Luke Robert Mason: You’re lis­ten­ing to the FUTURES Podcast with me, Luke Robert Mason.

On this episode I speak to start­up founder and author, Wendy Liu

You know, we need to think about col­lec­tive action and col­lec­tive solu­tions. We need to envi­sion a new par­a­digm for how soci­ety should be gov­erned.
Wendy Liu, excerpt from inter­view

Wendy shared her thoughts on the per­ils of start­up life, how Silicon Valley is deal­ing with issues of inequal­i­ty and what can be done to reclaim tech­nol­o­gy’s poten­tial for the pub­lic good. 

This episode is an edit­ed ver­sion of a recent live stream event. You can view the full, unedit­ed video of this con­ver­sa­tion at FUTURES Podcast dot net.

Luke Robert Mason: Silicon Valley is often her­ald­ed as the epi­cen­ter for inno­va­tion and mer­i­toc­ra­cy. But in her new book, Abolish Silicon Valley, Wendy Liu rais­es a seri­ous con­cern over the sus­tain­abil­i­ty of the tech indus­try’s growth at all cost eco­nom­ic mod­el. She does this through the form of a mem­oir, chart­ing her own expe­ri­ences as a young soft­ware engi­neer in the Bay Area, from ruth­less­ly pur­su­ing a role at Google before suc­cumb­ing to start­up life. Wendy reveals how the envi­ron­ment in which she hoped to build a flour­ish­ing career only allowed her to do so if she active­ly chose to ignore and exter­nalise the neg­a­tive effects of big tech.

Today, she’s now turned her skills to under­stand­ing the rad­i­cal ways tech­nol­o­gy can be devel­oped to ben­e­fit soci­ety at large.

So, Wendy, I want to kick off by asking—I guess the obvi­ous ques­tion: What was the rea­son behind writ­ing a book call­ing for the abo­li­tion of Silicon Valley?

Wendy Liu: The catch­phrase Abolish Silicon Valley” start­ed actu­al­ly, I think, as a Twitter joke. People were talk­ing about abol­ish­ing ICE on Twitter that day, and you know, just the term abo­li­tion,” peo­ple were just com­ing up with riffs on it. I said, Well, what if we abol­ished Silicon Valley?”, and a sur­pris­ing num­ber of peo­ple seemed to agree. Then, after that I end­ed up going on a cou­ple of dif­fer­ent pod­casts, and both of those pod­cast hosts inde­pen­dent­ly used the term Abolish Silicon Valley’ as the title. Because of that, I guess it kind of stuck around. It was rat­tling around my brain. When you’re in the tech bub­ble, it’s very easy to just think of only the pos­i­tives of the indus­try, and there isn’t real­ly much of an expla­na­tion for why some peo­ple would not be hap­py with it. But I’d always felt a lit­tle bit of dis­com­fort, and even in things like inter­act­ing with an Uber dri­ver or a food deliv­ery work­er, I’d be think­ing: Well, this per­son is get­ting paid so much less than I am, and there’s some­thing about this that feels a lit­tle off, and I’m not real­ly sure why that’s hap­pen­ing.

So I start­ed a Masters degree at the London School of Economics in their Inequalities Programme. It gave me a deep­er under­stand­ing of the prob­lems of the sys­tem. Throughout the course, I felt like I was try­ing to piece togeth­er a bet­ter under­stand­ing of why the indus­try was not nec­es­sar­i­ly as amaz­ing as it seemed, and also why I did­n’t know until just now. What’s real­ly inter­est­ing about the tech indus­try is that there’s such an ide­o­log­i­cal bub­ble. Such that the peo­ple with­in it, they may real­ly believe that they are doing the greater good. Because they mean well, or because they think they’re doing well, it’s very easy for them to not under­stand the ways in which they’re actu­al­ly doing harm, just because of the posi­tion that they’re in and the fact that they’re not nec­es­sar­i­ly going to hear from voic­es who are neg­a­tive­ly impact­ed by the work that they’re doing. That def­i­nite­ly helped me see the world in a new light, and so I want­ed to write the book as a way of explain­ing to oth­ers who may be strug­gling with a sim­i­lar feel­ing of dis­com­fort and dis­con­tent that I’d been feel­ing. Helping them to under­stand that not only is there a way for­ward, but that there’s a path for them­selves.

I’m not just say­ing, Everything about this indus­try is bad.” I’m not try­ing to negare peo­ple’s own feel­ings of opti­mism about the indus­try. I think there are some amaz­ing things asso­ci­at­ed with the indus­try: The cul­ture of inno­va­tion and of inter­ven­tion; of real­ly focus­ing on a prob­lem and real­ly dig­ging into it and doing what you can with it. I think that’s great—we do need more of that. But I do also think that the way the indus­try’s set up right now—just the struc­tures that shape it—they are not con­ducive to cre­at­ing prod­ucts that are good for human­i­ty as a whole. That is the cen­tral shame: the tal­ent of a lot of peo­ple in the indus­try is being wast­ed. A lot of them do know it. I’ve talked to many peo­ple in the indus­try who feel like they’re not using their edu­ca­tion and their skillset and their abil­i­ties to their full poten­tial. They’ve trained real­ly hard to get to where they are, and then they end up work­ing at Google and mak­ing a but­ton more square, or chang­ing the colours of some­thing, like: Why am I doing this? I thought I was going to do some­thing bet­ter with my abil­i­ties. So I think that’s the shame, and I think it’s some­thing where I don’t think indi­vid­ual action is going to be the solu­tion, which is why I talk about abo­li­tion as this struc­tur­al solu­tion. I don’t think indi­vid­ual peo­ple say­ing, I don’t like the tech indus­try, I’m going to do some­thing dif­fer­ent.” is going to solve the prob­lem. It might be good for them. It might be bet­ter as a step for­ward, but I think over­all we need larg­er changes and so what I’m try­ing to say in the book is that we need to think about col­lec­tive action and col­lec­tive solu­tions. We need to envi­sion a new par­a­digm for how soci­ety should be gov­erned.

Mason: The book is writ­ten as this half-memoir, half-expose kind of hybrid. In the book, what you real­ly do is you chron­i­cle your attempt at start-up life. In fact, you cre­ate a plat­form which you described as Tinder for adver­tis­ers. I guess my ques­tion is: seri­ous­ly Wendy, what the hell were you think­ing?

Liu: In my defence, we did­n’t actu­al­ly build Tinder for adver­tis­ers. That was just one of the use cas­es that we thought could be good. We nev­er end­ed up build­ing that prod­uct. This is one of those things where, if I look back on it, I want to slap myself, right? But at the time, every­thing felt so nat­ur­al. We start­ed out with this idea for the kind of soft­ware we could build and so we were look­ing around at oth­er com­pa­nies and eco-systems and we thought: here’s who our com­peti­tors are, we’ll just do what they do and we’ll some­how do it bet­ter. We had a lot of the hubris of a 2022 year old try­ing to do some­thing. Yeah, this com­pa­ny has tak­en ten mil­lion dol­lars of fund­ing and they have 1000 peo­ple. That’s fine, we can do bet­ter than them.” That’s what was dri­ving this self-confidence and arro­gance that did­n’t real­ly come from any­where but that. I think it’s pret­ty wide­spread in the indus­try. You do need quite a bit of that to get any­where.

The prod­uct we end­ed up building…it was kind of like we had this tech­ni­cal archi­tec­ture and this tech­ni­cal way of approach­ing a prob­lem, but we did­n’t have the use case for it. So we were kind of like, Well, let’s see what makes mon­ey.” We spent a lot of time piv­ot­ing. What I chron­i­cle in the book is our attempts to find an actu­al use-case, because every sin­gle week we would have a new niche. It would be e‑commerce. It would be adver­tis­ing. It would be polit­i­cal data cam­paigns. We just did­n’t know what we were doing. We were try­ing to find our  posi­tion with­in an already crowd­ed ecosys­tem that we bare­ly under­stood and we did­n’t even about. So, I think it was part­ly that we just did­n’t approach it in the right way. But at the same time, this was…the method that we fol­lowed was one that we thought every­one was sup­posed to fol­low. We’d inter­pret­ed all of the start­up advice that was out there. We’d read all the books and we’d read all the blogs. We fol­lowed all the VCs on Twitter, and they were basi­cal­ly say­ing, Figure out what your cus­tomers want. Start from some­where small. It does­n’t have to be amaz­ing, just build what you think the ecosys­tem is miss­ing.” and we took that advice but the prob­lem is, we did­n’t have a good sense of what we want­ed to achieve. We also just did­n’t have a good moral code. We got to the point where we were basi­cal­ly tak­ing data from peo­ple’s Twitter and Instagram accounts and try­ing to fig­ure out what we could do with it. There was a part of me that was like, This is a lit­tle creepy, but also it’s real­ly cool.”

Mason: Well that’s what I like about the degree of naivety with­in the book; you were just try­ing to solve a prob­lem. The weird empa­thy that I have for some­one like Mark Zuckerberg is: at least when he tried to start Facebook, he had a mis­sion to change the world. He want­ed to do some­thing that was going to be world chang­ing. That orig­i­nal mis­sion got co-opted, and it got co-opted by his investors who made him piv­ot into cre­at­ing this glob­al sur­veil­lance sys­tem for mar­keters. My con­cern is that, today, what it feels like is a lot of these kids who are going into the start­up area no longer have that lofty ambi­tion. They’re actu­al­ly just build­ing tools for mar­keters and for adver­tis­ers to enable them to make a quick buck. I just won­der, are things worse today? Are things worse now than they were when you were in Silicon Valley?

Liu: Just a quick point on that Zuckerberg thing: I think when he ini­tial­ly start­ed Facebook, he was just try­ing to com­pare the attrac­tive­ness of women, right? I’m sure it got bet­ter lat­er on, but ini­tial­ly all he want­ed to do was rank girls based on how hot they were. Let’s not for­get that—I think that’s kind of cru­cial to the way the indus­try works and the way a lot of peo­ple think.

But that’s a great ques­tion. The indus­try is very polarised right now in a way that reflects the rest of the world real­ly. I think there are a lot of peo­ple who are think­ing in the way you described where all they want to do is build some­thing that makes mon­ey and that makes them suc­cess­ful. They want to cre­ate a hun­dred mil­lion dol­lar run rate com­pa­ny and then even­tu­al­ly from there, they’ll start a new com­pa­ny or they’ll work at a ven­ture cap­i­tal firm, or they’ll do their TED Talks cir­cuit or some­thing. I think there are peo­ple who think more in terms of what their com­pa­ny will do for them, than what their com­pa­ny will do for the world. So they’ll do some blockchain or e‑commerce thing, not because they care about it, but because they’re like, Well this is what the indus­try is reward­ing right now, this is what will get me fund­ed. Once I do this, once I fin­ish this mobile gam­ing play, then I can do what I real­ly want to do which is like…buy ten hous­es.” Right? Who real­ly knows? I think there are def­i­nite­ly peo­ple who are more dri­ven by finan­cial incen­tives. Even if they tell them­selves that what they real­ly want to do is build some­thing cool, I think the fact is, there’s just so much mon­ey in this space right now. Even the purest inten­tions will be cor­rupt­ed by the fact that you can become a billionaire—seemingly overnight—just by con­vinc­ing the right peo­ple that you’re a genius. I think that’s a huge prob­lem.

On the oth­er hand, I also see a back­lash. That comes in the form of peo­ple who’ve been work­ing in the indus­try for a long time, and are dis­il­lu­sioned by it. They’re quit­ting their com­pa­nies or start­ing some­thing new, or oth­er­wise just tak­ing a stand. In the last few years, we’ve heard a lot of peo­ple tell their sto­ries of just being dis­il­lu­sioned and quit­ting Google or some­thing after ten years. Sometimes they’re get­ting fired by the com­pa­ny because they’re doing activism with­in it. That’s a pret­ty strong cur­rent. I also see a trend among younger peo­ple who are still in uni­ver­si­ty or even high school, or who are just enter­ing the indus­try, who are more scep­ti­cal of the myths that the indus­try likes to tell. Instead of say­ing, I’m just going to get a job and climb the career lad­der.”, they’re think­ing: I want to do some sort of activism with­in the indus­try. They want to organ­ise around diver­si­ty, around ethics, around the many blind spots that the indus­try has today.

I think we have a real­ly weird world where you have two dif­fer­ent trends. You have the peo­ple who are drawn to the indus­try because of the mon­ey, because of the pres­tige. Then you have those who just want to make it bet­ter and who are not hap­py with the way things are. Those trends and the way those trends mix—that’s going to tell us a lot about what the indus­try looks like in the future.

Mason: This was the fun­ny thing about read­ing your book and read­ing your sto­ry. You were this young hope­ful, and you were hop­ing to break into Silicon Valley and have this mas­sive start­up which eventually—and spoil­er alert—which even­tu­al­ly failed. Then you went to the London School of Economics, and it’s there you learnt about pol­i­tics, and you learnt about social jus­tice, and you learnt about inequal­i­ty, and you learnt about cyn­ics. I guess my ques­tion is: Do you think if more of these tech bros just stayed in school, we would­n’t be in this sit­u­a­tion in the first place?

Liu: Great ques­tion. I do think there is a need for more human­i­ties and ethics type edu­ca­tion with­in the indus­try, but I also don’t think that’s enough. In a sense, the biggest part of my edu­ca­tion was not actu­al­ly going to lec­tures. It was get­ting involved in activist cir­cles, and meet­ing peo­ple who were out­side my tech bub­ble. Meeting peo­ple for whom the econ­o­my was not work­ing. That was some­thing that was quite new to me, because when I was at uni­ver­si­ty, most of the peo­ple I sur­round­ed myself with at least had pret­ty decent job prospects. Or if they did­n’t, I could find some way to write it off. I could say, Oh, they just stud­ied a bad major, there­fore what­ev­er—it’s fine.” In London, I met so many more peo­ple who were from dif­fer­ent socio-economic back­grounds. I could tell these peo­ple were very deter­mined, thought­ful, kind and great peo­ple. I felt that these peo­ple deserved bet­ter in life than the lot they’re being giv­en. They deserve bet­ter than being crushed under stu­dent loan debt, and being unable to ever live in eco­nom­ic stability—they deserve bet­ter. That, for me, was a big­ger cat­a­lyst than learn­ing about these the­o­ries and the abstract. The the­o­ries and the abstract are good, but on some lev­el there has to be this moral force behind it. That comes from our inter­ac­tions with oth­er peo­ple and whether we iden­ti­fy with them. It would be good if more peo­ple in the tech indus­try did human­i­ties and social sci­ences, but I also think they need to just talk to peo­ple who are not like them, and find a way to put them­selves into oth­er peo­ple’s shoes. To think: If I were my Uber dri­ver, how would I want Uber to work? If I just iden­ti­fied with this per­son who is in a much worse sit­u­a­tion than me, eco­nom­i­cal­ly, how do I want the world to be gov­erned? That is the crux of the prob­lem. 

The socioe­co­nom­ic sys­tem we’re in is not suit­able for most peo­ple. It’s reward­ing a small num­ber of peo­ple more than oth­ers, and so the end result is just sub­op­ti­mal com­pared to what we could have if it was more fair. 

Mason: Do you think that the folks who work at these sorts of these com­pa­nies should be forced to do some sort of civic action? It always shocked me that when I’d go down to Twitter in San Francisco, they were so hap­py to share the fact that all of the sushi that they did­n’t eat at lunchtime would be giv­en to the home­less com­mu­ni­ty around Twitter. I just sat there think­ing: Well, okay, that’s lovely—but you’re not solv­ing the prob­lem of home­less­ness. You’re just putting a plas­ter on it and you have excess sur­plus of all of this very nice food, and you need to get rid of it some­how so this just fig­ures to be an opti­mal way of doing it. That’s kind of the way in which it feels like these kinds of com­pa­nies think about civic engage­ment. Is there a way we can get the Google interns, for exam­ple, to—as you say in the book,—not play Quidditch and all the games that we assume that these interns are play­ing, and drink­ing games these interns are play­ing, but force them to go out into the com­mu­ni­ty of San Francisco and actu­al­ly do some good on the ground?

Liu: That’s a great ques­tion. The thing is, a lot of these com­pa­nies do make their employ­ees do some sort of vol­un­teer­ing. When I was at Google, a bunch of interns and I vol­un­teered at a food­bank. It was fun­ny, because Google got the cred­it for that. I think the rea­son these com­pa­nies do things like donate their food or make their employ­ees do vol­un­teer­ing or donate to good caus­es is that it makes them look good; it makes them look like they care. They’re not doing it for pure­ly benev­o­lent reasons—they’re doing it for PR rea­sons. A lot of oth­er tech com­pa­nies also encour­age their employ­ees to vol­un­teer for food banks and things like that. I don’t think that’s enough, because it’s easy for some­one to do that and think: Okay, I’ve done my bit. Sure, I’m mak­ing ten times more than the aver­age income in this area, but I’ve vol­un­teered for a food bank, and that’s enough. That’s a very tempt­ing trap to fall into because it’s a way of feel­ing like you’ve done some­thing with­out actu­al­ly sac­ri­fic­ing any­thing mean­ing­ful. I per­son­al­ly don’t think it’s enough, but it’s bet­ter than peo­ple not vol­un­teer­ing, sure.

What I would love to see is a way for peo­ple to vol­un­teer, or for mon­ey to be donat­ed to good caus­es with­out the names attached. Without it being like, This was a mil­lion dol­lar dona­tion from Salesforce, or from Google, or from Jeff Bezos.”, because then they’re just doing it to recy­cle their rep­u­ta­tions. They want to sound like this amaz­ing per­son so that reporters will be nicer to them, and their employ­ees will be hap­pi­er about work­ing there. I don’t know what the solu­tion is there but I think this city—San Francisco in particular—we have a lot of char­i­ta­ble giv­ing that isn’t real­ly as char­i­ta­ble as it seems. You have peo­ple who have made their mon­ey through, essen­tial­ly, just under­pay­ing their work­ers. Then they’re donat­ing that mon­ey in a way that makes them look good, but it’s always on their terms. They’re always the ones who decide where that mon­ey goes. Community groups don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly have a say, and there’s always a string attached. It’s like, You can’t crit­i­cise this com­pa­ny.” 

Mason: In the book, you look at how Silicon Valley got this way. The word that keeps com­ing up is the idea of mer­i­toc­ra­cy. It feels like that’s what’s at the heart of Silicon Valley, and in a fun­ny sort of way, it’s what’s at the heart of our cur­rent sys­tem. But, mer­i­toc­ra­cy is actu­al­ly real­ly prob­lem­at­ic. Could you explain why that’s such an issue that you iden­ti­fy in the book?

Liu: It’s so fun­ny. I actu­al­ly thought mer­i­toc­ra­cy was some­thing that Silicon Valley had invent­ed. It real­ly threw me for a loop when I realised… 

Mason: It’s Wall Street first, then it was Silicon Valley.

Liu: Wall Street messed it up, Silicon Valley got it right. That’s kind of the way peo­ple talk about it. But yeah, it real­ly messed me up when I start­ed read­ing social sci­ences text that talked about mer­i­toc­ra­cy from way back before Silicon Valley was invent­ed. I got to think­ing whether this idea of meritocracy…is it real­ly some­thing that the peo­ple in the indus­try care about, or is it more of a cov­er; an excuse? When some­one asks them, Why don’t you have any women?”, they say Oh, mer­i­toc­ra­cy. Women are just not good enough. There aren’t enough women study­ing com­put­er sci­ence in schools.” I think, in the indus­try, there are def­i­nite­ly peo­ple who believe in the good sense of mer­i­toc­ra­cy, where it’s that, We should allow peo­ple to flour­ish and do what they’re good at.” But it feels these days like it’s become more of an excuse. When peo­ple are asked, Why does your com­pa­ny lit­er­al­ly not employ any women in high rank­ing roles?” they always end up say­ing some­thing like, Well, we don’t want to low­er the bar, because we believe that the best should rise to the top. If women aren’t ris­ing to the top, it’s because there’s some­thing else going on. It’s noth­ing to do with us. It’s noth­ing to do with our biased hir­ing pat­terns or even soci­ety as a whole.” That’s extreme­ly frus­trat­ing to hear, but there def­i­nite­ly was a time that I real­ly believed in the idea of mer­i­toc­ra­cy, and I believed that the tech indus­try oper­at­ed in a pure­ly mer­i­to­crat­ic fash­ion. There is a lot of rhetoric around that.

The com­pa­ny GitHub, which was acquired recent­ly by Microsoft for a stag­ger­ing amount of mon­ey: When they were this young, hot start­up, they were my favourite com­pa­ny. I would read their blog posts every day. I wrote their hood­ie and their T‑shirts all the time. I was real­ly proud to know about this com­pa­ny. They got into a bit of trou­ble a few years ago. They raised a lot of mon­ey from Andreessen Horowitz, and then they dec­o­rat­ed their office in this way where they had a rug on the floor that said, The United Meritocracy of GitHub” or some­thing like that. At the time, they had a very tiny num­ber of female engi­neers and in fact, one of their female engi­neers would go on to accuse the com­pa­ny of dis­crim­i­na­tion, among oth­er things. At the time, I remem­ber look­ing at it and hear­ing about the back­lash, and think­ing: Ah, it’s just fem­i­nists. It’s just social jus­tice war­riors. It’s just peo­ple who can’t make it in the indus­try who are com­plain­ing. Because I real­ly believed that there weren’t struc­tur­al issues. I real­ly thought that the indus­try reward­ed peo­ple accord­ing to their tal­ent. It took sev­er­al more years of pay­ing atten­tion to the back­lash before I fig­ured out that there were these struc­tur­al prob­lems. I was just stub­born and obsti­nate and refused to recog­nise them. Just because noth­ing that bad has hap­pened to me yet, it does­n’t mean it nev­er will. It also does­n’t mean that it works for every­one else.

The myth of mer­i­toc­ra­cy is a very strong one, and it’s also very tempt­ing. I think for peo­ple who have done well in the indus­try, it’s espe­cial­ly tempt­ing. You want to believe that the sys­tem is fair. If you’ve suc­ceed­ed in a game, you want to think it’s because you were real­ly good at that game, and it’s a good game. 

Mason: But if the dice is weight­ed, then it does­n’t real­ly mat­ter does it?

Liu: Yeah, but then no one real­ly wants to think about that. It’s very hard to explain to some­one who has done very well in the indus­try, and wants to believe in the idea of their own tal­ent and their own hard work that the rea­son they’ve done well is less of a reflec­tion of them­selves and more of a reflec­tion of how the struc­tures are set up.

Mason: We’re start­ing to see so much of this—I think it’s been termed the tech­lash.” This book sort of falls into the cat­e­go­ry of tech­lash non-fiction. I guess every­body’s lin­ing up to be Cassandra, and I guess I should start call­ing you Cassandra instead of Wendy. The Cassandra of Silicon Valley. Everybody wants to be the one to ring the bell and go, Oh gosh, this thing is real­ly, real­ly bad.” It’s one thing to say that there’s a prob­lem, but what do you actu­al­ly do to change it? How do you get into the weeds and change it?

Sean Rad had his moment. We had the author of Zucked, one of the key investors of Facebook who was ring­ing his bell and say­ing, Oh good­ness, this stuff is ter­ri­ble.” Do you think that tech­lash is actu­al­ly hope­ful, or is the real­i­ty that they’re just say­ing that to make them­selves feel bet­ter about this rub­bish sit­u­a­tion, but they’re still going to ride the wave until it final­ly col­laps­es under its own dead­weight? 

Liu: That was very poet­ic. That’s a great ques­tion. I guess I don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly want to be cyn­i­cal about the motives of peo­ple who are ring­ing the bell. Whatever the motives are, I think it’s good that we’re hav­ing these con­ver­sa­tions. There are peo­ple who have been cri­tiquing the tech indus­try for years. Since any com­pa­ny became promi­nent, there’s always been a front­line worker—maybe an aca­d­e­m­ic, maybe a journalist—who’s been say­ing, There are prob­lems with this and those prob­lems will crop up very soon.” But those peo­ple have not nec­es­sar­i­ly been giv­en that much spot­light. Now that we have all of these high pro­file peo­ple who were for­mal­ly insid­ers in the indus­try who are now say­ing the indus­try is fraught…I think that’s good. I think it’s bet­ter to have more of a spot­light on these things than have them hid­den away. Even if these peo­ple are doing it for maybe self-serving rea­sons, it’s fine. I think at the end of the day, we all have to be some­what self-serving just to get out of that.

What I would real­ly like to see of the tech­lash is just to have more atten­tion on the voic­es of peo­ple who are tra­di­tion­al­ly ignored. The Roger McNamees, the Tristan Harris’ of the world: Their voic­es are great, but also they’re telling one part of the sto­ry. The voic­es we need to hear now are the peo­ple who are deal­ing with this on the front­lines. When I say that, I mean if we’re talk­ing about a gig econ­o­my, we should be lis­ten­ing to Uber dri­vers. We should be lis­ten­ing to Deliveroo cyclists. If we’re talk­ing about the prob­lems of Amazon, then we real­ly need to hear from the work­ers, includ­ing soft­ware engi­neers but not just those—the ware­house work­ers, deliv­ery work­ers; any­one in the sup­ply chain. The voic­es of the work­ers are often just ignored because it’s assumed that they don’t know any­thing. They don’t know enough to have a crit­i­cal under­stand­ing. The way I think about this now is that if you don’t lis­ten to their voic­es then you’re miss­ing a piece of the puz­zle.

I almost have this kind of tech­ni­cal anal­o­gy for this, where if you’re a soft­ware engi­neer and you have a pro­gram that’s bug­gy, how are you going to fix it? You don’t fix it just by writ­ing on a black­board, Here’s how I’m going to fix it.” You have to look at the bugs, you have to inves­ti­gate all of the ways in which the pro­gram’s not work­ing, and play close atten­tion to all the fail­ures. That, I found to be a pret­ty good metaphor for how I feel about soci­ety today. I think it’s so impor­tant to just look at the ways that soci­ety is fail­ing peo­ple, and real­ly deeply under­stand what that fail­ure looks like. Then, what can we do about it? Once you tal­ly up enough of those, then you have a bet­ter sense of what’s wrong and what you can do to fix them.

Mason: What do you think of the ones who are trapped in this system—who know there’s some­thing fun­da­men­tal­ly wrong—what do you think that they do? I mean, what advice do you have to founders who real­ly feel trapped? The sorts of folks who become part of the sys­tem and then they have these expec­ta­tions from their employ­ees and they have the expec­ta­tions from these investors, and expec­ta­tions from their users. Suddenly they become a slave to this lit­tle gad­get or giz­mo that they built, and it feels like they have no escape. How do they stand up and go, You know what? I just want off of this roller­coast­er.”

Liu: Yeah, that’s a great ques­tion. My first piece of advice to those peo­ple would be, You’re not alone. It’s not your fault.” There’s only so much you can do as an indi­vid­ual in the sys­tem to accom­plish some­thing whilst stay­ing true to your own morals. For many peo­ple, I think they find that the sys­tem is sim­ply not set up to allow them to accom­plish what they want to do. It’s not designed to help enter­pris­ing young Stanford grads cre­ate social good. It’s designed to cre­ate returns for investors.

What that means is that some peo­ple will either have to change their morals and change their ideas of what they want to achieve, or they’ll be very dis­ap­point­ed. That dis­ap­point­ment does­n’t have to remain an indi­vid­ual thing, because so many peo­ple are hav­ing the same delu­sions and the same prob­lems with the indus­try, and what I real­ly hope that peo­ple in these sit­u­a­tions you’ve men­tioned will do is realise that there are oth­ers like them. It does­n’t have to be this way. It’s hard to do that as an indi­vid­ual, but ground­ed with an under­stand­ing that there are bet­ter ways of hav­ing inno­va­tion and hav­ing entre­pre­neur­ship may give them a lit­tle more solace in know­ing that this sit­u­a­tion they’re in is not just a per­son­al fail­ing. It’s not that they weren’t good enough. It’s that the sys­tem is bro­ken, and what they should do is hope­ful­ly take that ener­gy and dis­ap­point­ment and turn that into this kind of resolve to push for some­thing bet­ter.

Mason: Or not push for any­thing at all. It goes back to that mer­i­toc­ra­cy point. Anybody who goes out in the sun and lays back and has a good time in a healthy” but maybe not finan­cial­ly pros­per­ous life—they’re seen as fail­ures by soci­ety. Anybody who builds a multi­bil­lion dol­lar com­pa­ny that takes advan­tage of gig work­ers is seen as an abject suc­cess. How do we bal­ance those two? How do we re-engineer a val­ues sys­tem where­by just being hap­py and just being human is an achieve­ment? It feels like in many ways, in this world, just being hap­py and healthy and human is the hard­est thing to do. It’s much, much hard­er to do that than to have a multi­bil­lion dol­lar tech start­up.

Liu: Completely agreed. I think as a soci­ety, we’ve start­ed to val­ue the wrong things. We val­ue ruth­less­ness. We val­ue the abil­i­ty to scale and the abil­i­ty to be ambi­tious with­out think­ing: What is that ambi­tion for? What is the pur­pose of that? Or are we just valu­ing naked ambi­tion in itself? Silicon Valley is pret­ty much the epit­o­me of that. Wall Street was prob­a­bly the epi­cen­tre for a while, but now Silicon Valley is where a lot of peo­ple are grav­i­tat­ing towards because it’s where the mon­ey is. I think that’s a huge prob­lem, and it’s real­ly sad.

The prob­lem is, it’s not just that we have the wrong incen­tives and we’re cre­at­ing the wrong kinds of prod­ucts. I think it’s also very dan­ger­ous for the peo­ple who are made to believe that this is true; the peo­ple who fall for the illu­sion. The peo­ple who think that as long as they keep work­ing hard, as long as they work 80 hours a week like Elon Musk, and they raise lots of mon­ey, and all of their friends and fam­i­ly are jeal­ous of their suc­cess, then they’ll be hap­py. As if that’s a way to live. As if that’s the only way to live. There’s this won­der­ful book on the top­ic called How To Do Nothing by Jenny Odell—which I real­ly rec­om­mend to any­one who’s inter­est­ed. It’s a book about the atten­tion econ­o­my but it’s also a book about how to just sur­vive, how to live as a human being. The book sug­gests that we can have oth­er ways of think­ing about what’s valu­able than just the eco­nom­ic val­ue sys­tem that we’ve been giv­en. We don’t have to view every­thing in terms of the dol­lar price it would fetch on the mar­ket. We can val­ue things that are typ­i­cal­ly dis­re­gard­ed by cap­i­tal­ism. We can val­ue art, we can val­ue ecol­o­gy, we can val­ue car­ing for eachother. Those things are so impor­tant to just hav­ing a ground­ed life. Being in a soci­ety with oth­er peo­ple, with the nat­ur­al world, with all the things that we can cre­ate. 

The eco­nom­ic val­ue sys­tem that has unfor­tu­nate­ly come to dom­i­nate our world…it does­n’t cap­ture the mul­ti­plic­i­ty of things that make life worth liv­ing. It’s just such a nar­row lens through which to see the world. Although we all know that on some lev­el, it’s hard to live that way, and it’s very easy for peo­ple with­in a cer­tain bubble—like a Silicon Valley bub­ble, or a Wall Street bub­ble or what­ev­er it is—it’s easy for them to for­get that there is a life and a world beyond cap­i­tal­ism. There are things that have mean­ing that you can’t treat as an asset, and that is okay.

Mason: Even in the real­i­sa­tion that the folks in Silicon Valley had, that real­is­ing that their approach to it is, Oh, good­ness. We’re los­ing our abil­i­ty to be con­nect­ed, to med­i­tate, to be calm.” What ends up hap­pen­ing or emerg­ing is this thing called the well­ness indus­try. We have this com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of calm where­by Silicon Valley is now cre­at­ing apps, apply­ing the log­ic of tech to our men­tal and phys­i­cal well­be­ing and just doing the same old shit that they were doing the pre­vi­ous time any­way. I just won­der, are we going down a dan­ger­ous path here? 

I signed up for a Vipassana med­i­ta­tion. The won­der­ful thing about ten days of silent med­i­ta­tion is that there’s no com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion. You don’t have to buy any­thing, or pur­chase any­thing. I’ve had Calm and all of the med­i­ta­tion apps to try and achieve a med­i­ta­tive state, but doing ten days of Vipassana where you did­n’t pay for it—it was gift­ed, it was an exchange where­by you donate at the end—it felt very, very pure. There were no eco­nom­ics or cap­i­tal­ism involved. What it gave you was the skillset of how to med­i­tate, and it took 100 hours to learn that. Unfortunately I could­n’t down­load that. I just won­der, by all of this rise of new age spir­i­tu­al­ism and peo­ple going, Oh God, this is going to be the new thing. We feel so over­worked, how do we get our minds back?” what peo­ple end up doing is going, Oh, we’re going to cre­ate apps for that.” So Wendy, are we going down a dan­ger­ous path here? Are we just going to end up in exact­ly the same sit­u­a­tion again in about three or four years when we realise that all of those med­i­ta­tion apps were just siphon­ing data about the best times that we were calm, so that they could feed us the right sort of ad, or the right sort of upgrade with­in the app? You’re at the calmest moment? Just buy this upgrade or this per­son to come and do your med­i­ta­tion for you.”

Liu: Wow, that’s a dark pre­dic­tion. I think you’re prob­a­bly right about where this is going. The way I see it is that Silicon Valley is this strange bub­ble and micro­cosm where…you know the expres­sion, When you have a ham­mer, every­thing looks like a nail.”? When you’ve been trained in the Silicon Valley mind­set, every­thing looks like some sort of start­up oppor­tu­ni­ty. Everything looks like it could be an app, like it could be com­mod­i­fied by sell­ing data or in-app pur­chas­es. In a way you have to admire the peo­ple who do that. They found a for­mu­la that works, and they’re just apply­ing it to every­thing.

The prob­lem is, while that for­mu­la might work on a small scale in a very lim­it­ed set of cir­cum­stances, it does­n’t work for every­thing. When you have all this mon­ey flood­ing into Silicon Valley—and at this point I have to men­tion SoftBank. The fact that SoftBank has poured mil­lions of dol­lars into the ecosys­tem has only just made things worse. Things were already pret­ty bad before SoftBank, but they’ve just poured fuel on a fire. Once you get to a point where the tech indus­try is so big and so tied up with the rest of the finan­cial ecosys­tem, then it just becomes absolute­ly absurd. Then you get things like the well­ness indus­try. You have all this mon­ey and blockchain pur­su­ing, real­ly, just spec­u­la­tive ven­tures that don’t real­ly seem to offer any actu­al social good. They’re not even try­ing to be about social good, they’re just, How can we cre­ate this cool new tech­nol­o­gy and maybe make some mon­ey?” It’s quite trag­ic, but what I try to do with my cri­tique is focus on the sys­tems and not the indi­vid­u­als. I think for the peo­ple who are doing this, I don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly blame them. I don’t think it’s their fault. They exist in a world where cer­tain per­spec­tives and approach­es are glo­ri­fied, and it’s very hard to go against that. If you look around you, there are all these billionaires—all of these very suc­cess­ful peo­ple with all of these fab­u­lous institutions—and they’re all say­ing the same thing. They’re all say­ing, Startups are great. Inequality is good. Silicon Valley is the epi­cen­tre of inno­va­tion. There is no way to do inno­va­tion oth­er than giv­ing some 20 year old Stanford dropout a lot of mon­ey.” then it’s real­ly hard to go against that. Silicon Valley is one of the new rul­ing class­es, and their ideas are going to seem like the rul­ing ideas. For peo­ple who—especially those who are young and who have not been exposed to oth­er ways of see­ing the world—it’s just going to feel so tempt­ing to believe that.

I think peo­ple who see the well­ness indus­try as just anoth­er way to mon­e­tise data…I’m like, yeah, it’s trag­ic. It’s trag­ic that as a soci­ety we’ve come to this. But also the peo­ple who are doing it—I think they’re kind of just going for what they know. I feel bad for them. I don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly want to cas­ti­gate them. I don’t think it’s nec­es­sar­i­ly their fault…maybe for some of them, but espe­cial­ly those who’ve been taught from a young age that the secret to suc­cess is climb­ing the career lad­der, being real­ly good at what you do, being ruth­less in the pur­suit of your dreams—that’s the only val­ue sys­tem they know. 

For me, definitely—I talk about it a bit in the book—but I was raised to believe that edu­ca­tion­al achieve­ment was the most impor­tant thing, and once I grad­u­at­ed I’d have to get a great job and make a lot of mon­ey. All that mat­tered was me mak­ing a lot of mon­ey, and as long as I did that, I could feel good about every­thing else. That’s some­thing that many people—especially younger people—are real­is­ing does­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly make sense. We’re on a plan­et that is not doing super well. We’re cur­rent­ly liv­ing through a pan­dem­ic that is upend­ing all of our socioe­co­nom­ic norms. Everything is just kind of in a state of rup­ture. The old ways that we’ve learnt and that we’ve inter­nalised don’t real­ly work, but it’s very hard to let go of some­thing like that. So I feel for the peo­ple who are try­ing to make med­i­ta­tion apps and don’t feel good about it, but also don’t know what else to do.

Mason: Well there’s oth­er ones they can down­load. What’s so clear in the book is the impact that your peer group had on what you per­ceive to be suc­cess. Do you have any advice for folks who are look­ing at Silicon Valley and going, You know what? I’m going to grad­u­ate this year, I’m going to take that job at Google.” Do we need some sort of inter­ven­tion, Wendy? Do we have to go, No, stop, look. There are oth­er modes that you can take and there are oth­er ways to have a job and poten­tial­ly be hap­py.” Should we have some sort of inter­ven­tion at the grad­u­ate lev­el? How do we com­mu­ni­cate that there are oth­er options to have suc­cess oth­er than start­ing a start­up or get­ting an intern­ship at Google? 

Liu: I think it’s tricky because—just to acknowl­edge the socioe­co­nom­ic reality—for some peo­ple, get­ting a job at Google is the only way to have finan­cial sta­bil­i­ty for them­selves and their fam­i­lies. If they’re peo­ple who maybe want to go to grad school and become jour­nal­ists or artists or some­thing, those career paths are all very, very frag­ile right now. It’s so hard to make a liv­ing and have any sort of sta­bil­i­ty if you’re not work­ing a nine to five, paid for by a big com­pa­ny. What I would say to those peo­ple is, If you feel that way—that work­ing in a place like Google is your best bet—then do it, but just don’t let your­self believe the hype. Don’t drink the Kool-Aid. Just try to stay crit­i­cal.” That’s going to be hard. It’s very hard to work to spend most of your wak­ing hours at a job where you don’t believe it, but at the same time, the risk of believ­ing it is being indoc­tri­nat­ed into a cult. That’s prob­a­bly not some­thing any­one real­ly, real­ly wants to do. It’s so impor­tant to have a sense of per­spec­tive on what the world is actu­al­ly like. You can lose that if you spend most of your time in this real­ly nice office work­ing on fun, tech­ni­cal prob­lems and get­ting paid a lot of mon­ey. You gain this kind of dis­tance, and you become out of touch with what is hap­pen­ing. In that case, for those peo­ple I’d rec­om­mend: Talk to your co-workers and talk about their gripes. Understand that you’re not alone. If you have any sort of dis­il­lu­sion­ment or any sort of gripes with the com­pa­ny, talk to your coworkers—maybe surreptitiously—and see if there’s any­thing that can be done. Also keep up with what’s hap­pen­ing around the world. Talk to ordi­nary peo­ple. Listen to pod­casts, lis­ten to pub­lic radio. Don’t for­get how dif­fi­cult life is for most peo­ple on this plan­et.”. For me, that’s some­thing that gives me my pol­i­tics. I hear sto­ries of Amazon deliv­ery work­ers or Uber dri­vers, or peo­ple work­ing in fac­to­ries who are just real­ly strug­gling to get by. I lis­ten to those sto­ries and am like: Oh, okay. Now I remem­ber why things are so bad. I remem­ber what’s impor­tant. These are oth­er peo­ple who also deserve dig­ni­ty and also deserve a place with­in our socioe­co­nom­ic sys­tem.

Mason: You’ve done such a won­der­ful job of out­lin­ing the prob­lem, but the oth­er great thing about the book is that you actu­al­ly look at some solu­tions. The first pos­si­ble solu­tion is how we change the geo­graph­ic and demo­graph­ic diver­si­ty of Silicon Valley. That may not abol­ish it, but at least go some way in chang­ing it. How do you think those two things will help?

Liu: Yeah. I try to lay out some solu­tions. I think the solu­tions will prob­a­bly be the most con­tro­ver­sial, because the book is meant to cater to a wide audi­ence and I expect a lot of peo­ple to be angry with some of the solu­tions I pro­pose. In terms of geo­graph­ic and demo­graph­ic diver­si­ty, I think an indus­try that has a less homoge­nous array of peo­ple is one that is going to have more diverse view­points. Especially if the indus­try wel­comes peo­ple who’ve had less priv­i­leged upbring­ings and are able to see the sys­tem more crit­i­cal­ly, then my hope is that they’ll push for more rad­i­cal things. This is bear­ing out in prac­tice.

The most excit­ing, large scale moment of tech work­er activism in the last few years has been at Google. Actually, there’s been a cou­ple. The Project Maven thing was pret­ty excit­ing, but the Google walk­out was the one that got so much atten­tion. That was led by women. It was an effort that was protest­ing the sex­ism of the indus­try, and I think that’s real­ly inspir­ing. We need more peo­ple who are coura­geous and also who have a crit­i­cal under­stand­ing of the prob­lems of the sys­tem to step up and advo­cate for change, because change is not going to come from the top. This is some­thing that took me a while to realise, because for a while, I real­ly thought that if the lead­ers were just a lit­tle more eth­i­cal, if they were a lit­tle kinder, then they’d push for change. Well, they’re not going to because there are struc­tur­al rea­sons they can’t. They answer to their share­hold­ers. If they are too gen­er­ous, then their Board might just replace them with some­one else. They have to be forced to give any sort of con­ces­sions, and that comes from work­ers at the bot­tom com­ing togeth­er and col­lec­tive­ly demand­ing some­thing bet­ter.

Mason: The inter­est­ing thing about some of the solu­tions that you offer is they iden­ti­fied a real prob­lem. The real prob­lem isn’t tech­nol­o­gy, it isn’t these companies—but it’s cap­i­tal­ism. It’s the sys­tem under which these com­pa­nies are built and have to run, and have to oper­ate, which real­ly defines their pri­or­i­ties. You argue that—and it’s hard to do, and it’s famous­ly been said that it’s eas­i­er to imag­ine the end of the world than the end of capitalism—and I guess we’re kind of clos­er to the end of the world so why not let’s try to imag­ine the end of capitalism—you have these alter­na­tive sys­tems. You out­line these alter­na­tive sys­tems in the book. There’s five of these alter­na­tive sys­tems and you’re almost teas­ing us with the pos­si­bil­i­ty of what could be.

The first one is reclaim­ing entre­pre­neur­ship. You see that entre­pre­neur­ship could actu­al­ly be con­sid­ered a pub­lic ser­vice. How do you envi­sion that work­ing?

Liu: The media cov­er­age of entre­pre­neur­ship is dom­i­nat­ed by these bil­lion­aires. We asso­ciate entre­pre­neur­ship with becom­ing fab­u­lous­ly wealthy. We have the Jeff Bezos’, the Elon Musks, Mark Zuckerbergs of the world. All of whom have so much mon­ey, so many bil­lions, and they end up spend­ing it on real­ly expen­sive hous­es and islands in Hawaii. We have this con­nec­tion that the only rea­son some­one will want to do the hard work of cre­at­ing some­thing is if they’re reward­ed with all of the prizes of being a bil­lion­aire after­wards. I don’t think that’s true. I think that selects for a cer­tain kind of per­son, and I also think that the peo­ple who are doing these things would still do them with­out the mon­ey, if we had an alter­na­tive sys­tem with a cor­re­spond­ing alter­na­tive cul­ture where it was­n’t nor­mal to become wealthy; where you did­n’t know any­one who was wealthy; where wealth is not glam­or­ised in the same way, then I think peo­ple would still want to cre­ate things. We have cas­es of this in the past where peo­ple have cre­at­ed amaz­ing things. We have sci­en­tists who have come up with fab­u­lous dis­cov­er­ies and done real­ly dif­fi­cult work—not because they want­ed the mon­ey, but because they’re moti­vat­ed by the thrill of it, and some of them made no mon­ey for their work. In a way, we have a lot to thank them for.

I think there are alter­na­tive ways of encour­ag­ing the kinds of ambi­tion and dis­ci­pline that we need for peo­ple to build some­thing cool that isn’t just giv­ing them a bil­lion dol­lars after­wards. Having that much mon­ey isn’t good for those peo­ple. It’s not good for the world and it’s not good for them. It cor­rupts your brain and makes you see the world in this real­ly skewed, bizarre way. It erodes the pos­si­bil­i­ty of sol­i­dar­i­ty between peo­ple. If you have one per­son who has no mon­ey and anoth­er per­son who’s a bil­lion­aire, that bil­lion­aire can­not see a per­son who’s poor in the same way. They can­not inter­act with them as a nor­mal per­son.

Mason: This is where you offer anoth­er inter­est­ing solu­tion. Whether it’ll ever be allowed is anoth­er thing, but you argue that we should restrict CEO pay based on the ratio of the low­est pay of the per­son in the organ­i­sa­tion. What you’re real­ly argu­ing for is giv­ing work­ers more pow­er over the way in which they’re paid, and more say over automa­tion by restrict­ing and tying their income to the income of the CEO. I just won­der how you envi­sion that actu­al­ly work­ing?

Liu: We’ve seen a few cas­es of this hap­pen­ing in prac­tice. I know in the UK, John Lewis has a cap like this. It’s not a very good cap, but it’s bet­ter than noth­ing. There’s one company—I for­get what exact­ly they do, they make some sort of software—where the CEO said he’d be tak­ing the same salary as all of his employ­ees. That meant a big pay-cut for him, but then a lot of his employ­ees sud­den­ly had a lot more mon­ey. It seems to be work­ing. I think those cas­es are rare, just because the struc­ture does­n’t incen­tivise that. It’s very weird if some­one were to sud­den­ly say, I’m going to cap my own pay and pay all my work­ers more.”. Shareholders would not be hap­py, but it can work. What it does is that it makes peo­ple feel like they’re all val­ued. The work­ers are giv­en some sort of say over the con­di­tions in which they work and the mon­ey they’re mak­ing. That high­lights and reflects the actu­al val­ue that is cre­at­ed by peo­ple. It’s ridicu­lous to say that a CEO is actu­al­ly worth a thou­sand times more than some­one who does low­er wage work. What is that mon­ey doing? Is mon­ey a reflec­tion of mer­it? Is it a way to allo­cate resources accord­ing to need? Is it a way to just tell peo­ple they’re amaz­ing? You can’t be all of these sys­tems at once. One of the huge prob­lems with the way many of us think of mon­ey is that we think of it as some­thing you earn; as some­thing you deserve if you work hard for it. That’s not the way mon­ey is allo­cat­ed. Think about all of the bil­lion­aires who have inher­it­ed mon­ey from their fam­i­lies just by being born into the right fam­i­ly. There’s obvi­ous­ly some­thing real­ly weird going on with that. At the same time, you have peo­ple who are work­ing more than 40 hours a week and they’re mak­ing min­i­mum wage, and they still can’t afford to pay rent or put food on the table.

We have this sys­tem of mon­ey that’s just so flu­id and so multi-varied. It just does­n’t make sense. We can’t have it do all these things. I think we need to get to a posi­tion where we can treat mon­ey as a way to allo­cate the resources that peo­ple need, rather than say­ing, This per­son is a thou­sand times bet­ter and more deserv­ing than their low­est paid work­er, so we should give them this much mon­ey.” It does­n’t make sense. 

Mason: Let’s con­tin­ue down that avenue, because you argue, also, that we should reclaim pub­lic ser­vices. In oth­er words, you say that in exchange for work, it should­n’t always nec­es­sar­i­ly be dol­lars. It might actu­al­ly be basic pub­lic ser­vices. We can dis­rupt things like health­care and edu­ca­tion, bank­ing and mobil­i­ty, even com­mu­ni­ty and hous­ing by mak­ing it avail­able to all who are able to work. The fun­ny thing is, that feels like a rev­o­lu­tion­ary idea—and yet it’s not been one that’s been jumped on by the guys in Silicon Valley. I just wonder—that idea of uni­ver­sal basic services—how does that fac­tor into the world that you’re envi­sion­ing post Silicon Valley?

Liu: The way I see it is that the mode cap­i­tal­ism that we have now: Where so much is left to the vagaries of the mar­ket, where peo­ple have to earn at least some sort of mon­ey to be able to survive—that feels to me like a very lega­cy sys­tem. It’s like, sure—it maybe worked for a while, but I think we can do bet­ter. For me, what doing bet­ter entails is giv­ing peo­ple access to the resources they need to sur­vive and live a decent life, while not pun­ish­ing them for valu­ing dif­fer­ent things. If some­one just wants to spend their time mak­ing art, tak­ing care of their fam­i­ly and just hang­ing out enjoy­ing the world, that’s fine. I think what we need to fig­ure out is: How do we ensure that enough is pro­duced that every­one actu­al­ly has all the food, all the mate­ri­als they need? Tying work to the abil­i­ty to live—for one, that deval­ues care work, which is the sort of work that is typ­i­cal­ly shift­ed towards women and is just treat­ed as some­thing that women don’t deserve to get paid for, but it’s still work. It’s still nec­es­sary to keep soci­ety func­tion­ing. I hope that soci­ety has got to the point where we have advanced enough ways coor­di­nat­ing pro­duc­tion and com­mu­ni­cat­ing with each oth­er that we can have a more humane and gen­er­ous sys­tem, where every­one is just expect­ed to be a good cit­i­zen. To not harm oth­er peo­ple or the world. Instead, maybe they have to work a cer­tain amount of hours depend­ing on where they are and what needs to be done. The goal should be to allow peo­ple to just live a flour­ish­ing life, with­out this threat of, If you don’t choose the kind of work that is sanc­tioned by your gov­ern­ment, then you’re going to starve. If you don’t work a low-wage job in McDonalds doing some­thing you don’t enjoy, then you’re just going to be home­less. You won’t be able to get health­care.”

If we look at the vari­ety of dif­fer­ent wel­fare sys­tems among dif­fer­ent coun­tries, we get a sense of the pos­si­bil­i­ties. In the US we have such a stingy wel­fare sys­tem and we don’t even use the term aus­ter­i­ty because we’re just kind of liv­ing in aus­ter­i­ty. In the UK, at least you have the NHS. Even if it’s being defund­ed, at least there’s this idea that you just can be a per­son in their coun­try and get health­care with­out hav­ing to go into med­ical debt for it. A lot of the Scandanavian coun­tries have much stronger wel­fare sys­tems.

Just look­ing around at the world we have now, it’s clear that there are bet­ter ways of doing things than we have in the US, espe­cial­ly. We def­i­nite­ly need polit­i­cal will, and I think we also just need a dif­fer­ent way of look­ing at the world and look­ing at our respon­si­bil­i­ties to each oth­er as human beings. All of what my pol­i­tics is about is this idea of sol­i­dar­i­ty and this idea of cre­at­ing a sys­tem that works for every­one. A sys­tem that actu­al­ly treats peo­ple with dig­ni­ty and gives them the resources they need to just sur­vive.

Mason: We’re going to take a cou­ple of ques­tions from Youtube now. Gemma asks, Is it pos­si­ble to change things in Silicon Valley with­out chang­ing things on Wall Street?” In oth­er words, should we actu­al­ly be look­ing at Wall Street instead of look­ing at Silicon Valley?

Liu: I do think a lot about the ties between Wall Street and Silicon Valley. Unfortunately, it’s not some­thing I know that much about. I wish I had a bet­ter under­stand­ing of how it works behind the scenes: What are the avenues for change? What are the levers? When I talk about Silicon Valley as being part of a larg­er struc­ture, then I also mean Wall Street. I mean the way that finance is mar­shalled towards these companies—that is a big part of it. It’s fun­ny because a lot of these tech com­pa­nies in the finan­cial sphere will say things like, We’re going to dis­rupt Wall Street. We’re dis­rupt­ing the preda­to­ry banks.”, and then they have to end up rais­ing mon­ey from those banks and work­ing with those banks.

Wall Street and Silicon Valley are high­ly con­nect­ed, even though there are many with­in the tech indus­try who would say, We’re bet­ter than Wall Street, we’re dis­rupt­ing Wall Street.”—but they still rely on it. There’s a sym­bi­ot­ic rela­tion­ship for sure. There has to be change on the lev­el of how cap­i­tal is allo­cat­ed. I’m not sure if that’s some­thing that will come from with­in Wall Street. I’m def­i­nite­ly less hope­ful of col­lec­tive action with­in Wall Street; I don’t think that’s some­thing any­one’s expect­ing any time soon. I hope reg­u­la­tion will play a role in that. The gov­ern­ment has a lot of say in how Wall Street and the city and the UK, and how these sys­tems oper­ate. The rea­son we’re in a sys­tem we have now, where finance is com­plete­ly unteth­ered from real­i­ty, is most­ly the result of dereg­u­la­tion. Starting in the 70s with Margaret Thatcher’s Big Bang reforms, and in the US we had sim­i­lar dereg­u­la­tion hap­pen­ing with Wall Street—it just does­n’t have to be this way. The gov­ern­ment cre­at­ed the con­di­tions for finance to be so lofty, just so unteth­ered, with­out any sort of over­sight on what’s hap­pen­ing. We can undo all those. All it real­ly takes is polit­i­cal will.

Mason: It’s fun­ny because I guess what you’re real­ly argu­ing when you talk about reclaim­ing entre­pre­neur­ship is that gov­ern­ments should decide with pub­lic mon­ey what to fund and what not to fund, and should also—to some degree—shoulder the risk of mak­ing those sorts of deci­sions. It’s a very anti-libertarian point of view. Do you think that’s just going to fall on deaf ears in some­where like Silicon Valley? 

Liu: Yeah, that’s a good point. I think about that a lot because I want my book to be approach­able to a wide vari­ety of peo­ple. Even those who are not nec­es­sar­i­ly inclined to agree with it already. So when I talk about reclaim­ing entre­pre­neur­ship, for exam­ple, I’m not just talk­ing about the gov­ern­ment. I think there is a way of hav­ing the gov­ern­ment being more involved. When peo­ple think of the government—especially here in the US—they think of the D&B, they think of coer­cion, they think of tax­es. That’s not what a gov­ern­ment should be. What the gov­ern­ment should be doing in an ide­al world is mar­shalling the resources that we’ve demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly agreed on, in a demo­c­ra­t­ic way. Maybe rather than a gov­ern­ment, what I’m real­ly just say­ing is what we need a more demo­c­ra­t­ic way of hav­ing entre­pre­neur­ship. That does­n’t have to be a gov­ern­ment struc­ture. It can be, for exam­ple, a non-profit, if it’s maybe fund­ed in some way. It could be a union, right? You could have real­ly strong unions that are able to fund star­tups and non-profits and things like that. There are some unions that already do fund entre­pre­neur­ship.

The goal is to have the risks of entre­pre­neur­ship not be shoul­dered by the indi­vid­ual, and also have the resources allo­cat­ed in a more demo­c­ra­t­ic way. Because right now, what do we have? We have ven­ture cap­i­tal as an indus­try which is pre­dom­i­nant­ly male, pre­dom­i­nant­ly white. It’s most­ly peo­ple who are based in some very wealthy parts of the world, and a lot of them have degrees from pres­ti­gious uni­ver­si­ties where they already have con­nec­tions. It’s so funny—there’s this one VC who’s a third gen­er­a­tion ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist, and I always find that hilar­i­ous. As if it’s a hered­i­tary trait. But the point is, this is not a rep­re­sen­ta­tive group of peo­ple, and they’re mak­ing deci­sions that can impact bil­lions of peo­ple around the world. What gave them the right to decide this? Well, they just hap­pened to have got enough mon­ey from a pre­vi­ous start­up, or they just had enough mon­ey to raise a fund and they were able to get peo­ple to trust them with that mon­ey. Why does that give them the pow­er to do this? It does­n’t seem fair. It does­n’t seem just.

There are many fem­i­nist cri­tiques of the indus­try that make this point where if you have all these white men who are decid­ing where mon­ey goes and what star­tups are promis­ing, then you’re going to end up with a very homoge­nous indus­try. The kinds of star­tups that will be fund­ed will not nec­es­sar­i­ly cor­re­spond to what peo­ple need. That real­i­sa­tion, hope­ful­ly, is the bridge to a more expand­ed alter­na­tive vision of what the indus­try could look like if it were more demo­c­ra­t­ic. I don’t know exact­ly what that would look like. That’s an open ques­tion. I would love for peo­ple to exper­i­ment with this and to talk about this more, but yeah, I just want­ed to throw that out there.  

Mason: It’s crazy to me that VC com­pa­nies are being treat­ed like monar­chies and that you can have a third or fourth gen­er­a­tion of VCs. We have anoth­er ques­tion from Youtube—this time from Ian Forrester who says, Cory Doctorow talks about the prob­lem with­in Silicon Valley being about monop­o­lies. Is this a prob­lem that you high­light, Wendy, or is it more around mon­ey and inequal­i­ty?” 

Liu: It is impor­tant to look at monop­o­lies. That’s not the focus of my book, I would say. The focus is more that the struc­tur­al incen­tives are flawed. I think that ties in with the prob­lem with monop­o­lies in the sense that if you have a com­pa­ny that grows real­ly, real­ly big with­in this flawed struc­ture, the act of it becom­ing a monop­oly will cre­ate its own prob­lems. The way I see it is, yes—the monop­o­lies are a prob­lem, but they’re not a prob­lem just because they’re big. They’re a prob­lem because they val­ue the wrong things. We should be talk­ing about how to break up these companies—I think that’s a good discussion—but we should also be talk­ing about what else we can do to reform the struc­ture so that we don’t just have the same prob­lem again, in a few years. Also so that the world we’re try­ing to aim for isn’t just a slight­ly mod­i­fied ver­sion of the world we have now. Imagine if we broke up Google or Facebook so that they did­n’t have this adver­tis­ing duop­oly, and instead we had 20 com­pa­nies that were all han­dling this adver­tis­ing data, and maybe they did­n’t have secure data pro­to­cols and it was just a giant mess. In that sense, the anti-monopoly approach isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly the cor­rect one. Instead, we should be think­ing: What is the actu­al prob­lem here? What do we want less of?

I’m per­son­al­ly very anti adver­tis­ing in gen­er­al. I think we should have a lot less adver­tis­ing. The way that adver­tis­ing is being tar­get­ed to us using our data…we should have less. We don’t need ten com­pa­nies han­dling this and com­pet­ing with each oth­er, because they’re com­pet­ing for cus­tomers. They’re not com­pet­ing for us, they’re com­pet­ing for adver­tis­ers. That’s just the wrong approach and in that case, we just need less adver­tis­ing in gen­er­al. When it comes to oth­er seg­ments, I do think anti-monopoly is a use­ful approach—it’s just not for every­thing. 

The gig econ­o­my is one where we have a lot of com­pe­ti­tion, actu­al­ly. In San Francisco, there are so many dif­fer­ent food deliv­ery com­pa­nies.

Mason: So many dif­fer­ent scoot­er apps. They’re all dif­fer­ent colours and I need 12 apps to just hire a scooter—it’s crazy.

Liu: Exactly, so many. Some peo­ple like pink, some like green. I think that high­lights part of the prob­lem. Sometimes the prob­lem is that there’s too much com­pe­ti­tion. What we real­ly need is a more uni­fied approach where it’s…I don’t know. Some sort of non-profit, a co-op, a munic­i­pal ser­vice. Anything that avoids the neg­a­tives of hav­ing too much com­pe­ti­tion.

I do think it’s help­ful to talk about monop­o­lies, it’s just, for me, it’s not the thing I’m con­cerned the most about because I think the broad­er struc­ture is so flawed that we have to address that first and fig­ure out how to fix that before we talk about monop­o­lies.

Mason: Are you talk­ing about mak­ing or forc­ing some of these com­pa­nies to become pub­lic ser­vices when they become too large? I’ve always won­dered the point at which Jack Dorsey will just throw his hands up and go, You know what, I can’t get Twitter to make the adver­tis­ing return that we promised the investors. I’m going to just hand it over to you guys. It is now a pub­lic ser­vice. Good luck at keep­ing the serv­er racks on, but it is yours.” because it is the way in which the US is being gov­erned right now, thanks to Trump. It real­ly does feel like a pub­lic ser­vice. Amazon, for example—ever since COVID-19—Amazon has become retail, and Amazon is retail. The only way to get any­thing that isn’t food or essen­tial goods is through Amazon. Do you think at some point we should find a way to go, You know what? You’ve reached this scale. Reward your investors accord­ing­ly, but we’re going to take it from here.”? 

Liu: Yeah, for sure. I think that is a very impor­tant and fruit­ful dis­cus­sion that we should be hav­ing. Jack Dorsey has done stranger things, so he might actu­al­ly go for this. A friend of mine actu­al­ly start­ed this cam­paign to try to get Twitter to become a user-cooperative—have the users basi­cal­ly buy Twitter and have some sort of struc­ture set up. It obvi­ous­ly did­n’t actu­al­ly hap­pen, but I think there is an appetite for dif­fer­ent ways of run­ning a com­pa­ny like Twitter which has become a pub­lic ser­vice. Really, nobody actu­al­ly likes Twitter ads, right? We can all use a lot few­er Twitter ads. The only rea­son Twitter has to mon­e­tise itself is because it’s in this weird for-profit busi­ness mod­el and that’s the only way it can jus­ti­fy its exis­tence. But, if we treat it as a pub­lic ser­vice, then we might all have a bet­ter expe­ri­ence. We might be able to demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly gov­ern the terms by which peo­ple are allowed to Tweet or are get­ting sus­pend­ed and things like that. Right now, it’s so hard for an ordi­nary per­son to have any say in how Twitter oper­ates. Same with Amazon, same with Uber. That’s just not work­ing. Maybe that would have worked when these com­pa­nies were tiny, but once these com­pa­nies become bil­lion dol­lar enti­ties that affect so many peo­ple, then we need a new mod­el. This share­hold­er dri­ven, pri­vate cor­po­ra­tion mod­el just does­n’t suit the real­i­ties of the sit­u­a­tion. 

Mason: There’s anoth­er ques­tion from Youtube, this time from Peter who says, You men­tioned gov­er­nance being at the core of the prob­lem. What do you think about work­er co-ops or orgs that are col­lec­tive­ly gov­erned by val­ues dri­ven com­mu­ni­ties instead of cor­po­ra­tions? Should we be look­ing clos­er at coop­er­a­tives as a poten­tial solu­tion to some of these issues, or are there gov­er­nance issues with coop­er­a­tives in the first place that makes them very dif­fi­cult to run?”. 

Liu: Yeah, great ques­tion. I’m not an expert on co-ops, but I like the idea. I think one of the prob­lems that co-ops face is that they’re try­ing to com­pete in a mar­ket that favours large, prof­it dri­ven cor­po­ra­tions. If you’re a co-op try­ing to com­pete against Uber, for exam­ple, you’re not going to have a good time, because Uber is backed with bil­lions and bil­lions of dol­lars and they have access to the best lawyers mon­ey can buy. If they want, they can try and bribe politi­cians, and so if a co-op tries to com­pete on an already uneven play­ing field, they’re going to have a rough time. The impacts of that will be felt by the workers—so they might have to pay them­selves less; they won’t be able to sur­vive very long. I think what needs to hap­pen for co-ops to be more viable is that there needs to be struc­tur­al changes that make it a more even play­ing field, so that co-ops are giv­en more fund­ing and the rules just favour co-ops in gen­er­al.

I know to some lib­er­tar­i­ans, this would sound awful. They’d be like, Oh my God, you’re skew­ing the free mar­ket.” But the answer, of course, is that the mar­ket was nev­er free. The mar­ket is always con­struct­ed by rules that aren’t neutral—it’s just the way things are. Instead, I think we need to shift the bal­ance of pow­er back towards more com­mu­ni­ty dri­ven efforts like co-ops.

I think yeah, co-ops can be a real­ly good solu­tion. They’re not nec­es­sar­i­ly the only solu­tion. When we talk about tech­nol­o­gy, we should also be talk­ing about open-source soft­ware and mak­ing things pub­lic domain as opposed to it being owned by a com­pa­ny. I love the idea of co-ops and I think we should have an indus­try with many more co-ops than we have now.

Mason: Do you have any advice for indi­vid­u­als who are going into the tech indus­try and still want to work as eth­i­cal­ly as pos­si­ble, and still do good? Do you actu­al­ly believe that’s pos­si­ble?

Liu: I def­i­nite­ly don’t want to be too pes­simistic. I think there’s a range of pos­si­bil­i­ties in the indus­try, and there’s a big spec­trum. It’s not all doom and gloom. There are small­er com­pa­nies, and even some larg­er com­pa­nies that have more pro­gres­sive val­ues, but at the same time, it’s hard because the com­pa­nies that are more like­ly to have good val­ues are also less like­ly to pay you as well. They just don’t have as much fund­ing, their busi­ness mod­els are less lucra­tive.

Anyone who is enter­ing the indus­try and is think­ing about ethics in this way will have to just be very hon­est with them­selves about the trade­offs they’re will­ing to make. If you want­ed to work only in social good roles, if you want­ed to work for non-profits—there aren’t that many of those roles out there, and the ones that do exist are not going to pay you as well as writ­ing machine learn­ing for Uber. It all comes down to: What are you will­ing to put up with? What are you will­ing to take? What sac­ri­fices are you will­ing to make? But I do encour­age peo­ple who are about to enter the tech indus­try to try their best to look for a role that aligns with their val­ues. Even to push recruiters—instead of just say­ing, Okay, yeah. I’ll just take this job.”, telling a recruiter, What is your pol­i­cy around X? How many peo­ple on the team are not white men?” or some­thing, if that’s what you care about. What is your com­pa­ny’s per­spec­tive on these eth­i­cal ques­tions?” I think it’s worth try­ing to fig­ure that out. If enough recruits do that sort of thing, then these com­pa­nies will at least have to talk about these things. The indus­try works a cer­tain way part­ly because of the response it gets, and if enough prospec­tive hires are push­ing back and say­ing, We won’t work for this com­pa­ny until they change this.”, that is going to have some impact if the scales are high enough.

Mason: If all of the new grad­u­ates rose up and went, You know what? We’re not going to join Google’s intern­ship pro­gramme.”, I think that would have a mas­sive change. Wendy, it would be irre­spon­si­ble of me not to men­tion the ele­phant in the room, which is the cur­rent cri­sis. I just wonder—COVID-19—do you feel like what’s hap­pen­ing right now might actu­al­ly expe­dite some of the changes that you want to see? 

Liu: I try to remain hope­ful, but also giv­en what’s been hap­pen­ing, it does not look good. There’s a part of me that thinks: Yeah! After this, peo­ple are going to realise we don’t have to run the econ­o­my the same way. But also this is an oppor­tu­ni­ty for the more malev­o­lent forces to take pow­er. This is a good oppor­tu­ni­ty for those empow­ered to just crack down and extract more mon­ey. What we’re see­ing in the US is the gov­ern­ment pass­ing these bills that are not ade­quate to address the prob­lem, but at the same time are trans­fer­ring wealth to the already wealthy. This is what we should expect, giv­en the kind of polit­i­cal forces that are in pow­er right now.

It’s also hor­ri­ble and hor­ri­fy­ing. I’m wor­ried that a lot of peo­ple are going to die, and are going to be finan­cial­ly strug­gling and won’t be able to make it, but I do hope that the facts of this cri­sis and the truths it has revealed about our eco­nom­ic sys­tem will give peo­ple this broad­er vision of how else we can run soci­ety. In the US, we have so many unem­ploy­ment claims already. We might be pass­ing the Great Depression in terms of unem­ploy­ment, soon. There are so many peo­ple who did­n’t pay rent this month. That’s got to change some­thing, right? I’m sure there are peo­ple who are real­is­ing, Well, we could just do this all the time. We should just not pay rent, ever. We should be able to sur­vive on dif­fer­ent terms.” I do hope that this catal­y­ses a dif­fer­ent way of look­ing at the world, and I hope that it serves us an oppor­tu­ni­ty to reimag­ine these struc­tures that bind us all. At a time when the virus is real­ly just upend­ing the social order, then we should realise that we don’t have to abide by the terms that cap­i­tal­ism has set for us. We don’t have to treat peo­ple only in terms of their mar­ket val­ue. Every trans­ac­tion does­n’t have to be a com­mer­cial trans­ac­tion. We can just relate to each oth­er as human beings who want to sur­vive. We want to build a soci­ety with all of us. That’s what I hope.

Mason: In a fun­ny way, Wendy, it feels like it could go one of two ways. It could either go into this dystopi­an real­i­ty where­by bring­ing in track and trace is going to have a mas­sive civ­il lib­er­ties issue, where­by we’re con­stant­ly being tracked through our move­ments. Arguably for track­ing the virus, but once that’s out of the bag it can be used for oth­er things. That’s one end of the spec­trum, although the oth­er end of the spec­trum could argue that quar­an­tine might actu­al­ly make us appre­ci­ate human con­nec­tion; reori­ent our val­ues sys­tem; make us realise that we’ve been doing these bull­shit jobs that we don’t need to do any­more, and might pos­si­bly upend the sys­tem in that way. Do you think we’re head­ing for utopia, or Black Mirror dystopia?

Liu: Yeah, great ques­tion. I think we’re going to see a bit of both. I am very wor­ried about the sur­veil­lance impli­ca­tions. Certain com­pa­nies are just going to amass pow­er dur­ing this. Amazon is expand­ing so much. Walmart is doing real­ly well dur­ing this cri­sis. As these com­pa­nies get more and more pow­er­ful, I don’t think it’s going to be utopia for most of us. I think for their work­ers, it’s just going to be more of the same.

But, I think the utopi­an pos­si­bil­i­ties are inspir­ing and worth talk­ing about. As peo­ple who have been doing their jobs at a time like this, they must have to stop and think: Why am I doing this? Why am I work­ing on the adver­tis­ing cam­paign for the 2020 Prius, or what­ev­er? Why does this stuff mat­ter? What is our econ­o­my actu­al­ly for?

All of the jobs that peo­ple are doing—which jobs are actu­al­ly deliv­er­ing social val­ue and which ones are just a lega­cy of this sys­tem that we have which is geared around con­sump­tion and adver­tis­ing of fos­sil fuels? Maybe after this, peo­ple are going to quit their jobs—if they can and they have the finan­cial lux­u­ry to do so, and they’re going to say, Well, I want to do some­thing else. I don’t think what I was doing before is actu­al­ly what I want to do. I think there are more impor­tant things. I want to spend time with my fam­i­ly. I want to take advan­tage of all of the amaz­ing things this plan­et has to offer, and not spend all of my time try­ing to climb that career lad­der for some­thing I don’t believe in, in the first place.”. I do hope that hap­pens.

I think in the tech indus­try, this will serve as a wake up call for some peo­ple. If you’re a white col­lar soft­ware engi­neer and you can work from home, and you know that the world is col­laps­ing around you while you’re try­ing to debug this Javascript thing, you’re prob­a­bly think­ing: This feels weird. I hope these peo­ple lean into that dis­com­fort and think: Okay, why does this feel weird? What can I actu­al­ly do about it? How do I read­just my under­stand­ing of the world to find a bet­ter path for­ward? That’s kind of what I’m hop­ing for.

Mason: Are Silicon Valley doing enough? I mean, some­thing like coro­n­avirus, COVID-19, feels like one of those sorts of chal­lenges that the coder com­mu­ni­ty would want to get behind. I know we’ve seen exam­ples of mas­sive hackathons where peo­ple are try­ing to find solu­tions to this prob­lem, but do you think for the Silicon Valley com­pa­ny that actu­al­ly pro­vid­ed the resources or com­mu­ni­ty plat­forms to help us over­come this, this would be mas­sive for them. It feels like they’ve been very qui­et. I know you’ve talked briefly about WeWork, and what if WeWork actu­al­ly opened up all of their spaces as health­care spaces. All of this land and all these cam­pus­es that Facebook and Google have: Why don’t the Facebook cam­pus into a field hos­pi­tal, for exam­ple? How do you think Silicon Valley could do more, before we abol­ish it?

Liu: Yeah, great ques­tion. I think any­thing that these com­pa­nies could do that would actu­al­ly help address the cri­sis in a sub­stan­tial way would also prob­a­bly not be pop­u­lar with share­hold­ers. At the same time, we’re in such a moment of cri­sis that maybe they could just do it and then peo­ple would be like, Okay, that’s fine.”, right. 

Mason: But to your argu­ment, Wendy, sure­ly at stages like this, share­hold­er return—and I know when you cre­ate a com­pa­ny, it’s with­in the rules and the law of that com­pa­ny that you need to do good by your shareholders—but sure­ly some­thing like this should suc­ceed that, should over­come that, and make that null and void in moments of cri­sis. Shouldn’t we re-engineer the sys­tem in that way to force these com­pa­nies to act like pub­lic ser­vices and pro­vide the good that they should have been pro­vid­ing by pay­ing their tax­es in the first place?

Liu: I agree, but at the same time, the show must go on. Companies are still releas­ing their quar­ter­ly earn­ings reports. I’ve heard that Netflix had a real­ly great quar­ter, as you can imag­ine. I think it’s hard for peo­ple to snap out of it, right? The thing about cap­i­tal­ism is that it just feels so total­is­ing. Like you were say­ing in the begin­ning, it is hard to imag­ine the end of cap­i­tal­ism. It’s eas­i­er to imag­ine the end of the world. Even though we’re at an end-of-the-world type sce­nario, it’s still real­ly hard to shift out of that. We’ve set up all of these insti­tu­tions. We have all of these cul­tur­al norms that force peo­ple to behave in a cer­tain way. I would love to hear tech com­pa­nies and tech lead­ers actu­al­ly sac­ri­fice some­thing sub­stan­tial, to do some­thing with the cri­sis. I think the most we’ve heard is Jack Dorsey say­ing he’s going to donate some mon­ey, which isn’t a real dona­tion but he’s just shift­ing own­er­ship of some of the stock. From what I’ve heard, he actu­al­ly promised to do more than that, and so this is just him try­ing to cap­i­talise on the sce­nario. 

I think there’s a lot these peo­ple could do, but what I real­ly want to see from Silicon Valley, is…I would love to see tech lead­ers act in a way that isn’t just about mak­ing them­selves look good, but instead is about reduc­ing their own pow­er. The fact that we’re in a sit­u­a­tion where we actu­al­ly do want Silicon Valley to step up and offer their resources tells me some­thing is bro­ken. They should­n’t have this pow­er in the first place. The fact they do is some­thing we just have to deal with, but why does WeWork have leas­es on so many offices? Why is WeWork still mak­ing its clean­ing staff come in to clean these emp­ty offices with­out pro­tec­tive equip­ment? Why does it have the pow­er to do those things? Well, because they got all this mon­ey from SoftBank. Why did that hap­pen? Once you start ask­ing these ques­tions and you realise that the pow­er these com­pa­nies have—the wealth and resources they control—it should not nec­es­sar­i­ly be under the purview of these pri­vate com­pa­nies in the first place. 

If I’m going to try and end on a nice note here, it’s: Let’s imag­ine a world where we don’t have to beg Silicon Valley bil­lion­aires to donate some mon­ey to deal with COVID, because we have the demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions to do that in the first place. 

Mason: You’re a coder, you’re a soft­ware devel­op­er at heart. That’s what you grew up doing, and you grew up lov­ing to do. Deep down, does it make you a lit­tle bit sad that by abol­ish­ing Silicon Valley, the rap­ture of the nerds is nev­er going to hap­pen?

Liu: I hope I’ve moved on from that. When I talk about abol­ish­ing Silicon Valley, I’m not say­ing that no one gets to code. I’m say­ing that the peo­ple who want to code and build things get to do that in an envi­ron­ment that actu­al­ly respects their tal­ents and recog­nis­es the needs of the rest of the world.

Mason: So in that case—people who are lis­ten­ing to this pod­cast or are watch­ing this livestream—in what way can they engage in the sorts of rad­i­cal pol­i­tics that you’re talk­ing about in this book? To even­tu­al­ly upend the sta­tus quo as it is now. How do we not only envi­sion that bet­ter alter­na­tive, but how do we actu­alise that bet­ter alter­na­tive? 

Liu: Ah, amaz­ing ques­tion. I wish I had more con­crete answers. I think we’re liv­ing in a real­ly weird moment where it’s very unclear to me what’s going to hap­pen, and so I don’t real­ly know what the best avenues are to address this. I think the most promis­ing things I’m see­ing come from work­er activism with­in the tech indus­try. We have groups like the Tech Workers Coalition which has branch­es in many US cities and also in the UK—that’s real­ly inter­est­ing. There are also peo­ple who are just doing local activism or some sort of elec­toral pol­i­tics, where they’re try­ing to make things bet­ter in their com­mu­ni­ties. In San Francisco, we have a huge home­less­ness prob­lem, and there are peo­ple here who are advo­cat­ing for changes to that. They’re say­ing, Well, part of the rea­son rents are so high is because we have all of this tech mon­ey flood­ing in.” and so there was a bal­lot mea­sure in San Francisco to basi­cal­ly tax tech com­pa­nies and use that mon­ey to fund home­less shel­ters. I think that’s use­ful. It’s a way of con­nect­ing in peo­ple’s minds that the prob­lems are linked. 

I rec­om­mend to peo­ple: Get involved in your com­mu­ni­ty; find some sort of activist group that appeals to you; talk to your cowork­ers; and also just take care of your­self. I think that should be step one in a pan­dem­ic like this. As much as we should be think­ing about what comes after, we also have to just deal with the here and now, and it can be real­ly hard. I’m hav­ing a lot of trou­ble just cop­ing with every­thing. Everyday, the news just seems so dark. The most impor­tant thing is that we all just have to get out of this, and keep each oth­er safe.

Mason: And on that note, thank you, Wendy, for join­ing us today. 

Liu: Thank you for invit­ing me. This has been great.

Mason: Thank you to Wendy for shar­ing her thoughts on how we can cre­ate a much fair­er tech ecosys­tem. 

You can find out more by pur­chas­ing Wendy’s new book, Abolish Silicon Valley: How to Liberate Technology from Capitalism’—available now. 

Don’t for­get, you can watch the full, unedit­ed video of this con­ver­sa­tion at FUTURES Podcast dot net, where you can also find out about all of our live stream events.

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Further Reference

Episode page, with intro­duc­to­ry and pro­duc­tion notes. Transcript orig­i­nal­ly by Beth Colquhoun, repub­lished with per­mis­sion (mod­i­fied).

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