Exploding Appendix Questionnaire: Wendy Liu

New Writers Series: Nick Hudson
February 28, 2020
Exploding Appendix Quarantine Hub (Online Meetings)
March 20, 2020
The Exploding Appendix Questionnaire is an ongoing data collecting exercise that, drawing upon divergent public figures from different intellectual disciplines and artistic practices, seeks to create an ongoing and ever-expanding map of ideas. Through this ever-expanding map of divergent views, we seek a kind of dialogue that, in both its overlaps and contradictions, creates a kind of hive-mind, which, in turn, helps contribute to the intellectual unfoldings of Exploding Appendix’s overall mission.
For the Exploding Appendix Questionnaire, we have asked some of our favourite intellectuals, activists, artists, creatives and commentators to contribute to a series of 11 generic questions. The same generic questions have been sent to everyone, and what you read below is one response to this.

 

1. Who are you and what do you do?
I’m Wendy Liu, author of Abolish Silicon Valley: How to Liberate Technology from Capitalism (out April 14 from Repeater Books). I’ve been writing critically about politics and the tech industry for the last couple of years, in the form of blog posts, magazine articles, and my forthcoming book.
Before that, I was a software engineer. I studied computer science & mathematics in university, did a software engineering internship at Google in San Francisco, and co-founded an advertising technology startup (I was CTO).
As you can probably guess from the title of my book, I’ve had a bit of a change of heart since then. After I sold my startup, I started a master’s degree on inequality at the London School of Economics, and from there plunged immediately into the world of political activism. These days, my focus is on writing critiques of the tech industry undergirded by a radical political framework.
2. What are your biggest influences in art, literature, music and cinema?
I should confess that I was a complete philistine for a long time. As a teenager, around the same time that I became obsessed with computers, I began to lose interest in everything outside the technical realm. The humanities seemed like a waste of time when I could have been improving my programming skills, or so I thought. I preferred to read books that had immediate use value: books about programming, or startups, or techno-utopian fantasies.
It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve started to pay serious attention to art – especially art that is critical of the status quo. So my current list of influences is a little scattered (it’s basically whatever I’ve come across recently).
Literature-wise, my lodestar will always be David Foster Wallace, as his work is the main reason I rediscovered my love of reading (and literary criticism) in the first place. Other assorted writers I like include Kafka (especially his short stories), Dostoevsky, Nabokov (I’m deathly envious of his way with words), Ursula K Le Guin, Sally Rooney, Rachel Kushner, Robert Hass. I’m also strongly influenced by the late cultural critic Mark Fisher, who was one of the founders of Repeater Books.
Art: I’ve been on an abstract kick lately, and I find myself especially drawn to the work of Wassily Kandinsky. Music: I’m ashamed to admit that I mostly listen to variations on the theme of “lofi beats”. Cinema: I’ve recently discovered Agnès Varda, and I can’t wait to see more of her work; in terms of more contemporary work, I’ve seen Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You” (2018) three separate times.
3. What, for you, is the purpose of art and culture?
For me, it’s a way to find joy in the act of being alive. Art has the ability to make us feel less alone; it can reveal to us new depths of the human experience; it helps us to believe, if only for a moment, that our shared existence can be meaningful. It gives us a reason not just to want to live, but to actively revel in the act of living.
4. What makes something subversive?
I think art is subversive if it is critical of the world in which it was produced. If art is a conduit for finding joy, then subversive art is art that reckons with the difficulties of actually achieving joy in the world as it currently exists. It has to involve some sort of critique of the status quo, whether it’s on a micro level or a macro one.
Perhaps tendentiously, I’d argue that art has to be at least somewhat subversive to be any good. There has to be some sort of distance between the world as the artist sees it, and the world as the artist wishes it were. I don’t think you can make meaningful art without that gap. Otherwise, it comes off as flat: shallow fan-fiction, or hollow corporate propaganda. In a time when there is so much that needs to be subverted, art that avoids questioning the status quo only reifies it.
Being subversive doesn’t necessarily mean being wholly negative or cynical or irony-poisoned or whatever. I think the best subversive art is rooted in the idea of joy – trying to reach towards it, while also grappling with the difficulties of attaining it within the confines of society as it exists now.
5. How would you approach the task of winning friends and influencing people?
When it comes to politics, I try to meet people where they are. I try to boil it down: what are their moral axioms, and how do they differ from mine? How do we find common ground?
But I also accept that I won’t be able to convince everyone through logic & reason alone. Everyone has different axioms, based on the summation of all the experiences they’ve ever lived through, and sometimes they’re just not compatible with mine. Maybe that’s where it’s important to understand, rather than merely seeking to influence & convince.
In general, I try to be nice to people, though that’s easier said than done when it comes to people who are actively hostile to my political views.
6. What does individual freedom mean to you?
It means the ability to make a return on your investments, which can only be upheld through a robust system for enforcing property rights.
Just kidding. It means not being subject to social structures that would oppress some for the benefit of others. In that sense, it’s more of a spectrum than a binary – there are degrees of freedom.
7. Is there, for you, a relationship between the personal and the political?
The political is always refracted through the personal. I don’t mean that in the sense that you have to personally experience something to be passionate about it. It’s more that what you choose to be passionate about depends on your personal orientation to it. It’s ultimately a matter of personal priorities, or moral instincts, or whatever you want to call it – what you care about. There is no political without the personal. Even the most rationally-minded political worldview is rooted in the irrational vicissitudes of personal morality.
That doesn’t mean that the personal is always political. You need an analytical framework that connects the personal to the mechanics of larger social structures.
8. What is the root of society’s problems?
The dominance of a socioeconomic system which enshrines the primacy of endless wealth accumulation in a way that restricts the individual freedom of billions of people while leading to negative social and environmental impacts. Call it capitalism, if you will.
Perhaps there are variants of capitalism that are less socially and environmentally destructive. But I’ve lost faith in the meagre promises of capitalism, and so I’d rather look toward more radical horizons.
9. Will technology liberate humankind?
Will technology save us all? Under the current system, it’s more likely to kill us all. I find it hard to be optimistic about the future of technology within the system as it is now, which selects for the development of technology that enriches a small number of shareholders at the expense of everybody else.
I don’t think that’s necessarily intrinsic to technology. We can’t overlook the importance of the larger structure in producing the kinds of technology we see around us today. I think if we want technology that liberates rather than dominates, we’ll need to see some kind of systemic rupture. To use Silicon Valley lingo, we’d need to pivot toward a more humane and reasonable socioeconomic system.
10. Do you have a vision for utopia?
I try not to think about utopia too much. I’m more concerned with our current dystopia. I don’t really know what things should be – all I know is that I don’t think they should be the way they are now.
11. Finally, where can people find more of your work?
My website is dellsystem.me, where you can find links to articles I’ve written and podcasts I’ve appeared on. You can also find me on Twitter, @dellsystem.