sexism or racism. It’s one thing to ignore it altogether – not everyone has the fortitude and integrity to stare down a can of worms. It’s another to bring it up and shrug it off as something inconsequential. It’s to say: I know people of minorities are being mistreated all around me, but I can live with that.
This indifference is what allows misogyny to proliferate. As a woman in tech, I feel unsafe not only because people like this author ogle at and marginalize me, but also because those who see it happen do nothing about it. Here’s a man who boasts about abandoning his children, lying to his co-founders, marginalizing women and people of colors. Yet he continues getting hired by big tech companies and being embraced by decision makers in tech who happen to be men.
When I shared my frustration about this book with my friends, most of them told me to ignore it: “He’s just an asshole, not worth your time.” We can ignore a random asshole on the street, but how can we ignore a plethora of them in our workplace, especially in managerial positions? Ignoring the book is the same as allowing more books like it to be published, encouraging misogyny to be the norm.
I confronted the author and he responded with a lengthy, convoluted message that can be summarized as: “you’re leaving a one-star review for Silicon Valley, not my book.” He defended himself as a messenger who sheds light on the culture of Silicon Valley. Whatever uncomfortable feeling I might have for the book is because of the culture itself. “Hate the game, don’t hate the player” – he’s just doing what everyone else is doing. Yet, there would be no game if there were no player. There would be no sexism in Silicon Valley if there were no one to perpetuate it.
Presenting himself as the typical, standard version of heterosexual males in tech not only is a gross insult to men everywhere – I know plenty of men in tech who are accomplished without ever having to abandon their children or nickname their female coworkers “PMS” – but also gives the confused men of the digital revolution an easy way out. Why strive to be loving husbands, attentive fathers, and respectful colleagues, when you can be greedy, deceitful chauvinists and get away with it?
The lack of women in tech is a complicated problem. Attacking or ignoring one book written by a misogynist won’t solve it. However, rejecting the book as a typical narrative of our industry might be a good start. The book tells the story of an uninspiring, morally questionable individual in tech, who stands out only for the way he disparages people of minorities. It’s not “a guide to the spirit of Silicon Valley” as the author and his publisher try to present. Men don’t have to be like the author, and women don’t have to work with, even tolerate, men like the author to fit into the tech world.