In her book, Abolish Silicon Valley: How to Liberate Technology from Capitalism, (which Naomi Klein called “lucid, probing and urgent”) Wendy Liu details how she went from a devotee of tech to a critic who wants to see it used for the public good.
During her youth in Montreal, technology fascinated Liu. She loved the idea of Silicon Valley. At 12, she started coding, and when she went to McGill University, she studied physics and computer science. Seeing how hard she worked, a colleague suggested she get an internship at Google, and Liu did. She was excited to be there, but she noticed the lack of diversity at Google, and that people working in the cafeteria, or driving shuttles didn’t enjoy the same benefits she did. At the end of the internship, Liu was offered a job at Google for when she finished college. She accepted but couldn’t really get excited about it. Then a friend proposed doing a startup instead, and Liu agreed.
She and her colleagues put 80 hours a week into the startup (Liu writes about how three of them were horrified that the fourth took Sundays off and didn’t work a full day on Saturday), but the company never quite took off. In the midst of the confusion caused by the election of Donald Trump, and driven by her general dissatisfaction with life within the world of tech, Liu started reading, plowing through 200 books in a year in an effort to understand the world. She decided to go the London School of Economics, where she got a master’s degree in inequalities and social science.
In her book, Liu writes about her time in tech, how her views transformed, and how the industry could be changed.
48 HILLS Growing up why did you think technology was beneficial for the world?
WENDY LIU This was when I was a teenager and did not have much contact with the actual tech industry. [My ideas about it] came from a combination of blog posts by people like Paul Graham, and programmers, and venture capital people. The way they wrote, I got the impression [tech] must be good for the world, because these people clearly cared about building great things. I absorbed it from reading random things on the Internet, and seeing the news, and hearing about these companies making so much money, and they have great mottos, and the founders seemed really cool. I kind of inferred that they were doing something good for the world. I didn’t have the critical media literacy to be suspicious.
48 HILLS You talk about being a little dissatisfied as a Google intern. You write about the ways they treat you like children by doing things like giving propeller hats to the new interns as well as seeing how some people don’t get treated or paid so well. Would you say your dissatisfaction was personal or societal?
WENDY LIU It was a bunch of things. The way they treated us felt kind of juvenile, and that wasn’t really what I wanted. Then, recognizing it was a very non-diverse place and most of the people I’m working with were white men who went to good colleges. The few people around who didn’t fit the mold were mostly working as cleaners or cafeteria workers or security guards, and it was obvious to me they were not paid as well, or treated as well, and they didn’t get perks. I wasn’t sure if it was Google’s fault or society at large, but that did not sit well with me.
Then there was the secrecy. You’re not supposed to leak, and if you do, you’re going to get fired. But what if it’s not a big deal? There’s a leak I talk about in my book that was not a big deal at all, but they had a zero tolerance policy. Today, looking at what Google is doing to whistleblowers and people trying to organize, it’s very clear they’ve never been open about internal information—but now they’re really cracking down.
48 HILLS It’s such an extreme change you made from being so into tech and having a startup to where you are now—what surprises you most and what do you think was the major thing that changed?
WENDY LIU Where I am now, I have a much more cynical attitude towards the tech industry and the entire socioeconomic system. Especially now in 2020, when we’re a few weeks out from an election that could go catastrophically, we are seeing the effects of climate change in a way I think few people predicted how bad it was going to be, we’re seeing all this political unrest and an administration that’s cracking down, and we’re in the middle of a pandemic that is wreaking untold havoc on people for preventable reasons. I look around, and I think the institutions that have been built, they are not adequate for the moment we’re in. They are not serving the people. I think the tech industry is kind of like a dinosaur, and it’s the byproduct of this system that is not adequate. It’s what you get when you take this hyper-capitalist mind set, one that disregards the rights of workers, one that disregards the environment, one that cares for nothing but making return on investment, and it’s celebrated beyond all reason. All these companies like Uber, that aren’t making a profit but have hundreds of millions to ensure that they can keep exploiting their workers. I think this is the apotheosis of the Silicon Valley model, this idea that all that really matters is that these companies get to maintain dominance, even at the cost of people’s livelihoods. I’m really fed up with the tech industry, and it feels egregious because there’s so much money being poured into it. There are all these people who are hardworking, intelligent, and ambitious, and their skills are not being used in a very effective way. It’s not necessarily their fault—it’s very hard for someone who wants to use their tech skills to make the world a better place to get a job where they can do that. If a software engineer wants to get a job that’s stable, they’re probably going to end up working for Amazon or Google or Facebook, getting people to click ads or ensuring these blue collar workers are being exploited more efficiently. It’s such a shame to see industry has come to this.
48 HILLS In the book, you write about going to a Google protest and walking home, seeing a protest of hotel workers at Marriot on strike, and thinking how their reasons for protesting were similar. Could you talk about that?
WENDY LIU That strike was happening for a bunch of reasons, at a bunch of hotels around the country. There were a lot of reasons motivating the strike, but one was sexual harassment. These cleaners—guests would prey on them, and their manager would say, “Well, just don’t clean that guy’s room—or maybe you do have to clean his room, but just be chill about it.” They had very little power over their lives or bodies, and management didn’t really see them as people, and it didn’t matter how they felt. I think people at Google were realizing the same was true of them. This larger societal problem of sexism and treating certain people like they’re disposable pervades the tech industry too. Even though on the surface, the jobs seem very different and white collar engineers at Google are treated better, you can’t get away from these larger societal problems, like the way women are treated and the way management doesn’t really care about its workers unless they have to. I think that walkout at Google demonstrated that people in tech realize that even though we’re treated better than most workers, we’re still workers, and at the end of day, we don’t have power as individuals—we have power in numbers. I think that’s what a lot of people protesting were realizing. What are they going to do, but try and find strength in building bonds with their coworkers? I think that is an important recognition that workers have more in common with other workers than management. So I think building bridges between different workers is super useful and speaks to how the labor union in the past has been able to win gains by building coalitions.
48 HILLS What do you think is the biggest way Silicon Valley has increased inequality?
WENDY LIU I don’t know if I have just one. Silicon Valley is spreading its tentacles into so many parts of society, and I think one of the most obvious ways right now, given this debate over Prop. 22, is the gig economy. I think that is such a clear example, where you have money being taken from workers who produce all the value and siphoned off into shareholders including people like Travis Kalanick, who’s a billionaire because of the IPO. The actual workers, putting their lives on the line and sleeping in their cars, most got nothing. That’s an extreme example, but I think it’s indicative of how Silicon Valley works as a whole. You see this in Amazon as well. Jeff Bezos is the wealthiest man on earth, while his workers are being hyper exploited. They have very little power, they’re not being paid well, they’re getting coronavirus at work, they’re being retaliated against for organizing. There’s this extreme power discrepancy between workers and capital and that’s being magnified by Silicon Valley in ways that are not necessarily new, but it’s like, they’ve improved upon the ways it already existed. That’s what Silicon Valley is good at; innovating new ways to make people’s lives more miserable. To a lesser extent, there are all these new financial instruments that are predicated on extracting more money from working people and Silicon Valley has come in and said, “We can do this better,” and it can. That is such a huge shame because the technology could be used for more interesting, more helpful, more fulfilling purposes than taking money from people who already have so little.
48 HILLS At the end of the book, you talk about making technology a public good. What do you think is most important and the first step to take?
WENDY LIU The one feels close to me is the debate over the gig economy. It’s so frustrating because companies like Uber and DoorDash and Lyft have managed to frame the terms of the debate in this false dichotomy where they’re saying either you have these workers being hyper exploited and having no power or you have no rideshare apps at all. That is extremely frustrating because there are so many ways we could organize society so that people are able to move around while workers can make a living. If we were talking about municipal services or worker co-ops, that would be more fruitful. The questions really is how can we harness the technology that already exists in a way that benefits workers and customers and cities? Because right now, it’s only optimal for a very small number of people who all are extremely wealthy. We don’t have to design a world that caters just to their desires. We should think about a way to use technology that is more sustainable, more egalitarian, and more democratic.