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 20—22 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.
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.
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