As a teenager, Wendy Liu was a Silicon Valley evangelist. She interned at Google, devoured the works of libertarian philosopher Ayn Rand and viewed the tech industry as “a stepladder to a higher plane of existence”. As a precocious coder (Liu began building websites at the age of 12 in Montreal), she envisaged a future of material wealth and spiritual fulfilment.
But in the autumn of 2016, as the failure of her tech start-up coincided with the election of Donald Trump, she felt her intellectual foundations beginning to collapse. Gripped by a new spirit of inquisition, she enrolled at the London School of Economics for a Master’s degree in inequalities and social sciences. Three years later, Liu has produced an excoriating critique of the world she once lionised: Abolish Silicon Valley.
“It’s not the sort of book I thought I’d write when I was younger,” Liu, 28, told me from San Francisco when we spoke by video call. “I assumed I’d write a book about how my start-up was successful and how I’m rich and famous, but that’s not how the world turned out, and in hindsight I’m happier it turned out like this.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has left Liu unable to embark on a planned book tour but, she reflected, “it is making people more receptive to the message of the book, because the message is that this whole system is broken. Silicon Valley didn’t create [the pandemic] but they’re profiting from it. They are seizing power whenever they can.”
It was in London, where she co-founded a popular leftist reading group, that Liu’s world view truly changed. “I started to see this moral rot at the tech industry’s heart, whereas previously I’d really believed that the industry was about making the world a better place; that the billionaires in the tech industry – unlike Wall Street, unlike pharmaceuticals – were good billionaires and that they really cared about the little people.
“As the divide between these billionaires and their front-line workers grew more pronounced, the rhetoric around Silicon Valley being this place of disruption started to seem hollow – the propaganda that every industry always puts out to try to justify the power it has attained.”
It was the sight of San Francisco’s mass homeless population (which numbered 17,595 people in 2019, according to the New York Times) that first troubled Liu’s conscience as she interned at Google in 2013. The situation, she said, has only worsened since.
“The city’s not doing anything about it, they’re supposed to be putting people in hotel rooms. It’s taking a lot of activists to even pressure the authorities to do anything. I feel so despondent.”
What would she say to those who – whatever their misgivings about Big Tech – value the free services that companies such as Google and Facebook provide? “When I talk about Silicon Valley, I’m not just talking about all the products that it makes, I’m talking about a particular relationship between technology and capital… I don’t think Silicon Valley in its current form is necessary to have the technology that we’ve all become accustomed to. And I think it’s inhibiting us from having better technology that is more responsive to what people actually want, rather than being ordained from above to monetise our attention and to drive misinformation.”
Liu is open-minded about alternative ownership models. “Some of these products should be treated as infrastructure or common goods, maybe they should be released into the public domain, maintained by a different structure than a private corporation, such as municipal services.”
But she warned of the limits of an anti-monopoly approach (which might, for instance, prohibit Facebook from owning WhatsApp and Instagram). “What we need are different values. What are we breaking up these companies for? Is it just to make them smaller so they’re not as harmful? Or is it to introduce a wholly different way of running these companies and developing technology?”
Liu, who spent the early years of her life in China, is active in the US anti-racist movement and the Democratic Socialists of America (the organisation from which the Democratic politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez emerged). How does she feel about the public support firms such as Twitter and Netflix have offered to the Black Lives Matter movement?
“I think it’s opportunistic because that’s what these companies have to be, that’s just baked into their DNA. I do think that certain executives mean well… But we can’t allow these companies to abdicate responsibility for their role in benefiting and propping up these unjust power structures simply because they put out a social media post.”
As a former Bernie Sanders supporter, how does she view the possibility of a Joe Biden presidency? “I think it’s useful to think of a president as an opponent rather than as a figurehead… I’m not inspired by his campaign. If Biden is the president that’s where the work begins trying to move his administration to the left.”
Many Silicon Valley titans are fixated by the quest for immortality; Liu gives the impression of having already lived two lives. But she does not entirely disown her teenage self. “The person I used to be who was excited about things, making things happen… there are ways to harness that for more collective goals rather than individual ones.”
This article appears in the 10 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, A world in revolt