The Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure

@ UMass Amherst

Reimagining the Internet

Wendy Liu, Abolish Silicon Valley

January 27, 2021

Wendy Liu, author of the memoir Abolish Silicon Valley and former start-up founder, joins us to talk about the structural issues of our current tech industry under capitalism. Wendy walks us through a left perspective on Silicon Valley, including the push to organize labor and the toxic incentive structure that values profit and exploitation over public and social good. In addition to publishing her memoir last year, Wendy has been published in Logic Magazine, The Guardian, New Socialist, and Notes from Below.


Ethan Zuckerman:

Hey, everybody. Welcome to Reimagining the Internet. I'm Ethan Zuckerman. I'm here today with Wendy Liu. Wendy is a coder, a startup founder, the author of the book Abolish Silicon Valley and an advocate for unionization at some of the big tech companies. We're really excited to talk to her, in as much as the conversations we often have in the show are about making the systems behind our technology work better. Wendy's really interested in the ways in which the corporations and also the culture that they are part of is leading to an internet that doesn't particularly help us as human beings, as well as a society that doesn't always help us as human beings. Wendy, welcome.

We're going to break away from our ordinary format. We normally start by asking people what's wrong with the internet and how they would like to fix it. I'm hoping that you're going to tell us what's wrong with Silicon Valley and how you'd like to fix it. But I'd really love to start with asking you about a chapter title in your book, which is excellent by the way, called Stupid Environment. That environment that we're talking about here, includes this idea that these companies are in fact very, very new. It includes the fact that they are phenomenally fiscally successful, even in circumstances where they're not always profitable. That they have become enormously aspirational, both for people who want to invest in them and for people who want to work for them. They have a cultural pole as well as a fiscal pole.

The quote from Alan Kay that you used to title that chapter talks about this idea that evolution isn't necessarily about creating the best creatures. It's about creating creatures that are fit for their environment. And that if you've got a stupid environment, you're going to get a stupid creature. What do you worry about in this environment that surrounds Silicon Valley, that is evolving our companies and our internet systems in a particular way?

Wendy Liu:

Yes. Yes, I like that question. I think maybe the way I would answer it is, I would say it makes Silicon Valley ... Generally, technological developments, startups, entrepreneurship, it makes it kind of lazy. Because the environment that we have is one where there is a lot of capital sloshing around, the result of many things, including neoliberal policy, a weakened labor movement, the rise of financialization. All this money that came from extracting fossil fuels from the ground, all of this money is looking for places to go. The tech industry happens to be a place where massive returns on capital are quite possible, not for everyone, but for some. So, you have all this money that is just waiting for the right entrepreneur, with a compelling pitch. What I think that does is, on that side, because access to capital is so easy, it means that you have entrepreneurs who don't necessarily have a plan or who are just kind of making it up as they go along.

There's some very notable cases in point, WeWork being one, Theranos of a few years ago being another, where you don't even actually have to have anything concrete to be able to raise a lot of money and to be the darling of the media. So, I think on the one hand you have that. And then on the other hand, because we have a mode of production that is characterized by exploitation, in the sense that the vast majority of people do not have the resources to not get a job. They have to get a job because that's the only way they're going to be able to pay their bills and be able to survive. And because of that, people need to get a job. In the United States, especially, there is such a threadbare welfare state, that you don't really have resources if there aren't any great jobs in your area. So, you kind of have to take whatever job's around. No matter how stultifying, no matter how much it infringes upon your dignity or how much it injures your body, you just have to take it.

I think what that does, is it means that entrepreneurs do not feel compelled to innovate when it comes to making good work environments. Someone like Travis Kalanick can create a plan for creating a company where people are just driving cars around. He doesn't have to think, "Well, are they going to be enjoying their jobs?" That's not really a question that most of these entrepreneurs need. They don't have to cater to the desires of workers. They just have to cater to the desires of consumers. That's the driving goal of the thing they teach you in startup school, is all you have to do is care about what people want. You have to make something that consumers want. You have to make your customers happy. Customer success is Amazon's driving engine. I think on the one hand, while that has its benefits, it is also just profoundly narrow because what customers want, it's not a universal thing. It's the product of particular environments.

As we talked about, this environment is one that may itself have its own problems. We're talking about what consumers want in an environment where society is just kind of crumbled and people are so atomized. One of the only ways people can feel fulfilled is through consumption, is through buying things, even if those things don't actually make them happy in the end, even if those things are predicated on destroying the environment and just creating tons of ecological waste. So, we're talking about making consumers happy within this quite harmful paradigm, where happiness is something that you can buy through an Instagram ad.

Just maybe zooming in for a second on something like advertising, Google and Facebook both make so much money from advertising. If we think about how the web could have turned out, if advertising were not this backbone of so many business models, well, it could actually be quite different. Companies like Google and Facebook, they might not exist, or they might be very different. They wouldn't be as profitable. I definitely think that there are ways that technology could have turned out, even within this neoliberal paradigm. Maybe it would have been harder to make this work, but in the early days of the internet, ads were not really a thing. It was probably possible, back then, to imagine a future where the internet was just not a commercial medium and where there were different ways of funding creative endeavors and content and media.

So yeah, I think there is definitely something about how the people who run these companies and who make decisions about how to fund their companies, they have a particular ideology that is intertwined with just late stage capitalist ideology in general, but isn't entirely down to that. I think part of it has to do with this idea that they're the good guys. I write about this in my book a little bit, how you have a lot of founders who seem to really think that they're the underdogs. And that because they're the underdogs, any action they take is justified because they're overthrowing some horrible overlord, whether that's, I don't know, the big banks or the hotel industry or some local politician or the unions or something. They have this image in their mind that allows themselves to rationalize whatever they do, even if they're making a decision that, maybe if they were looking at it more coldly and more rationally would think, "Oh, this is probably not a good decision. This is not a moral decision."

But they've found a way to convince themselves that they are the underdogs and moreover, that they are shepherding humanity forward through time. They are the harbingers of progress, of reason and bringing all these innovations to people. So, it doesn't matter if they do something that people criticize. It doesn't matter if the media loves to criticize the tech industry because they just don't get it. They don't understand the cost of progress. I don't necessarily know how these people actually think, so this is kind of my ...

Ethan Zuckerman:

Yeah. Certainly we've gotten used to the spectacle of tech CEOs standing up in front of Congress ... although, these days they do it on Zoom and being chewed out in one fashion or another. That doesn't actually seem to scare them very much. I think you and I both believe that labor organizing may be scaring them a bit more, to talk a little bit about how employees might be able to hold companies accountable to their values.

Wendy Liu:

Definitely, yeah. Maybe just to take a step back, I think the labor movement is important because it is a means of attaining leverage over capital, just more broadly. Not just in the tech industry, but at the point of production. Because if we think of capitalism as a system that allows capital accumulation to occur primarily through exploiting workers at their jobs ... not exclusively, but primarily, then how do you challenge that? Well, it's by workers collectively finding a way to say, "No, we don't want this." Demanding better conditions, demanding better pay, demanding different kinds of work that they want to do.

There is a long history of labor organizing in sectors that were previously thought unorganizable, where the workers in these sectors were told that they shouldn't be organizing because they're not real workers. They're so privileged to be able to have the kind of jobs they do, that they shouldn't complain. There's a very long history of that, I think. So, it's important to remember that there is a history, when we're talking about tech worker organizing, because one of the main criticisms of the tech work organizing that has occurred recently, is that tech workers should just be grateful for having the jobs that they do and that they shouldn't complain. I think what that criticism misses is that there are many different reasons workers would want to try to build collective power. The way I think about it, there are these kind of three broad areas. One is the bread and butter issues of wages, benefits, working conditions, things like that.

That's probably less common in the tech industry, but not for everyone. I mean, it depends on the kind of job you do. You can be a tech worker who doesn't actually have great pay and benefits because management doesn't think you're essential, or maybe you're discriminated against because of your gender or your race or other characteristics. I think those issues are still in play, not for all tech workers, but definitely for some. Then, you have issues like harassment. You have issues like an unsafe working environment. This is something that I think is actually very, very common in tech, especially for people who are minorities or who are just not respected in some way. That has driven quite a bit of collective action, especially at companies like Google, where there was that Andy Rubin case. There's been a long history of sexism and racism in the tech industry, that is expressed in a way that conflicts with the idea that it is a meritocracy and yet it somehow continues.

And then on the last note, I think that the really interesting reason that would drive workers to organize in tech, that I think is quite powerful and maybe we don't talk about enough, is just about the kind of work they should be doing. Because if you think about a lot of the criticisms of companies like Facebook, the criticism of Facebook, sure, there's the labor angle. There's the working conditions angle, but there's also the fact that the kind of products that Facebook is producing is maybe harmful to society. Right now, who decides what products are made? Well, it's decided at the top. The people on top aren't really accountable to Congress. They might have to show up and just answer a few questions, but it's not going to actually change their opinions very much and there's just no real accountability. One of the only ways we can get accountability is by building power at a point of leverage. One of those points of leverage is at the point of production.

Facebook would not exist, Facebook would not continue to have new features being built without the people who work on it. That includes everyone from content moderators to the software engineers who are working on products, to people who work in marketing, people who clean the office, Ethan. You have a whole range of people who are involved in Facebook and who are Facebook workers, whether or not they're employed by Facebook directly or they're employed through a third party vendor, like Adecco or something else. I think it's important to recognize that all of these workers have the same interests, insofar as not just how they're being paid and what their conditions at work are, but also, what are they working on? What, at the end of the day, are they spending their time on?

People want to be proud of what they've worked on. They don't want to feel like they're working on something that is making the world worse. The problem right now, is that they don't actually have any power as individual workers to challenge this, unless they happen to be the very top of the reporting chain. But an individual worker, who just joins, has really no say, has no way of exerting whatever they actually want. The end result is, you end up with a world that is dictated by Mark Zuckerberg and his pals. I don't think that's a world any of us would want.

Ethan Zuckerman:

I'm really interested in how that last point ... that idea that people want to work for companies they feel good about, they want to feel good about the values and the purpose and so on and so forth, how that might end up becoming a space for solidarity. It feels to me like you have an enormous problem at a company like Facebook, where it probably feels very, very different to be a young engineer recruited for six plus figures. Certainly, working very, very hard, but to see yourself as being the same employee of Facebook as someone who's in Manila, working an overnight shift on content moderation. You're both working for Facebook, but it's hard to get that vision of solidarity to embrace the two. Similarly, if you're doing product selection algorithms on Amazon, how much kinship, how much solidarity do you feel with someone who is filling boxes in a warehouse in Iowa City?

One possibility for it is that sense of, we both want to work for a company that we feel good about. But as you pointed out, that's actually one of the hardest things, unless you're quite senior in the chain of this. Talk to me a little bit about some of the efforts that we've actually seen ongoing. Prop 22 in California, which has passed and created potentially, quite a different environment for "independent contractors" like Uber drivers, who are now being treated differently or the Google workers' union. How are these sort of changing the terms of debate within Silicon Valley?

Wendy Liu:

Mm, yeah. The fight against Prop 22 is really interesting because I think what Prop 22 amounts to is a legislative effort to enshrine a different classification of worker. There are Uber software engineers who would have preferred to call their drivers coworkers. It was never up to them. It was never up to the drivers, over whether those changes would be made. That was entirely a top-down effort, to enshrine this kind of classification. It was very frustrating that it passed. Though not surprising, given how much money they spent, over 200 million, I believe, along with other companies. I think the Alphabet Workers Union is quite exceptional and innovative, in that it is trying to reach across the lines of job category. It's saying because they're a minority union, they aren't legally limited to only actual Alphabet employees. They can reach out to contractors. They can reach out to people down the value chain.

So, I think that is really exciting. But yeah, to your point, it's difficult to build solidarity among people who have different jobs and who are working in different cities, different countries, with very different kinds of environments. I think that is really, really hard. I don't think it's going to be easy in any way. But at the same time, when you look at labor history, you see so many examples of very similar kinds of differences that were bridged, in the sense of if you look at labor organizing that took place in industries that had segregation. You had legally ensuring racial segregation, where maybe if you were black, you were only allowed to work a certain job. This is just kind of convention. That definitely made it hard to organize, but there have been very illustrious and exciting cases where the workers were able to cross that racial gap and say, "Well, even if society keeps us apart, even if we don't necessarily like each other, we do recognize that for strategic reasons, it is helpful if we band together. Because as long as we're divided, then our employer wins. They can do whatever they want to us. But if we come together, even though it might be difficult to overcome these societal barriers, but still, there is so much more power in uniting and building solidarity."

So, I think it's useful to think of collective action through a strategic lens and not just through a moral lens, because it's not just about building solidarity to feel good about yourself, although that might be part of it. It's also recognizing that this may be the only way to achieve what you want. While that sounds nice, I think there's a special barrier in the higher echelons in the tech industry, where there's a particular culture that is profoundly anti-solidaristic. It's very much based on the idea of individual merit and that you only got there because you're so good. I think it's hard for people who've grown up with that narrative and who have maybe used it as a crutch — I'm speaking of myself, of course, too — who've maybe used it as a crutch just get through life. It's hard to discard that. It's hard to suddenly say, "Okay, maybe I was wrong. Maybe this whole meritocracy thing doesn't actually work the way I thought it did," and to instead find a new kind of identity, rooted in solidarity.

I think that's really hard to do. But I do think that it is a crucial step of just being realistic about how the world works and recognizing that no, capitalism is not this meritocracy that is designed to give the best people all the money. It's instead, grounded in very different principles, that have very little to do with actual merit in any sort of universal sense and more based on, are you going to produce value for those the people who are already in power? It's not about, does God shine favor on you? It's about, are you going to make Jeff Bezos money? If so, he might give you a little bit more in return.

Ethan Zuckerman:

We try really hard, in the context of this podcast, to look at solutions, to look at ways we can make things and systems better. I have two more questions for you, and they are both on the fixing things side of things. Are there any new models of entrepreneurship and investment and business that give you hope for Silicon Valley or some other part of the world that's creating new technology, to look really different?

Wendy Liu:

Definitely, yeah. The one that comes to mind is just the idea of a worker cooperative. I think there's been a lot of interest in cooperatives, especially the last few years in the tech industry, as more and more people who work in the industry become disillusioned with it. They think, "Well, I enjoy building software, but could I do it in a way that doesn't destroy society in the process and make a few people extremely wealthy?" I think the idea of a cooperative, in many forms, including a more community-centered one or one that's just a work cooperative or a platform cooperative ... There are many different ways of structuring it, but I think the general idea is that, you have a company or organization of some sort that is owned equally by all the people affected. That doesn't just have one person who reaps all the reward, but is instead, this kind of community project. It is stewarded jointly and for the benefit of the community.

For example, instead of Uber, you can imagine a platform cooperative that is maybe owned by the drivers and the people who build it. There are examples of this already. There are definitely examples of existing food delivery cooperatives and rideshare cooperatives all over the world, that are just trying to figure out this business model. It's hard for them because the investment isn't necessarily there. There's not that much money that wants to go into a co-op, knowing that they're not going to get a 10X return. But I think that it's a much more satisfying and fulfilling way of running a company or building something and one that's rooted in knowing that you are trying to serve a community and that you're actually accountable to the people that you want to be accountable to.

Ethan Zuckerman:

What about from the perspective of people like you? You became a coder at a young age. You went off, you studied computer science, found that you were very, very good at this, sort of a young hotshot, but also wanted to change the world and cared about these issues. I know that my students at MIT and I suspect also at UMass, often find themselves looking at these big corporations and telling themselves this story, "Well, these things are so powerful. If I can do some good from within there, how can I change the world?" What advice would you give to a young person who's trying to decide, what's the balance between working for one of these very large companies and also wanting to have a clear sense of social responsibility and social change?

Wendy Liu:

There's more than one path to succeeding as an engineer or technologist or whatever you are. I think, you don't have to just look at the companies that are currently powerful as a way of validating how good you are at your job. I think it's actually kind of crucial to find alternative ways of seeking validation and seeking success, than just climbing up the career ladder of one of these big companies because these companies, they don't actually care about social responsibility any more than... They'll put out a sentence about it or whatever in their quarterly filings, but they don't actually care. They can't. The stock market won't allow them to care about it.

So, I think it's worth recognizing that there are these institutional limits, there are these structural limits on what you can achieve as an individual. And that once you hit those limits, then you have to figure out, "Well, am I going to try to organize my colleagues? Am I going to find another job, that's hopefully better, even though there aren't that many? Am I going to just do something else entirely and kind of go off the beaten path?" I think it's a great time to go off the beaten path, because there are a lot of other people who are in the same boat. I don't think the tech industry is going to get better overnight. I think it's going to get a lot worse and a lot more demoralizing before it gets better. I would definitely encourage people who are in it or thinking about joining it, to just consider the limitations of what they can do by doing their job according to the spec. Instead, thinking about other things they can do. Maybe taking a cue from labor history, to see how people have organized industries that were unorganizable in the past.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Wendy Liu, author of Abolish Silicon Valley, what are you doing at this point? You've written a really thoughtful and pretty fierce critique of this space. Are you entirely disengaged from Silicon Valley at this point? How are you answering these questions for yourself?

Wendy Liu:

Yeah, that's a great question. I was hoping I would figure that out last year, but then the pandemic happened. So, my book tour got canceled. I was hoping to have that time to figure out what I wanted to do next. Also, just to do more writing because I've been enjoying writing, but I have just been in a bit of a hole. Just really worried about everything, not really knowing what to do with my life. So, last summer I started a job. I started working for a local nonprofit in San Francisco, that provides legal services to San Francisco residents in a few parts of the city. So, people who need help with immigration. They need a green card or their landlord is trying to evict them, or they're getting underpaid or something. There aren't that many options for them. So, this organization I'm working with, Open Door Legal, is trying to create this kind of universal legal services model to give legal access to those who can't actually afford it otherwise. I'm really enjoying working on that. It is nice to work on something that feels kind of rooted in the city, and isn't just an abstract software. Yeah. I'm really enjoying working with these people and just trying to solve the technical challenges that they have.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Well, I have to say as someone who joined the tech industry in 1994 and left it in 1999, because of some of the same concerns that you have, it's really wonderful to see you wrestling with these same questions and not just finding a way forward for yourself, but finding really good thoughts and advice for other people as well. So, it's really great to have you in here and thanks so much for talking with us.

Wendy Liu:

Thank you so much for having me.