Abolish Silicon Valley: How to Liberate Technology from Capitalism, by Wendy Liu

A fascinating insider’s account of launching a tech start-up engages Martin De Saulles even if it does not quite cohere as an agenda for change

July 30, 2020
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Critical accounts of Silicon Valley culture and the companies it has spawned abound, but Wendy Liu’s book is interesting because it comes from an insider. She was part of a start-up that tried for two years to build a business that might have made them all rich had it not, like so many new ventures, run out of cash and momentum.

Her account of this period is fascinating and shows the often tedious work involved in building software applications and trying to find backers to fund the business. In this respect, the book would make good reading for anyone thinking of doing something similar, particularly students and those just out of college. Liu’s honesty comes through as she describes her struggles to keep motivated and the challenges of dealing with team members who are felt not to be pulling their weight or who are going in different directions. The drudgery of meeting with potential investors who are either not interested in their ideas or are keener to show off their own successes comes across well, making a refreshing contrast to many of the images we see on TV and in the cinema.

However, the book as a whole lacks the focus that is implied by its subtitle, “how to liberate technology from capitalism”. The first 50 pages describe Liu’s school and college years and an internship at Google. This personal account helps us to understand her motivations for working in the technology sector but does not contribute to the later discussion on the economic and political changes she believes necessary to level out the inequalities brought about by the internet revolution and the gig economy. Interesting though it is, neither does her description of her start-up adventure. She is clearly disillusioned by the workings of the valley and the focus on wealth creation of its workers and founders, but that, on its own, is not sufficient to justify a radical overhaul of the system.

It is not until the end of the book that Liu outlines her “New Industrial Model”, where a range of ideas, policies and recommendations are presented in the light of her concerns about the culture and power of many technology companies and the environment that produces them. Yet here she tries to cover too many issues, from housing and employment legislation to transport and company ownership. While many of the ideas have merit, and Liu’s enthusiasm for new ways of working and living shines through, I did not come away with a clear sense of how it all relates to the workings of Silicon Valley and other technology clusters. Personal data portability and a more decentralised approach to managing internet services get brief mentions but deserve greater attention because they offer practical ways to curb the excessive power of giants such as Google and Facebook.

The current global health crisis is certainly highlighting social inequalities as well as the fragility of many economies. As a result, some of the policies proposed by Liu may get a better hearing than they would have even a few months ago.

Martin De Saulles is a principal lecturer in the School of Computing, Engineering and Mathematics at the University of Brighton. His latest book, The Business of Data: Commercial Opportunities and Social Challenges in a World Fuelled by Data, was published last month.


Abolish Silicon Valley: How to Liberate Technology from Capitalism
By Wendy Liu
Repeater, 300pp, £10.99
ISBN 9781912248704
Published 1 April 2020

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Under the golden valley’s veneer

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