Abolish Silicon Valley: Tom Gann interviews Wendy Liu

EDITION: Bad New Times.

Wendy Liu discusses her political journey from ardent Silicon Valley Kool Aid drinker to scathing critic of the entire industry (and capitalism), as documented in her new book 'Abolish Silicon Valley'.

As well as being a former _New Socialist_editor, Wendy Liu is the author of the excellent Abolish Silicon Valley: How to Liberate Technology from Capitalism, now out with Repeater Books..

TGI really enjoyed the relationship between the memoir, almost Bildungsroman, aspect of Abolish Silicon Valley, and the political proposals and analysis. Why did you choose to write the book like this rather than a straightforward manifesto or theoretical analysis?

WLThat wasn’t my original intention! When I first conceived of the book, I imagined it would be like the typical leftist book: mostly analysis, with perhaps bits of memoir sprinkled throughout. But I also wanted the book to be accessible to people who had never even heard of the left before, and I wasn’t entirely sure how to accomplish that. So I retraced the steps of my own political journey. I basically asked myself: how did I go from ardent Silicon Valley Kool Aid drinker to scathing critic of the entire industry (and capitalism)?

Attempting to answer that question led me to peruse my old diary entries, emails, and chat logs, which helped me understand how my worldview changed over the last few years. And the more time I spent reading through old writings, the more I realised I didn’t know how to write this book except through the lens of my personal story. I’d had to learn (and unlearn) a lot in order to get to where I am today, and the memoir format was the best way to acknowledge that, while also (hopefully) bringing others along with me.

TGHow much does your notion of ‘abolish’ draw on, for example, prison or police abolition, where abolition entails both a breaking of the institution itself, perhaps allowing for what useful functions there are to be articulated and performed differently, as well as a transformation of the relationships and practices external to the institution that partially determine it in the name of building something better?

WLI’ve been very interested in the work of police and prison abolitionists lately (not that surprising given our current political moment). When I wrote the book, though, I had only had a passing familiarity with either police or prison abolitionist theorising - I used the concept of abolition in a more generic sense (drawing on common leftist demands like ‘abolish private property’ or ‘abolish capitalism’).

I like the way you describe it, though! I was drawn to the idea of ‘abolishing Silicon Valley’ precisely because of the holistic implications of the word. The goal isn’t just to change Silicon Valley itself, it’s to transform the larger structures that gave rise to it, in order to, like you say, build something better.

The goal isn’t just to change Silicon Valley itself, it’s to transform the larger structures that gave rise to it, in order to build something better.

TG One of the most moving bits of the book is your incredibly aesthetic commitment to, almost, the craft work of solving technical problems, which for all the modernity of the work has something William Morrisesque about it, and one of the saddest bits is what capitalism does to that pleasure. I was thinking too, when you discuss how nice it would be to solve the technical problems of routing hire bikes around, of something Walter Benjamin said: that part of the reason he was a Communist was that a successful Revolution would “make it possible for me to write differently”1. I wonder if you could say a bit more about how the experience of what capitalism does to technology in general, and of what capitalism does to the process of technological work, was formative for your political development?

WLI’m glad you picked up on that! Some days, I really wish I could just forget about all the messy political stuff and instead focus solely on solving fun and challenging problems. That would be nice. Unfortunately, I no longer believe that we live in a world where it would be ethical for me to do that; the system is sufficiently broken that changing the system feels like a bigger priority. So that’s a shame.

I would love to have a socioeconomic system in which people could spend their time doing things they enjoyed doing, without having to worry whether their hard work was being used toward morally questionable ends.

Alas, that’s not the one we have now, but I think it’s worth trying to get there.

TGRunning through the book is an almost existential problem of trying to find kinds of meaning, autonomy and connection and then being disappointed, a sense of “is that all there is”, when you get to places or jobs where those things have been promised. How far have you managed to find some or all of those things on the left?

WLThe problem with my attempt to find meaning within the realm of the tech industry is it was all about the self: there was no greater goal for me other than trying to attain success for its own sake. At the risk of sounding banal, the self is a lonely place. Eventually, my self-obsessed pursuit of startup glory ceased to feel meaningful. The more I interrogated, the less certain I became of what I wanted.

The biggest thing that’s changed for me since I discovered the left is the possibility of a collective aim, rather than merely a personal one. I’m no longer motivated primarily by the idea of improving my own lot in life; now, when I see people being failed by our socioeconomic system, I feel a much stronger moral urgency than I ever did with regards to anything I wanted to achieve in the startup world. The world is a deeply broken place, but it doesn’t have to stay that way, and I can find meaning through shared struggles to change it.

TGThe memoir or even Bildungsroman form almost suggests that you becoming a socialist and also transforming your life through those beliefs was inevitable, having gone through these various disappointments and misrecognitions. But could things have turned out differently? What would that have taken?

WLI ask myself that a lot. I do think serendipity played a large role in the specific path I’ve taken - if I hadn’t met certain people, or read certain books, or gone to certain events, I might have very different priorities today. I probably wouldn’t have written this book if I hadn’t gotten involved with New Socialist, for instance - I was very fortunate that certain editors at Repeater Books happen to be digilent readers.

More generally, I suspect that if my startup had somehow been successful, then I would be on a very different path now. I probably would be working for a company I didn’t really care about, maybe feeling vaguely dissatisfied with my life choices, or maybe having found ways to distract myself from that dissatisfaction through spending money. So from my current vantage point, I feel incredibly fortunate that my startup failed as badly as it did - it gave me the space to reflect on what I actually cared about. I’m also very grateful to have met people who helped guide me in this journey.

TGAnother really valuable part of the book is the description of how ideology works on both relatively or even exceptionally privileged workers, or even big capitalists themselves (something shared with Karen Ho’s Liquidated: An Ethnology of Wall Street, which you cite), when a lot of ideology critique focuses on the impacts of ideology in securing the consent of dominated and exploited people. How does this ideology determine the behaviour not only of tech workers but tech capitalists? How widely is it believed in within firms? How is it reproduced within firms? And how much do you view your book as an effort to challenge it for tech workers?

WLSomething I try to stress with the book is that I don’t believe anyone in the tech industry wakes up every morning thinking, “How can I be evil today?” Even the most rapacious tech capitalists want to believe that they’re doing good in some way! I think people try to succeed within the parameters of the systems they find themselves in, using the metrics that are available to them. They find ways to justify their choices to themselves. And if they want external validation, well, that’s never too hard to find; there are plenty of people eager to maintain the illusion that the industry is essentially fine.

But illusions are always at risk of vanishing. That’s why I think it’s worth understanding the ideology that allows people to behave the way they do, especially when that results in behaviour that outsiders would find morally reprehensible. If you can identify that ideology and offer a targeted critique, then maybe you can hasten the process by which that ideology is dismantled for specific individuals. I don’t know if reaching out to Kool Aid-drinking tech workers is necessarily the biggest priority for the left, but I do think it’s worth attempting, and that’s part of what I was trying to do with the book.

TGYou say at one point that ‘Silicon Valley’ represents a relationship between technology and capitalism, which suggests a generalisability beyond the physical place. It’s also an ideology, which again suggests a generalisability. But then some of the sharpest bits of your book, either about the experience of nature (something, interestingly, Peter Conrad picked up in his Guardian review) or what Silicon Valley does to San Francisco, particularly around housing, are very spatially particular. How specific is Silicon Valley and how much, for example, can Abolish Silicon Valley tell tech workers in Britain?

WLI do think that most critiques of the tech industry are generalisable beyond the San Francisco Bay Area. A lot of the traits that we tend to associate with Silicon Valley seem to have made their way to the various Silicon offshoots, as well as into other industries. The reason the critiques are generalisable is precisely because capital treats the Silicon Valley model as generalisable, as if it were a foolproof recipe for creating a trillion-dollar company. (Just put some software engineers and designers into a room, turn up the heat by a few million dollars, sprinkle in some magical software margins, and voila, you have a monopoly!) As a result, even entirely British tech companies can manifest the same features that we associate with the worst of the Silicon Valley model (though maybe with less of the funding).

TGShould Silicon Valley tech workers understand themselves unambiguously as workers, or are there risks to this self-understanding? Can focussing on a critique of how ideology inculcates attitudes that make tech workers feel themselves separate from other workers (both within their firms and workers more generally) miss ways in which many tech workers do share considerable material interests with tech bosses against other workers? You mention that stock options extend significantly beyond management, and that even a relatively highly paid worker without stock options will share some interests in reproducing the system of what and who is valued within a firm. It felt striking to me that while one of the major instances of solidarity you discuss – that involving Marriott hotel cleaners – does contain a class element, that element is overdetermined by gender (the prevalence of sexual harassment) and race. More theoretically, capitalism as a mode of production is structured by the contradictions between capitalists and workers, but any specific social formation is much messier and more complicated.

WLI’m glad you brought this up. This is a tricky topic, and it’s one where Erik Olin Wright’s formulation of a “contradictory class location”2 becomes relevant. There’s just such a wide range among people who can conceivably be described as ‘tech workers’. Even if you limit it to software engineers - who comprise only a small proportion of tech companies’ workforces - the term encompasses so much variety. To mention a few: Stanford and MIT grads making $500,000 a year (mostly in stock grants) at Google or Facebook; coding bootcamp grads making a tenth that much, with no stock; freelancers working through sites like Upwork or oDesk making even less. And then there are early employees of startups, who might be making average or below-average salaries for their job titles, but who might become multi-multi-millionaires if their startup hits the exit lottery. Clearly these workers all have very different economic situations, and different immediate interests. Some are more obviously proletarianized, while others seem dangerously close to capital.

When it comes to understanding workers’ material interests, ‘tech worker’ is probably too broad a category. But that doesn’t mean it’s not useful as a political framing for capturing how different types of workers are linked by virtue of their relationship to production.

So when it comes to understanding workers’ material interests, ‘tech worker’ is probably too broad of a category. But that doesn’t mean it’s not useful as a political framing. I think the term is helpful for capturing how different types of workers are linked by virtue of their relationship to production, and thus building solidarity between them. Like, if Facebook engineers get shares and great benefits, why can’t content moderators also get shares and great benefits? Why can’t cleaners and cafeteria workers and bus drivers, for that matter? And don’t all workers deserve at least some say in the company’s values and policies?
That’s definitely an uphill battle. I would venture that many well-paid and high-ranking employees are ideologically opposed to the idea of democratic and egalitarian structures at their company, not to mention society at large (and this often seems true outside the tech industry). But I do think this is where the tech worker movement needs to go. As Ben Tarnoff writes in a recent essay for Logic Magazine:

The tech worker movement will become a truly transformative social force to the extent that it takes its direction from the Google security guard, the Uber driver, the Amazon warehouse worker. Socialism needs friends in the middle, but it must be led from below.

TGGiven the defeat of a particular mode of left politics in both the UK and the US, who do you imagine as the political agent to carry forward the programme you discuss at the end of the book?

WLIt’s certainly a dark time for electoral politics in both countries. These days, I’m pretty cynical about the prospects of change coming through the ballot box. I think social movements are our best bet, with the recent wave of Black Lives Matter demonstrations being a great case in point. The labour movement will be key, as well. If seizing power isn’t an option, then the next priority will have to be changing the social landscape, in order to force those who do hold power to make concessions.

TG As well as the question of other workers, what are the possibilities of solidarity and action with or for workers within specific supply chains? Or does this become a question of politics outside of direct labour action? I’m thinking here of how you discuss the appropriation of state-funded research through “the labour of far-away workers driven to the brink of suicide”. How could we act in solidarity with workers physically making the technology, or even those involved in the extraction of necessary materials for computers or phones?

WLThis is a very important question and I wish I had a better answer! I don’t really know what individuals can do here. At the moment, I feel a little helpless in the face of all these supply chains and trade agreements and extraction plans; I find it hard to envision how things could actually change. All I can really do at this point is to educate myself and keep an eye out for potential points of leverage.

TG Thanks so much, and also thanks so much for everything you’ve done for New Socialist.

WLThank you for the lovely questions, and for everything you’ve done for New Socialist! The NS community has been an invaluable source of political education for me, and I’m so grateful I had the opportunity to be involved.

New Socialist subscribers at £5 or above a month can get 50% of a book of their choice from Repeater. We’d very much recommend Abolish Silicon Valley.

  1. Walter Benjamin, [1931]. 1994. The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin. Edited by Gershom Scholem and Theodor W. Adorno. Translated by Manfred R. Jacobson and Evelyn M. Jacobson. London: University of Chicago Press. p. 377. 

  2. Erik Olin Wright. 1985. Classes. London: Verso. pp. 19-63. 


Tom Gann (@Tom_Gann)

Founding editor

Wendy Liu (@dellsystem)

Wendy Liu is the author of Abolish Silicon Valley.