The Silicon Valley ideology is a morally destitute trap. But could its well-paid staff transform it? Building on her experience as a Google developer and a tech startup founder, guest author Wendy Liu makes the case for building worker power in Silicon Valley.
A few weeks ago, WIRED Magazine published an article subtitled Silicon Valley Techies Still Think They’re the Good Guys. They’re Not. The article described a noticeable shift in public discourse on the tech industry:
As headlines have exposed the troubling inner workings of company after company, startup culture no longer feels like fodder for gentle parodies about ping pong and hoodies. It feels ugly and rotten.
How did we get here? How did we get to a point where even traditionally techno-evangelist publications like WIRED have become so critical? And why is it that so many people inside the industry seemingly refuse to even see it, much less acknowledge their own culpability?
I don’t have all the answers, but I can tell my story. I used to be one of those people: as a software developer and startup founder, I once loved being part of the tech industry, and I really did think that it was making the world a better place. I used to think that all the criticism of the industry – of its toxic culture, of its outrageous salaries, of its saving-the-world mentality – was based in ignorance or even jealousy. Surely, I thought, it was unfounded, and tech would ultimately triumph over its detractors.
I no longer believe this. I’ve lost my faith in the industry, and with it, any desire to remain within it. All the perks in the world can’t make up for what tech has become: morally destitute, mired in egotism and self-delusion, an aborted promise of what it could have been. Now that I realise this, I can’t go back.
This inquiry, based on my personal experiences, is an attempt to explain why I left, and in the process shed some light on the technical and political composition of the industry.
In the beginning
I started building websites at the age of 12, probably due to having way too much time alone on a computer as a child. I was soon hooked on what I saw as the promise of the internet: the possibility of a new world beyond my computer screen, which seemed much more interesting than the real-life world around me. I spent a colossal amount of time on the internet during my teenage years, either steeping in its culture in places like 4chan and Reddit and bash.org or building my own websites. Back then, the internet was my saviour; it connected me to a larger community of like-minded people, held together by the twin strands of real-world alienation and shared competence with computers.
Those were heady days. My heroes were people I thought of as the pioneers of the internet, people like Neal Stephenson and Paul Graham and Eric S. Raymond whose writing on hacker culture made me feel like I was part of something bigger, something exciting. One post that particularly resonated with me was Jeff Atwood’s 2007 piece The Two Types of Programmers, which asserted that most – 80% – of all programmers working in the industry aren’t actually very talented, but if you’re one of the lucky few reading this post, then you’re probably in the talented 20%. It’s hard to overstate the role that sort of ideology had on me, and probably countless others, in developing my worldview. All these brilliant and successful people were whispering to me through their writing, telling me that I was special, that I was capable, that I was just intrinsically better than those who didn’t have computer skills. And that if I kept developing these skills, I would be justly rewarded for my efforts.
Don’t be evil
So I plunged headfirst into tech. I started an undergraduate degree in computer science, and spent my free time working on whatever software development projects piqued my interest. When I got an internship offer from Google, in my third year of university, it felt like that reward was finally in sight.
In the summer of 2013, I interned as a software engineer in Google’s San Francisco office. My job was to maintain a web application for the capacity planning team, in order to help Google forecast demand for new servers. The code itself involved technologies that were either already familiar to me, or sufficiently documented, and so I didn’t have much trouble getting up to speed. By the end of the first day – which consisted mostly of independent, self-directed exploration of the codebase – I had grasped enough of the architecture to be able to make my own changes.
The highlight of the job was the level of autonomy involved. On a typical day, I would get in to work around 9:30 – just in time to catch the end of the catered breakfast – and get to my desk around 10. Once there, I would spend anywhere between 15 minutes to an hour catching up on everything I’d missed: email, Facebook, Twitter, internal social networks. The work itself was never interesting enough that I ever felt an urge to work on it as soon as I got in, and I was confident enough in my ability to get it done that I wasn’t worried about being reprimanded for not working more efficiently. Every once in a while, I’d have a one-on-one meeting with my boss to frame my progress in management-speak (in terms of KPIs and OKRs), but it was generally very hands-off; I was trusted to work on the list of outstanding features with minimal superversion.
The actual technical environment was neither especially challenging nor trivial. In fact, it wasn’t that different from what I would have encountered when working on my personal side projects. The real challenge was that the work itself just felt so meaningless. With my personal projects, I actually cared about what I was working on, whereas at Google, I was only working because the company was paying me to. In Marxist terms, I was alienated from my labour: forced to think about a problem I didn’t personally have a stake in, in a very typically corporate environment that drained all the motivation out of me. I remember thinking: is this it? Is this what my life will be like if I come back full-time? Is this really what I have to look forward to?
Google was supposed to be the goal, the reward people worked so hard for. And on the surface, it was everything you could have asked for: lots of autonomy, excellent compensation, a workspace that caters to your every need. So why did it feel so empty?
When I talked to other interns about this, the conversations never got very far. We’d concur that the work was kind of dull, and tentatively wonder if there was something better: maybe a different team within Google, or just a different company in the tech industry. Never did we connect our shared malaise to structural issues with the industry itself; it was much more natural to turn inward, and ask ourselves if our unhappiness was the result of personal failings, a symptom of just not being cut out for the industry.
When I got my offer to return full-time after graduating, part of me didn’t want to take it, because I thought there must be something better, this can’t be it. This what can’t be what I’ve worked so hard for.
But I couldn’t find anything else.
So I resigned myself to it. And because I had nothing else to be inspired by, I focused on the material aspects. At the time, the standard Google software engineer salary for new university graduates in the Bay Area was estimated at $143,000 USD in total compensation: $100,000 base, $15,000 projected bonus, and over $100,000 worth of stock which would vest over 4 years. I calculated how much I would get in each paycheck and, months before even graduating, started budgeting for vacations and luxury purchases and nights out. After all, why not? What else was I supposed to look forward to, except mindless consumption? Wasn’t that the whole point of making that much money? Wasn’t that what drove people to work so hard in the first place?
A way out?
I never made it back to Google. Uninspired, despairing of a future that looked so hollow, I spent most of my last year at university looking for alternatives, a way to escape the barren path I saw in front of me. Eventually, I found such an escape – at least a temporary one – through startups.
It was at a hackathon that I first worked with some classmates who would eventually become my co-founders, during one sleep-deprived weekend at the University of Pennsylvania that culminated in us building a web app together. Even though the project was summarily abandoned, the buzz of working on a technical challenge with friends was enough of a high to get me seriously considering turning down Google to do a startup instead. I wanted to extend the hackathon spirit beyond that one weekend, as a way of avoiding the existential dread I associated with a full-time job at Google.
For a while, it worked. The first summer of that startup became one giant hackathon, a blur of late nights and empty coffee cups in the living room of my cofounder’s apartment. I remember being so intently focused on my laptop screen until the small hours of the morning, so utterly consumed by the esoteric technical challenges at hand that I didn’t want to sleep even though I knew I needed to, that I didn’t even care about the fact that we were working in an apartment filled with ants which my cofounder once misguidedly tried to kill with laundry detergent. The high I felt every time I overcame another technical barrier. Feeling like we were some sort of visionaries, building something so new, so exciting, that it was the only thing that mattered.
It took us over a year before we had a product that we could actually sell to anyone, and the revenue from our first sale was a grand total of $125. Even then, though, we stubbornly maintained our entrepreneurial hubris. We talked disparagingly about companies that only had $10 million in annual revenue – why even bother if you’re not going to aim bigger?; we scornfully turned down acquisition offers; we scoped out competitors with bigger teams and proven track records and decided we could beat them. We were a bunch of kids in an ant-ridden apartment with barely any funding and no clue what we were doing, and yet during the highs we really thought that our breakthrough was just around the corner.
The highs rarely lasted very long. In the lows, when deals kept falling through and we were embroiled in interminable cofounder arguments and we still couldn’t get rid of the endless ants, there were so many times that we almost gave up. I think the only thing that stopped us was the lack of any real alternative. We had thoroughly bought into the startup myth that starting a successful company is the only thing worth doing with your life. As a result, we had no real exit strategy; every way out just felt like failure.
So we stuck with it, even when we had to change our entire revenue model and thus lost any pretense of telos. Although we had originally envisioned ourselves as data science startup, it soon became clear that the only profitable avenue was to become an advertising technology startup, selling consumer data to help companies market their products more efficiently. We went to marketing technology conferences in which we forced ourselves to network with people we despised, people in shiny suits and branded lanyards talking about CAC and LTV and NDAs. Our days became a monotonous blend of 3-letter acronyms and sales decks and meetings with people who didn’t want to be there any more than we did.
Underneath it all was a desperate yearning for our startup to mean something. We needed all the stress and supplication and 80 hour weeks to be part of the heroic arc of our own entrepreneurship journey, so that one day we would look back on it all and say that it was worth it. After all, all the real entrepreneurs we knew had gone through the same route; we just had to work harder, and eventually we’d look back on all the hard times we’d endured and everything would finally make sense.
No way out
The worst trap is when you don’t realise that you’re trapped. We were our own bosses – not only did we own the means of production, we sort of were the means of production – and so we thought were free, certainly freer than our regularly-employed friends who were chained to their 9-5. Really, though, we were trapped by our own obstinacy, by our conviction that startups were the path to some sort of greater salvation. We were suffocating in this bubble where nothing seemed more important than our company, and because we were constantly facing existential threats, we were always in crisis mode, always fighting for air. We couldn’t afford to take the time to stop and think about why we were doing it in the first place.
I don’t remember exactly when it finally changed for me, or why. I just know that at a certain point, I decided that the startup dream I’d been chasing was bullshit and that I couldn’t bear to waste another second of my life on it. That just because I’d poured years of my life into my startup didn’t mean my efforts were intrinsically worthwhile. That there could be more to life than the continual pursuit of self-aggrandizement.
Eventually, this world stopped feeling like something I could be proud of. My faith in the overall goodness of the tech industry, already shaken by a cold hard look inside the world of advertising technology, had drowned, deluged by the futility of my own startup. I would read about people my age and younger raising millions of dollars for their hare-brained startup ideas and where I might have once felt envy, I could only feel disgust.
And I began to see the monstrosity lurking at the heart of the industry. Underneath the veneer of innovation and shininess and platitudes about making the world a better place is nothing but decay, a black wave of rot and regret. There’s something grotesque in such an inefficient allocation of resources: all this money trickling down from central banks to VCs to startup founders instead of addressing poverty or funding public services. All this money going towards renting exposed-brick offices in SoMa and creating landfill-destined branded startup t-shirts, just so that some clueless kids drunk on the startup Kool-Aid can delude themselves into thinking they’re making the world a better place for a few years.
Because it is a delusion, at least for the overwhelming majority. Even if you start out wanting to produce social value, you’ll soon come up against the structural incentives of the industry: startups tend not to get funded unless they’re rapacious, and so you’ll end up continually tweaking your business model in order to appease investors who expect massive returns.
And soon enough, you’ve become an empty husk trudging along Sand Hill Road, inserting ever more ambitious and less socially useful goals into your pitch deck. You’ll resign yourself to the fact that you’re not even that excited about your startup idea anymore, but that’s okay, because once you sell this one you’ll finally have the cachet to do what you really want, even if you haven’t quite figured that out yet. For now, though, you’re going to give it a shot with your e-commerce or blockchain or adtech “play”.
As if it’s a game. Because, after all, it sort of is, if you’re a founder with the right connections. There are no real consequences to failure. If your startup runs out of money, or you have to sell for less than you raised, rest assured because you’ll probably be able to raise more money in the future. As long as you have a half-decent slide deck and fit some rich person’s preconceived notions of a good founder, you’ll never have to get a real job; your material needs will be taken care of by the Silicon Valley Basic Income.
The rank and file
The wealth dynamics behind startups – the early stages of tech companies – are still present when these companies succeed and grow to the scale of Facebook and Google. Although founders and employees experience different material conditions, the outcomes are the same: they all spend their days thinking of ways to increase profits for a parasitical corporation. Employees, though, have less power over their own circumstances, trapped as they are by the golden handcuffs of stock grants and dangled raises. Someone who’s worked at a place like Google in Silicon Valley can, after a couple of years, draw over $300,000 USD annually in total compensation. How do you walk away from that? When you’re submerged in a culture that values you primarily based on how much capital you can accumulate, how do you step away from something so manifestly rewarding?
Compounding the problem is the link between the material rewards and the idea of merit. Silicon Valley is brimming with the belief that those who make so much money must somehow deserve it, because they workedfor it, in a weird revenge-of-the-nerds-type scenario. That’s the whole function of the “meritocracy” ethos within the industry: to justify the existing distribution of wealth and power, no matter how extreme. After all, software developers aren’t driven by solely by money; they’re just doing what they love, and if they happen to be well-compensated in the process, they’d earned it by dint of their hard work and skill.
It’s painful, for me, to see things twisted this way. Because there really is something wonderful about being able to manipulate technology, an exhilarating intoxication when it’s just you versus the machine. That “aha!” moment when things finally click and it’s like you’ve unlocked the secrets of the cosmos. You feel like a kind of god, sometimes.
And that feeling is great, and more people should have the opportunity to master technology in that way. But technical expertise has morphed into a filter, an excuse for justifying existing patterns of inequality. Those who are on the top clearly just deserve to be so, by fiat; there’s no room to question the validity of the system.
What’s especially dangerous about the glorification of the brilliant technical worker is how it obscures the very real exploitation going on beneath the surface. These highly-paid technical employees, producing intellectual property, find their dialectical opposite in the low-paid employees who provide the material foundations for the company’s success. Similar to how women’s domestic work was (and still often is) invisible, this work is often done by contractors working under punishing conditions. Facebook has its army of moderators in the Philippines; Apple has its assemblers at Foxconn; Uber has its drivers; Deliveroo has its riders; Amazon has its warehouse workers. And all of these tech companies have the staff that directly caters to the highly-paid employees: cleaners, chefs, baristas, security guards.
There’s a clever strategy at work here, behind the scenes. This is cognitive capitalism’s answer to the labour-capital crisis of the 70s, in which workers were able to attain enough leverage over key points in order to seriously disrupt production and thus exact concessions from capital in terms of better wages or working conditions. The trick here is to bifurcate labour. First, identify the workers who can contribute directly to the intangible assets and thus could potentially have leverage over production, and treat them really well. Pay them well, of course, with a high base salary and stock grants that refresh every year, but also provide them with free food, private buses, and lavish parties at San Francisco’s City Hall. Make them feel valued and special and like they’re part of something important.
In short, do whatever it takes to ensure they have no reason to organise.
This is how these companies get away with treating a subset of their workers so badly: these workers rarely amass enough company-specific knowledge or access to have any significant bargaining power, and thus easily are replaced. The ones who do have leverage, on the other hand, you can count on to be sheepishly loyal to the corporations on account of their paychecks and the free office La Croix.
Whether or not that’s a deliberate strategy is debatable; your typical hiring manager is unlikely to be this class-conscious. The point is that it works. It has, at least so far, been an extremely successful method for preventing too much of a Polanyi-esque double movement. Thus these companies owe part of their continued success to their ability to contain labour through strategic stratification.
Tech workers of the world
It doesn’t have to be this way, though. In recent years, we’ve seen the rise of movements to organise tech workers by building solidarity between high- and low-paid workers. This could be a potent combination: highly-paid workers at crucial production points have so much collective leverage and could demand better conditions for their less well-paid peers, or call for more ethical business practices.
The challenge is to get those on top to see that, to see the extent of their collective power and thus responsibility. It’s to get these well-paid and well-treated workers to realise that they are still workers and, moreover, human beings, whose interests won’t always be aligned with the interests of the corporation they work for. It’s to get them to take a sort of cognitive leap, from seeing the world as mostly fine and just trying to take their place in it, to realising how flawed it is and resolving to do their best to fix it, bit by bit.
This article was originally published in January, 2018, in the first issue of Notes from Below. Wendy Liu is a software developer who, after working at Google, became a startup founder herself, but then (self-procaimedly) “recovered” and now wants to “abolish Silicon Valley”. She is co-editor of the New Socialist and Notes from Below and currently pursuing a M.Sc. in Inequality at LSE.