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On July 2, 2018, I went on Novara Media’s TyskySour show (which was livestreamed). We talked about stop-and-search, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory, and what it would mean to “abolish Silicon Valley”, a semi-serious idea that I basically made up on Twitter the week before:

since everyone's talking about abolition now, i'd like to propose a campaign to abolish silicon valley

— Wendy Liu (@dellsystem) June 25, 2018

The convo builds on a piece I wrote for Novara the previous week: Now is the Time for Worker Power in the Tech Industry. The full video is available here:

The first ~25 minutes mostly consist of Ash talking about stop-and-search, with a few comments from me on predictive policing near the end. The next ~25 minutes are on Ocasio-Cortez. The part after that is where I talk about building worker power in the tech industry and how that fits into a larger vision for abolishing Silicon Valley. (There was also some fairly heated debate over the merits of Huel.) An abridged transcript (just the parts relevant to tech) is at the bottom of this page.

Some clips, if you don’t want to watch the whole thing:

Ash on stop and search:

Me on the failure of liberal politics to adequately respond to people’s needs in this polarised era:

Me pointing out that most tech workers don’t go into tech because they personally want to be part of the military-industrial complex, or exacerbate economic inequality; it’s just what ends up happening because of how the tech industry functions structurally. Challenging this system requires tech workers to realise their interests lie with their class, not with their CEOs.




Me: I worked at Google as a software engineering intern in 2013. My background is definitely not traditional for the left. I was a software developer basically my whole life - I started coding when I was 12. I spent a lot of time alone in my bedroom on the computer.

Michael: I didn’t mean for this show to be talking about how you became a coder at 12, but how does a 12 year old become a coder? What goes on?

Me: I don’t know - I decided to start building websites and started writing code, started charging people to write code for them. It was a lot of fun and it was a path that led naturally to being a software developer, studying this in uni, getting a job at Google, working on a lot of open source projects.

When I graduated uni, I was supposed to go to Google full-time as a software engineer - they gave me an offer. And it’s one of those things where, when Google gives you offer, as a new grad right out of school, you feel like you have to take it. Because, for one, their offers are so good.

Michael: how much money are we talking?

Me: So they offered me a base salary of 100k and then about 30k in stock every year (but that was just the first year - they would increase the number every year) and then a 15k bonus. It’s a lot of money for someone who’s straight out of school.

And it’s absolutely ridiculous. A lot of companies now offer more than that for new grads, because salaries have been going up.

At the time, I was like I should take this, like what else am I going to do with my life? Everyone was saying, Google is the place you should work. You should be really proud of yourself.

But I hated my internship. It was fun to be in San Francisco, to hang out with fellow interns (and Google paid for us to go drinking all the time basically). It was fun, but the work itself was just really boring, really stultifying.

By a certain point, I was asking myself, is this really everything I worked so hard for? I spent all this time writing code - I liked it, but everyone was saying, if you spend a lot of time writing code and you get really good at writing code, you’ll get a great job. And this is where the money is these days - you just you have to get into the tech industry.

I was like, okay, there’s a lot of money, but it’s just really unsatisfying. I don’t want to spend my life in front of a computer writing code for a system I don’t care about all the time.

So I had a bit of a wake-up moment. But it wasn’t very radical or anything it was - I just don’t want to do this.

And at the time, there was a huge startup trend going on. The startup bubble was basically at its peak. Some of my friends and I decided to do a start-up, because we figured we could raise money pretty easily, and I could write the product, and then we could figure out how to sell it.

We didn’t know what we were doing, but we ended up starting a company that sold people’s data. You guys have heard of Cambridge Analytica? It’s not as bad as that, but there are a lot of companies that do very similar things; my company was one of them.

We did that for about three years. Eventually, I got sick of it. I was like, I can’t do this anymore.

Around the same time, I started reading books - radical books, that I never ever read before.

Michael: Like what? Give us some of them.

Me: I think the first books that I read that slowly pushed me over the edge were: Postcapitalism by Paul Mason - which, at the time, was the only thing that ever read that combined some form of left politics with what I’ve been thinking about in the tech world. Because there’s this huge strain of thought lately about universal basic income and automation.

The problem with the way that the tech world approaches it is these tech bros are like, we’re the first people who have ever thought of this. We’re the first peoples who have ever considered the problems of automation and basic income. We’ll reinvent economics from scratch. Not realizing that obviously there’s a huge body of work - there are so many people who spend their lives thinking about this.

So when I read Postcapitalism, I remember thinking, I should probably learn some economics and I should probably learn some Marx. I’d never read any Marx ever in my life.

So I started reading books. I bought books from Verso when they had a sale [December 31, 2016]: the Jacobin Verso series. Four Futures [by Peter Frase] is one of those books.

And the more I read, the more I realised that there was this theoretical framework that I had never heard of. Ever. No one had ever told me in any of my computer science or math classes that I should understand what Marxism was or philosophy or anything.

Michael: It’s not a prerequisite for getting a job at Google.

Me: No, it’s almost like an exclusion. If you know too much about the left you can’t actually work at a lot of these companies because you’ll just not want to. Why would you want to work this shitty corporate job if you understand how politics works and you understand what you should be doing with your life?

So last year, I just read a ton of books, read a ton of left publications, started subscribing to Novara Media, Jacobin etc.

[interlude where Michael tries to get viewers to donate to Novara]

Michael: this is the perspective we’re going to be drawing upon when we talk later in the show about tech organizing in Silicon Valley and even abolishing Silicon Valley.

[some stuff I was too lazy to transcribe on racial profiling by police]

Me: one way to tie it into the tech aspect - in the US especially, there’s been this rise of predictive policing. You have these tech companies selling -

Michael: Like Minority Report.

Me: Yeah, kind of. It’s this way of using the data to say you should only stop and search in this neighborhood because this is where they’re more likely to commit crimes. This is where they’re more likely to need to be stopped and searched.

And of course, because you’re working with data, that data is going to be inherently racist. It’s gonna be inherently biased because of all this institutional, structural bias.

But because it’s just an algorithm, it’s neutral. It’s this really effective shield that these police departments can use to abdicate responsibility, by saying it’s not us - it’s the algorithm.

Michael: The algorithm told me to stop and search this guy in a black working-class neighborhood.

Me: Exactly. And so there’s nothing wrong with the way we’re doing things; it’s just technology, and technology’s neutral.

[some banter about minority report]

Me: I have a funny story about Minority Report, and I hope the person who’s involved in the story doesn’t watch this since it’s a little embarrassing. But my co-founder (for my startup) once pitched to an investor that our startup would be like that scene in Minority Report when this guy’s walking past some sort of billboard in the mall and it changes to reflect who he is and what he likes.

Ash: micro-targeting!

Me: Yeah! And there’s something kind of funny about the way [that something] we now think is dystopian is this wonderful utopia for a lot of people in the tech industry.

(That’s why we have to abolish Silicon Valley, but we’ll get back to that later.)

Ash: I think we should loop back on this conversation, because what we think of as quite distant conversations about tech actually affects how we live in our communities every single day. So thinking about algorithmic racism and the idea that we might have institutional racism without racist individuals anymore is something which I find quite terrifying.

But I think something that we should consider as inherent to the production of space, urban space in particular - these things which we think of as dystopian are actually someone else’s utopia.

[around 24:00: some remarks by Ash about the criminalisation of non-criminal forms of behaviour being New Labour’s utopia but a working class black man’s dystopia]

[skipping the bits about Ocasio-Cortez. they’re interesting, just not super relevant to tech, which is my main focus atm.]

Abolishing Silicon Valley

Michael: Let’s talk about abolishing Silicon Valley. When are we doing it, how are we doing it, why are we doing it?

Me: This is something I came up with kind of as a joke a week ago, just because I was seeing all this stuff around abolishing ICe and I was like, can’t we just extend the concept of abolition to other things? Like Silicon Valley?

The point is to imagine a world where Silicon Valley as it is now doesn’t exist. And I think there’s something really powerful and really new about that. Because we kind of take for granted that five of the top ten companies by market capitalisation in the world are these tech companies headquartered in the US, mostly in the Bay Area. And it just feels so natural, and it’s really hard to imagine a world without them. But at the same time a lot of this stuff happened only in the last few decades.

The idea behind abolition as the framework in which to consider this concept is to realise that a lot of what’s wrong with Silicon Valley is structural. It’s not that there are a few individuals like Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Peter Thiel who are just bad people and need to be replaced by women or people of colour - which is the liberal liberal feminist way.

Ash: More Sheryl Sandbergs.

Me: Exactly. We don’t need to lean into Silicon Valley; we need to get rid of it altogether.

And part of the reason is because the whole structures of the industry produce this ecosystem of people who are going to make terrible decisions. Who are geared more towards creating shareholder value.

What’s special about tech is that technology occupies a really interesting position within capitalism. We’re at a time of low interest rates, especially in the US and money is being funneled towards technology - towards venture capital, and towards these big tech companies - in the hopes that somehow you’ll get a return on capital. Technology is this dream that everybody kind of believes in.

It’s like, I’ll just invest in technology and then I’ll invest in these startups, I’ll invest in Kickstarter, I’ll invest in Bitcoin, and then one day I’ll make my money back.

Michael: Did you do that? We all wish we invested in Bitcoin.

[some bitcoin banter]

Me: The fact that this is possible - the fact that Bitcoin can reach $15,000 overnight - speaks to this collective mania about technology in our world today.

The big problem with Silicon Valley - yes there are there problems in the sense that it’s not diverse enough, it’s bringing up house prices in the Bay Area - but you don’t the core fundamental problem of Silicon Valley by, say, addressing the housing crisis, or getting a few more women and minorities. The problem is that technology is being used to increase returns to capital and deepen inequality, in a way that’s not sustainable. In a way that no one on the Left would want, surely. In a way that’s making the world a much worse place, contrary to what a lot of people in tech seem to think.

And we’re starting to see some pushback against that from within these tech companies. I wrote a piece for Novara, Now is the Time for Worker Power in the Tech Industry. What’s really exciting about right now is that we’re seeing people in tech realise that even though they’re getting paid six-figure salaries, get a nice air-conditioned bus to go to work every morning, get free food, beanbags, massages, all these perks … they’re realising that maybe that’s not enough. Maybe the perks are actually something more sinister. Something designed to keep them from thinking about the ethical concerns of their job.

A lot of people in tech, they’re not trained to think in terms of ethics. I never was. I never took a single social sciences course; I took computer science, math and biology. That was it. And for some reason that qualified me to be a software engineer at a company like Google.

It’s a structural problem. These companies take advantage of people who really like programming and they give them a lot of money and make them not think about the ethical/social consequences of what they like to do.

And it’s a shame because people who like writing software should be able to do that in a way that is beneficial for humanity. Because most the time people want to do that on some level - it’s just that the desire to do so has been beaten out of them, because it doesn’t feel like there are any natural outlets in the community they live in. Their only options are big tech company, slightly smaller tech company, shitty startup that’s selling your data to big tech companies.

The options are so limited, and I feel like there is all this frustration that is just looking for an outlet.

And we’re seeing an outlet in the form of the Tech Workers Coalition, which is something I mentioned in the article. That is a group of people who are trying to change the way things are in the tech industry. Some of them are out-and-out socialists, communists, anarchists whatever; some of them aren’t as politically engaged but are starting to think about what politics could mean to them.

And I think that’s really exciting. I’m seeing people I follow on Twitter who only ever talked about tech suddenly start talking about the ethical concerns of the tech industry.

Ash: To play devil’s advocate here, because I read your article and really really enjoyed it, is that why should I, as a communist, care or view as a source of revolutionary or radical political change, white bourgeois guys wearing short-sleeve shirts? And if we do focus our energies on trying to get people to wake up to their compromised ethical conditions in which they exist in their working lives who do make a lot of money, is this not potentially replicating a Victorian model of philanthropy? Like, you’ve made your money in a bad way and now you’re trying to ameliorate the worst effects of it, but it doesn’t fundamentally change the exploitative relationship between labour and capital, and you know it’s just lubricating the hinges a bit rather than blowing the bloody door off.

Me: Yeah, it’s a really unfortunate situation we’re in where we almost have to rely on these people. I think part of the reason why it’s important to consider Silicon Valley in any sort of left vision is how crucial the role that Silicon Valley plays in the global ecosystem.

First of all, an economic role - the fact that so much money is being funneled towards this industry in a weird American imperialist way. Think about the role that companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook play in controlling so much digital infrastructure. The UK government relies on Amazon to provide services through Amazon’s Web Service division. We all use Google, we all use Facebook - even if you don’t use a computer, if you use any sort of public service that’s digitally enabled in any way it’s going to rely on some sort of infrastructure likely provided by one of these big tech companies.

So even if you yourself try to distance yourself from tech, the rest of the world is slowly being infiltrated by these tech companies. They’re gaining more and more power and they’re getting to the point where it’s going to be hard to stop them via regular politics-as-usual means. And that’s why I think worker power in the tech industry could be an interesting avenue.

To tie it back to the whole ICE thing: ICE was getting digital services from a lot of these big tech companies, like Microsoft. And you have people at these big tech companies who are really unhappy with what’s going on. They see these videos of children being detained and they think wow, this is not my politics; this is not what I support. But they realise that their companies are complicit in making this happen, and they’re they’re fighting back.

And so far, it’s still unclear what’s going to happen. But we had something similar with Google, recently where some software engineers at Google found out about this contract that Google had with the Pentagon where they were going to provide artificial intelligence to improve drone strikes for the US military. Not everyone at Google is American; not everyone cares about maintaining US military dominance.

And so that was actually a great avenue for politicising people, and that ended up somewhat successful - Google cancelled the contract. So there is a potential for power.

And of course, that’s just the tip of the iceberg - the military-industrial complex is huge, and there are so many other ethical issues around tech companies that haven’t really been brought up yet.

For me, what’s exciting is if you take something that’s so obviously horrible, like the video of children being detained in cages, and you make that a sort of bridge to something bigger - something broader - about realising that the entire tech industry is founded on something just fundamentally unfair … It’s founded on the fact that technology is being used to increase returns to capital while disempowering labour.

The most obvious case of disempowering labor is the gig economy: look at Uber, you look at Deliveroo. What is that but taking advantage of people in precarious living nations who need jobs and just making them accept the lowest wages they can?

I think a lot of people at these companies don’t think about it that way, because they’re not paid to. No one has really told them to, and they probably don’t see themselves as the same as these Uber drivers, as these Deliveroo riders.

Michael: the military-industrial complex is quite an interesting comparison, actually. I suppose what you’re saying is there’s people in - middle management isn’t the right word, but middling status in these companies …

So you’ve got the big venture capitalists at the top you’ve got the Uber drivers or the Deliveroo drivers at the bottom, all the people that work in Amazon warehouses. And then you’ve got this bunch of tech engineers in the middle who are treated quite well and don’t have much reason to complain in terms of their personal living standards, but could present a spanner in the works and exert some leverage to change the policies of those tech companies for moral or ideological or ethical grounds.

The reason I say the comparison with the military-industrial complex can be helpful is because if you want to rely on workers who go into the arms industry, or especially the middle management of the arms industry, or the middle management of the army - tyhe colonel class - they went into that knowing what they were doing. You you go into the arms industry knowing what you’re doing, and you’re not shocked when your labour is used to invade and bomb people from other countries.

Whereas now the tech industry is so integral to these practices: to war, to drone strikes, and to detaining immigrants - but the people who went into those jobs had no idea that that’s what they would be providing their labour to do.

So that’s an interesting and specific sort of ability and capacity to organise here to effect and disrupt the militaristic practices of this day.

Me: Yeah, exactly I think a lot of people go into the tech industry because they like writing code and it’s nice when companies give you great job offers.

Michael: Beanbags … table tennis … free coffee …

Me: Yeah, it’s nice. People feel valued, they feel special. It’s a treat to be able to work on something they love doing, where it’s a craft, it’s a passion. For me, that’s why I loved being in tech. I just loved what I was building.

And going back to your point about this potentially problematic Victorian model - I think that is definitely a concern, but at the same time, the way you counter that is by emphasising commonalities. By saying, it’s not that you’re being paternalistic and “taking care” of the people “below” you who are fundamentally inferior. It’s showing that we’re all on the same side.

Tech workers are still workers. They might be treated better for now than the people who are serving their meals or cleaning their offices, but fundamentally, they have more in common with them in terms of class interest than they do with the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world.

Ash: Because what we know is that money doesn’t trickle down; precarity trickles up.

What do you think that left tech strategy should be? Either at the level of workplace organising, or thinking about left startups and left projects, and a coherent strategy.

Because I think that energy does exist, amongst different pockets of the left but it’s certainly very atomised and dispersed and there doesn’t seem to be a sense of common purpose.

Me: It feels like it’s such an early stage in this conversation. It does feel to me like the left has kind of abandoned tech for a while. I mean, I’ve read some good Marxist critiques of what’s going on in the tech world, but it doesn’t seem like there’s anywhere near enough given the enormity of the problem.

The reason the idea of abolishing Silicon Valley is so important it’s because it’s gotten to the point where it needs to be, on some level, abolished. It’s gotten to such a scale that it has fundamentally reshaped how the world works.

And we can’t just slowly reverse - that would take forever. We need to just reimagine the world without it

Michael: When you say without Silicon Valley - are we still gonna have Facebook?

Ash: What will we do with Seattle?

Michael: What’s wrong with Seattle?

Me: Silicon Valley not as the geographic area, but as these big tech companies that are taking over the world, taking up so much money.

I think you have to imagine a world where tech entrepreneurship is conceived in an entirely different lens. When I started my company, the whole goal was to sell to another company in a few years’ time. The point was just to get acquired by Twitter or Facebook or whatever. We’ll put three years of our lives into it and then we’ll come away with a lot of money and we’ll be slightly more famous and we’ll be able to do our next company.

And I think that’s just fundamentally stupid way of starting a company. It just doesn’t make any sense from a societal perspective. What we need is a model of entrepreneurship where the whole goal is a more collectivist, socialist one. Where you want to create that’s so successful that it becomes some sort of public service.

Maybe not like a national service -

Ash: Post-national service, darling.

Me: Exactly, the whole point of technology is that it can transcend borders in a really interesting way.

So the goal should be to create socially useful products that are then available ideally free the point of use.

Michael: We can’t nationalise Facebook, can we, because it’s an international service.

Livestream questions

Michael: I’ve got a question. Usually, in the industry, what happens when there are sections of the workforce that try and unionise, that realise they’re all socialists or already were socialists, is that they get victimised by management. And management is not quite keen to keep them on the payroll.

Do you see a movement in Silicon Valley where people at the top of Facebook and Google and Amazon are noticing that a socialist spirit is spreading amongst their workforce and they want to nip it in the bud?

Me: that’s a really great question. There was a case a few months ago of this company called Lanetix, based in the US, where they actually did fire all of their software engineers who tried to unionise. And they they did it by basically outsourcing the jobs to Eastern Europe.

That was a huge setback for the movement. It was terrible.

It’s going to be interesting to see what the the National Labour Review board says about that, because Trump has been saying, we’re gonna stop companies from outsourcing jobs overseas. And this is what this company did. But at the same time, it was a case of trying to trying to break up this union.

But that was an isolated case. It was a very small company, and it seems like the software engineers who tried to unionise were not considered indispensable enough by management - well, management decided to let them go. Whether or they were indispensable, that’s not really the point is; the point is the management didn’t see them as indispensable.

Whereas what you see in a lot of big tech companies is that because it’s so expensive to try to get engineers - it costs a lot of money to recruit them -

Michael: They’re in real high demand, right. That’s that’s why the working conditions, the pay, the buildings, is all so attractive.

Me: Yeah, they’re valued. They’re like “talent” that you recruit. It’s kind of like a sports team trying to recruit talent; it’s that same sort of dynamic.

As a result, if you had people who were in really key positions at these companies, who had internal goodwill and followings outside the company, it would be a lot harder to try to fire them, knowing that they’re gonna cause a public outcry. Especially if you had enough people collectively making the same decision - it’s not that easy.

Like, they can be fired, but it depends on the circumstances, and if you build enough collective power it’s a lot harder and it’s gonna look a lot worse for the company.

Ash: So what you’re saying is, public-facing political antagonism and good campaigning.

Michael: And also get so good at coding that you can’t be replaced. Which is difficult. I’ll probably never achieve it.

[some puzzling question about Deleuze and labour market algorithms going to war]

Michael: Is a cooperative version of Uber or Deliveroo just as exploitative, as it doesn’t change the labour relationship? It depends who’s part of the cooperative …

Me: It’s controversial. I’m a little wary of saying anything too harsh on cooperatives. I’m personally not very excited by the idea of platform cooperatives. It may be a transitional step, but I think in the long term, you have to completely change how these things work.

With Uber - what is the actual solution to Uber? It’s not having a cooperative version; it’s having better public transit. And it’s ensuring that you don’t have this polarisation of the people who are driving the cars and the people who are taking them.

Because most of the time, there is a stark inequality. It’s not like everyone drives the same number of hours as they take an Uber. And what we’re seeing with Uber is that it’s creating one class of workers who are rich enough to afford taking Ubers everywhere, and then you have people who have to drive these people around because they have no other way of surviving.

So I don’t know if you can separate the fundamental stratification in terms of wealth and service - this whole weird servant class that’s being created by these companies - I don’t know if you can separate that by creating a co-op model.

Maybe, a little bit, but then you have to go deeper than that. It’s not exciting for me to think about a platform co-op.

Ash: I think you’ve raised a really really good point and have coalesced something that I’ve been struggling to articulate, which is: a Silicon Valley model of utopia is one in which we are all increasingly atomised because we no longer have to be in public space to access public services.

And I think that that’s someone’s utopia. It’s lots of people’s dystopia as well.

Michael: Why a platform cooperative would be attractive - you’re talking about abolishing the wage relation in society. You’re saying if you’ve got some people driving Ubers and some people taking them, there’s obviously a problem. But if you’ve got people doing different jobs and buying services from one another -

You also have to remember that everyone that uses Uber is rich. Lots of people that use Uber make a similar wage to the Uber driver and it’s a useful service. I think it’s better working for Uber than working for a minicab company.

_Obviously I’m not here to advertise Uber - I mean obviously it’d be better if that was a platform cooperative and there was no wankers in Silicon Valley extracting the 20% - what I’m saying is, in the here and now, where we have a market economy, I think if someone were to create a cooperative Uber platform - yeah, it’s not revolution. It’s not abolishing the wage relation. but it’s a start.

Me: It’s a step forward. I can see a world where you have much better public transit and you have a platform you have a co-op version of Uber where people are paid much better wages.

Ash: But also thinking about tech as a facilitator of public space and collective belonging rather than something which is trying to mitigate the need to have that at all. It’s a different kind of vision.

There was that tech startup in New York called Bodega, which was just like they invented the vending machine, essentially.

Me: Yeah, the problem with the whole Silicon Valley mindset is that you see things as in efficiencies without realising that for some people it’s great.

[the rest of this episode is just huel bants]