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Abolish Silicon Valley by Wendy Liu
Abolish Silicon Valley by Wendy Liucourtesy of Repeater Books

Why we must destroy and rebuild the toxic tech industry

From Uber to Cambridge Analytica, Wendy Liu’s Abolish Silicon Valley delves into the evils of the tech world. Could the coronavirus pandemic bring it down?

When former tech worker Wendy Liu started to have misgivings about her career in Silicon Valley, she turned to the writings of radical cultural theorist Mark Fisher. That decision would lead her to pursue a very different path to the one she’d originally chosen, moving to London where she continued to research ways in which socialist politics could be extended and applied to one of the biggest and most powerful industries in the world.

The result is her new book, Abolish Silicon Valley, detailing the problems of a small minority controlling technological systems that affect us all. Books detailing the many problems with Silicon Valley appear every day, but few of them offer solutions that go look beyond the current economic model.

We caught up with Wendy at a time when the world is facing a growing number of challenges and roadblocks, to find out more about her motivations for writing the book and her hopes for what it might achieve. 

Why should we care about the technology we use and the industry responsible for making it?

Wendy Liu: When I first started writing this book, I set out with the intention of reaching tech workers, people who have never encountered left theory. But whether you work in the tech industry or not, it does matter that there are these corporations controlling the technology that you use every single day. Even if you don’t have a phone, or if you never leave the house – the world is being shaped by technology. And right now, that technology is being developed and controlled by a small number of wealthy corporations driven by the profit motive, and that precludes a whole load of other things that we could have been doing with that technology instead. It also means that a small number of people also have a tremendous amount of wealth and power. And as much as these people would like you to think that they’re the best people to be in control of such wealth.

You know, Bill Gates wants you to think that his foundation is the only way to get stuff done. But if we lived in a world that had more democratic, accountable structures, these problems wouldn’t have been created in the first place. So it matters because the tech industry is so powerful, it’s so wealthy and it scales so quickly. And it’s doing this mostly in a black box. Most of the decisions being made are not made public. And people who are not part of the industry, have no say in it. It’s changing the world and none of us have been consulted about whether or not we’re ok with the changes being made. We were never asked whether we were ok with Facebook having the power to host ads that would lead to Donald Trump being elected, for example. This is very undemocratic. And that affects everyone.

For those on the outside, tech can seem impossibly complicated. One of the things I really liked about the book was the way that it busts the myth of technology always being smart and progressive. You show that it can be a very messy and inefficient industry.

Wendy Liu: The image – the myth – of companies like Google is that they’re places that empower their workers. But it didn’t feel like that when I worked there. I couldn’t understand why at first, but I decided to try and change things by setting up a startup with some people I knew in college. I bought into the whole culture of startups, that glamorous idea that it’s fun, exciting, the chance to be the master of your own destiny and an opportunity to invent something that will make a real, positive change in the world. I bought into that, I really did.

But I quickly learned that there is a lot less freedom than I’d hoped for. People who try to start companies are beholden to others in ways they might not realise. Say you decide that you’re going to try and help homeless people. You can’t do that, because at the end of the day you have to pursue profit. There might be some small improvement in the short-term, but shareholders need a return on their investment, and the need to turn a profit can often turn those very lofty ambitions into something a lot more sinister. I think there are a lot of people in the industry who do mean well, but the environment makes that impossible.

“How do you get people who are very privileged, making a lot of money – and whose paycheck relies on them not believing it – to wake up to what’s going on?” – Wendy Liu

But are the people working in the offices of these Silicon Valley tech firms, aware of the exploitation happening in their name? I’m talking about the people at the front line offering many services, so Lyft and Uber drivers, Deliveroo riders, Amazon warehouse workers, etc.

Wendy Liu: The people I try to surround myself with are more progressive and pay attention and care about these things, but I definitely see a subset of the industry who either doesn’t care or doesn’t understand what’s happening. I remember having a conversation with a guy who used to work at Uber and he was basically saying that Uber was creating opportunities for drivers and therefore making their lives better. He genuinely thought the neoliberal line that giving people freedom and ‘opportunity’ to work for $5 an hour, that that was a net good. A lot of people in the tech industry I think don’t realise just how shitty it is. I was guilty of that too, I suppose, until I started to be aware of the leftist perspective. And it’s very easy, when you’re living in a bubble making a lot of money and your life is devoted to making a lot of money and pursuing leisure, to think that other people are similar and if they’re not then it’s only temporary, or it’s not a big deal, because the system ultimately works. People get sucked into the line that these companies put out.

In recent years there has been more coverage of the terrible conditions people face, but I think that a lot of people in Silicon Valley have developed a siege mentality, where they’re in a bunker and it’s tech companies vs. The World. ‘The East Coast media hates us and they’re making up stories about us to make us look bad because we’re taking away their profits’. I think it’s more common among leaders of the industry, but also normal people too. So that makes it very difficult. How do you get people who are very privileged, making a lot of money – and whose paycheck relies on them not believing it – to wake up to what’s going on?

You’re committed to reforming the technology sector, rather than actually abolishing it. Would that be fair to say?

Wendy Liu: I think a lot of what I say would make venture capitalists bristle. They’d argue that I’m taking away innovation, for example. But I’m not trying to stop innovation or the development of technology. The problem of Silicon Valley is it’s relationship with capital. It’s the profit motive. IT’s the fact that a very small minority of people control the industry. A better tech industry would be one that doesn’t have such an astronomical return to capital. It’s one that doesn’t create billionaires, or even millionaires. I’m talking about abolishing the link between technology and capital. Now that can mean so many different things, which I cover towards the end of the book. One thing would be to have more co-ops, we could have non-profits, we could have public services. So many of the services we have now should be brought under public control, to be done more democratically.

But there’s a growing problem of tech companies thinking they don’t need to respond to labour laws. In California there’s been a bill to say that Uber drivers and Deliveroo riders for example are employees. And the companies are just saying, no, we’re not going to abide by that.

Part of the problem as I understand it, is that a lot of those companies aren’t actually that profitable. So the only way they can create surplus, is by driving down standards for workers. 

Wendy Liu: Right. But if you can’t afford to pay people minimum wage, you shouldn’t be operating as a business. What’s interesting in the policy debate around all this in recent years, is there’s been a lot of anti-trust discourse. Trust used to be connected to consumer prices, but that’s not the most useful way of talking about monopolies. But a new way of talking about monopolies is emerging, where it’s about power. And maybe a lot of the companies with huge amounts of power don’t look like monopolies because they’re not raising consumer prices, but they’re using that power in other ways that are damaging society in other ways, by under-paying workers, for example, or taking advantage of places that don’t have as much environment regulation, for example.

“This is a moment for us all to reflect on the fact that we’re in this together. We don’t have any apps without people to make them work. This model of a few people capturing most of the returns doesn’t work, and the pandemic is going to start exposing that in very stark terms” – Wendy Liu

A lot of people are saying that the current pandemic makes a very strong case for what you’re arguing. For example, it was recently reported that the Conservative government would be enlisting Uber and Deliveroo to try and support people in isolation, so why not incorporate them as public utilities?

Wendy Liu: I’d not read about that. But it’s really fascinating to see, during this pandemic, how loads of things that socialists have been pushing for, for such a long time – which capitalists had claimed were impossible – are now happening. Maybe we should pause rent. Maybe we should pause evictions. Maybe we should provide better, state-funded healthcare. But all along, platforms like Deliveroo and Uber should have been developed to meet social needs. A very good book on this very subject is Callum Cant’s book, Riding for Deliveroo. We have to ask ourselves: what does Deliveroo actually have? They have the app. They have the expertise to maintain that app. But the bulk of what they’re good at is acting as a private company and serving shareholders. The CEO earns far more than his workers, and that’s not a useful model during a pandemic.

This is a moment for us all to reflect on the fact that we’re in this together. We don’t have any apps without people to make them work. This model of a few people capturing most of the returns doesn’t work, and the pandemic is going to start exposing that in very stark terms. 

You’re still in Silicon Valley and presumably still encountering people from the tech industry all the time. Have you faced a lot of adversity from people for the views you’re expressing?

Wendy Liu: It was very lonely at first. I definitely didn’t know anyone in person who shared my views. When I moved to London I got really lucky and met lots of people who were thinking a lot about these issues. When I moved back to San Francisco, I found some similar groups here and I got involved in the Democratic Socialists of America, and was surprised to meet a lot of tech workers. People working at Google, Facebook, etc. Everyone is very skeptical of the tech industry. Apart from weird people on Twitter, I haven’t really been challenged much on these views. It feels like a lot of people in the industry are having this realisation at the same time.

Abolish Silicon Valley: How to Liberate Technology from Capitalism by Wendy Liu is available from Repeater Books April 14