For the past decade, Silicon Valley's tentacles have dug so deep into our political economy that it's hard to imagine life without the tech titans. The coronavirus pandemic has only complicated things further, with the same companies that misclassify, underpay, and exploit workers now positioning themselves as indispensable to the increasingly volatile economic order.
A tech worker turned critic, Wendy Liu’s debut book "Abolish Silicon Valley: How to liberate technology from capitalism" comes at an opportune time and promises to offer an alternative to a world where technological development is funded and driven by private actors seeking private gain. Her book aims to offer a series of reforms that can mitigate inequality and improve working conditions, alongside larger structural demands that seek to put social good, not returns on investment, in control of our society’s technology.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What is the core takeaway you'd want someone to walk away from this abolitionist argument?
The problems that people are starting to notice about the tech industry are not unique to the industry; they stem from larger problems related to how the world works. There are two real ways of responding to that. One is to say, "Well, if the problems are that big, then it's not my responsibility." Another is to say, "Well, if the problems are that big, then why do I feel like it's ethical for me to just continue living my life the way I did before?"
I hope people choose the second route, where they start to question the beliefs that led them to pursue the path that they did. And I hope that once that foundation crumbles, they consider a different notion of success, one that is collective rather than individual.
We're at a point where society seems like it's falling apart, and we're facing existential risks that can’t be solved through individuals just pursuing personal glory. I think we need to rapidly change how we relate to each other, and that starts with finding meaning in pursuing collective goals, not just individual ones. There’s more to life than attaining director status at Google.
Ultimately, I think we need to abolish the idea that capital should be able to see a return on a massive scale, which is the essence of the start-up model. For instance, what was WeWork? It was just capital trying to make a massive return with a business model that wasn't workable. The greater the scale, the worse the problem becomes.
In the book, you say we need to reclaim intellectual property and culture from the few, giant corporations like Disney, which hold so much of it. How do we convince people this monopoly on cultural imagination is bad?
Let’s begin by extrapolating what things would be like if companies like Disney had never been able to expand the scope of intellectual property law. In that world, Disney certainly wouldn't be as big or as powerful today. Is that good or bad? Well, look at how much Disney has monopolized the landscape of cultural production. How would things look like if we had more variety? How would cultural production change if it wasn’t managed by an intellectual property regime that favours large corporations and allows them to get bigger and bigger?
I believe, as an axiom, that large and powerful companies are dangerous because they're concentrating power in a way that hides the downsides. This is especially true among media companies—companies that have the power to shape imagination. If they're allowed to both concentrate power and produce culture that makes them seem like they're not the villain, then it's very difficult to get out of that.
Another proposal you raise is to reclaim public services by excising capital and “restoring public ownership” of things like healthcare or education partly because their privatization is the reason for tech’s success. How do we get there?
I don’t have a problem with something starting out as a private service, just to lay the foundations. But once you get to the point where the service is good enough to be rolled out to everyone, it should become a public service. If it's low on Maslow's hierarchy or otherwise important to many people—like transit, running water, internet access, healthcare, education, housing—then the next step should be to make it a public service. That would mean restructuring it to make it available to everyone who needed it, independent of their income, and free at the point of use.
The goal of talking about public services is to get people thinking more critically about the start-ups that have quickly become so crucial to our lives. Would these startups need to exist in a society where we had a better model for distributing services and goods to people? Take financial technology start-ups: some of them are just replicating features that other countries’ banking sectors have natively. They’re just banks, but on your phone, and with lower fees.
Or take transit: there are countless multi-billion dollar transportation companies operating with little accountability or oversight. There's no reason for there to be so many different billion-dollar scooter companies! None of these companies are even profitable, and considering their unit economics, it’s possible that they’ll never be profitable. There’s a mismatch between the kind of service being provided and the funding model.
The VC model might have dominated in the past, but it’s now time for a better model, one rooted in the idea of a public good. Of course, venture capitalists won’t like that idea. They want everyone to believe that VCs are necessary, and will always be necessary.
So does the new funding model keep some of the old elements like start-ups or replace them with taxpayer funding?
A term I really like for what start-ups are doing to desiccate the wasteland is "monetizing the rot." There’s this great viral tweet suggesting that if late capitalism has created a moral rot, neoliberalism is the answer to the question, "What if we monetized the rot?"
Imagine if there was a natural disaster that cut off everyone’s water, and some company swooped in to charge $100 for each bottle of water. When I frame it that way, it sounds evil—it’s just profiteering from people’s needs. But tech companies are brilliant at marketing their offerings as a gift, rather than an attempt to profit from what should be a public service, and people end up believing it because they don’t know they deserve better. The public service approach, on the other hand, would restore everyone's water, and make sure they have access to it for free so no one's left out.
In terms of whether we fund this with taxpayer money: sure! We have to be careful about the role of the state, though—not everything that’s government-funded is desirable. There is already some state investment in the industry, after all, but an investment from the CIA’s venture arm or the U.S. Department of Defense is not the same as an investment for the purpose of the public good.
In the book, you say the presence of profit means "workers being underpaid; customers being fleeced; environmental or social externalities being ignored; or monopolisation of intellectual property."If we don’t involve the profit model, what are we involving and how do we move towards it?
You could make the argument that Larry Page and Sergey Brin deserve their billions because they started Google in the early days, whereas a cleaner starting at Google now deserves the minimum wage—maybe a little above—because her job is less valuable. But if you frame what you "deserve" as compensation for what you've done, it gets unhinged and untethered from reality. The point of money is to map ownership claims to material resources, right? That includes access to land, access to people's time, or access to food. In that case, you can't really talk about "deserve" in the abstract, you have to look at it relative to everyone else.
If you lived in a world where there were 10 people, and one of them was a billionaire, and everybody else was in debt because of this billionaire owning everything—well, that just seems unfair, no matter what the billionaire might have done to “deserve” their wealth. At the end of the day, wealth is a relationship, not just numbers in a bank account: it’s about ownership over something.
Of course, the world we live in today is a lot more complicated than just 10 people; the nature of wealth is highly obfuscated, and that obfuscation perpetuates this notion of money as a matter of what we "deserve." But really, it’s all relative! Money is an accounting fiction that controls the way we distribute resources, including our own time. I think once you see it that way, then the fact that 2,000 billionaires have more money than 4 billion people just feels wrong. It's more logical to frame it in terms of that, than in terms of whether someone “earned” it.