Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.” She co-hosts the history podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History” and is co-producer of the podcast “Welcome To Your Fantasy.” The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
“I was up there with him at the top of the world.”
That’s how Harrison Weber, editorial director of the office-leasing company WeWork, recalled the evening in 2013 when he stood by the company’s founder, Adam Neumann, in the upper floors of the Woolworth building.
WeWork had just moved to add 30 floors of the landmark building to its holdings, part of a real-estate-buying binge that would end with WeWork occupying more office space in several major cities than any other private company. At the time, WeWork was one of the country’s hottest new start-ups, with a valuation of $47 billion.
And then, just like that, it collapsed. Neumann, a charismatic leader whose penchant for impossibly lofty – and sometimes, just impossible – goals, easily charmed investors. But that did not translate into successful management. By late 2019, the company’s valuation had slid to around $7 billion, and Neumann resigned. He took a $1.7 billion severance package with him. (The company survived in altered form.)
That boom-bust story, and the fantasies that fueled it, is now a miniseries: “WeCrashed,” premiering Friday on Apple TV+. It joins shows like “The Dropout,” streaming on Hulu, about Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, and Showtime’s “Super Pumped,” about Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick.
Together, they represent a damning examination of the Silicon-Valley-centered, venture-capital-funded economy. The stories are ready-made for dramatization, stories of hubris and excess that hurtle toward an inevitable crash. But they also reveal a deep anxiety about the new economy, a sense that, at the end of the day, it creates overnight billionaires but little of lasting value.
These are not just shows about founders and frauds but also about workplaces and labor. The stories of Theranos, WeWork and Uber are stories of workplace abuses: punishing schedules (Neumann liked to schedule 2 a.m. meetings, apparently just because he could), bullying and sexual harassment and recriminations against whistleblowers. Uber, for instance, established a $4.4 million fund to settle harassment suits after a federal investigation into the company’s “cultural of sexual harassment and retaliation.” In response to investigations into the company’s workplace culture, shareholders forced Uber CEO Travis Kalanick to resign.
Uber and WeWork continued on after Neumann and Kalanick were ousted and walked away with handsome financial payouts, while Holmes’ company, unsalvageable, went bust virtually overnight. In the case of Theranos, employees were then faced with the consequences of working for a business engaged in fraud. Holmes claimed to have invented a machine that could run a series of blood tests based on a single drop of blood; there was never a working prototype. Earlier this year, she was convicted on three counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, felonies that each carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. The trial for her deputy Ramesh Balwani began earlier this week.
It’s clear that on-screen depictions of Theranos and WeWork are timely. Yet in their skeptical portrayals of the new economy, these shows are also part of a longer canon of robust literature on the meaning, and meaninglessness, of work. That literature winds back to the origins of office culture in the mid-19th century.
Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener” follows the main character, a young man hired to copy legal documents by hand. By the third day of work, Bartleby has decided to resist the rote work assigned to him, responding, “I would prefer not to” whenever he is asked to do a project. His employer, unable to comprehend an obstinate employee, goes to elaborate lengths to contain and avoid Bartleby. His befuddlement at Bartleby’s response showed how important compliance was to office culture, even in its earliest days, and how central resisting that compliance would be to workplace literature.
The office literature genre came of age in the US after World War II. A growing, mostly White middle class found both economic security and new anxieties about the culture of conformity and competition that seemed to define not only their work lives but their home lives as well.
In novels like Sloan Wilson’s “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” the main character Tom is caught between his dread of becoming the kind of company man who wears a gray flannel suit and does as he’s told, and his desire for the stability and wealth that comes with climbing the corporate ladder. Even as he wrestles with how high to rise and how hard to work, he can never escape the utter meaninglessness of middle-class corporate life, which hums steadily in the background of the novel even as the characters move and grow and change.
That sense of ennui moved from the background to the foreground in the workplace comedies of the 1990s and 2000s. In movies like “Office Space” and series like “The Office,” creators understood that the realities of office life were too absurd to be played for anything other than laughs. The films bridge the old and new economies: In “The Office,” the company is a paper company teetering on irrelevance; in “Office Space,” it’s a software company that doesn’t appear to do much, if anything. And while there is a plot about fraud at the heart of “Office Space,” it is carried out by the workers, not the owners, and has no consequences.
The new era of shows represented by “The Dropout” and “WeCrashed” focus more on the founders than the workers at these companies, but they still contain a serious critique of workplace culture and the new economy.
It’s impossible to watch these series and not come away convinced that there is something fundamentally farcical and fraudulent with the venture-capitalism fueled economy, which seems to have no way of discerning the difference between visionary and fantastical, and where the least scrupulous walk away with the most money, even after their ventures fail.
Of course, venture capital also fuels the companies that succeed – including the companies whose stories made “The Dropout” and “WeCrashed” possible. The shows might invite critiques of the new economy, but they are also a reminder of how inescapable it is, and how much we’ve come to accept the fraud as a price we pay for that economy’s benefits.