What Scammers and 17th Century Pirates Can Teach Silicon Valley

lexa Clay travelled the world to find out what black market innovators can teach tech startups.

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Jun 5 2015, 4:42pm

Pirates dividing their treasure. Image: Wikipedia

Alexa Clay wants to teach Silicon Valley a thing or two about disruption using lessons from the underground. In her upcoming book, The Misfit Economy, she casts pirates, hackers, scammers, and terrorists as "innovators" and "entrepreneurs" who have valuable insights into strategy and organization for the Musks and Thiels of the world.

For the book, Clay traveled to Brazil, India, China, and elsewhere to find unexpected, even darkly tongue-in-cheek, case studies to get her point across. For example, one could be forgiven for seeing her invocation of the "rubbish dumps of Lagos"—a populous city in Nigeria where e-waste is shipped in by the ton and scavenged by children and smelted in backyards, exposing people to harmful chemicals—as tone-deaf, considering the book's intended audience. The same could certainly be said for her description of the US prison system as a center for "amazing entrepreneurship."

But when I caught up with Clay, she told me that she's playing a deeper, and much smarter, game with the folks up in the Valley.

"This project was a way of positioning this through a different language that made people pay attention," Clay told me in an interview. "You start paying attention to these entrepreneurs after dressing it up in the language of the dominant ideology, which is Silicon Valley entrepreneurship—which sucks. The point is to say, actually, this whole start-up agenda, of creating pointless businesses, isn't the right one, so let's look at what these misfits are doing and the real issues."

Waste-pickers in India. Image: Alexa Clay

Clay might just be on to something here, as the "outlaw" has been a popular archetype among tech companies for some time, especially with sharing economy companies like Uber. Run-ins with city governments and the law, as well as rebel shit like like office raids by revenue agents, have characterized the company's ascendence. But is this the kind of activity that Clay hopes to see among the techno-elite in the West?

"Three years ago, everyone thought the sharing economy was amazing and would foster citizen-level entrepreneurship," Clay said. "But really it's just a wolf in dressed up in sheep's clothing. They're in bed with the same financial interests. Uber's ethics are really questionable, and it's a platform that is aggregating capital. It's not like it's citizen-powered."

So, in short, no. Clay told me she'd be happier with Uber and other sharing economy companies if they operated more like the pirate crews of the 17th century, which are said to have distributed their profits more or less equally. The idea, Clay said, is that Uber takes the age-old idea of people helping people and injects itself as a corporate intermediary, effectively monetizing community. "Now, rather than just borrow your neighbour's lawnmower," Clay said, "You have to go through a centralized platform and pay them to rent their lawnmower. I think it's a pernicious form of capitalism, but with the right probing it could be salvaged."

Whether Clay's intended start-up culture audience will take any of this to heart or just continue on their merry faux-outlaw way remains to be seen, but we may find out when The Misfit Economy drops on June 23rd—an occasion that I was told will be marked by a party in New York City attended by Richard Branson and Buzzfeed executives. Rick Ross will also be there, whose presence, I assume, is meant to give all the shoulder-rubbing some "underground" edge.