The Cyberflâneur #33: Wendy Liu

Wendy Liu is a software developer, former start-up founder and author. In her own words, today she writes mostly “about the horrors of Silicon Valley and why tech workers need to organise”. Her first and recently published book, Abolish Silicon Valley: How to Liberate Technology From Capitalism, offers a searing critique of the tech industry from an insider’s perspective.

Wendy has delved into our stack and selected 10 excellent pieces. You’ll learn more about the tech worker movement, data rentiership and the false promises of freedom in the gig economy.

Wendy’s bio and Twitter.

An comprehensive (almost intimidatingly so) repository of knowledge and ideas.

– Wendy Liu on The Syllabus

~ Evgeny Morozov

A recent interview with Wendy about her new book.

Wendy’s Selections

I.

The Problem of Innovation in Technoscientific Capitalism: Data Rentiership and the Policy Implications of Turning Personal Digital Data into a Private Asset

The author argues that under contemporary capitalism, innovation has become as much a financial process as it is a technical one. Today’s ‘innovation’ is driven increasingly by the need to provide returns to capital, resulting in a banal, IP-backed rentiership, rather than the creation of socially useful products. Until we manage to disentangle innovation from finance, innovation itself may be the problem.


II.

False Freedom: Sharing the Scraps from the Perilous Gig Economy

A coldly infuriating excerpt from Steven Greenhouse’s recent book Beaten Down, Worked Up, featuring the stories of gig workers whose promised ‘freedom’ turns out to be a false one. Sprinkled throughout are quotes from one gig economy CEO, who congratulates himself for offering ‘opportunities to people who never would have had them before’.


III.

The Uberisation of Work: the Challenge of Regulating Platform Capitalism. A Commentary

This recent addition to the growing gig economy literature provides useful historical context in arguing that the problems of the sector must be tackled ‘from above as well as below’.


IV.

Worker-Owned Apps Are Trying to Fix the Gig Economy’s Exploitation

Fed up with the depredations of the venture capital model? Platform cooperativism offers a powerful alternative vision where goods and services are produced to serve the community, rather than the interests of faraway shareholders.


V.

Shifting Capitalist Critiques: the Discourse about Unionisation in the Hi-Tech Sector

A must-read for anyone interested in labor organizing in the high-tech sector, with anonymous stories that double as practical advice for overcoming anti-union sentiment. I also enjoyed this paper’s from-first-principles explanation of capitalism’s ideological legitimation mechanisms, drawing on the work of Luc Boltanski.


VI.

Capitalism, Technology and Work: Interrogating the Tipping Point Thesis

A thought-provoking academic critique of post-work politics. I don’t fully agree with the author’s description of his interlocutors’ positions, which I believe are more nuanced than he allows, but this paper is a helpful primer on the topic that reminds us to be skeptical of the hype around automation.


VII.

Construction Workers and the Gig Economy

Something that bears repeating: the gig economy is not new! Many industries rely on worker misclassification, as this deep dive into East Coast construction workers shows us. What’s special about Uber/Lyft/Deliveroo/etc is that their technology enables them to scale up quickly, and their ample VC funding allows them to reframe exploitation as innovation.


VIII.

The Robots Won’t Steal Your Jobs, it Will Be Worse than That [$]

A short piece which highlights the immorality of investing in automation technology so that more and more workers are consigned to poorly-paid drudgery while a lucky few reap the profits. Robots are nice and all, but maybe we should fix our socioeconomic system first?


IX.

The Making of the Tech Worker Movement

I’m a fan of basically anything Ben Tarnoff writes, and his chronicle of the tech worker organizing movement is no exception. I’ve found the organizing of recent years to be massively inspiring, and I hope to see more solidarity between workers in different strata of the industry in the years to come.


X.

Worker Surveillance Is on the Rise, and Has Its Roots in Centuries of Racism

A reminder that workplace surveillance, as an extension of capital’s unjust power over individuals, is a matter of human rights.


More by Wendy Liu – from our Stacks

Our archive of high-quality content across text, video and audio – our “Living Syllabus” – has already reached over 25,000 items and grows larger every week.

Here are some recent pieces by or featuring Wendy from those archives:

Other Cyberflâneurs

We’ve featured many fantastic individuals in this series: artists, musicians, academics, writers, journalists, politicians, and more. For the full list and to browse their selections.

A handful of our contributors so far:

 

  • Kaiser Kuo – Writer, Musician, Podcaster
  • Li Andersson – Finland’s Minister of Education and the Chairperson of the Left Alliance party
  • Ivan Krastev – Chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Fellow at the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna
  • Fabrizio Barca – Italian Politician, founder of Forum on Inequality and Diversity

More About our Cyberflâneur Series

To learn more about how this particularly eclectic edition of our syllabi works. Note that if you subscribe to any of our weekly syllabi, we’ll keep you posted on our latest cyberflâneurs too. Our subscribers also get a monthly Highlights From the Cyberflâneur edition.

If you’d like to propose a candidate for this series, please use this simple form.

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