Review – Abolish Silicon Valley by Wendy Liu

Suchandrika Chakrabarti reviews Wendy Liu's proposals to reclaim technology's potential for the public good

June 22, 2020 · 7 min read
Photo by Tristan Brunsdon

Five months after leaving the White House in January 1989, former US president Ronald Reagan visited London and gave a speech entitled ‘The Triumph of Freedom’. As reported by Sheila Rule in the New York Times, he told his audience of around a thousand that ‘the international revolution in communications technology had unleashed an irrepressible march toward democracy in the Communist world, bringing nearer the collapse of totalitarianism.’

‘You cannot massacre an idea,’ said Reagan, ten days after the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing. ‘You cannot run tanks overhope. You cannot riddle a people’s yearning with bullets.’ They were stirring words, especially at a time when the world was poised at the edge of the Iron Curtain’s collapse. He went on: the information that technology brings to the masses ‘seeps through the walls topped with barbed wire and wafts across the electrified, booby-trapped borders’ as ‘electronic beams blow through the Iron Curtain as if it were lace’. His language, weighed down by cold war rhetoric, conjured up images of spies, samizdat and violence – technology as a weapon.

Rule’s report continued: ‘Mr Reagan said Lenin had not foreseen technological change, fax machines or satellite dishes. Ultimately, he said, “the Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip.”’ Reagan, who died in 2004, could not have foreseen how fully the internet would have reshaped the world by 2020, but he had woven together the possibilities of technology with the desires of capitalism in a way that has turned out to be prophetic.

Coming of Age

Wendy Liu’s Abolish Silicon Valley: How to Liberate Technology from Capitalism is a memoir from her years mulling over Google job offers and founding start-ups in the 2010s. By November 2016, feeling ‘post-Trump malaise’, she reassesses her ideas about money, the inherent value of jobs and the people doing them, and the responsibilities of the tech industry to change society for the better. As she points out in her book, the next generation heading to the valley will never be quite as innocent of how industry works as she was: ‘They’ve come of age in a world where the tech industry is no longer the underdog.’

Yes, it’s now the place to look for scandal. To name just three: Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos, who has now has slipped off magazine covers and into court hearings; everything to do with Cambridge Analytica; that time former CEO of WeWork Adam Neumann charged his own company US$5.9 million to use the word ‘We’, which he had trademarked through a private firm (he did eventually give it back, though). The tech industry is deeply flawed and far too powerful – the evidence is all over the news.

Innocent time

Liu’s book takes us back to a more innocent time for both herself and Silicon Valley. She’s 12 and living at home in Montreal, Canada, as the story begins, always on MSN Messenger and learning to build websites for herself. She doesn’t name a year, but it’s likely to be the mid-2000s, seeing as she graduates from McGill University in 2014. Liu’s younger self doesn’t really like the ‘messy world in which [she] increasingly felt like [she] did not belong’, choosing to spend more time online, hanging out on discussion boards for open-source software phpBB.

Spending much of her teenage years getting deeper into coding and refining her skills, Liu starts to earn money doing freelance work on other people’s websites. ‘At that point,’ she writes, ‘money seemed to me like a fairly objective measure of merit. Those making a lot of money must be doing so precisely because the world was rewarding them for something.’ She even mentions falling ‘in love with AynRand’s novel The Fountainhead’ during ‘a particularly bleak stretch of adolescence’, which is always a worrying sign. This kind of pure capitalist thinking rears its head persistently during the first half of the memoir, eventually becoming tempered by Liu’slife experience, and then completely rejected.

However, Liu doesn’t investigate where her thinking comes from. Her parents? Her schooling? The media she was consuming at the time? Without that foundation, it’s hard to know how deep these values go, and therefore how profound her political conversion is. Are the conclusions she comes to by the end of the book too radical, or would they seem about right to most former tech insiders? Without that context, it’s tough to evaluate just how feasible Liu’s plans for abolishing Silicon Valley are.

Reclaiming our world

In fact, the present-day narrator Liu often shows her impatience with her younger self: ‘I settled for writing a recap in my diary drenched in passive-aggressive hostility’; ‘it is profoundly discomforting to remember how much I believed my own bullshit’; ‘sometimes I want to go back in time and shake myself.’

These authorial interruptions suggest a wish on Liu’s part to disown her younger self, who held views she now finds embarrassing. This is the editorial version of Uber replacing Travis Kalanick with Dara Khosrowshahi, who immediately overwrites his predecessor’s 14 values with eight new ‘cultural norms’ of his own. It’s easier to believe that a person has changed, especially a writer who has gone to the trouble of analysing her early life and is using it to pen a history of SiliconValley. Liu can let her past self speak for herself; a memoir is by its nature a document of personal transformation.

The book ends with a guide to ‘reclaim[ing] our world from capital’, featuring detailed solutions to Silicon Valley’s problems. They can mostly be summed up as ‘nationalise’ and‘re-nationalise’. I find Liu’s ideas detailed, cogent and in line with my own beliefs. It’s exactly the sort of manifesto the 70 per cent of US millennials who would vote for a socialist, according to a recent YouGov poll, could get behind. ‘Moving beyond the flawed paradigm of capitalism’ is the opposite direction to the way that the US and UK are currently going, however. Abolishing Silicon Valley is going to have to wait for politics to change course again.

Suchandrika Chakrabarti is a writer and podcaster. This article is from our Spring 2020 issue. Subscribe here

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