The word “innovation” has become synonymous with Silicon Valley to the point of absurdity. Indeed, the tech industry's entrepreneurs and "thoughtfluencers" throw it around as casually as a dodgeball in a middle-school P.E. class; what it really means is perpetually unclear and purposefully hazy. It is vague enough to be suitable in nearly any situation where a new product, service or "thing" is advertised as superior to the old — never mind if the so-called "old" thing has some distinct advantages, or if the new thing's superiority is solely that it makes more money than the old thing, or if there are other old things that are actually superior yet which won't make anyone rich. (Consider Apple removing the headphone jack from its new phones to be Exhibit A.)
That summary may sound flippant, but it is a good explication of the path of the tech industry over the past two decades: Some venture capital–backed entrepreneurs jackhammer their way into a new industry, "tech"-ify it in some way, undermine the competition and declare their new way superior once the old is bankrupted.
Thus, rather than confine themselves to operating systems and PC software like they did in the 1980s and 1990s, the tech industry has figured out that the real money lies in being a middleman. By that I mean serving as the in-between point for, say, web traffic to newspapers and magazines (like this one); or being the go-between for taxi services, coordinating drivers and passengers through apps. In both of these examples, the original product isn't that different from the pre-tech world: a taxi ride, in the latter case, a news article in the former. The difference is that a tech behemoth takes a cut of the transaction. And also in many cases, the labor — the people making and producing and doing the things the tech industry takes a slice from — is more precarious, less well-remunerated, and less safe than it was in the pre-tech era.
Looking at it this way, the tech industry doesn't really seem innovative at all. Or rather, its sole innovation seems to be exploiting workers with more cruelty, and positioning itself in the middle of more transactions. Granted, there are certain services that have become more convenient because of apps and smartphones — but there is no reason that convenience must come at the high cost that it does, besides the tech industry's insatiable lust for profit. Here are but a few examples of how our livelihoods and our societies have been worsened by Silicon Valley as it sinks its talons into new industries.
Public transit was never great in the United States, with the exception of a few big cities like New York, and thus private taxi services were around to supplement. Being a taxi driver was once a much-vaunted job, so much so that a taxi medallion was perceived of as a ticket to the middle class.
Then came Uber and Lyft, who flooded the market for private transit and undercut the taxi industry by de-skilling the industry and paying their workers far, far less. Driving a taxi is no longer a middle class job; once-valuable taxi medallions have become burdens for some taxi drivers. The outlook for career taxi drivers is so dismal that an alarming number of taxi drivers have been committing suicide.
Meanwhile, because of the precarious nature of Lyft and Uber jobs, those drivers are frequently not vetted or under-vetted — resulting in significant safety concerns for passengers. And unlike a taxi back in the old days, being a rideshare driver isn't a ticket to the middle-class at all: a recent study of such employees revealed that most contractors use these kinds of jobs not as their sole source of income, but as supplementary jobs to make ends meet.
Richard D. Wolff, an economics professor at the New School in New York City, describes gig economy companies like Uber as "winning the competition" by taking shortcuts that "frequently endanger the public." Regulatory agencies for taxis were created in most countries, Wolff says, because taxi companies were historically unsafe. "Taxi companies are required now to have insurance, training for drivers, well-inspected cars, and other safeguards to protect the public. The cost of riding in a taxi reflects those safeguards," Wolff said, adding:
...there’s always the incentive for somebody to come in and operate, once again, inadequately insured, inadequately maintained, inadequately vetted drivers — to come in with a cheaper cab service [that is] unregulated by the taxi commission. That’s all that Uber and Lyft [are]... they undercut the old arrangement and offer cheaper and more competitive services by cutting corners.
Lightbulbs have existed for around 140 years, and home refrigerators for about 100. In that span, they haven't changed too much, besides getting more energy-efficient, mostly because they haven't really needed to: we need to keep food cold, and we need light. The appliances that do these things don't really need to do much else.
Now, tech companies are putting wi-fi and Bluetooth chips in all kinds of things that didn't used to be internet-connected. They call it the "smart home," and while the word is open-ended, the common thread with smart home devices is that they can generally be monitored via an app.
The smart home is sold to us as next-gen, a new advance on traditional appliances. But these devices tend to waste more of our time, and have both privacy and safety risks that regular appliances lack. You can't just put a wi-fi chip in a mundane household object like a lightbulb or a smoke detector without doing something to fix the security holes that emerge with having another device connected 24/7 to the web. But that is exactly what happened: a tremendous number of smart home devices have been hacked and turned into digital soldiers forming massive botnets that can be called up by hackers to engage in distributed denial of service attacks. An Atlantic reporter did an experiment that found that their fake smart home device attracted hundreds of hacking attempts in a matter of hours after being plugged in.
Part of the reason that companies are so eager to market the smart home to us is because these devices can be used to build digital dossiers on customers to market things to them. A refrigerator without an internet connection can't generate any data about a consumer, but a fridge with one can regularly report back all kinds of data on the person using it — data that can be monetized and sold.
Even barring the hacking issue or the privacy issue, smart home devices aren't necessarily an innovation because their whole function seems to be to create more work for us and turn us into (essentially) managers. There is a certain managerial mindset that trickles down from the device's creators (who are, at some level, managers themselves) to consumers — as if I wanted to spend my days and nights studying graphs and charts of my fridge's power consumption, or do a data analysis on my Roomba's path. That sounds horrible.
Additionally, the difficulty of setting up many of these devices in the first place can be mind-numbing for those lacking technical savvy; notably, drastically increasing the number of wi-fi enabled devices in one's house often means that you need to invest in new internet equipment, either routers or faster internet service or both. Not everyone is an engineer, nor wants to be, but smart home devices often compel us to be — and this increasingly complex domain of appliances is supposed to be superior to the simplicity of flicking a lightswitch on the wall.
And speaking of turning us into managers...
Steve Jobs' greatest genius was not in engineering, but in marketing. He understood that late capitalism no longer fulfill needs, but creates them; inevitably, Apple became the premier exporter of desire, master marketers who compel us lust over their clean-looking products and obsess over them once we own them.
To that end, there was never really anything wrong with fitness; it wasn't an industry that needed to be "disrupted," to use Silicon Valley's favorite dystopian verb. But if you slap monitoring devices on your shoes, your watch, your armband, and your water bottle, suddenly you have a huge cache of data points about your body and activity that you can analyze later. Apple and a slew of other apps even help you monitor your ovulation cycle, and some analyze and monetize that intimate customer data. This can create some funny situations when those devices stop being updated or get corrupted; Nike was widely mocked when a $350 pair of "smart" sneakers were ruined by a faulty update. The idea of being able to hack into someone's shoes and ruin them is not exactly where I thought the future was headed.
I suppose if you were dreaming of being a statistician collecting data on your body constantly might seem kind of interesting, but if you aren't, it's just a new source of busyness in your life. Again, building devices to quantize as much fitness data as possible wasn't an example of capitalism fulfilling consumer desire — no one, save a few data scientists, ever said, "I want to turn my leisure activities and exercise regime into spreadsheets" — but the tech industry has been very effective at making us desire just that.
This obsession with quantifying our existence is known in academic circles as "computationalism." Previously I interviewed Professor David Golumbia, who has written about this extensively, and who describes computationalism as "the philosophical idea that the brain is a computer" as well as "a broader worldview according to which people or society are seen as computers, or that we might be living inside of a simulation."
“There is a small group of people who become obsessed with quantification,” Golumbia told me. “Not just about exercise, but like, about intimate details of their life — how much time spent with one’s kids, how many orgasms you have — most people aren’t like that; they do counting for a while [and] then they get tired of counting. The counting part seems oppressive.”
In many of the above cases, Silicon Valley has torn into an industry and taken good jobs and turned them into bad jobs. In the case of the corner store, Silicon Valley's aim seems to be to eliminate the human component altogether.
There are a few different business spins on how this might be done. The most infamous is Bodega (now known as Stockwell), which we reported on in 2017:
Two former Google employees are hoping to take over street corners, dorm rooms, gyms, or anywhere convenient in urban residential neighborhoods, with their reinvention of the vending machine.
Paul McDonald and Ashwath Rajan launched a new startup called "Bodega," with the goal of making convenient stores all but a thing of the past. "Bodega sets up five-foot-wide pantry boxes filled with non-perishable items you might pick up at a convenience store," Fast Company reported. "An app will allow you to unlock the box and cameras powered with computer vision will register what you’ve picked up, automatically charging your credit card."
Employees? They would become things of the past as well, because no one will work the bodegas, and all transactions will be electronic.
Unsurprisingly given that the friendly neighborhood corner marketplace is something that has existed for centuries across most cultures, seeing a group of out-of-touch tech bros working hard to destroy that touched a collective nerve. In the wake of internet outrage, the two of them apologized and then later rebranded.
Stockwell/Bodega is far from the only example of Silicon Valley's crusade against human interaction. There's a company that is trying to make robots that make, serve and sell smoothies, which we reported on ruefully last year. There are multiple companies, including CafeX, making robot baristas. Amazon is creating Amazon Go stores that lack cashiers, and rather rely on cameras to track what people pick up and then bill them accordingly.
The thing is, baristas and cashiers aren't things that we are all dying to get rid of; this isn't a comparable situation to the horse-and-buggy days, where cars felt like a serious improvement on using beasts of burden for transit. Silicon Valley is only trying to put baristas and cashiers out of business because human labor costs money; the difference between a $4 coffee from a robot and a $4 coffee from a human is that there are no labor costs in the former purchase, something that makes Silicon Valley go googly-eyed with dollar signs. The tech industry's vision of the future is of a world with less human interaction, less conversation, less humanity; and more surveillance and more monetization of our buying habits. No one wants this, but it's being forced upon us.
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Excerpted with permission from “A People’s History of Silicon Valley: How the Tech Industry Exploits Workers, Erodes Privacy and Undermines Democracy,” by Keith A. Spencer, available now from major booksellers. © 2018 Eyewear Publishing.