Erin McElroy on Silicon Valley Imperialism

Apr 3, 2024

Silicon Valley’s specific form of technocapitalism has shaped global geographies in complex ways. With the rise of generative AI, we’re currently seeing a new aspect of this playing out across interdisciplinary classrooms and scholarly publishing (among pretty much every other realm).

This is raising political and ethical questions about the role of technocapitalist frameworks in our everyday lives—questions that have longer histories and broader geopolitical roots than much of the current rhetoric emphasizes.

To help tease out these histories and geographies, in episode 159 of Imagine Otherwise, host Cathy Hannabach interviews Ideas on Fire author, University of Washington geography professor, and housing justice activist Erin McElroy about the global reach of technocapitalism.

Erin is the author of the new Duke University Press book Silicon Valley Imperialism: Techno Fantasies and Frictions in Postsocialist Times, which is a fascinating multi-sited ethnography of the dispossessions wrought by Silicon Valley on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

In their conversation, Erin shares the complex process of studying technocapitalism across borders, specifically how the research trajectories of doing a multi-sited ethnography intersect with local activist and scholarly commitments on the ground.

They also discuss the media figure of the Romanian hacker and how romanticization of the digital nomad lifestyle intensified gentrification and displacement in both the San Francisco Bay Area and cities across Romania and Eastern Europe.

They close out the episode with Erin’s vision for a future of technological and housing justice, where the imperialism of Silicon Valley is replaced by translocal and international solidarities.

Cite this episode: Hannabach, Cathy (host). “Erin McElroy on Silicon Valley Imperialism.” Imagine Otherwise. April 3, 2024. Produced by Cathy Hannabach and Ideas on Fire. Podcast. 26:13.

In this episode

  • What Silicon Valley imperialism is and how it shaped the post-Cold War world
  • How digital nomadism contributes to gentrification and racialized displacement
  • Romanian hacking cultures in an era of precarity
  • Why technological justice and housing justice are fundamentally intertwined
Cover of Silicon Valley Imperialism with a beast figure standing over a burning house

About Erin McElroy

Erin McElroy is an assistant professor of geography at the University of Washington, where they focus on intersections of gentrification, technology, digitality, empire, and racial capitalism in the United States and in Romania, as well as housing justice organizing and transnational solidarities. 

This informs the focus of their book Silicon Valley Imperialism: Techno Fantasies and Frictions in Postsocialist Times (Duke University Press, 2024), which takes a postsocialist and anti-imperial approach to studying the dispossessions wrought by Silicon Valley on both sides of the former Iron Curtain.

Erin is also a cofounder of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project—a data visualization, counter-cartography, and digital media collective that produces housing justice tools, software, maps, reports, murals, zines, and oral histories. Recently the collective published Counterpoints: A San Francisco Bay Area Atlas of Displacement & Resistance (PM Press, 2021). 

Erin runs the Anti-Eviction Lab, which supports the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project while also focusing on Landlord Tech Watch—a popular educational platform dedicated to producing collective knowledge about the harms imposed by landlord-driven data grabbing and algorithmic techniques.

Erin has published numerous peer-reviewed articles and public scholarship pieces in venues such as Environment and Planning D, IJURR, Public Books, and the Boston Review. Such commitments inform their work coediting the Radical Housing Journal—an open access publication that foregrounds housing research and organizing transnationally.

Erin is a core partner with the Housing Justice in Unequal Cities network based out of UCLA and is a steering member of the Beyond Inhabitation Lab based out of the Polytechnic of Turin.

Teaching and learning resources


Click to read transcript

[00:00:00] Cathy Hannabach: Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about bridging art, activism, and academia to build more just futures.

[00:00:12] I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach, and today I’m talking with University of Washington geography professor and housing justice activist Erin McElroy. I met Erin when the Ideas on Fire team worked with them on their book, Silicon Valley Imperialism, Techno Fantasies and Frictions in Postsocialist Times, which is a fascinating multi-sited ethnography of the dispossessions wrought by Silicon Valley on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

[00:00:40] In our conversation, Erin shares the complex process of studying technocapitalism across borders, specifically how the research trajectories of doing a multi-sited ethnography intersect in complex ways with local activist and scholarly commitments on the ground.

[00:00:57] We also discuss the media figure of the Romanian hacker and how romanticization of the digital nomad lifestyle intensified gentrification and displacement in both the San Francisco Bay Area in California as well as cities across Romania and Eastern Europe.

[00:01:14] We close out the episode with Erin’s vision for a future of technological and housing justice, where the imperialism of Silicon Valley is replaced by translocal and international solidarities.

[00:01:27] Thanks so much for being with us today, Erin.

[00:01:30] Erin McElroy: Yeah, thanks so much for having me. I’m really excited to be able to talk more about my book.

[00:01:35] Cathy Hannabach: So, speaking of this book, you introduce what you call Silicon Valley imperialism and trace how it emerged in the postsocialist moment not just in California but also in Romania and several other locations as well. What exactly is Silicon Valley imperialism and how has it shaped the various geographies that you examine in the book?

[00:01:58] Erin McElroy: Yeah, that’s the perfect kind first to start with. So, by Silicon Valley imperialism, I’m mostly looking at a global condition in which Silicon Valley, which, of course, we often think of as rooted in California, but I’m looking at how its existence is necessitated by unending growth both locally in California but also beyond.

[00:02:22] And I look at how it penetrates and devours people’s intimate lives, local ways of knowing, and even people’s personal data while also consuming and informing global and even outer space imaginaries in novel ways.

[00:02:37] So of course there’s a lot to think about in terms of everything happening with people like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos in terms of ultimate Silicon Valley expansion.

[00:02:49] But I’m looking at its formation during the Cold War and what took place both in California but, in this case, also in Romania during the Cold War and post–Cold War, postsocialist aftermaths.

[00:03:04] I’m looking at how Silicon Valley is emboldened by and even co-constitutive of US empire in a lot of cases. I’m not saying that it’s synonymous with it, and I’m not saying that it’s replaced it, but rather the two inform each other, particularly during the Cold War and post–Cold War moment.

[00:03:26] So my book takes place mostly in Romania, but a little bit in Moldova and one of my chapters is entirely based on the Bay Area.

[00:03:37] So there’s a lot going on, lots of different locations to look at: Cluj-Napoca, Romania, has been branded as the Silicon Valley of Eastern Europe. And then, of course, so much of the Bay Area is often thought about synonymous with Silicon Valley. Part of my project is to look at the material but also imaginative implications of that.

[00:04:00] Part of my argument is that Silicon Valley is a fiction. A lot of people living in places that might be considered little Silicon Valleys or even the big Silicon Valley don’t necessarily consider themselves from Silicon Valley or don’t use Silicon Valley to describe their daily lives. So, I’m looking at how it functions as a sort of fiction but then how also the imposition of that fiction does manifest racial dispossession and exploitation in very different and uneven ways, depending on where we’re talking about.

[00:04:33] And of course, there are many of these so-called little Silicon Valleys that have popped up around the globe. I could recite them all, but it’s a very long list. And so, I’m really just looking at if you want to think about big Silicon Valley in California and then what’s been called the Silicon Valley of Eastern Europe, in Cluj, Romania.

[00:04:56] Part of my book also takes place in Bucharest and Râmnicu Vâlcea and some other cities in Romania as well. I suppose what I could say is that the part that takes place in California, is historical but also contemporary. I look at the evolution of US empire in California and the Bay Area and the different technologies that made that possible and how much they also then informed what we think of as the birth of Silicon Valley during the Cold War in Palo Alto.

[00:05:35] People like Malcolm Harris and others have done even more work around this, but I’m looking at how it amassed a ton of government funding that made the Cold War possible. Then with the dot-com boom, well, the end of the Cold War, with the dot-com boom, and then this moment now that we consider the tech boom 2.0, how public spaces and public imaginaries have been privatized in new ways.

[00:06:01] I look at how, despite that, Indigenous land rematriation projects, for instance, work by groups like the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust are actively trying to undo not just the dominance of Silicon Valley but the different dispossession that US empire and now Silicon Valley imperialism have brought over time and into the present.

[00:06:25] And in Romania it’s an interesting history. During state socialism, Romania actually excelled in technological development, particularly hardware development. And socialism was also a time in which about 30 percent of property became nationalized. So, there was this big move to produce social housing. And despite some of the horrors that we often think of associated with Ceaușescu and the authoritarian regime during socialism, it was also a really emancipatory time when it comes to housing.

[00:07:00] So with the end of the Cold War and reprivatization, on the one hand, housing became reprivatized. A lot of people in Cold War aftermaths have lost their homes, but also Western tech has rushed in and really absorbed a lot of socialist-era infrastructure and computing infrastructure in particular.

[00:07:20] This shifted the landscape dramatically, and so my book really looks at that moment in which dispossession is often very racialized in Romania. Because of long histories of racism and anti-Roma racism in particular, many Roma residents didn’t have housing, stable housing, before socialism and then many people were able to gain stable housing during socialism.

[00:07:47] So in this moment of reprivatization, very much driven by these Western techno fantasies, it’s disproportionately Roma residents losing their housing and being pushed to urban outskirts. I look at that and I also look at the organizing work, housing justice organizing work, that’s taking place on the ground and even racial and technological justice organizing work that’s taking place to refute the imposition of Silicon Valley imperialism and privatization.

[00:08:27] Those are the big trends, I suppose, of the book and how I’m thinking about Silicon Valley both as something very material and as something that drives a sort of aspirational politic to become a Western, which is a longstanding post-Enlightenment fantasy amongst the middle class in Romania and has been for a long time.

[00:08:54] Cathy Hannabach: One of the things that I found really fascinating about this book, and you talk about it early on, in earlier chapters, is this relationship, as you were saying, between racialized displacement and gentrification and digital nomads, which is both a discourse and an actual practice, in some kind of complicated ways.

[00:09:15] How exactly does that relationship work between digital nomads and racialized displacement in these contexts? And what got you interested in studying that nexus?

[00:09:26] Erin McElroy: I think the interest in digital nomads has really picked up during the pandemic with the turn to remote work, particularly for white collar tech workers.

[00:09:40] A lot of these tech companies celebrated the possibility that their workers could travel the world and work remotely and didn’t need to be living and working in tech epicenters like the Bay Area. That’s had all sorts of implications on the Bay Area.

[00:10:01] But before the COVID-19 moment, I got really interested in the concept of digital nomadism for a couple of reasons. For one, I’ve been a housing organizer in the Bay Area off and on for years. I was, in 2013, 2014, doing a lot of direct action organizing against tech gentrification.

[00:10:27] In San Francisco, I was part of a group called Eviction Free San Francisco. That was also when I co-founded a collective called the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, which I still am actively a part of today.

[00:10:41] We produce a lot of data and maps and stories and visualizations about racial dispossession and gentrification, often looking at correlations between technocapitalism and real estate capitalism and racial capitalism.

[00:10:58] At that moment in 2013 and 2014, there was a huge eviction crisis. I mean, there still is in San Francisco and throughout the Bay Area. A lot of people were moving to the Bay to work in some of the big tech companies but also an array of startups. Airbnb and Uber, Lyft, all these startup economies or startup companies had formed a couple of years ago.

[00:11:27] Earlier, Twitter moved to San Francisco around 2012, and this Twitter tax break zone was established to basically allow tech to move into the city and not pay local taxes. And so, all sorts of organizing and many dispossessions were taking place left and right. That was a very much, that was a big part of my world and impacted my friends and community and neighbors in all sorts of ways.

[00:11:55] So I had been quite critical of the dispossessions induced by investment in tech. At the same time, I was going back and forth between the Bay and Romania, where I also had friends and community members. I had gotten involved in some housing organizing there.

[00:12:17] There’s a group Căși sociale acum!, Social Housing NOW!, that’s been fighting against evictions that are disproportionately impacting Roma communities in Cluj’s city center in this postsocialist moment of housing reprivatization. This was also the moment that Cluj was branded as the Silicon Valley of Eastern Europe.

[00:12:41] What I started to notice was that some of the same, not the same people but the same kind of imaginaries that I saw taking place amongst tech workers in the Bay Area I saw amongst tech workers from Western countries who were spending time in Romania, in part because you can find all these digital nomad blogs and websites where they’re always ranking what are the best cities or towns for digital nomads.

[00:13:11] Digital nomads are basically tech workers who can enjoy the freedom of travel and don’t need to be fixed in one particular place. Many of them work for smaller startups, sometimes maybe just for six months, and then they go back to their home country. They’re able to maintain these Silicon Valley salaries while living in countries that are often less expensive to live in.

[00:13:37] And you’ll see people say that Romania is a great place to be because it has extremely fast internet, in part due to different tech infrastructural legacies. It also has a cheap cost of living, high English language proficiency, which has its own really interesting history. It has like a high safety index, all sorts of things that tech workers claim to find attractive, I mean, as do a number of cities, it’s not like Romania has the top, top city.

[00:14:10] You can see there are a handful of cities that are always vying to be the top city for digital nomads including Cluj, but also Bucharest, Timișoara, and different cities in Romania pop up on the list quite frequently.

[00:14:24] So there was this moment in which I was very painfully aware of different dispossessions taking place both in Romania and in the Bay Area as tech workers were moving to both areas sometimes permanently, sometimes temporarily. What I noticed was this identity of a digital nomad that a lot of tech workers espoused, even in the Bay Area. Many tech workers working in Mountain View or Palo Alto might live in San Francisco and were able to reverse commute through different infrastructure that Google and Facebook and Apple provided.

[00:15:05] So there was this kind of transience and this idea that I trace back to the nineteenth-century romantic Orientalist notion of a sort of free and wandering lifestyle, very much in the nineteenth century synonymous with empire and the transits of empire.

[00:15:25] At that time, a lot of gypsy novellas were written, like Carmen or Pushkin’s Gypsies in Russia, John Clare’s poems in England. And they often were written by white men writing from the heart of various empires, kind of fantasizing this freedom of the free and wandering gypsy trope.

[00:15:47] Interestingly, at the time, a lot of Roma people who these authors were encountering had actually left Eastern Europe after slavery was abolished in the mid-nineteenth century and were seeking better conditions. And so, a lot of these writers writing in the heart of empires that were trying to expand encountered Roma people who were not necessarily living this fanciful free life but were just seeking better living conditions.

[00:16:13] And there was this very Orientalist, often sexualized way that they would be written about. Lots of people have studied this in terms of the literary tropes that were employed then, but I found those tropes to be very much alive and the onto-epistemologies of digital nomads. I mean, some people even call themselves digital gypsies.

[00:16:34] The infuriating part was not only did people deracinate an understanding of Roma identity by claiming to be a digital gypsy, but also in the case of Romania, it was primarily Roma people being pushed out of their homes to make way for the higher rents and new infrastructure that was being created to support Westerners, tourists, digital nomads, etc. moving to and visiting the city.

[00:17:01] I found digital nomadism an interesting object to study to understand the updating of particular and historic racial fantasies from the nineteenth century into the postsocialist, post–Cold War present, and this entanglement between, Silicon Valley and postsocialist contexts of reprivatization.

[00:17:25] Cathy Hannabach: One of the other racialized tropes that you talk about quite a lot in the book comes up in one of my favorite chapters, which has the rather tantalizing title of “The Most Dangerous Town on the Internet,” which I think is just a great title for a chapter because it definitely hooks people and draws them in.

[00:17:43] You talk about the figure of the Romanian hacker in that chapter. And this is certainly a trope that we see across all kinds of US popular culture. What did you actually discover about hacking cultures in that particular context beyond the trope?

[00:17:57] Erin McElroy: I got that title from a very short, bizarre film that the Silicon Valley tech firm Norton made called The Most Dangerous Town on the Internet profiling Râmnicu Vâlcea, which was also profiled in a magazine piece by Wired magazine about, I think, 15 years ago now.

[00:18:14] They, employ these stereotypes, the ones that you mentioned, to suggest that it’s these dangerous Romanians that are going to take down democracy in the free world as we know it in their little hacking enclaves or something.

[00:18:28] But I mean, I know hackers in Romania. Some of them have been friends of mine. I also have been privy to learn a lot through other people who study hacking culture in Romania, including Andrada Fiscutean and David Schwartz, who’s a playwright. He made this wonderful play about hackers in Râmnicu Vâlcea.

[00:18:47] From my own experience doing ethnographic research and from those of my peers, most hackers in Romania have just been youth not just having fun but also finding ways to survive in austerity contexts. Again, there was so much hardware and technological development during socialism.

[00:19:04] There’s this Romanian word șmecherie, which kind of means like a street-smart savviness, that I use to talk about ways that people were able to do things like clone computers to bypass having to pay for really expensive and unaffordable computers, which was a common practice throughout the Eastern Bloc.

[00:19:24] Once the internet came around, you’ll see like lots of youth pirating software and audio files and books. Romania had a really, still does have, a really high rate of piracy, but that’s in part because if you’re living in a country where the average salary is way lower than the salary of somebody in the US, and you want to be able to use the same software, you’re going to have to pay way more of your monthly income for the same piece of software that somebody might not have to think about even in buying in the US.
[00:19:58] There was also this practice of creating independent internet networks where people would just wire different apartment buildings together to bypass having to pay for expensive internet.

[00:20:10] There are all sorts of, I think, really fun and emancipatory things that people did. And of course, there were some kind of things that maybe are less exciting that have been done in terms of hacking, but for the most part, the experiences of the people I’ve talked to are mostly just experiences of people trying to get by and also create social networks and different forms of solidarity.

[00:20:32] I also look at the role of IBM historically in Romania. Thomas Watson, the founder, CEO of IBM came into Romania during the 1930s and 1940s and was instrumental in importing IBM’s counting machines, which were used to help orchestrate a census, which was used to help make the Holocaust in Romania possible.

[00:20:53] So I look at some of that history and then how big Western tech came rushing back in after socialism to co-opt socialist-era infrastructure. If we’re really looking for malicious characters on the internet, it’s more apropos to turn to big tech and, and companies like IBM than youth just trying to survive in context of Silicon Valley imperialism.

[00:21:16] Cathy Hannabach: I would love to turn to methodology because this is one of the key things that the Ideas on Fire team focused on with you quite a bit in our editorial work with you on this book. This is obviously a really ambitious multi-sited ethnographic project stretching across national boundaries, obviously, but even continents.

[00:21:35] We’re certainly seeing more multi-sited ethnographies these days from our authors that get at some really fascinating questions like yours does. But they do present some unique challenges. What made you decide to do a multi-sited ethnography? And what were some of the surprising things that you learned about in the process?

[00:21:52] Erin McElroy: Yeah, absolutely. I’m so grateful to Ideas on Fire for all the support because I think in being quite an ambitious project, it was very hard to keep track of, especially as I was conceptualizing it in its early iteration.

[00:22:06] I’m excited that more people are doing multi-sited ethnographies, too, because I mean for me, what I’m often trying to track in the book are connections, the transits of Silicon Valley, both in terms of fantasies and desires but also in terms of material impacts and also forms of resistance. Sometimes resistance, too, is international and requires alliances across different spaces.

[00:22:31] The book really also organically emerged out of commitments that I already had in the Bay Area to the housing organizing I’d been doing there and in Romania where I had already also been living off and on and have community.

[00:22:44] And I think if I weren’t so upset about the ravages of Silicon Valley in the Bay, maybe I wouldn’t have noticed what I started to notice in Romania. For me, there was always a sort of dialogue going on.

[00:22:58] And it was also always really important for me that I wasn’t doing a comparative project.

[00:23:02] So I wasn’t trying to do like this 50/50 sort of thing, but more tell a story that really got at what Silicon Valley imperialism was doing on different registers across different borders, but in a way that was nevertheless grounded in particular communities and commitments.

[00:23:20] Cathy Hannabach: So, in the spirit of imagining otherwise, I’m going to ask you the question that I love to close out every episode with, which really gets at the heart of why you do the kind of work that you do.

[00:23:30] So what is the world that you’re working toward? What kind of world do you want?

[00:23:35] Erin McElroy: I would love to be in a world where Silicon Valley imperialism is a concept of the past. I do a lot of housing organizing work and I’m very critical of private property both when it comes to the world of technology but also the world of housing, spatial, and racial justice.

[00:23:54] And so I’m interested in how housing organizers and people working on issues of technological justice can form better and stronger alliances and that work’s already being done. I’m inspired by so much work that’s already being done in that domain, but there’s so much more to be done. I think it really does require international solidarities and connections because of the scope and scale of empire.

[00:24:21] Some of the anti- and alter-globalization work of over 20 years ago now was trying to do this in a particular way. And I think there’s a turn, again, toward translocal organizing, toward organizing that’s very much grounded in particular spaces but also invested in these connections. That’s sort of where I try to leave off in the book as well.

[00:24:41] Cathy Hannabach: Well, thank you so much for being with us and sharing all of these ways that you imagine otherwise.

[00:24:47] Erin McElroy: Yeah, thank you so much for having me and for all of the support in making this book a reality.

[00:24:56] Cathy Hannabach: Thanks for joining me for this episode of Imagine Otherwise. A big thanks to Erin as well for sharing their work. Our team really loved editing their book, Silicon Valley Imperialism: Techno Fantasies and Frictions in Postsocialist Times, which is out now from Duke University Press.

[00:25:13] You can learn more about Silicon Valley Imperialism and Erin’s other projects in the episode show notes on our website at The show notes include a transcript and teaching guide for this episode with related books by Ideas on Fire authors, podcast interviews, and resources.

[00:25:30] Imagine Otherwise episodes make for great syllabus additions, and our teaching guides are designed to help students and researchers explore the vibrant worlds of progressive interdisciplinary scholarship.

[00:25:42] This episode of Imagine Otherwise was produced and edited by me, Cathy Hannabach. You can find Ideas on Fire and Imagine Otherwise on Instagram at @ideasonfirephd, as well as on Mastodon, Bluesky, Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok.

[00:25:58] You can also subscribe to the show on our website at as well as on all of your favorite podcast apps.

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