Book Review: “Chaos Monkeys” by Antonio Garcia Martinez

Chaos Monkeys by Antonio Garcia Martinez

Martinez has a sharp tongue and a bad attitude—a sure formula for a best seller.

He recounts his life in Silicon Valley, first at a start up (out of Y Combinator) and then at Facebook. Replete with detail, it’s not a completely pretty picture. As the subtitle implies, “Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley”, there is a lot of money sloshing around, and a lot of randomness to the outcomes, and a lot of people who think they are smart because they have been lucky.

Martinez takes pains to tell us a lot about the ways that venture capital, startups, and acquisitions actually work. I think this book should be required reading for undergraduates with dreams of startup riches. Neither Martinez nor I am saying you shouldn’t do it, but shouldn’t you know the nature of the game?

Martinez is in the advertising business, so we learn a lot more that we might want to know about how that works. He also gives a full throated defense of the notion that it is immoral to complain about, resist, or block digital advertising. “What is good for Facebook et al is good for humanity” seems to be his view. He is clearly wrong on this point, but this is his livelihood, so we can forgive his wrong headedness.

The book contains far more personal information than I really wanted to learn. He recounts a less than wonderful family life, and confesses far more personal issues and events than necessary. However, his discussion of “work-life balance” in Silicon Valley, his own, and others, can serve as an important first hand report on both the life itself, and his views on the driving motivations.

Martinez is well educated, and clear sighted enough to perceive the exploitation and inequalities within and around Silicon Valley. His obvious disdain for even contemporary progressive politics only makes his observations all the more trenchant. This is no looser outsider beefing about gentrification, this is an insider describing the reality.

This book is partly about score-settling, so it gets really snarky in places. Sure that’s entertaining, but who would write such things? Much of what he writes is surprising only that it has been published. If there are no lawsuits, I’ll be shocked.

As I said, this book should be required reading for all the youngsters hoping to get into the startup game. You need to know how money and power works, and what you are going to have to do. You need to place your trust carefully, and provisionally. And most of all, you need to realize what the odds really are, and what you are likely to gain—and what it will cost you.

Martinez is especially harsh about the “trap” of family life, and how people adjust their lifestyle to their income. He points to all the people who have a house and kids, and expenses that even two high incomes are not enough to support—effectively wage-slavery at a higher tax bracket. Youngsters thinking about entering this new rat race might want to strategize about how to beat this game.  (Hint:  Do you really need to live in the Bay Area?)

I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t like working with him, and he would have no use at all for me. Nevertheless, this is a valuable book which will likely be a classic.

  1. Antonio Garcia Martinez , Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley, New York, Harper, 2016.


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