Originally posted on i-D
A new book by Wendy Liu, Abolish Silicon Valley, suggests that the utopian dreams of the tech industry might not be able they’re cracked up to be.
There’s research which suggests that the majority of gen Z aspire to work in the tech industry. And while several studies indicate that one of the top digital career aspirations for young people is ‘YouTuber’ — enraging the ‘disgruntled middle-aged man’ community — traditional tech jobs are topping polls too.
Anonymous company reviewing site Glassdoor reports that the highest percentage of gen Z applications in the U.S. between 1 October, 2018 and 11 January, 2019 were for positions in tech. During this period, software engineer was the single most coveted role, accounting for 19 percent of all job applications.
It’s not surprising, when you think about it. So ingrained in us is the idea software engineering is useful that “learn to code!” has become a meme, most commonly used to taunt journalists who’ve just been made redundant. Last December, presidential candidate Joe Biden was widely mocked for suggesting that the inhabitants of a depressed mining town should learn computer programming.
But the gap between our society’s aspirations and the realities of the available employment is growing wider. While the majority of gen Z are still to enter into the job market, those that have are more likely to work in low-paid, low-skilled and precarious jobs, with an increase in part-time and agency work. The tech industry, for all its successes, has failed to guarantee affluence to all but a privileged few. No one knows this more than Wendy Liu, author of Abolish Silicon Valley: How to Liberate Technology from Capitalism, a forthcoming book which is part poignant coming-of-age memoir and part incisive polemic against what is now the most powerful industry in the world — all told from the perspective of a former Google intern and start-up founder.
“As you can see in the dominance of apps like Uber, Deliveroo and Fiverr, work is becoming increasingly more casual. It’s becoming normalised for workers to be freelance contractors instead of proper employees, suffering from fewer benefits and less job security.”
Technology is changing what work means for everyone. The bad news for gen Z is that some of the negative trends which are already in place look only set to get worse. As you can see in the dominance of apps like Uber, Deliveroo and Fiverr, work is becoming increasingly more casual. It’s becoming normalised for workers to be freelance contractors instead of proper employees, suffering from fewer benefits and less job security. Sure, some people like the flexibility which the gig economy affords, but this isn’t so great if you get sick or pregnant, feel like taking a holiday, or ever want to retire. Regardless of your preference, this is the direction of travel for work.
“To contextualise this,” says Wendy, “I don’t think Silicon Valley or any tech company is responsible for this problem. They’re just latching onto an existing economic environment where jobs are being split into two groups: you have those which are still very prestigious (tech, finance, that sort of thing) and then you have all the other ones which are increasingly becoming more precarious.” Tech used to be exempt from this ‘prestigious vs precarious’ dichotomy, but this is no longer the case. “We’re already seeing signs that even the glorified tech companies like Google, which have a stellar reputation for being employer-friendly, are already acting in ways that are anti-worker.”
It’s always been the case that the big tech companies didn’t treat their cafeteria staff or security guards particularly well. Now, this poor treatment is now being extended to people in white-collar roles — the coders, product managers and content creators who had previously been immune. “All of these companies have started using contractors,” says Wendy, “and it seems like a lot of them are abusing the contractor-employee distinction to create this huge workforce of contract workers who don’t have the same benefits, wages or job security as their colleagues. These people are treated as second-class citizens within the company.”
For decades now, STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) have been considered by far the most reliable course of study if you want to make money. But humanities students might just get the last laugh: the more people who study STEM subjects with the goal of working in tech, the wider the pool of potential employees is, and the less incentive corporations have to treat their employees well. This could become particularly true if coding becomes automatable, which is likely. ‘Learn to code!’ only works as advice if coding is a rare and sought-after skill; if lots of people can do it (and more people are learning) then, obviously, this is no longer the case. And it’s definitely not the case if robots figure out how to do it. So you might want to study History of Art after all.
“I don’t want to crush anyone’s dreams but at the same time, it’s important to realise that the industry is not set up to help people realise their ambitions.”
In the book, Wendy writes about the lavish treatment she receives while interning at Google (luxury apartment, free food and booze, all manner of kooky expeditions) but it seems like the days of tech companies throwing money at nerdy graduates might be coming to an end. “There’s a growing interest in working in tech but it’s actually quite hard to get a job that’s well-paid and well-regarded,” Wendy says. “I think we’re going to see more of this. These companies aren’t benevolent: as more and more people want to work in tech, they’re not just going to be like, ‘oh great, all these people — we’ll give them amazing benefits to welcome them!’ They’re cynical; they have to be. They’re going to pay as little as they can get away with.”
The standard narrative around gen Z is that they’re politically engaged, which developed partly due to the prominence of activists like gun control campaigners Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg, and environmentalist superstar Greta Thunberg. According to the LA Times, gen Z is “dedicated to public action and public service” and “comprised of bold and original thinkers.” Sadly, these are not qualities which make someone well-suited to the tech industry. According to Wendy, it’s very difficult to stay true to your morality while advancing your career. “It’s kind of sad,” she says, “I don’t want to crush anyone’s dreams but at the same time, it’s important to realise that the industry is not set up to help people realise their ambitions. If you look at the companies that are getting funded right now, most of the money is not going towards things that we would think of as social good.
“Most new start-ups are a sort of rent extraction service”, she continues. “What was WeWork, except a way to grab all this land and then extract rent from workers? Young people who are optimistic about being able to build a start-up that is geared towards social good will, I think, find that this industry doesn’t care about that. It only cares about making returns, and the easiest way to do that is to not give a shit about other people, even though the tech industry is very good at using the rhetoric of social entrepreneurship and liberation.”
For a long time, the tech industry has been held up as an example of innovative, or even progressive capitalism, with breathless techno-utopianists espousing the idea that we can innovate our way out of the problems we face, from ecological catastrophe to rising global inequality. But this kind of blind optimism is looking increasingly unfounded. So how hopeful should we be that things might change? “As to whether the bubble has burst, I don’t really know,” says Wendy. “It’s very clear that there was too much money pumped into the ecosystem, into start-ups which didn’t really have sound economics and also were not really creating useful products. In the wake of Theranos (a $9 billion-valued medical technology start-up which was exposed as a scam), in the wake of WeWork, the tech industry has lost a lot of its lustre. At the same time, this has been happening for a while — it’s not like Theranos was the first company that raised a lot of money and went under. This happened in the first dotcom bubble and bust, in the 2000s. The industry is stronger than ever.”
But the outlook isn’t entirely bleak. Yes, the industry is designed in a very certain way, but Wendy believes that gen Z have the potential to rise to the challenge and help to create a more humane tech industry. After all, baby boomers and millennials will be gone one day. “I hope that more young people go into the industry with a desire to not only become good programmers but also to try to change the political status quo. It’s not easy but it is possible. In fact, it’s not only possible. It’s necessary.”
Abolish Silicon Valley: How to Liberate Technology from Capitalism will be published by Repeater Books on the 14th of April.