We were always told that the internet would bring about a new era, one marked by dynamism, entrepreneurship, and innovation. And if you look at the numbers, the economic contribution of the tech sector speaks for itself. As of 2021, a Harvard Business School study found, the American internet economy accounted for twelve percent of the nation’s GDP and had grown seven times faster than the rest of the economy since 2017. Tech companies leading the industry have become some of the most valued and profitable companies ever to exist.
I experienced the internet boom firsthand. I studied computer science at a time when my university’s department seemed to be doubling in size each year. When I started college, the recruiters mainly came from banking and consulting. By the time I graduated, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft — where I ended up working — had taken the top spots. In 2014, I was part of the fourth cohort of HackNY, a summer program intended to divert talent from banking to tech and, as the slogan went, “save kids from the Street” — Wall Street, that is. Started by Chris Wiggins and Evan Korth, both STEM professors at elite universities in New York, and Hilary Mason, a data scientist, the program ran hackathons and offered young computer scientists coveted internships at the most sought-after startups in the city. HackNY also had a distinct ideology: the founders saw banking as an extractive and unproductive industry; by contrast, internet companies produced “concrete economic value.”
I, like others in the program, chugged the Kool-Aid. We were all given free housing in NYU dorms. On a typical day, we would each run off to our internships — mine was with Buzzfeed’s engineering team — and then come back to hang out with each other in the dorm lounges, often spending our spare time working on other hacks: contributing to an open-source project, creating a Twitter bot, or building web or mobile applications like a New York pizza-shop picker that helped people decide where to buy a slice. To build — and it didn’t seem to matter what — was our mantra. Our creations, we were told, were valuable. You could see and interact with them in a browser or on your phone. Sometimes they could even influence how you behaved in the physical world. Unlike the bankers who sold scammy financial products and made fortunes without creating anything concrete, we — software engineers — were producing real value.
But today I can see that value is not such a simple concept. In the current economic paradigm, higher price tags translate to greater value; value is not only realized in the market, but appears to originate there as well. Because software can be replicated countless times, its worth is also infinitely replicable. Without having to do any additional work, for example, Adobe can continue to charge new users for Photoshop subscriptions. Internet platforms, likewise, can provide their product to consumers with only marginal added costs. Their value stems directly from their number of users — a phenomenon known as the “network effect.” The bigger the scale, the greater the value.
If this is how we understand value, then the internet sector, like finance, profits without production. In Marx’s framing, productive labor increases the size of the economic pie, while unproductive labor merely changes distribution within it. The HackNY version of myself wholeheartedly believed that the internet’s economic value was productive, that it would open a new era of economic possibilities that would be genuinely democratic. Today, as the tech sector faces its toughest year since the dot-com bust, the unproductive aspects of the internet have become more apparent. For me, firms like Google and Meta have been exposed for what they’ve always been — advertising companies. Monopoly practices have become the norm, allowing those at the top to raise fees for their users. Meanwhile, tech workers are being laid off en masse. At best, the internet functions as privatized infrastructure for the service-work boom: an industry premised on one person (a worker) doing something for another (an elite), whether driving or shopping for groceries. At worst, the internet has followed in the footsteps of the financial sector.
As the current structure of the internet economy runs out of steam, the question of where capital turns to next is on everyone’s mind. Will it double down on a more encompassing internet, as Mark Zuckerberg is doing with the metaverse? Or will it move to other fields like biotech or autonomous driving? No matter the destination, its new agents will probably act as if they — in contrast to those working in the extractive and unproductive industries of finance and tech — are the ones who can finally do something productive. We didn’t need HackNY to save the kids from the Street, and we won’t need a new program to save the kids from the Valley. What we need is to reckon with the possibility that our concept of value can disguise extractive activities as economic growth, which only serves to distribute wealth to the top.
JS Tan is a PhD candidate at MIT studying the political economy of the tech industry in the U.S. and China. He is also a former tech worker and a member of Collective Action in Tech, a group which aims to advance the tech labor movement.