"The world isn't a logical proposition": Why Silicon Valley's fiercest critic wants to abolish it

Silicon Valley was built on the ethos of disruption. A memoir from a former insider shows that there's one principle that they won't challenge

April 15, 2020
Hundreds of activists and immigration advocates took to the streets on October 11, 2019 in New York City on a protest to demand an end to Salesforce and Amazon profiteering from immigrants detention, as organizations across the country are taking up a nat
Hundreds of activists and immigration advocates took to the streets on October 11, 2019 in New York City on a protest to demand an end to Salesforce and Amazon profiteering from immigrants detention, as organizations across the country are taking up a nat

Wendy Liu’s first encounter with the inner workings of technology happened when she was twelve. She was chatting to a boy over MSN Messenger who was telling her about a website he’d made. She looked up the terms he used, like “source code” and “HTML.” “It was as if a hole in the universe had just opened up to reveal its inner mechanics,” she writes in her new book Abolish Silicon Valley.

Abolish Silicon Valley is half memoir, half manifesto. Liu, now a prolific critic of the tech industry, recounts her teenage years spent on open source software forums, her formal education in computer science at McGill, and then, a bemusing summer spent as an intern at Google in 2013, when Silicon Valley was still considered a bastion of progressive thinking. “I could feel virtuous solely through my association with my employer. All I had to do was show up,” she writes. After university, Liu turns down a job offer from Google for a more adventurous venture working on a data analytics startup with three friends. The early optimism eventually gives way to confusion and fatigue, particularly as the myth of Silicon Valley starts to crumble for her team.

When Liu set out to write Abolish Silicon Valley, she was conscious that many of the elements of life in Silicon Valley—the dominant culture of overwork, the exploitation of a precarious workforce partly alleviated by office perks, the hero worship of a select few male founders—were starting to fray at the seams. Those problems have only grown as she finished writing the book. In the book, Liu describes actions such as the 2018 Google Walkouts—where employees at Google walked out of company headquarters around the world to protest the company's treatment of sexual harassment claims and massive payouts to those accused—and strikes led by Uber drivers over issues such as declining wages. They were among the first kinds of collective action taken by tech workers in recent history.

Throughout Abolish Silicon Valley, Liu recounts her life in granular detail, which she admits in a phone interview, was excruciating. “I realised I had all of these assumptions which I didn’t think to question,” she says. “I wanted to lay out those experiences so that people could see where I was coming from.” Liu’s journey—from ardent believer in Silicon Valley’s meritocracy to a fierce criticis increasingly common, particularly for tech workers who have found themselves increasingly uncertain about the ethics of their work.

“I’ve definitely had my views expanded by labour struggles in the tech industry,” Liu adds. “If I’d written the book even a year before, I don’t know if it would have been as strong, I wouldn’t really have been able to talk about any of that stuff.” As an industry built on the idea of disruption, something of the real kind seemed to be happening in Silicon Valley’s ecosystem too.

“The objective conditions of the tech industry, the rest of the political and economic landscape—these are forcing people to reckon with the reality of what’s going on,” Liu says. “The typical notion of climbing the ladder of success under capitalism just means focusing on individual achievement—we’re at a time where that individualistic notion of success if it ever was appropriate, is not appropriate now.”

After the startup faltered and was eventually acquired, Liu began a master’s degree in Inequality at the LSE where she discovered the writings of theorists such as Mark Fisher. Chapter Eleven of Abolish Silicon Valley is a list of demands and suggestions from Liu, a loose manifesto which she concedes is radical, but nonetheless seems grounded. “The point of making a demand is to put a stake in the ground—to anchor the imagination,” she writes.

Among Liu’s five-point list of demands is “reclaiming public services.” Liu points out that the rampant privatisation of public services have made tech companies’ promises of efficiency through disruption seem like the only option. The complex web of relationships between technology and capital create new ethical conundrums every day. Right now, in towns and cities around the world, Amazon and Uber have offered up an underpaid, precarious workforce as frontline workers during the Covid-19 pandemic, consolidating their position as benevolent tech giants, plugging gaps that government infrastructure just can’t fill.

Liu’s experiences mirror a widening societal chasm between the myth and reality of Silicon Valley’s no-holds-barred, disruption at all costs mindset. She points out that certain tech billionaires have made their names and companies not through groundbreaking innovation, but through reformulating services so they circumvent regulation. “I do think that there’s a kind of hubris which people in Silicon Valley have, where they think that they can figure out the most optimal way to do something because they understand math and logic,” she says. “But the world works in ways that can’t be reduced to a first-order logical proposition.”

But Liu hasn’t turned her back on technology entirely. Liu’s scathing critique of the industry is all the more compelling because it’s evident that she cares about the technology itself.  “I’m always kind of optimistic and pessimistic at the same time,” she admits. “But we’re in a very polarising time.”

Polarisation can provide an impetus for transformation too. When so much is disintegrating, why not ask for more than the minimum? “There is something I find really beautiful and compelling about Silicon Valley, which is the way that it encourages this start-up approach where you can’t take anything for granted,” explains Liu.” You shouldn’t treat any mechanism or structure as given—you should look at them and think, can this change?”