By James Moules
“SILICON Valley is more than just a region in northern California that has become synonymous with the high-tech industry. It is a dream.”
Ten years ago, a movie called ‘The Social Network’ hit cinemas, drawing rave reviews and scoring multiple accolades – including several Oscar nominations.
It chronicles the meteoric rise of the social networking giant Facebook and its founder Mark Zuckerberg. Notoriously, the film portrays him as a somewhat conniving and unscrupulous figure – much to the aggrievement of the man himself.
Despite this less than flattering portrayal, one couldn’t help but notice at the time of the film’s release just how many people saw this story not as a cautionary parable, but as something aspirational.
To them, the film wasn’t a human drama about friendship and betrayal, but a blueprint for their own Silicon Valley startup dreams – even if this dream meant losing their soul.
In her book ‘Abolish Silicon Valley’, Wendy Liu recounts her personal story of the pursuit of the Silicon Valley dream – and how her experience radically changed her view on the institutions of the tech world.
She started out like someone who had her path set. From a young age, tech was her passion – she would spend hours playing around with computers and working on websites through her school years.
Eventually, this would lead to her blitzing through university and landing an internship at Google.
At first she relishes this world, revelling in the glamour and prestige of the Silicon Valley lifestyle. To her and her contemporaries, this high-flying life was something they deserved, something they had worked hard for and earned. It was a realisation of the ‘nerds will inherit the earth’ narrative that made The Social Network so appealing to many.
As she draws to the end of her university days, Google offers her another position at the company, but instead she goes off to take part in a doomed startup – fully believing in the Silicon Valley dream and that the tech world was a force for good.
But despite hours and days of round the clock work, the startup fails to gain traction. Alongside this, the world is shaken by the election of Donald Trump as US President.
Her disillusionment with Silicon Valley grows. But this disillusionment was more than just frustration at lack of success in the field. Liu begins to reassess her assumptions about the charitable nature of big tech’s institutions, coming to see the problems of Silicon Valley as ultimately being problems of capitalism.
But she emphasises: “I’m not anti-tech; my critique of the tech industry stems from a place of love.”
Despite showing us a world most of us could barely imagine visiting, Liu never fails to make her personal voyage relatable. The frank reflection of her past is refreshingly honest and self-critical, and never to the point of tedium.
Along the way she describes how she was drawn into the Silicon Valley startup culture and all that entails – including many of the sorts of figures who might have seen The Social Network as aspirational.
She even concedes at one point that – if she had known about the practices of Cambridge Analytica at the time – she and her team would not have been appalled, but envious that they did not have the idea themselves.
The subtitle of this book it ‘How to Liberate Technology from Capitalism’ – a problem she presents her answer to in the final pages of the book. She offers five key steps in her chapter ‘A New Industrial Model’.
But while she does stress in this chapter that much of what she suggests is a vague sketch of long term goals, one can’t help but feel that a book promising a vision for an alternative to Silicon Valley would have far more to offer.
‘Abolish Silicon Valley’ is a fascinating peek behind the scenes at California’s big tech hub, and one that is made all the more engaging by the author’s down to earth style and frank self-reflection. It falls short of providing a truly compelling vision for releasing the tech world from the stranglehold of capitalism, but the book’s accessibility makes it a good place to start.
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