A Call to ‘Abolish Silicon Valley’ and Remake the Tech Industry for Good

Disenchanted with the technology sector, software engineer Wendy Liu advocates progressive changes to redirect it in the public interest.

Cha Pornea

In 2016, Wendy Liu was flying back home to Montreal with her advertising startup’s co-founders after meeting with a business partner who was interested in acquiring their company. The entrepreneurs, all in their early twenties, were giddy and exhausted. The business partner had flown them to his US headquarters to discuss terms for their analytics software, which had the promise of being a “Tinder for advertisers,” and they had asked for $8 million.

On the plane ride home, the group guessed at what the counteroffer might be: $6 million? $4 million? They had once considered taking no less than $20 million. Liu had little sense of how the proposal might work out — not just because she was new to the process, but because in the tech world, investors can sometimes offer enormous sums of money on a very speculative basis, seemingly with no real rationale.

The possible counteroffers, Liu reflects in her memoir, Abolish Silicon Valley, were “all so arbitrary anyway, completely divorced from any material reality; in this industry, acquisition amounts were usually based on gut feeling more than actual metrics.”

In the end, she and her team were disappointed; the partner offered just $1 million. “We rejected the offer on the grounds of valuing our independence,” Liu writes. “Really, though, it was because we thought we were worth more than their assessment of us, and given that we didn’t really believe in our mission, the pale prospect of future financial validation was all we had.”

Liu has since joined the ranks of tech defectors who have left the industry and stepped into the public eye with ideas for reforming it and its models of data extraction and surveillance capitalism. Her book, which mostly spans from her days interning as a software engineer at Google during college to when her startup begins to crumble, is admirable in its honesty. With a delivery that seems aimed at her tech peers, Liu makes no bones about having sincerely believed in the industry’s capitalist mythology — that its multimillionaires become so wealthy because they deserve to, that they make the world a better place, and that, for example, Amazon warehouse workers earning $15 an hour during the pandemic simply haven’t tried hard enough to prosper. (“Yes, it’s true that if I had succeeded… I would not have written this book,” she concedes.)

Abolishing Silicon Valley means freeing the development of technology from a system that will always relegate it to a subordinate role: that of entrenching existing power relations.

Liu’s admission sets up one of her most important points. It’s not just the warehouse workers and Uber drivers who end up alienated by Silicon Valley’s economic model — white-collar tech workers who were extended fabulous offers from Google can, too. In Liu’s case, the disillusionment takes hold after years of drudgery, as she and her startup’s co-founders pivot from one business model to the next, panning for gold. Things begin to feel unmoored as they try to comprehend their startup’s failure to explode into wealth. Were they not working hard enough, or too hard? Was the company worth $1 million or $20 million? What did it mean that they didn’t really care about their product? And how exactly was “Tinder for advertisers” going to disrupt the status quo and make the world better?

Now 28, Liu eventually realized that she had been grasping for logic where it didn’t exist. The tech industry isn’t governed by a meritocratic system where hard work is rewarded with millions of dollars. It’s instead fully actualized by tech companies exploiting workers to provide the material resources they depend on for success. People who are passionate about building helpful technologies can end up feeling isolated from their labor, she asserts in her book, because Silicon Valley’s culture of innovation is directed by the constraints of the market rather than the public interest.

“I had believed that I could escape,” Liu writes. “I set out for this startup in the hopes that it would be a chance to be my own boss: to work on my schedule and on my own terms. … Yet whatever freedom I thought I would have turned out to be illusory — my startup was still governed by the same market forces, and it was starting to look like there was no real freedom to be found within this system.”

Toward the end of her book, Liu outlines a series of reclamations that she suggests could effectively “abolish” the Silicon Valley status quo, such as using public investment funds to resource entrepreneurship that’s collectively beneficial. She also calls for expanding workers’ rights and public services, reforming intellectual property law so that more tech is developed and deployed in the public interest, and using regulation to limit tech’s focus on advertising and consumerism. 

These ideas, Liu acknowledges, may strike at least some people as “impossibly radical, but the point of making a demand is to put a stake in the ground,” paving the way “for more moderate possibilities that would otherwise seem unachievable.” 

“Abolishing Silicon Valley means freeing the development of technology from a system that will always relegate it to a subordinate role: that of entrenching existing power relations,” she writes. “It means liberating our world from the illegitimate reign of capital.”

Though Liu is vague on details about how to achieve this, she clearly believes that reclaiming labor starts with collective action. As she has previously suggested in her contributions to the online journals Notes from Below and New Socialist, a combination of allyship and organizing between white- and blue-collar tech workers is perhaps the greatest hope for making the tech industry a constructive force for good.

If Liu is right that a unified labor movement is the way forward, white-collar tech workers would benefit from banding together with blue-collar tech workers now, before their leverage is eroded.

The notion that Uber’s software engineers are tech workers while its drivers are contractors instead of employees, Liu says, is a strategic division of the labor force that’s intended to prevent workers from collectively exercising power. Tech workers are actually split into two groups: white-collar workers who are valued and paid enough to suppose they have no reason to organize, and gig workers who are chronically underpaid and seen as dispensable.

Liu suggests that this separation is merely superficial — after all, she notes, no workers are truly indispensable under capitalism. She acknowledges that large tech companies make enough money to pay engineers well, and that today there are many open positions for few engineers. “But the imbalance of supply and demand wasn’t going to last forever,” she writes, “and in fact many tech players were already investing in ways to increase the future supply of engineers. What would happen when funding dried up, or tech companies realised they could get away with lower offers?”

Abolish Silicon Valley was published before the COVID-19 pandemic’s disruption of the American economy, but there are signs that suggest Liu is right about highly paid tech labor being precarious. According to Layoffs.fyi, which tracks layoffs among tech startups since the WHO declared the pandemic on March 11, roughly 80,000 people have been laid off from startups worldwide over recent months. Uber was responsible for the highest number of these layoffs in the Bay Area (6,700), according to the data, which counts full-time employees who lost their jobs but not contract workers like rideshare drivers.

Meanwhile, gig workers were among the world’s hardest hit by the pandemic, with millions of people losing income or their jobs altogether, and many others being forced to work under dangerous conditions. For example, more than 100 workers at an Amazon warehouse in northeastern Pennsylvania are estimated to have contracted COVID-19, according to local lawmakers. At the same time, tech companies’ profits have risen greatly since the start of the year. Amazon, for example, doubled its Q2 profits in 2020, making $5.2 billion.

If Liu is right that a unified labor movement is the way forward, white-collar tech workers would benefit from banding together with blue-collar tech workers now, before their leverage is eroded. And if white-collar tech workers can’t see their way to power in numbers, perhaps they’ll join the labor movement for reasons of conscience. Some already are; according to data published in the Guardian, the number of tech worker actions has grown exponentially over the last decade. Though blue-collar workers led the majority of actions from 2011 to 2018, 2019 marked the first year that more actions were led by white-collar workers.

Non-union labor groups have notched significant victories from efforts. The Tech Workers Coalition, an organization that emphasizes white- and blue-collar solidarity, helped advocate against Google’s development of artificial intelligence to support a US Department of Defense drone program. An internal Google petition received more than 3,100 signatures, and Google eventually announced that it would not seek to renew its contract with the government. 

Shortly after Donald Trump’s election, the social welfare organization Tech Solidarity developed the Never Again pledge, with thousands of tech workers vowing to refuse to create databases for the government that could be used to target people — such as Muslim Americans — on the basis of their race, religion, or national origin. After the pledge circulated, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Google and other large companies joined Twitter in promising to refuse to build such technology.

Silicon Valley Rising, another coalition backed by labor groups that advocates for blue-collar workers, is running campaigns to facilitate fairer elections, encourage equity in tech contracting, and force Google to sign an agreement to ensure that its planned 80-acre campus in San Jose does not displace working families. And the New York City Democratic Socialists of America runs a tech-specific working group that vigorously advocated against Amazon’s plan to build a second headquarters in Queens, New York, which the company abandoned.

These organizations, in close coordination with issue-specific campaigns and internal company efforts, have made vitally important inroads, but their power cannot compare to that of an actual union. None of the five largest American tech companies — Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and Facebook, whose collective worth topped $7 trillion in August — are unionized. As the headline of a recent article in the labor movement magazine In These Times declared, “The Failure to Unionize the Tech Industry Will Eat the Labor Movement Alive.” 

Tech companies have also taken action to impede unionization efforts — quietly employing law and consulting firms to bust plans to organize at Google, Amazon, and other companies. Amazon even lately went as far as posting a job listing for analysts to research “labor organizing threats against the company” before suddenly taking it down, claiming that the job description was inaccurate.

But there have also been some encouraging recent developments. In February, after a long battle with management, employees of the crowdfunding site Kickstarter voted to form a union — the industry’s first for white-collar employees. The Teamsters, the Office and Professional Employees International Union, and the Communications Workers of America all reported fielding inquiries from tech and gig workers as the pandemic worsened, according to Axios. 

The challenge facing organizers is how to leverage this discontent into a movement that’s capable of abolishing Silicon Valley as we know it.

Artwork By

Cha Pornea

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