What it means to 'abolish Silicon Valley'

February 17, 2019 (1312 words) :: Fleshing out the catchphrase that began as a Twitter joke but has since become part of my larger political project.
Tags: class-struggle, big-tech

This post is day 48 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

This blog post is a little disjointed, because it mostly consists of stringing together my notes from preparing for my panel at SFMOMA yesterday, which I mentioned in yesterday’s fragment. It builds on recent pieces I’ve written, including my piece of the same name for Tribune and a talk I gave at the DECODE Project conf last October.

The point of “abolish Silicon Valley” as a political statement - and the reason it’s the title of my book - is to offer a counternarrative to the reigning mythos of Silicon Valley. Rather than accepting Silicon Valley’s claims at face value, my goal is dismantle the stories and assumptions that underpin its legitimacy.

My perspective was arrived at the hard way. As a software engineer and startup founder, I used to be a true believer in the tech industry’s founding mythology - I thought all the money sloshing around the industry was deserved, a fair reflection of the value Silicon Valley added to society. When I could no longer reconcile that view with all the evidence to the contrary that was slowly accreting around me, it took me a while to find my bearings. It was like a rug had been pulled out from underneath me, upending all of my assumptions how society should work. What was I supposed to believe instead?

But then I discovered an alternative narrative, based in leftist theory, which I cobbled together from a bricolage of sources. I had found a way to critique the tech industry that resonated with my own personal experiences while also tying in to a larger body of critical work going back centuries. That’s where my critique begins: connecting my bottom-up understanding of the industry with the bird’s eye view granted by a theoretical understanding of the economy at large.

Silicon Valley is not merely a geographic region that happened to give birth to the microchip. It is a dream, and one that implies a particular way of both funding the technologies of future and allocating resources in the present.

In this context, “abolition” does not mean simply relocating the the Bay Area’s prized corporations elsewhere, or shuttering their doors. I use the concept as it’s used in the prison abolition movement. To me, the aim of prison abolition is not just about opening the doors to every prison tomorrow while changing nothing else. That’s not possible, nor would it be really desirable. Instead, the aim is to restructure society such that prisons are no longer seen as necessary. And not only necessary, but even remotely desirable, because transforming society also means transforming individual subjectivities, too.

I want a world where raising $50 million for some unspecified “Enterprise AI” startup, or a weed delivery startup, is impossible. I want a world where any technology that could be useful for society is shared freely, in the commons, rather than enclosed by corporations as engines for profit. I want a world where technology whose sole purpose is to make the founders and investors richer is simply not funded, because all the funding is directed at solving actual societal problems.

It’s not obvious how we get to that world, of course. Nor will it be easy. One of my core premises is that the problems we see as caused by Silicon Valley actually go way, way deeper. They can’t be solved by the surface-level solutions that are usually presented whenever anyone criticises Silicon Valley, as if the tech industry just needs more ‘adults’ in the room. More ‘ethical’ executives might help, but that’ll only go so far; it won’t solve the underlying structural problems with our current mode of production, of which Silicon Valley’s worst excesses are merely a symptom.

The key recognition of this abolitionist framing is the extent to which our actually existing structures are implicated.

When it comes to fixing venture capital, for instance, it’s not enough to merely invest in more socially useful startups with founders from more diverse backgrounds. The way investment in technology works today is so fundamentally broken that it needs to be radically restructured, to the point where it’s no longer recognisable as venture capital. Most notably, it can’t be investment as a means of making returns to capital. As a heuristic for funding technology, it’s becoming increasingly clear that this sort of profit-driven system is just not working, as we hear about more and more startups that turn out to be completely unnecessary or even outright frauds. It’s a bad heuristic that has outlived its usefulness.

When it comes to tech companies themselves, I think the biggest problem is the divide between the employees working on a product, and the communities actually affected by it, as workers/consumers/bystanders. This divide has resulted in the creation of products whose primary benefit is to stoke the founders’ and investors’ egos, to the detriment of workers or consumers who see only the shrinking of their own agency. Why is it fair that the CEO of a gig economy company has more control over the platform than all of the actual gig workers who are responsible for the company’s meteoric growth in the first place? And why should the engineers and designers who’ve created the platform be compelled to serve the interests of management and investors, even if it means actively harming the lives of their fellow workers?

Zooming out and looking through a geopolitical lens, it’s no accident that the tech booms we associate with “Silicon Valley” have been headquartered in the US. There’s an obvious link between US military dominance - which has funded a lot of the technology research that modern-day tech companies have capitalised on - and economic dominance. Look at the global division of labour, and all the horrific implications concealed within that term. The worst bits of the working conditions underpinning the tech industry are hidden away in the less developed parts of the world, where coltan mining and iPhone assembly and the most stultifying types of micro-work can occur under cover of darkness, far removed from the lush campuses and stock grants at the top of the chain.

Of course, a lot of these problems predate Silicon Valley, or were created by greater forces. But the reason Silicon Valley has risen to such enormous economic heights is because it has found an astute way to profit from these preconditions - monetising the rot, in other words. In the process, it both accelerates the structural tendencies it takes advantage of - exacerbating the downsides - and forecloses alternative possibilities for how society could be structured.

What does “abolition” imply? Certainly more than shuffling a few board members around, or exacting some more money from tech companies through taxation or fines, or even wiser investment decisions. Those might be steps in the right direction, but these steps will only get us so far.

I think we need a massive leap - a restructuring of our entire socioeconomic system, in recognition that our current mode of production is not working for most of the people it’s ostensibly designed to serve. Of course, the people who are well-served by the system also have the power to set the terms of discourse, making use of various ideological apparatuses to convince those who need to be convinced of the superiority of the current system.

“Abolishing Silicon Valley”, then, begins with a rejection of that premise, by looking at the very real ways that Silicon Valley is failing the people who (often involuntarily) keep it going, and asking what needs to be done to change it. And the answer, for me, is not starting another app, or investing more ethically, or, like, the blockchain. The answer lies in transforming the underlying conditions that gave rise to Silicon Valley’s present manifestation in the first place. It means class struggle.

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