‘Chaos Monkeys’ peers through the opacity of online advertising

Antonio Garcia Martinez (from author's website)
Chaos Monkeys by Antonio Garcia Martinez

Harper. 528p $29.99

In our modern tech- and business-groupthink-jargon-laden world, “disruption” describes the act of overturning old business models for sleeker, cheaper ones. It’s a positive term, a synonym for innovation that effectively hides its many victims. You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs, we’re told, and you can’t create Uber without driving middle-aged taxi cab drivers—with no pensions but the medallions they spent millions on—out of business.

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In his new book, Chaos Monkeys, the tech advertising entrepreneur Antonio García Martínez tells the story of his own career traveling through playgrounds and wastelands of disruption on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley, particularly at Facebook. Like many similar memoirs currently being published by 30-something tech and finance experts who know a market when they see one, it is both insightful and puerile, a glimpse behind the curtains of today that revels in its excesses yet also presents issues worth considering, particularly regarding the largely unexplored world of online advertising.

One could understand why a reader might put Chaos Monkeys down early, as its initial sections offer the standard, tired impulses toward the arrogant and the crass. “The all-out, unfettered, and glorified pursuit of gain” on Wall Street, Martínez opines in the first chapter, “was like sex in pubescent adolescence: It was all you could think about, and all you wanted to think about.”

Imagining himself a deep thinker, Martínez provides many such pearls. “What is writing?” he says later. “It’s me, the author, taking the state inside my mind and, via the gift of language, grafting it onto yours.” (Yes, that was the spirit of Flannery O’Connor you just heard screaming.)

“I envy the religious,” he writes elsewhere. “Their inner lives are so blessed. If you’re Christian, do as the Gospel says, live a Christian life, and salvation is yours…. No gnawing sense of existential dread when staring at a godless, star-filled night sky.” That’s right, believers, your salvation is assured and your lives are dread-free. (Paradoxically, Martínez graduated from Belén Jesuit Prep in Miami. He should know better.)

But once Martínez turns to his years working at Facebook in online advertising, Chaos Monkeys suddenly becomes a book worth reading. Yes, there are still bizarre stories, but they’re ones we haven’t heard. The Facebook that he joined in 2011 has a strangely messianic cast, its employees seeing their company as “the ultimate and final chapter” in mass media. “Facebook,” Martínez writes, wanted to be “the New York Times of You, Channel You,” a place where news was funneled down to its ultimate “essence,” namely only those stories of interest to us. (Goodness knows, why should one be exposed to anything else?)

Mark Zuckerberg, within this world, is understood as a sort of tech Jesus, leading the company and the world to the beloved kingdom, though not one of mercy so much as unrestricted access. Soviet-like stenciled posters of Zuckerberg adorn the hallways of Facebook’s offices, complete with quotes from him like “Proceed and Be Bold!” and “Get In Over Your Head!” (He even gives his employees a little book of his aphorisms.)

Even more interesting is Martínez’s analysis of the world of online advertising. Consider for a moment—when you do a Google search, how does Google determine which ads you see? It’s not an insignificant question; enormous amounts of money can ride on those choices both for Google and for its advertisers. Martínez relays the example of “mesothelioma,” which in 2011 was the search term for which Google charged advertisers the most. Mesothelioma is a form of lung disease common among those who have worked in asbestos plants; by 2011, because of successful class action suits involving mesothelioma, the demand among legal firms to be the top ad to pop up for such a search was enormous. And thus Google could charge equally enormous amounts. (Martínez notes: “Want to screw a slimy lawyer? Google ‘mesothelioma’ and start randomly clicking on the ads that appear. You’re costing a lawyer almost a whole benjamin every time you do that.”)

As to how Google chooses one advertiser over another, it turns out that online advertising has become very much akin to Wall Street trading. In the milliseconds between when we enter our search parameters and when our results pop up, Google holds a real-time auction among all those hungry for our attention. “Looking at the bid, and estimating the likelihood of a click [a k a our search history],” Martínez explains, “Google takes the product of the two (which is how much it will make per query) and picks the highest.” It’s an astonishing process to consider, and given how well Google does it, one most laypersons would have no reason even to notice.

Intriguingly, Facebook had no such technological advertising savvy when Martínez joined the company. They had persuaded companies to pay huge sums for “Likes” on their Facebook pages (where having a lot of Likes makes it seem as though your brand is very popular). “However, it was never quite explained,” Martínez describes, “how Likes would transubstantiate into actual sales dollars.” They also had pop-up ads keyed to user interests, but with those interests cast so broadly—“likes cats”—the ads were rarely targeted enough to be effective.

The heart of the latter half of Chaos Monkeys is a fascinating drama, which lies in Martínez’s attempt to get Facebook to consider instituting a Google-type advertising exchange, what he imagines could be “the New York Stock Exchange of eyeballs, human desire traded billions of times a day in real time.” From the outside this move seemed like a no-brainer, both because it had become the industry standard and was a means to generate enormous new income.

But with this sense of itself as the future of humanity, Facebook proves to be no ordinary company. When you’ve got a billion users, Martínez points out, it doesn’t matter if your advertising model is enormously flawed. Just a little success per user still means billions in revenue. What is more, it takes an awful lot of new income to make much of an impression. An initiative that takes time to succeed becomes easily dismissed.

While laying out his struggle to try to convince this behemoth to adjust its course, Martínez offers great insight into the highly attenuated reality of online privacy. Facebook prides itself on protecting the anonymity of its users (believe it or not), yet Martínez repeatedly shows how advertisers and their middlemen today are so sophisticated that they’re able to take Facebook’s “anonymized” information, connect it to data they have gathered on us from other websites and determine exactly who we are and what we want.

Martínez himself has no qualms about this, or seemingly any degradation of our privacy for the purposes of commerce. Those who complain about these things are “Facebook whiners,” he says, “like infants who haven’t learned object permanence yet”; likewise, “ad blocking is tantamount to theft, or at the very least running a toll booth without paying.” I can’t say I agree, but his point of view definitely gets you thinking.

Though the early sections of Chaos Monkeys have little substance to offer, those willing to push through (and/or skip to Facebook) will be rewarded. As much as we fret about the N.S.A. spying on us, reading Chaos Monkeys we realize just how much we willingly have given up our privacy both to companies we trust and to others we’ve never heard of. Basically, the internet today is like a city in which the mayor has sold its security camera feeds to Amazon, the porn industry and the Gap. Without ever explicitly asking us, almost every website we visit is making money by allowing other companies the right to watch and record everything we do there.

Whether, like Martínez, we rejoice in that fact or fear it, his book certainly helps us to see those cameras and consider their significance.

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