Wallace & Gromit and Silicon Valley late-capitalism

For quite a long time I couldn’t really articulate why I felt so frustrated watching Wallace and Gromit. As a young child, I would occasionally watch it on TV: a story about a quirky, green-pullover wearing inventor, and his highly-intelligent dog. A magnificent-looking clay animation produced by Aardman Animations, it definitely was an exciting thing to watch, especially at a time when 3D animations weren’t really a thing yet.

Being young and easily entertained, I would often chuckle and laugh at the slapstick comedy, usually accompanying Wallace’s failed inventions and his general clumsiness. But for some reason, as the story progressed in each film, I would grow more and more frustrated. Wallace’s pointless invention would once again backfire or not work properly, while Gromit, a silent character, was forced to help and amend the situation, often rescuing his owner who was most of the time oblivious to the fact.

A similar theme exists in the Inspector Gadget animated series, something I would also watch as a young boy: the main character, a cyborg detective with dozens of gadgets and attachments, would often end up in trouble, only to be rescued by his niece Penny and pet dog Brain. Penny would always be the person actually solving the crimes and defeating the bad guys with the help of Brain, unbeknownst to Gadget who would take all the credit (a medium for comedic effect but perhaps also an unintentional critique of women’s invisible labour?).

Both series had a similar effect on me. I would become impatient, irked by the behaviour of the main character. Why can’t he see all the help he’s getting? Why does he not realize his ideas and solutions are really poor, and they only work out in the end because they are propped up by work done by someone else? Why are other characters also oblivious to this? And finally, why is the main character getting all the praise and credit?

In recent years, I have exhibited a similar feeling of frustration when witnessing developments in the real world, namely the “innovations” of Silicon Valley late-capitalism.

Take the latest disaster story of Quibi. A short-lived streaming platform based around a “innovative” and utterly impractical idea of offering content that is only viewable on mobile devices. Despite many people voicing their concern about the viability of such a platform, the hubris of their two leaders Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman fuelled the pointless endeavour of making the idea a reality.

And just like Wallace’s pointless and overcomplicated contraptions, which attempted to solve simple problems in an over-convoluted manner, the $1.7 billion Rube Goldberg machine behind Quibi was launched into motion, only to quickly fail after the first couple steps.

Unsurprisingly, the project fell short of its subscriber projections and had to be closed down just over 6 months after it was launched, because, and there really isn’t a better way to put it: it was a shit idea. A shit idea and an impractical attempt at reinventing how people watch online media content.

Many people predicted this and warned Quibi, including their staff: people don’t like to be constrained; they have different preferred methods of watching content, and they only use their smart-phone if it happens to be their most or only convenient option at a time. People also like using their phones while watching TV. Despite these concerns, members of staff had to continue making this idea a reality with a smile on their face, perhaps silently hoping that their worries are unfounded.

Going back to 2019, we have the story of WeWork and its “extravagant” owner Adam Neumann. A company renting hip and attractive looking offices with free kombucha on tap, its own employees couldn’t believe that the business model actually works, but nonetheless, given the fact how much money was invested, they assumed that someone sensible, someone intelligent must be in charge.

They were wrong. Neumann was an extreme narcissist who had absolutely no idea what he was doing, had an incredibly naïve and even childish approach to doing business, and simply relied on his enormous confidence. Eventually, after the company’s profitability was looking rather poor, he was asked to step down.

Some of his employees compared their work to “herding cats”, managing chaos caused by their boss’ irresponsible and rash decisions. He was the “Wallace” confidently trying out crazy, impractical ideas, while the “Gromits” frantically ran around in the background making sure everything doesn’t end up in an utter disaster.

Despite his complete incompetence, Neumann, our “Wallace”, received over $1 billion for leaving the company, a completely extraordinary amount of money. At the same time, 3000 of the “Gromits” lost their jobs in the aftermath.

But this isn’t anything new. Uber, after many years, is yet to become a profitable company. This obviously didn’t stop its owners from becoming billionaires, however what’s actually powering this “innovation”, which at the end of the day is cheap rides you can order via an app, is the work of tens of thousands of precarious, low-paid gig-economy workers, who in most cases are not even employees and therefore have none of the protections that would normally be offered to them.

This theme repeats in many places. Wealthy Silicon Valley “ideas people” with the connections and means of securing investment come up with such “innovative” projects like reinventing a bus or privatizing water fountains, and once these initiatives reach their inevitable demise, postponed by the frantic work of their desperate employees, those “ideas people” are nearly always shielded from any responsibility. Quibi’s Meg Whitman is eyed by president-elect Biden for a cabinet slot. WeWork’s Neumann received a “golden parachute” studded with expensive diamonds. But their employees lose their jobs and livelihoods.

This shows a couple of important things. First, that the capitalist free-market being the most efficient allocator of resources is a myth, or to use Paul Kruger’s vernacular, a zombie idea — proven wrong time and time again, yet an idea still believed by many. So many times in the last couple of decades we have seen a lot of money thrown at really stupid Silicon Valley ideas, which then had to be pointlessly implemented by workers. You can feel some schadenfreude and enjoy the fact that rich capitalists are losing their money, but at the same time it’s quite crucial to notice the waste of resources and energy on initiatives not created to produce utility, but to produce profit.

Secondly, it clearly demonstrates the dominating power held by owners of capital, and power relations of capitalism in general. Gromit is Wallace’s pet, and while he has some form of autonomy, he’s a silent actor forced into his owners world of crazy, impractical inventions, the consequences of which he needs to deal with. The cultural hegemony of late capitalism normalized the notion that the power welded by owners of capital is not only justified, but natural, and that they are the best and most appropriate decision makers. Workers simply implement those decisions, and are just taken for a ride (just like Gromit in Wallace’s motorbike sidecar).

What we really need right now is for Gromit to gain a voice, to be able to finally speak. To tell Wallace: “I’m sick and tired of all your nonsensical, impractical inventions, of all your clumsy and reckless behaviour that I, your pet and responsibility, have to bear the consequences of. I’m tired of not being appreciated for the sacrifices and commitments I make in order to make things work. Your R&D is poor, and you don’t learn from your mistakes. It really doesn’t matter if you have good intentions or not — you need to open your eyes and realize whom you need to thank for all your ideas not instantly crashing and burning.”

Likewise, we need to highlight who really is to blame for these “innovative” ideas failing, and how workers are very often just treated as collateral. We need to point out that so frequently owners of capital make wrong decisions, and that them nonetheless retaining, or even increasing their wealth is dependent on and conditioned by the sacrifices made by workers.

Give Gromit a voice, and give workers a voice.

Solidarity with gig-economy and bullshit-job workers.

Thank you Rosie for inspiring me to write this.