Wendy Liu on Abolish Silicon Valley, technology and capitalism

Wendy Liu on the future of technology without capitalism, being a woman in a male-dominated industry and the pitfalls of corporate diversity

Feature by Katie Goh | 03 Apr 2020
  • Wendy Liu

There’s a common saying that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, so it seems fitting that Wendy Liu is discussing the abolition of capitalism during a global pandemic. Once-accepted social norms are currently being exposed as a veneer, including the logic of capitalism that dictates everything from rent payments still expected on time while unemployment skyrockets, to supermarket staff going from 'unskilled' to frontline emergency workers in mere weeks. 

The absurd fundamentalism of capitalism is exactly what Wendy Liu seeks to interrogate in her book, Abolish Silicon Valley, a memoir-exposé hybrid about Liu’s personal journey into and out of technology’s literal and abstract home, Silicon Valley, and a manifesto for a technological future liberated from capitalism.

Why did you decide to write a book that is both an analysis of capitalism and the tech industry and a personal memoir about your own experience in the field? 

I wanted to write the book that someone in the same position I was in a few years ago – someone who was in the industry and didn’t understand the criticisms – could read and relate to. I didn’t want it to just be a critique of everyone in the tech industry. When I started looking at my notes from the last few years, I realised that I didn’t know how to write a book about the tech industry unless it was through my personal story. I wanted to take people along on a journey while recognising that not everyone is going to follow everything and believe everything I say but I want them to see how it’s possible to get from where I was to a very different position. 

When did you first discover Silicon Valley and your love for computers? 

As a teenager, I had a haphazard understanding of what Silicon Valley was; I didn’t know anyone personally who had been successful in tech. But when I was a teenager, I started making websites for fun, not really knowing that this could actually be a lucrative career. The more I got into computers and involved with the open source programming community, the more I picked up on the culture of programming and how it fits in with the rest of the economy. At that time I was very unhappy at school but the world of computers felt like it was giving me a way out and I clung to it. 

You write about your experience of being a woman on the internet, particularly the hostility of internet culture towards women, especially women of colour. How did that shape your relationship with technology?

The environment I encountered was one where being male was the default and that was entwined with the idea of meritocracy, in that, if being male was the default then there must be something special about being male. I didn’t really know how to internalise that when I was a kid. I tried to grapple with it the best way I could which was when people were saying girls are stupid then they meant other girls and not me.

I internalised that pretty hard for a while which meant that when I dove deeper into the tech industry and started hearing stories of sexism and harassment at first I was sceptical. But as more of these stories came out from women I knew and feminist critiques about the industry appeared, I started realising there were multiple sides to the story that were connected to broader socio-economic problems.

In the book you write about how technology and capitalism often exist in a codependent relationship. Why are they perceived as being inseparable?

Capitalism's involvement in the tech industry dictates what kind of technology is going to get funding. I think it’s pretty safe to say that if technology is being developed today by or for private corporations, then it’s developed with the purpose of helping capital accumulate in some way.

We live in an era where so much funding is given over to the purview of private corporations and they’re not going to develop technology that threatens their own power. In the context of companies employing people to do work and then making profits from products of their workers’ labour, this means that companies are going to find ways to increase the control they have over their workers.

You write about this idea of technology being a utopia and a dystopia simultaneously. How do you see that manifesting?

You have these two sides of a coin and while you’re only going to see one side at any given time, it doesn’t mean they both don’t exist. Technology as a utopia is a common rhetoric in the way companies market themselves and the prevailing understanding of what tech is for those in power, like politicians who will praise Silicon Valley for being innovative.

There’s this idea that if you just work hard enough and you learn to code, then you too can experience the amazing possibilities of technology under capitalism but that’s a myth trying to disguise the fact that the system is designed to produce a certain number of winners and losers. The side you’re on depends much more on factors outside of your control, like where you are born, what your parents do, your education, if you’re white.

What vision do you have for a tech industry liberated from capitalism?

We live in a world that is so financialised and that really enshrines capital accumulation above all else, that to suggest a way of developing tech that is not for profit and not in the service of capital feels weird! 

I think of it in terms of baby steps, starting with firms that prioritise social good in some ways explicitly funding companies with some kind of good mission. I think that’s the first of many steps as eventually we want to de-link capital accumulation from technology altogether through institutional change. We’re already seeing some examples of this, like the open source movement, so there are people working on tech that isn’t necessarily driven by the priorities of capitalism. It’s a ray of light that points to a different way of doing things. 

There’s a lot of talk about the lack of diversity in tech and its impact on building algorithms created with inherent biases. As someone who has seen the inside of Silicon Valley, do you think diversity makes a difference?

I think the tech industry understands that they need a more diverse workforce but I don’t think they’re putting a lot of effort into it and I doubt any of the heads of these companies really care that much. I don’t think they realise what’s at stake because none of them are going to be harmed by any of these technologies. Having technology built by a very narrow range of people from a specific socio-economic lens feels obviously wrong to me, not only because of the introduction of bias but because so many problems won’t be solved. They’re only going to be interested in solving their own problems and they’re all rich and most of them are white men. 

But I think it’s useful to look at this beyond the lens of diversity because you can still have a company that is 100% women and still producing a product damaging to some women elsewhere. The frustrating thing about diversity right now is that corporations have accepted they need to have at least a veneer of diversity. But they only welcome a diverse workforce if they agree to do what their bosses tell them to do. 

Are you optimistic about the future of technology?

I try to stay hopeful. The thing I’m most hopeful about is the unionisation that’s happening right now and efforts to exert worker power. The media has also been much more negative in covering tech companies which I think is a good sign as it means people in the industry are more familiar with the critiques of it. They’re going to have to reflect more about what they’re doing. I’m hopeful for the new generation who have grown up with the tech industry as a sort of villain which I think will change how people interact with the industry.

We live in an age of massive political upheaval which in a lot of ways is bad, but it also means that young people now understand that radical action is needed to change institutions. I can’t wait until those people enter the workforce and hopefully try to change the world we live in. 

Abolish Silicon Valley: How to Liberate Technology from Capitalism is published by Repeater Books on 14 Apr