Book Review

Shutting down and switching off Silicon Valley

Wendy Liu’s ‘Abolish Silicon Valley: How to Liberate Technology from Capitalism (Repeater Books, 2020, £10.99) is an almost diary-like account of a young computer programmer’s slow disillusionment with the tech industry. This interview, conducted by Aidan Beatty, took place in early February 2020. It was edited down for reasons of space.

AB: You say early in your book, that the point of abolishing Silicon Valley is to build something better in its place. What would that better thing be?

WL: Part of the reason I thought it was necessary to write this book is because the mythology around the tech industry is so pervasive. It’s presumed that the way the tech industry is now is the best possible way that technology could be developed. And that presupposes a certain set of assumptions about the way the world works, about capitalism, about the distribution of wealth.

I want to challenge that. I brought up the idea of abolishing Silicon Valley in order to frame a radically different way of seeing the world, one in which wealth is distributed much more equally, power is dispersed, and technology is built for the benefit of everyone. And so, when I say I want to build something better in its place, I’m not just saying that the tech industry itself will look different – I’m saying that the world will look different. The tech industry will be downstream of that. The industry as it exists now is not just a microcosm, separate from the rest of the world; it developed in the way it did because of how the rest of the world is structured. So, I don’t think we can just change how Silicon Valley works. I think Silicon Valley will change as a result of broader political and economic changes.

What will that look like and feel like? It will mean no more billionaires. It will mean more worker co-ops, more unions. It will mean fewer for-profit enterprises that are run undemocratically. It will mean much less wealth disparity. None of this is specific to the tech industry; what I identify as problems in the tech industry all stem from that larger problem: capitalism. In order to talk about a better tech industry, I think we have to talk about a world in which capitalism has been radically changed or maybe abolished altogether, if we can even imagine what that will look like.

AB: You talk at one point about the question of unions in Silicon Valley.

WL: A lot of the people in positions of power in the tech industry are openly hostile to unions, or act as if unions are archaic traditions that have no relevance in the tech industry. In the last couple of years, there’s been more talk from people working in the tech industry, both those in service roles and the white-collar workers, saying, ‘Our work is not just an escape from the type of labour issues people have had in the past; we have our own issues, and we would like to be able to collectively bargain as workers using the models and tactics that have been pioneered by the union movement over the last century.’

AB: How does the unionization of the likes of Google link up with unionization elsewhere?

WL: Part of the problem here is that a lot of the white-collar workers at Google don’t see their work as the same kind of work that has driven people to unionize in the past. There is this idea that the (often coveted) work in the tech industry is a wholly new breed of work. This growing union movement is pushing back against that.

As the tech industry gets bigger and grows more and more bureaucratic, more concerned about profit, I think there are going to be more parallels between these different types of work. For example, take the case of Uber, which I talk about in the book. On the one hand, you have Uber drivers who are very much not employees, and thus don’t get any benefits. On the other hand, you have Uber’s full-time employees – engineers, designers, product managers, people like that. Right now, it’s very easy to say those are different classes of people.

But Uber is not profitable. How are they going to get profitable? They’re going to have to cut costs. They’ve already announced huge layoffs among full-time employees. So full-time workers who probably thought their jobs were safe are also facing the same problems – they’re also the casualties of capital’s need to cut costs by whatever means necessary. And capital doesn’t really care about individuals. For any individual worker, their value to capital is partly out of their control – it comes down to whether the corporation finds their work valuable. Eventually, they’re going to find that they have more to gain by organizing collectively with their fellow workers.

I think that in the long run, the material conditions in the industry are going to change, and through that, people are going to (hopefully) build solidarity. At the same time, it’s difficult because in the tech industry (especially within programming roles) there is this pervasive mythology and almost Ayn Randian idea that you – an individual – are solely responsible for your success. So, if you get laid off, if you’re not doing well in your career, it’s all your fault. You’re just inferior and you have to get better on your own. I think that’ll be difficult to break down.

AB: Related to how pervasive this ideology is in Silicon Valley, could you tell us what you think the political scene was like there during the presidential election in 2016?’

WL: It’s a complicated topic because the American conservative establishment sees Silicon Valley as a bastion of leftist/liberal ideas. And it’s not really like that. I would say on social issues, the industry is mostly quite progressive, but on economic issues, that really depends on who you’re asking. Because if you ask venture capitalists or founders of companies, most are very pro-free market and laissez-faire in their economics. They probably don’t like the idea of a wealth tax or want more government intervention. They believe entrepreneurship is the driving engine of creativity.

If you ask the people who are working as employees on the front lines, then the picture changes, though it depends who you ask. If you ask someone who is making six or seven figures as a software engineer, who has only ever seen their net worth increase, then they have a particular political view that is largely the product of their own material circumstances. If you ask someone who is a coding bootcamp graduate who has had to work service jobs to be able to stay in the area, they will probably have different political views.

In the 2016 primary, Sanders did actually get quite a bit of support from tech workers in Silicon Valley, but I would say overwhelmingly that the luminaries of the industry went for Hilary Clinton. Some of them went for Trump.

AB: That mythology of being really progressive does seem to be cut across by the common perception that Silicon Valley is very white, very male.

WL: In 2013 or 2014 was when the tech industry started talking about diversity in a quantitative way – when the large tech companies started releasing diversity numbers for the first time. Before this, everyone knew that software engineering roles were predominantly held by white men, but no one had the exact numbers. And when the numbers came out, it revealed that something like 16% of the engineering jobs for Facebook were held by women. Google and Apple and other companies were pretty similar.

Even before these numbers came out, women, and especially women of colour, had been speaking out about the industry’s lack of diversity, but their voices were mostly ignored. But when the numbers came out, people couldn’t deny it anymore. The conversation got to the point where the people in charge had to start making excuses for why it was this way. They loved to claim that tech was meritocratic – the tech industry is a place where it doesn’t matter where you come from or who you are. As long as you’re good at what you do, then you’ll get noticed, you’ll get rewarded. It’s a fair distribution of resources.

When the numbers came out, these people were basically confronted with several options. One option was to say that, ‘Maybe the industry inherits the biases of the rest of the world.’ But most chose to instead talk about how women had to be more confident, how women don’t like coding. They came up with reasons to abdicate responsibility.

AB: Would you make any predictions as to how people there will vote in the 2020 presidential elections?

WL: There are few people in the industry who are vocal Trump supporters. I know people who like Elizabeth Warren. A lot of people like Bernie Sanders – probably more than you’d expect. It’s a mixed bag. It varies more if you look at it in terms of people’s material backgrounds. If you ask the people who are making a lot of money what candidates they support, they’re probably more likely to support status quo candidates. If you ask people who are service workers or who have less advantageous backgrounds, they’re more likely to be pro-Sanders or pro-Warren. It’s hard to say exactly, but I think that the number of people who are wealthy enough to actually want the status quo is vanishingly small. They are such a tiny number of people, but they’re very, very loud.

AB: Would you characterize Silicon Valley as a cult?

WL: Silicon Valley has this particular mythology surrounding it, and it’s resistant to criticism in a way that definitely feels cult-like, but I don’t know if it’s any more cultish than other industries that have had this much power in the past. For example, what was Wall Street like in 2007 before the crash? I’m sure lots of people were telling themselves that their companies were just providing liquidity and efficiency, opening up markets and access, and democratizing finance. They probably told themselves all these things about how their companies were making the world a better place and so that justified their outsized rewards. Was that a cult? Probably, in a way.

Silicon Valley elites are going through the same sort of thing now: because they have all this power and all this money, they have to create a narrative that allows themselves to feel good about it. The billionaire founder who walks past dozens of homeless people on his way to work has to tell himself that whatever start-up he’s working on is going to make the world a better place – better than any other allocation of the money that’s been invested in this start-up. And you can’t really tell yourself that without believing in something that is kind of irrational. Maybe that’s what it means to be ‘cult-like’. It’s almost religious in that aspect – it’s something you can’t really argue with people about. There’s no way to ‘logic and reason’ them into believing something else.

Yes, Silicon Valley is cult-like. But the real problem with Silicon Valley is that it has all this power and it is very difficult for the people within this bubble to ever see out of it. Silicon Valley is what happens when you have a lot of wealth and power among a small number of people in a very insular environment.

Dr Aidan Beatty (@AidanJBeatty) teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and researches Irish and British history, and nationalism, race, and capitalism. See his website