Abolish Silicon Valley: memoir of a driven startup founder who became an anti-capitalist activist

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2020/04/14/seize-the-means-of-computation.html

Wendy Liu grew up deeply enmeshed in technology, writing code for free/open source projects and devouring books by tech luminaries extolling the virtues of running tech startups; after turning down a job offer from Google, Liu helped found an ad-tech company and moved from Montreal to New York City to take her startup to an incubator. As she worked herself into exhaustion to build her product, she had a conversion experience, realizing that she was devoting her life to using tech to extract wealth and agency from others, rather than empowering them. This kicked off a journey that Liu documents in her new book, Abolish Silicon Valley: How to Liberate Technology from Capitalism, a memoir manifesto that’s not just charming – it’s inspiring.

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If we depended on bureaucratic bean counters to approve purchases of super computers and compute clusters, we’d be in the same situation as we are in FEMA and N95 masks.

I think capitalism is very exploitative of workers, very inefficient with resources, and detrimental to the environment. But I also believe that centrally planned public systems are inflexible and often backwards thinking. That getting anything new done inside a massive organization nearly takes a miracle.

I’m willing to listen if there is an alternative to capitalism that doesn’t put decision making into a central authority. Even a direct democracy can make some types of research impossible, as public interest waxes and wanes faster than it takes to complete something complex.

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This is a common pro-capitalist canard we’ve internalized, but it doesn’t really hold water. Amazon and Wal-Mart are “centrally planned economies” far larger and more complex than the old Soviet Union. There are doubtless reasons one seems to work and the other did not, but the alleged impossibility of central planning at scale is not that reason, especially when sad devotion to that ancient religion results in politicians actively sabotaging well-functioning public systems in order to prove that they “need” to be privatized.

More on topic, as someone working in tech well past my sell-by date for the industry as a whole, and who has been getting progressively disgruntled at the whole thing for years (but it’s been my entire career, I don’t know how to do anything else, and I’m not yet old or wealthy enough to retire successfully), I snapped up this book and read about a third of it with my morning coffee. A hell of a lot of it rings true, especially the vaguely nauseated feeling that goes with pretending to be a starry-eyed devotee to “the mission.” I wasn’t good at that when it was called “religion” and I’m sure not good at it when the gods’ feet of clay are so transparently on display.

I look forward to seeing where Liu’s journey lands her, as she is clearly a more ambitious sort than I am, which gives her story the feel of a sort of signal-amplified version of my own. Where she actually followed through on pursuing Google (up to a point), I clearly remember the day I saw their billboard on the Bayshore with some prime-number problem, encouraging people to solve it and thus discover an email address to apply. Besides, the company, at the time, was getting a reputation for hiring people with postgraduate degrees to empty trash cans just for the prestige value. I was driving by myself at the time, so the wanking motions that encouraged were purely imaginary, but the sheer pretentiousness of it put me off the idea of ever considering Google. Nothing I’ve seen or heard since has made me question that conclusion.

But I’ve gotten so very exhausted at the prospect of telling a recruiter I want to do something that means something, rather than being required to pretend I’m changing the world while building an online catalog for somebody’s sweatshop clothing storefront or invasive advertising platform, and having the recruiter look at me as if I’ve just stepped off a flying saucer. Liu states early on that she doesn’t have solutions for a lot of the problems she describes, but I wouldn’t expect her to, and damned if she isn’t doing a great job of zeroing in on what the problems are.

Watching as our would-be feudal lords fail us again and again by adhering to capitalist dogma, especially during the current crisis (for which their philosophy has left them entirely flatfooted), makes this a great time for a book like this, just another reminder that when a measure is used as a target, it becomes a bad measure, even when that measure and target are “maximizing profit.”

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How about this:

Anarchism is often considered to be a radical left-wingideology[24][25] and much of anarchist economics and anarchist legal philosophyreflect anti-statist interpretations of communism, collectivism, syndicalism, or participatory economics. Some individualist anarchists are also socialists or communistswhile some anarcho-communists are also individualists[26][27] or egoists.[28][29]

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The answer to a broken system is an anti-system? I don’t agree.

Anti-state is not anti-system. You will find that most (all?) left-wing branches of anarchy acknowledge interdependence and have a range of ideas how to deal with it. They’re decentralized systems, or heterarchies, inherently democratic, self-organizing and self-governing, but without government.

Follow the links above, if you’re curious.

…they have some unexplored contradictions (for example, a demand that software engineers be licensed like other engineers; and also a demand that key software be universally free/open source).

As a foodtechnologist I do not see any contradiction here:
Cory might remember from his OpenCola days anybody may write and publish a cola recipe (ie. code).
Not everyone is educated, and therefore licensed, to build and operate a bottling plant for beverages.
Such are engineers jobs: building and maintaining infrastructure. Setting and adhering to standards.
Auditing that same plant on safety issues (ie. (pen-)testing) is (or should be), again an engineers job.

Software can be kept both free/Open source,etc. and (should!) be maintained and tested by engineers. Because they can be held responsible to a higher standard than some script kid.

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