Tech Bros, Twitter, and Toxicity

I am old enough to remember the dot com boom. It was like the Palaeolithic Era. It was well before the “tech bros” had evolved, though the Neanderthal versions were there. At the time, I worked for a start up that was attempting to turn itself into a major corporation. The original owner was still around, the original programmer held sway. Documentation and structured working processes were coming in, but they grated against a firm that operated on the basis of intuition and personality.

The culture was often fun but it was also toxic. The teams competed to see who would come in the earliest, stay the latest, drink the most. I wasn’t particularly well paid, but I recall using my limited cash to pay for many late night sessions in London pubs, consuming pints of dark ale. Often, the teams would go to a cafe the next day that was run by a couple from Kazakhstan who served up fried eggs, bacon, and fried bread. I still recall the heavy scent of warm, cheap vegetable oil emanating from the kitchen.

The behaviour was just as destructive as the long hours and the diet. Senior managers began relationships with personal assistants. Alcohol fuelled many instances of post-coital regret. Hurt feelings, perhaps irreparable in some instances, were a result.

Looking back, I see how the tangled weeds of toxic masculinity took root then. In order to impress the owner, one had to show dedication to the work, but the work itself had to be presented with a total confidence that is unwarranted and dangerous in technology – always something can go wrong. Perhaps, the subconscious knowledge that something could blow up was blotted out with alcohol and the bacchanals that occurred nearly every evening. The inappropriate relationships were perhaps the response of drowning people; at the same time, it kept the testosterone levels high.

It ended. The owner sold his firm to a larger, more established competitor. He pocketed millions and walked away. All the practices which had made everything seem like it was poised on the edge of a volcano, were discontinued. Many people, including my team, were made redundant. I left of my own accord. I never worked in such an environment again.

One would have hoped that we would have learned something from this period; my firm was not alone in having this peculiar culture. Staff from other technology firms frequented the same watering holes. Reports of their behaviour were no better than ours. As painful as it was to walk away from a job that I was doing well despite the circumstances, I breathed a sigh of relief: at least the professional era, as I thought of it then, would lead to greater calm and stability. Code would be efficient. Hardware would be appropriate to the task. Decisions would be made on the basis of information rather than instinct.

My hopes have been completely dashed. If there is a symbol of our age, it is the unqualified, uninformed (invariably white) man who “shoots from the hip”; unlike the dot commers of my time, they lack the introspection and inherent doubt to feel any fragility. Rather, they regard offence and destruction as a positive outcome.

Take Elon Musk. He has achieved great things: however, I wonder how much of his “greatness” was facilitated by economic confidence. His father was co-owner of an emerald mine. Having said this, Starlink is a great achievement and is helping Ukraine in its war against Russia.

And yet, he decided to spend $44 billion to acquire Twitter. No sane valuation provided evidence that this was a good idea. Musk has carelessly fired a lot of staff. He has gone onto his platform and pursued users demanding $8 for a premium account. He created a programme that allowed unverified users to look like verified ones. The results have been chaos: an account impersonating Eli Lilly suggested insulin would be free. We were reminded how critical Twitter is for companies to market their news. The stock market instantly took fright and Eli Lilly lost a substantial chunk of its valuation before the matter was cleared up. Lockheed Martin, Chiquita Bananas were all similarly affected.

Musk did not pause: rather, he told his staff he wanted them to be “hardcore” and demanded they come into the office despite Twitter having had a home-based working policy hitherto. It appears this was another trigger for mass resignations. Musk appears to have few, if any regrets. After all, he may have done it for the “lolz” and “owning” people. Neither of these fill a bank account, ensure a business is successful, and add utility of any kind to society.

We see variants of this behaviour across politics and industry. Sometimes they are satirised: the British comedian Josh Berry created “Rafe Hubris”, a PR consultant and “early stage tech investor” who offers advice to Conservative politicians. All of his counsel is bad and completely lacking in self awareness. “Hubris” is notable for wearing red trousers, talking in a plummy accent, and having zero doubt.

Perhaps the ultimate expression of this whole “tech bros” culture is Donald Trump. He says whatever pops into his head, no matter how untrue, self-serving and self-destructive. He wants to “own” his opponent, he is perhaps doing it part for the “lolz” and again, has zero conscience about the lives wrecked, the people tricked, the destruction wrought. His followers perhaps wish they could be just as liberated from the qualities of self-restraint and responsibility; however, these qualities are what define a civilised society.

I am a straight, white man. Despite this background, I find the pursuit of “lolz” and “owning” to be futile, nonsensical, and hurtful. Musk may be laughing into his mug of whatever he’s drinking, but a lot of people depend on Twitter to find accurate information, to market their goods and services, and interact with their friends. His former employees sunk their talents into its progress; they now have to worry about how they are going to pay their mortgages and finding jobs in a tech sector that has recently been affected by mass layoffs.

However, Elon is now able to tell whomever that it was a great ride. He can boast that he offended a lot of people, what a laugh it was, and yeah, he’s still richer than God and Donald Trump is knocking on his door. Should he let him back on? Yeah, Musk might say, just for the lolz. It doesn’t matter if democracy is collapsed as a result. And here we arrive at the central proposition of the tech bros: whatever they want, whenever they want it, supersedes any other consideration. If it amuses them, it should be done.

I am old. The phrase “barbarians at the gate” has been used many times in my lifetime. We perhaps should have worried less about them being outside our enclosure, than them rising within our institutions. And if our institutions are so weak as to not produce sufficient “antibodies” to repel them, what good are they?

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