Valve Software: free marketeer's dream, or nightmare?

The first anti-cap software company.

Valve Software's chief economist, Yanis Varoufakis, has a post up detailing the strange corporate structure of the company, famous for its string of hits from the Half Life and Portal series to Counterstrike and Team Fortress, as well as its mammoth digital distribution network Steam.

The whole post is fascinating as an introduction to the area of economics known as theory of the firm, but the really interesting part is his description of how the famously hierarchy-free company is actually practicing the free market even within the workplace.

If you work in Valve, you are given a desk with wheels, and told to spend all of your time on projects of your own choice. Obviously at the extremes, there is still control – if "projects of your own choice" means spending every working hour laying down slap bass grooves for your funk garage bank, you'll probably be asked to find employment elsewhere – but the company is serious about what it says. If an engineer on Steam wants to contribute to a marketing piece about Portal 2, they can. The company is fastidious about hiring all-rounders, and an earlier profile of the "Valve method" contains the killer explanation

The first thing you should know here is that Gabe [Newell] is on top, and there are 249 people below him. That’s the whole hierarchy

That number has gone up now – to around 400 people – but the pattern remains the same.

Some might be tempted to describe this collective model of the company as the ultimate example of anarchist organisation in action, but Varoufakis sees it as the exact opposite: a rare entry of free market ideals inside the corporation, which is normally – indeed, according to the arguments of Roland Coase, definitionally – an area characterised by the absence of market principles. 

Varoufakis writes:

Each employee chooses (a) her partners (or team with which she wants to work) and (b) how much time she wants to devote to various competing projects. In making this decision, each Valve employee takes into account not only the attractiveness of projects and teams competing for their time but, also, the decisions of others. The reason is that, especially when insufficiently informed about projects and teams (e.g. when an employee has recently joined Valve), an employee can gather much useful information about projects and teams simple by observing how popular different projects and teams are (a) with others in general, (b) with others whose interests/talents are closer to their own.

Just like in a marketplace, everything in Valve is in flux. People move about (making use of their desk’s wheels), new teams are formed, new projects are concocted. All this information is observable by the naked eye (one notices an empty spot where David’s desk used to be, and then finds out that David moved to the 4th floor to work with Tom, Dick and Harriet), on the company’s intranet, in cross-team meetings where teams inform each other on what they are working on). People learn constantly, both by observing and by doing, the value to them of different projects and teams. These subjective values keep changing, as the time and team formation signals that are emitted by everyone else are updated.

So the perfect anarchist collective is actually the perfect capitalist corporation? Maybe, maybe not. The crucial thing about Valve's "market" is that it doesn't actually use money. Although much of the advantages of a real market can be analogised over to this system, it loses some pretty crucial aspects. If you are bidding with your time and attention, although others may try to win you round, you can't horde your time; can't distort the market; can't turn your holdings into power. Can't, really, do anything except use that time throughout the working day as you see fit. 

Analogising the company to a market economy may show where the efficiency actually stems from, but it doesn't make the methods involved capitalist - they are anything but.

The logo of Valve software.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear