An Exceptional Valley
With tech worker unions and calls for regulation or trust busting, Silicon Valley seems to be on the ropes, even as its aging wunderkinds plan ever greater flights of fantasy for themselves. There’s been no bust yet, but worker discontent is on the rise even as the coronavirus pandemic pushes working conditions to extremes. In her debut memoir Abolish Silicon Valley, former startup founder Wendy Liu lead readers along her journey through the startup world as a tacit capitalist, leading up to her “massive personal pivot” (158) toward socialism.
Unlike writers such as Shoshana Zuboff who view the current tech industry as a malformation of capitalism that can be corrected, Liu lays the blame on capitalism as a whole. Silicon Valley is not a strange outgrowth to be amputated. In contrast to Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener (whose original n+1 essay partly inspired Liu to leave her startup), Abolish Silicon Valley’s narrative isn’t darkly humorous. It’s just dark. And contrary to its aspirational name, Abolish Silicon Valley is more persuasive memoir than manifesto. It’s a title that reflects the inevitable conclusion of Liu’s experiences, even if her program for progress is restricted to three or four of the book’s twelve chapters.
Growing up, Liu found that computer coding gave her a rewarding sense of control, despite the misogyny latent in many of the online communities she joined. For a while, she relied on passing as male under a username to join in their discussion. Her interest in the free and open source development community naturally lead to idealism—a desire to use her skills for good that turned into an ethic of work and exceptionalism.
After college, Liu became a Google intern—a step that felt like her natural reward. She felt validated at first, but the dull projects and benign paternalism wore on her enthusiasm. She started to notice disparities. The jokes about firing an employee that leaked to the press. The “cult-like” (28) compliance reinforced by the toys and bikes scattered around the campus. The cleaners, cooks, and contractors not privy to the same perks as Liu, an intern. Still, she felt like her “work wasn’t the same kind of work” (34) as theirs and that the disparity was a reflection of her merit, not their poor treatment.
To escape, Liu founded a startup with friends. A year into a lackluster and stressful experience, Liu felt trapped again. She thought that if they could only eke more hours into an 80-plus hour work week, the startup might be a success. One colleague disagreed and she couldn’t understand why: “[T]hose who chose not to do [work] had to realise that they were in the wrong, that their inability to work hard was a personal failing. … [T]his belief was buried so deeply in my psyche that I couldn’t even identify it, much less relinquish it.” (92)
The cofounders had jettisoned him and tried to start over. But their lack of culture “fit” had just been an excuse that veiled their actual discontent. Soon after, Liu slipped out and made her way into a UK graduate program, where her interest in universal basic income and connections to the open-source community lead her to attend Labour party meetings and research socialism. It was not an end point to her journey, but she hopes she has documented the worst effects of the tech industry and her role in it.
Liu’s startup was basically a cheap way for another company to acquire data, a codebase, and a team of employees that work well together. They became experts at self-exploitation, but they had no ability to self-appraise. Through the five sets of proposals that end the book, Liu imagines a not-too-distant world where tech entrepreneurship is still possible but supports workers in other industries, rather than exploits them.
But what is the platform that results? Liu states she is against industries that advance capitalism’s cause while loudly protesting its effects. She speaks against technocracy, by techies and academics alike: “[B]oth the financialised pension system and the private university endowment system are suboptimal. They are at best local optima of the capitalist fit function, and both need to be radically reformed.” (167) It’s easy to imagine this extended to overactive elements of the state; Liu discusses tech workers striking against the military-industrial complex. But she doesn’t say much about where the political will or mechanisms to change Silicon Valley will come from or where we could turn for historical inspiration.
In another case, Liu argues for preserving a form of social entrepreneurship that is rewarded by state agencies, but she is also against the institution of intellectual property. The potential contradiction (entrepreneurship assumes an entrepreneur creates something to own) isn’t addressed. Liu’s proposals aren’t meant to be definitive: “[T]he point of making the demand is to illustrate that the systems that govern our world are constructed—the product of choices by human beings who came before us. Things weren’t always like this, and they don’t always have to be like this either.” (207)
So the details aren’t the main point; the demands are a starting place for readers to work from. The book is an exercise for others to follow. As Liu says herself, “This book is meant for those whose belief has started to evaporate” (211). Abolish Silicon Valley’s audience, tech workers looking for a way out, is also apparent in its vocabulary. Liu’s prologue threatens nonbelievers with “disruption” and the language of tech culture—leanness, pivots, startup culture—is all over. An extended metaphor of capitalism as a “fitness function” and the lack of economic definitions would be odd otherwise.
In all though, Abolish Silicon Valley details the psychological harm that capitalist systems have on people who want to improve the world but ignore the labor conditions it currently relies on. Almost all the memoir elements are work-related, with few notes from Liu’s personal life, but that is part of the point. Liu’s world narrowed down to her work and what her work said about her. And she explains well the way that people feel the need to double down on an oppressive hierarchy, especially if they feel like they’re already a couple rungs above the rest.
Abolish Silicon Valley is a testament to how long and arduous a change of heart can be, how much easier it often is to find palliatives for an unbearable situation. In that way, it is a brave book as well. Liu unsparingly documents her mounting rationalizations, even those made at the expense of others, to justify why such unjust conditions could continue. Rather than a single moment of conversion, it shows how one person’s predilections can slowly lead to change, like squeezing through a tight, encroaching alley and when you can’t go any further, realizing that the close walls would let you climb up, and out.
Sam DiBella is a recent MSc graduate of the London School of Economics, and he works as a copy editor. His writing has previously appeared in Rain Taxi Review of Books, The Adroit Journal, the LSE Review of Books and Heterotopias, among others. He is a semi-active member of the Cypurr Collective, and he tweets @prolixpost.