Wendy Liu, 28, grew up in Canada and dreamed of someday being a successful tech entrepreneur.
She was a teenage programmer and, early in her career, she landed a coveted internship at Google. Disillusionment quickly set in, though. Initially, she had a hard time understanding where her feelings were coming from.
“My work might be a bit dull, but if I came back as a full-time employee, I would expect yearly compensation approaching half a million dollars after a few years,” she writes in her 2020 book Abolish Silicon Valley: How to Liberate Technology From Capitalism. “Service workers [at Google], on the other hand, seemed to have a much shorter path for advancement, and a much lower starting point.”
In the book, she recalls how she left her Silicon Valley ambitions behind, going on to study political and economic theory at the London School of Economics. During her time there, she began to understand that Silicon Valley’s problems are not unique but emblematic of broader systemic issues facing society today. “I couldn’t escape the possibility that there might be structural reasons for this divide, independent of work ethic,” she writes. “These structural inequalities might not be Google’s fault, but Google clearly wasn’t reluctant to make use of them for the purpose of lowering labor costs.”
Now living in San Francisco, Liu recently spoke to Input about why Silicon Valley figures like Jeff Bezos don’t deserve all the credit they get and how tech workers should look to labor history for a better way forward.
Input: You write in the book that your mom didn’t define herself based on her job as an administrative assistant. When you became disillusioned with your work as a programmer in Silicon Valley, it sort of challenged your own worth. How did you stop defining yourself based on your career?
Wendy Liu: The last few years have been this process of me realizing I don’t have to define myself based on my job because I do other things. I’m a person who is capable of many things besides going to an office for eight hours a day.
But also, I’ve realized that the kind of work that is valued right now is not necessarily okay. This hierarchy we have of work that is given a six-figure salary versus work that is underpaid and undervalued. That doesn’t actually make sense, and it doesn’t accord with my own value system. I got a glimpse of this looking at the financial crisis, and the fact that all these people on Wall Street were making millions of dollars a year, but I didn’t think what they did was socially valuable.
It just took me some time to apply the same kind of reasoning to tech, where you have very, very similar things happening. You have people who are billionaires, and if you take that at face value, then you think, “Oh, they’re billionaires because they’re just so much more valuable than the average person.”
Over time as my belief in the industry — but also just capitalism in general — started to wane, I thought, “Well, no, some work is highly remunerated not because it’s socially valuable but because this is how our economic system works.” And I decided I don’t have to base my own identity or my own value on something like that.
One might argue Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos deserves his wealth because his company employs a million people worldwide. How do you respond to the “job creators” argument?
WL: There is this kind of political, economic consensus that does actually agree with these people — for instance, when former President Trump said many times that he is a job creator. And I think part of why that’s so convincing and why it’s so tempting to believe is because we can’t really point to a good alternative for how things can be produced without some capitalist coming in and saying, “Well, I created all these jobs.”
“It assumes the workers would have otherwise just been sitting idle, collecting unemployment checks, and getting drunk...”
At the end of the day, who is performing these jobs? Who is doing all the work? It’s the workers, but it’s always taken for granted that they were basically helpless until some kind capitalists came along and created these jobs. It assumes the workers would have otherwise just been sitting idle, collecting unemployment checks, and getting drunk or something. This is the myth that allows capitalism to keep on running.
Look at Amazon, perfect example. One person who’s worth hundreds of billions of dollars taking credit for the work of all these people who are — we don’t know their names. We don’t know how much they’re paid. It’s not very much. And we never see their faces on magazines, but they’re the ones who are doing the work that allows this one person to amass his fortune. And Bezos is applauded as a job creator. But who’s to say that if we were in a different economic system, or just if a few things in history had been different, maybe the same kind of work would be done, but it wouldn’t be one person taking credit for all of it.
There are exceptions within the capitalist system, examples of production outside of the market. You see social reproduction where a lot of people, mostly women, are doing work without capital involved — raising kids, feeding them, etc. And yet our brains are conditioned to believe that capital is necessary, and so capital — Jeff Bezos, whoever else — is always given the credit for anything that’s created.
Uber Eats is another example of this idea. A small group of executives and software engineers cut profit out of the restaurant industry, even though they’re doing relatively little of the actual work. They don’t make the food or drive the car to a customer’s house. They just provide a front-end app that serves as a restaurant directory and ask for a 30 percent cut.
WL: That’s a great illustration of how it’s normalized within our economy, and it applies to all these sectors, be it food delivery or Amazon in logistics.
It’s just so pervasive that when a VC [venture capitalist] or someone says they’re job creators, then we’re just like, “Alright. Yeah, I guess.” But I do think that lately there’s been more of a counternarrative, because if you look at a space like the restaurant industry, it’s so clear that the people doing the work have been doing this for a while.
Like, food delivery existed way before Uber Eats. It was fine. And what’s changed now is that Uber has kind of come in and taken control of this gateway in a way that allows its founders and executives to claim the lion’s share of the profits. I mean there’s no profit — just kind of this expectation of future profit.
What was the catalyst that triggered you to think more about tech’s social impact?
WL: Part of what made me feel compelled to make the switch — from an analytical, rational perspective to thinking more about people — was just that I was really unhappy and I had repressed the other side of it for so long that I realized this has to change. Definitely around the 2016 election, just paying attention to the political and economic upheaval around the time with Trump and Brexit, and just thinking like, “Oh, people are really suffering and I feel bad about it, but I don’t know what to do. There’s no outlet for my sadness.”
I didn’t know how to reconcile this with the rest of my worldview, and I thought I need to consider this some more. So it was a combination of this moral indignation and recognizing that this world is set up in a way so that others are forced to suffer and, reading a lot of social and political theory, recognizing there is a reason that things are the way they are. It’s not an act of God. We’ve designed an economic system that will cause certain people to suffer so that some can become billionaires.
These twin driving forces made me think that my compartmentalization — only caring about my personal success — wasn’t working. I wasn’t happy doing that; it didn’t get me anywhere. I had to do something to channel those feelings in a different direction.
Despite your perspective on tech, today you live in San Francisco. How do you reconcile that, seeing such stark inequality right in front of you every day?
WL: The reason I’m in San Francisco is because I got married to someone who’s been living here a long time. It wasn't a part of my plan. I was actually living in London for a while. It’s weird being back, walking around the city and just seeing the sheer number of homeless people right next to billionaires and cryptocurrency startups. It’s jarring, and it makes me really angry. It did even when I was doing my internship at Google.
“The question that kept going through my head was, ‘What is the point of all these billionaires?’”
But I think back then I was less angry and more just confused. The question that kept going through my head was, “What is the point of all these billionaires? What are they hoarding all their money for if there’s so much suffering next to them?” It felt like a clear articulation of their priorities, and that they cared more about, I don't know, buying a really nice penthouse or building a monument to their ego than helping people who were living next to them.
That’s never felt good to me, having to live in San Francisco and see the physical manifestation of capitalism’s inequality engine in geographical form. And today, with the pandemic and the economic crisis, the number of tents has exploded around here. And people are still getting wealthy — wealthier — like Jeff Bezos. His net worth keeps going up and up. But I think now I don't feel confused anymore. I understand why this is happening. The mechanics of capital accumulation and dispossession are all very clear to me.
What’s frustrating is that I know this is happening, but as an individual, I don’t know I have the power to stop it. But what gives me hope, the only thing that kind of keeps me optimistic is that there are other people who are also aware of these forces and who are interested in figuring out how to build a power to stop it.
Speaking of that, you write about the potential for tech unions in the book, and now workers at Amazon and Google have started small union drives. They’re hoping for better treatment of workers across the chain, among other things. Are you optimistic the moves could bring about positive changes in Silicon Valley?
WL: I know people in the Google union; I know people at Google who aren’t in the union. It’s difficult in a field like tech to get people to actually commit to joining a union, especially at a company like Google that has such a reputation for being a great place to work. And there's a lot of anti-union rhetoric being deployed. I think we’re in the early stages where people are still trying to figure out how to respond to common anti-union talking points.
But this rising interest in unionizing in tech from all these types of workers, including software engineers, but also delivery workers, everyone up and down the value chain — I think that’s a response to these larger material conditions of rising inequality, consolidated corporate power, and an economic system that is going to destroy the planet. I don’t think those are going to go away. People will remain interested in avenues of challenging capitalist success. Historically, unions have been quite an important avenue to accomplishing that.
“The challenge in tech is convincing people who have been sipping from the cup of ideology that this actually isn’t working.”
The challenge in tech is convincing people who have been sipping from the cup of ideology that this actually isn’t working. And it’s really hard, because the ideology is really strong in the industry. It’s strong everywhere, and it’s really hard to convince someone who worships [Y Combinator co-founder] Paul Graham and really believes that unions hamper flexibility that there’s another side to the story, the haves and have-nots. People really aren’t taught labor history; instead, they’re taught to be individualistic and focus on their own career and not think about anything other than themselves.
There’s an argument in tech that the industry is successful specifically because it's nimble and can move quickly, and that unions would slow down innovation.
WL: I used to think the same way about unions. I didn’t really know what they were, but I read Paul Graham's essays and was like, “Oh yeah, unions are bad because he says they are.”
To the point that unions slow things down: In a sense, that’s kind of what we want, right? Because if we look at the way tech companies operate today, they’ve been moving fast and breaking things for way too long. And we do actually need to slow things down, and we need them to stop building the things that they’ve been building. If unions are the best way to do that, then, yeah, maybe that's actually what we need.
Do you think that COVID, and the economic hardship it’s caused, could accelerate pro-labor movements in tech?
WL: It's harder now to deny just how horrific the inequality is, when you’re seeing that all these people are dying of COVID because they’re getting it from their jobs and they’re not getting protective equipment. Or they’re being evicted from their homes.
It does feel like this last year has been an awakening for a lot of people, just recognizing that things can’t go on the way they were. COVID has exposed these flaws that were already there, and even once the pandemic is done, the deeper problems will remain. You have all of these connected crises, like political systems that are crumbling, people no longer believing in the institutions, widespread inequality, and people on the edge of precarity, dying because of a lack of healthcare. And all of these zombie companies that aren’t making money are being propped up by VCs.
In my mind, it’s so clear that they’re all related and that they’re all part of this unsustainable economic system that we have. But in general, I think, it takes time for that argument to convince people and have them see that this is all connected, and that the answer to how to staunch the flow of these problems lies in building power as a collective that lies in unions and other things that are like unions. That’s a hard argument to make in this atomized era where we’re all supposed to focus on ourselves.
What are you doing in your life now?
WL: As I was doing interviews for the book tour last year, writing essays, I found it hard to keep up with what was happening in the world, and I just felt really depressed and powerless about everything. I kind of spiraled into a dark place for a while. I didn't know what I was doing, and I thought I should get a job working with a nonprofit local to the city. I got lucky and found this organization called Open Door Legal that provides legal services to low-income residents in San Francisco. They provide every type of legal service — if you have an employment issue, an immigration issue, you can go to them. I’ve been working there, building out a tech stack and making their technical system better.
As long as the world remains uncertain, it’s really nice to have a day job working with other people, and working on something that is really important and also really connected to the economic crisis that’s happening. It’s also just comforting working on something that’s self-contained. I’m just building the tech for these people that they can use, and I don’t have to think about all these broader economic and political problems that feel really daunting.
Sabrina Berger contributed to this story.