Dan Lyons Looks at How Silicon Valley Makes Us Lab Rats

While “hustle porn” is on the way out as something that most people idolize, it’s at least worth wondering why we had some obsession with it anyway. This is where Dan Lyons comes in, specifically with a look at how Silicon Valley has been using workers as Lab Rats to change the way we work, in his book titled Lab Rats.

He breaks this book up into three parts.

First, he introduces us to all the “crap” theories coming out of Silicon Valley that are influencing the way we work today.

Second, he looks at what he believes the four factors are that are destroying our work. They are:

  1. Money (or paying us less with less benefits)
  2. Insecurity (we’re not a family, we’re a team and people get cut)
  3. Change (constant low grade change keeps us off balance)
  4. Dehumanization (treating us like robots with crazy quotas)

Part three is the author’s look at some companies that are doing work differently by basically reversing the four factors above.

The big takeaway is that workers today are subjected to a low grade stress all the time. It’s not like what our bodies were evolved for, some big danger creating stress which then goes away for a while and we get to rest.

The fact that workers are paid less compared to decades ago, creates a constant stress around money and not even having the “American Dream” in sight at all.

The fact that most of the tech world views job security as something that’s bad means we’re always worried about getting fired. Lyons cites research that says workers without security are worse off health wise. They have higher rates of emotional exhaustion. They have more accidents at work and are more likely to have ethical lapses. Finally, they put in less effort are more willing to talk poorly of the company and are regularly looking for other work on the company dime1.

Lyons equates the change we’re seeing to living in a hurricane that never ends. He calls open offices “nightmarish hellholes” that pawn off squeezing pennies out of floor space as a way that companies are being forward thinking and creating innovation2. Many of the employees that talk about their new “innovative” companies use the same language as is used by people coming out of war zones3.

Finally, dehumanization on a large scale is simply killing us because we’re not robots. From his personal experience he cites a manager that didn’t know anyone’s name, but would send out surveys many times a week to find out what people thought of the workplace4. Taking it further is biometric companies that want to track our every movement at work with NFC chips implanted in our bodies to make sure that our bathroom breaks aren’t too long5.

Trust Pride and Camaraderie

For those companies that want to combat this flip the four factors on their head and do the opposite of what Silicon Valley is doing. The companies consistently voted the best places to work at have trust in their employees and the employees trust the company to look after them. They take pride in their work and mission and they feel like a family so they develop a shared camaraderie6.

In this section he cites a few companies that are doing it right. They are:

Lyons finishes with a look at “Zebra’s” which are the opposite of unicorns. They’re sturdy and they turn a profit so that they can keep going. Here comes one of my favourite quotes as well:

The tech industry used to produce big, money-gushing companies all the time. But in the last ten to fifteen years, something has gone wrong. In that time period, Silicon Valley has become obsessed with unicorns private companies that grow like crazy and achieve valuations of more than $1 billion. The startup term unicorn was coined in 2013, but the hunt for them began long before that, back in the early 2000s, when the second dotcom book began. In the current boom, VCs have become very good at creating unicorns. Today there are hundreds of them. Some have gone public, and some remain private. Many provide really terrific services. But as magical as these companies may be, there’s one thing unicorns seem to be unable to do — turn a profit. 7

I particularly liked the part that calls out the lack of profit, and yet we love these companies that are actually hobbies financed by rich people. They’re not businesses, because businesses turn a profit.

That’s about where he ends his look.

Critique of Lab Rats by Dan Lyons

Overall I found the arguments that Lyons was making compelling. I found his push for protectionism (Chapter 6) a bit over the top. While I think Uber is a terrible company as it treats it’s employees like crap, I don’t think that my local taxi company would have an Uber like app without the threat that Uber may come to town and kill them.

At times it felt like Lyons was saying that innovation shouldn’t happen unless it keeps all existing industries in place without any ill effects. I’m sure the horse buggy manufacturers would have loved this idea as cars started to gather momentum.

We do need more zebra’s, but I feel less concerned that we worry about disrupting old businesses. Things need to change sometimes and this is a good thing. Let’s just make sure we treat people well at the same time.

Another weakness of the book is that it has no citations specifically. This puts the burden on the reader to dig through the “selected” bibliography to try and find the specific reference that Lyon’s is using. Having gone through some of the specific claims against the bibliography, I have like 15 things to check through to see if his claim is true. Better books put the burden on the author to support specifically the claims they are making.

Should You Read Lab Rats by Dan Lyons?

Yes, I enjoyed Lab Rats by Dan Lyons, with the caveats above. If you’re looking for a book to back up a slower pace that doesn’t kill you, this is a good one. It’s a counter movement to the metrics and measurement of every second of life that you see in many companies.

As a business owner, take his four factors and see how your company stacks up. Are you paying well? Are you treating your people like humans? Are you introducing change at a sane pace? Are you providing security to your people?

If you can do these things, you’re going to have a better business and people that do better work for you.

Purchase Lab Rats on Amazon

Photo by: carbonnyc


  1. Find much of this on page 119 in the hard cover 
  2. Find this around page 131 in the hard cover 
  3. Page 141 
  4. Page 148 
  5. Page 156 
  6. Page 172 
  7. Page 228