Kier Kirby interviews Paul Biggar

KK: On the 14th December 2023 you wrote a blog post titled, ‘I can’t sleep’ that’s been shared widely, especially on LinkedIn, and I think it’s fair to say it took many by surprise. Not only because you catalogue in detail the atrocities perpetrated by Israel against civilians in Gaza, but mainly because of who you are – a well known senior voice within the tech world of Silicon Valley – and because of what you asked your readers to do at end of you article – work to boycott organisations, workplaces and venture capital funders who help support Israeli genocide. I think this is the first time that I can remember seeing anyone in tech make such a public and unambiguous appeal directly aimed at the tech workers themselves. Obviously this is great to hear from such a high profile figure working in Silicon Valley  – and doubly notable for how rare an event this was. For that reason I’d like to ask you to speak more about you, your politics, what brought you to write your blog article and tell the reader what’s happened since you published your blog back in December 2023.

PB: So I suppose to start with I’m Irish. We’re generally a leftish country,  a socialist-ish country. I would say that I was certainly the capitalist side of it growing up: I believe in startups and entrepreneurship and that sort of thing. And I went to Silicon Valley as I was very influenced by Paul Graham, who is definitely a capitalist and very much of the view that activism is a load of bullshit and instead you should focus on making a tech-startup to change the world.

While it was true that when I arrived in Silicon Valley I still believed some of that, certainly over time spent living in Silicon Valley I shifted my position. San Francisco is a very leftist place, you meet a lot of leftists and socially it is very left – it’s very pro-gay rights, pro-trans rights. If you live there a long time you start to hear a lot of voices concerned about how tech really hasn’t been good for the world in general and how tech has increased the gap between the rich and the poor.

While it’s true that tech has been very good for me financially, I recognise that for many others it’s been pretty shitty. One of the major turning points for me came in 2016 with the controversy of Peter Thiel, a hyper right wing, libertarian, Silicon Valley venture capitalist who gave the Trump Presidential campaign $1.5 million.  As Thiel was someone on the board of Facebook and a partner at Y-Combinator – a large startup incubator – people started to ask ‘is this okay?’

Influential tech personalities, including Sam Altman, now the head of OpenAI, were putting out statements like ‘you can’t kick someone out of the Valley for their politics’  – and I initially I agreed with this position. But I started reading the columns of people like Ellen Pao (CEO of Reddit at the time) who were saying ‘no, someone’s politics does matter’ , and as I read more I came across the idea of ‘safety’ and the idea of reducing harassment against groups of people online. And that really was like a shift in my thinking. I started to realise that many in Silicon Valley framed everything in terms of how the rich and successful experience the world, with zero concern for marginalised groups and the threats they experience to their daily existence.

I think I’ve been getting much more progressive since then  – progressive with a hint of capitalism, let’s say.

KK: Off the back of the success of your blog post it seems that a lot of people who work in tech and who share your horror at Israel’s actions made contact with you – shortly after you launched a new initiative called Tech for Palestine (TFP) in combination with many of those like-minded individual.  Can you talk a little about what TFP is and what your aspirations are for this new project?

PB: So our view of the world is that we are launching a bunch of experiments here at TFP and we will see what sticks. We’re not so much saying ‘here’s one product that will solve the situation in Gaza’  – what we’re attempting to do is create is a framework that we hope will spread, grow, and build new ideas in the future that can make a meaningful difference. For example, among the most popular ideas so far to come out of TFP is firstly October 7th Fact Check which is a research project coupled to an accessible and easy to search website to publish these fact checks against claims that the Israel government is making against the Palestinians in Gaza. They have found, for example, Israeli, American and British politicians lying, and US media companies that are either plagiarizing each other or copying and pasting directly from the Israeli hasbara fact sheets and misrepresenting these as ‘facts’. This site points to how and why many of these official pro-Israeli statements are false.

Another great ideas that’s recently launched is the Profile Pick Maker, which is something which takes your Twitter or social media avatar and puts a Palestinian flag around it. And I’m starting to see those everywhere which is a great way to communicate solidarity with Palestinians.  

Interestingly, those aren’t the things I would have predicted would be successful – so TFP is here to let us experiment and see what has the potential of being successful. So a sense of tech incubator, an accelerator, but of ideas that might help Palestinians in some way.

KK: There have been four or five major incursions into Gaza by Israel in the last 20 years that have caused thousands of civilian casualties.  I suppose the question would be, why TFP now, as opposed to in any of the other previous Israeli incursions?

PB: I think 7th October changed everything. Or perhaps the Israeli response to 7th October changed everything. The fact that Israel’s behaviour appears as this huge genocide, combined with the volume of the anti-Palestinian rhetoric, I think made it different. What really changed, or why I suppose I came into it this time, is because it was clear just how pro-Israel the US Tech sector was, and how they were shutting down the voices of those who were asking for very simple things like ‘don’t drop bombs on apartment buildings’.

And when you juxtapose dropping a bomb on an apartment building, or the killing of Refaat Alareer, a Palestinian academic and writer, with someone in your Twitter feed posting pro-Israel, pro-genocide content and talking points – what they call ‘hasbara’ or Israeli propaganda –  well, this really affected me.  

In truth, at the time, whilst I knew this content was very clearly disinformation, falsehoods and lies, I didn’t appreciate it was organised and coordinated. Then something sort of broke the spell of the official US-Israeli narrative for me: an article by Jack Paulson and Lee Fang called Inside the Pro-Israel Information War. It talked about how the Israeli government uses hasbara, how it was organised and how specifically it took down Paddy Cosgrave, who’s a pretty successful Irish CEO and how it attacked Paul Graham.

It was then that it sort of felt like a coordinated military operation, a true propaganda and misinformation war, and a war that’s being waged through tech. And the people that I know, and the people whose houses I’ve been to, that I’ve had dinner with – these are the same people who are fighting for the genocide?!  

KK: So I myself work in tech, specifically in cyber security, and I regularly come into contact with with Israeli companies. Whilst I never expected tech to inform me about Palestine I’ve been surprised how over the many years I’ve been working in tech just how unknowing and above all how un-curious my co-workers are about Israel’s complicity in the ongoing occupation of the Palestinian people. Probably worth highlighting that this wasn’t a position they shared when it came to demonising Russia and supporting Ukraine. Is my experience unique or do you do you think there’s something about tech workers themselves that makes them closed to showing empathy towards the Palestinians? Or do you think it’s just the power of the media that keeps people quiet in general?

PB: The media is part of it. And the narratives are shaped and controlled for us a lot of the time, whether it’s traditional media or social media. But I think that with tech in particular, like a founding principle of tech is that we know better than everyone else. And this is one of my major criticisms of Y Combinator and Paul Graham. It’s this idea that I term ‘engineers will inherit the earth’.

A generous interpretation of this logic goes ‘MBAs used to run things and so and now engineers should’. There’s a mindset in tech that we know better than everyone else and that everyone was doing things ‘wrong’ until we came along. You can see that in everything from Uber, Airbnb, Facebook etc. –  companies that ostensibly had interesting and useful products but once you take them to scale, get mass adoption, they create massive negative effects in the real world, such as the housing/rental crisis, or misinformation wars, or just incredible traffic, congestion and emissions. That’s before we even look at the rise of the gig economy off the back of these very same Silicon Valley tech platforms. But then of course, because you’re on that start-up tech treadmill, you have to keep it going, you have to grow to be successful – Uber has to go up in value every year to be successful or it will implode  – so they can’t just say ‘whoopsie, you know, time to stop this and reverse our strategy’ – this just can’t happen because of the way these start-ups are funded and need to grow to be sold and make the initial venture capital investors their returns.  

I also think that there is something just inherent to the values of Silicon Valley tech that we know better than everyone else – that starts at the top with millionaire CEOs, investors and founders but then goes all the way down to the workers as well. Workers in Silicon Valley are paid staggering amounts of money – a mid-level person at Facebook might be making $750k a year. These workers work and live in the same towns and cities as our friends and neighbours, someone who might be a teacher who’s only earning $50k a year. I think humans to a certain extent are predisposed to think that they alone caused their success or their lack of success. So when you compare yourself to others you’re like ‘oh, you know, I’m great!’. This mindset then bleeds into people’s politics too – so these tech workers believe that their views on Israel-Palestine are also better than this person who only makes $50k because I make 15 times as much money as they do.

KK: From where, I sit it feels like there are no political groups that are interested in the cause of the Palestinians that aren’t also intensely opposed to capitalism in almost all its shapes and forms. Does TFP share that view? And if so, how does that sit with the Silicon Valley tech worker who lives and breathes in a hyper capitalist world – surely this is going to confront them sooner or later?

PB: So we we are not in the business of ending capitalism, but not because we don’t believe that that would be a good thing. Currently we do not officially have an opinion about whether that is a good thing – we want to be a place where people who hate capitalism and love capitalism can work together to help. Part of how we think about the world is that we are here to change the minds of all workers in the US tech ecosystem about Israel’s behaviour. It’s true many of them already are anti-capitalist – there’s a lot more anti-capitalist tech workers than you’d expect, despite all of what we just said. We’re at the state where lots of activists work in tech because they simply can’t opt out of the system, of course.

Ultimately,  would not describe myself as an anti-capitalist. I very much understand the systemic nature of how all of this has gone and how capitalism is sort of the root cause of everything. I suppose the reason I wouldn’t say that I’m anti-capitalist is that I don’t have a clear path from where we are to something better. And it’s not that I haven’t heard of the values of socialism – I’m from a socialist country and in favour of many, many socialist things and I would like the US to be way more to the left, politically. But yeah, TFP is staying out of that particular debate for now partly because we are trying to target the middle ground where most tech workers sit.

So TFP avoids words that activists often use, even use correctly in my opinion, such as anti-capitalism or Zionism. We don’t use the word Zionism specifically because to the middle, it sounds antisemitic or it sounds one-sided. It’s a technical meaning of a particular thing – many people actually will happily say that they are Zionist and that they’re pro-Zionism or something like that. But to the middle, it may not have come across to them as the meaning we intend, so we try to stick to words like pro-Israeli. On a similar way we would avoid anti-capitalist topics, I suppose.

KK: Last question: I imagine you want Tech For Palestine to be an initiative that grows and is successful. For that to happen do you think it would be beneficial to start building bridges with already existing political organisations that do that work on the ground? People who aren’t technical, who perhaps do use words like Zionist and anti-capitalist, and do think that capitalism needs to end. Is that something that’s been discussed or that you’re open to?

PB: So our first product, we call collaborator matchmaking. And that is taking all of the mostly tech, but not entirely tech, volunteers who have come to our discord and connecting them with projects that need tech people. And those are sometimes on the ground in Palestine. Sometimes those are advocate groups. And in some cases they’re very small, in some cases they’re a little bit larger. So, for example, No Tech For Apartheid, which I suppose is a tech advocacy group, but they were recruiting from our discord. It was like, great, wonderful. We are building up those connections to people on the ground and to the broader advocacy. I spend a lot of my week just meeting these folks over Zoom, seeing how we can work together, seeing how we can help each other. I sort of see where your question is coming from a little bit, perhaps in that tech can be very sort of exclusionary and very elitist, perhaps. I would say that we are trying not to be that.

Our principal value is to not be jealous. The success of others in the space is our success. So when we meet activists or people who have initiatives and they tell us we want tech people, we say, come into the discord, tell people what you want. We have a forum for this, to ask volunteers. It doesn’t matter whether they keep doing that in our community or in their own community, whatever works for you. Similarly, we’ll happily launch partner projects, even if they’re not ours or if they’re not official. We just see things that have potential and we look at how our resources can help them. So we are very much trying to work, yes, with people who use words like Zionist and anti-capitalist as well.

KK: Thanks for your time Paul, really appreciate it. To conclude, where can we find Tech for Palestine and how do people get involved?

This is the link: https://techforpalestine.org/


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