Jenny Odell and Wendy Liu on Liberating Ourselves From Usefulness
"I don't always need a purpose for everything."
As someone who grew up in Silicon Valley, I’m used to hearing two platitudes: either all tech is inherently evil, or tech will save us all. Either one seems to exempt this industry and its problems from the banal yet crushing capitalist ether in which the rest of the world exists. How refreshing, then, to read Wendy Liu’s Abolish Silicon Valley: How to Liberate Technology from Capitalism, where the answer turns out not to be more or less tech, but tech held transparently in common, as a tool.
Liu’s story—from her early experiences in open source software to heady startup-founding days to her disillusionment and foray into radical politics—is quite simply riveting, and clears the path toward understanding the root of the problem. The following is an email exchange I had with Liu, in part about the parallels between her book and my own, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy.
First, I just want to acknowledge that we’re writing to each other in a strange moment. I finished Abolish Silicon Valley a few weeks ago, before the lockdown here in the Bay Area—and as terrifying as this all is, the upending of business as usual brings into sharper focus something that I really love about your book. It’s such a compelling narrative of discovery, where you have all your assumptions about tech overturned, one after another, until you arrive at capitalism as the ineradicable root of the problem. Currently, as corporate bailouts, lack of worker protections, and medical supply price gouging are in the news—and a general sense of interruption throws everything into a new light—I feel like readers might recognize the sense of discovery you describe:
I was starting to feel like the very act of private enterprise was in fact stacked against workers. If this was the case, then the economic system that glorified private enterprise must also be reliant on the structural subjugation of workers. It hit me that the clue was in the name — capitalism was literally designed to prioritize the rights of capital over the rights of workers. I couldn’t believe it took me until I was nearly a quarter-century old to figure that out. (132)
The discovery feels real because of how brutally honest you are about your ways of thinking leading up to it, as someone who initially idolized startup culture. What was it like revisiting this saga from the beginning, and does it feel any different from within the current circumstances?
It’s a strange moment indeed. I started following the news out of China in January, back when my biggest concern was arranging my upcoming book launch. At the time, the stories seemed so distant, and so minor. Now, we’re all in lockdown, the entire system seems on the verge of collapse, and, of course, my book tour has been cancelled.
Everything’s been happening so quickly that it’s been hard to make sense of it all. I feel like I should be adjusting my priorities, but I don’t know how. This book, which I’ve been working on for the better part of the last year, suddenly feels so frivolous.
But of course we have to hope that there is a future beyond the horizon of our present emergency—that there’s a world to look forward to, and one worth fighting for. What else do we have? This crisis has been deepening the cruelties endemic to our economic system, and while I mostly feel powerless and worried, I also feel galvanized. Seeing the way the powerful have responded to this crisis (stock-dumping! corporate bailouts! laying off workers whose health insurance is tied to their job!) has, for me, wholeheartedly affirmed the importance of radical politics. So I’m trying to hold on to that. That’s what’s keeping me going, as a writer whose work is driven primarily by radical politics.
The current moment does feel quite similar to the political tumult of late 2016 that catalyzed my personal political awakening. The main difference is that I now feel like I have a better understanding of what’s happening. Back then, I was sad and angry, but mostly confused; now I’m just sad and angry. Of course, having an analysis isn’t the same as having power, but at least it comes with some sort of clarity. In 2016, it felt like my whole sense of self was slipping away; I was terrified that my entire identity had been built on false premises. Then, my anxiety was mostly inward-facing. Now it’s directed outward, at the system in which I find myself.
Retracing my steps, for the purpose of writing this book, was quite excruciating. I’m an incorrigible diarist, and reading my old diary entries from 2014–2016 was the lexical equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. Even now, I shudder to think about it. It’s like reading your teenage poetry. You’re just like, what was I thinking. But at least I’m here now.
What was your journey like? Reading the introduction to your book, I had a lovely feeling of familiarity:
I am not anti-technology […] Rather, I am opposed to the way that corporate platforms buy and sell our attention, as well as to designs and uses of technology that enshrine a narrow definition of productivity […] the villain here is not necessarily the Internet, or even the idea of social media; it is the invasive logic of commercial social media and its financial incentive to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy and distraction. (xii)
This chimes wonderfully with my own perspective, and it’s always nice to come across someone with a different background but similar political conclusions—someone on the same side of the theoretical barricade, if you will. How did you come to the political perspective you have now? What would you consider your biggest influences?
I had a similar reaction to the 2016 election, and for me that touched off what eventually turned into How to Do Nothing. But, like you, I have also always kept journals, and I’ve been surprised to see entries from 2013 (when I had only just gotten an iPhone!) where I sometimes write almost verbatim something that ended up in the book. Looking back on it, I ended up here by being interested in two things whose value systems are just so antithetical to capitalism: art and ecology. With art, you can already get a sense of the problem when you look at how the funding for arts and humanities fares under neoliberalism.
And then individually, there’s that special pain of making art and then having to articulate its value in crass terms of utility, decor, or investment. In so far as good art is (to borrow a term from Rebecca Solnit’s recent memoir) “a philosophical inquiry by other means,” it wants to critique the structure or explore the space around it. It’s inherently antagonistic to the status quo.
I also teach art to non-art majors, often engineering or product design students. So there’s the daily reality of having to articulate the value of art—especially conceptual stuff that may not even seem like art—to students who might be used to optimizable processes and right answers. In showing them examples of artworks that are “useless” according to a traditional (capitalist) system of value, I’m confronting the implicit question, “What is the purpose of this?” Trying earnestly to explain this different kind of purpose has left its mark on me. More generally, I just see the intense pressure the students are under and how the brutal logic of the “individual-as-entrepreneur” has so invaded what should be a space for reflection and exploration. Over the years I’ve become more concerned about it, part of the reason I dedicated my book to my students.
The other big influence was ecology, beginning with birdwatching in 2016. People think birdwatching is about bird ID, but at some point it becomes more about behavior, patterns, seasons, habitats, etc. You notice when there are fewer migratory ducks returning, or when they don’t show up at all. This interest or emotional investment in ecology leads pretty quickly to human impacts like habitat loss or contamination, and that leads you to the companies responsible, and the logic they’re using and timescales they’re operating on… and that leads you to seriously question what “efficiency” can possibly mean other than efficiently destroying all life on earth. As you put it at one point in your book, “Ecological damage isn’t necessarily a problem under market logic, either. What else can you possibly conclude when fossil fuel companies are valued under the assumption that their reserves will be entirely depleted, even though that would cause untold physical harm to the natural world?”
Ecology contains that same complexity that I appreciate in art, and that is always being flattened, thinned out, or eliminated altogether by the capitalist framework. I took inspiration from ecology in the way I wrote my book, trying to make something that couldn’t be reduced to an elevator pitch or easy self help. In your book, too, you’re up front that “[t]his is not a book with easy answers; I don’t have a twelve-step process for how to fix the myriad problems associated with the tech industry. The industry I want to see will require massive systemic changes, some outside the scope of what most of us can imagine today.” This work of imagination requires so much more patience than knee-jerk reactions or performative outrage, and it also demands more of us. In your work thus far, what are some of the ways you’ve found to bring people along for the journey?
The way you talk about art really resonates with me, both in the sense that it challenges the capitalist notion of “usefulness” and in the sense that good art is antagonistic to the status quo.
These are fairly recent revelations for me—not too long ago, I was the sort of person who would be skeptical of anything that didn’t seem to have a “purpose.” During my most fevered startup days, I felt like I had to optimize every second of my life in accordance with what would set myself up for success, whatever that meant. Any cultural products I allowed myself during that time were either consumed under conditions of extreme guilt, or rationalized on the grounds that they increased my productivity. It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve come to accept that I don’t always need a purpose for everything—that it’s okay to just revel in the musings of other human beings.
On ecology, I used to have a similarly reductive perspective, and it’s one that I’m actively trying to expand now that I’m aware of how limiting it is. Your book was very illuminating in that regard (I’ve also been very inspired by Richard Powers’ Overstory and the “Nature” issue of Logic Magazine). There’s a poignant passage in your book when you’re driving past a wildlife refuge by Highway 1, and, seeing a sudden flock of birds, you start thinking about
all the threatened spaces, all that stood to be lost, that was already being lost. […] my wish to preserve this space was also a self-preservation instinct, insofar as I needed spaces like this too […] It’s a bit like falling in love — that terrifying realization that your fate is linked to someone else’s, that you are no longer your own. (182–183)
There’s something about modern-day capitalism that seems inseparable from this idea of human dominion over nature. It’s as if human beings existed on a plane above the natural world, and so mankind’s destiny is to bend everything below us to our will. And if we somehow screw that up—if we accidentally damage this planet beyond repair—we can simply abscond into outer space and start anew. But that strikes me as a fairly unrealistic fantasy, not to mention a misguided one. Cutting ourselves off from the world in which we were forged seems less like an act of mastery and more like a massive loss, a tragedy.
When it comes to bringing people along for the journey, my strategy is to be critical without being only critical. Although the title of my book might suggest otherwise, my argument isn’t about castigating Silicon Valley in its entirety; I do try to acknowledge the good things about it. When critics don’t acknowledge those aspects, it’s easy for industry supporters to dismiss the criticism by assuming that the critics just don’t share their values. I’m very conscious of that, so I try to show that my criticism stems from a place of love. After all, Silicon Valley does occasionally offer a glimpse of something valuable, something better than what existed before. My argument is that there’s also quite a bit of bad that comes along for the ride, and that we can find a way to fix the bad while preserving the good.
Incidentally, while reading your email, I was presented, courtesy of Gmail, with the following list of suggested replies:
- Very interesting!
- This is great, thank you!
which is fitting in a way that’s both extremely funny and extremely depressing, given our topic of discussion. Silicon Valley is really quite good at treating every possible interaction as reducible to a set of data points to be fed into a machine learning program. I mean, if your sample set is large enough, you’ll eventually generate all the possibilities, right? Who even needs authors anymore. We could just have bots talking to bots.
Abolish Silicon Valley is available now from Repeater Books.