Harnessing Amoral Silicon Valley

A theme I harp on quite a bit here is the failures of governance that surround us in the U.S. of 2019. While people often assume that failed governance is the exclusive purview of government, the abdication of governance by public officials is often the driver, followed by private, for-profit corporations that fill the governance void. For example, Uber and Lyft (boldface mine):

The ethos behind what big tech offers is usually a libertarian idea of isolation and individualism sweetened with convenience. Take transportation: the ability of big data to understand complex dynamics could have been used – and is, by some minor operators – to make public transit better. But what have Silicon Valley’s titans offered us? Driverless cars for the future, and “rideshare” cars in the present that have undermined the living wages of the taxi industry and flooded cities around the world with more fossil-fuel-burning engines. Elon Musk’s Tesla cars and battery systems may be the one climate-positive to emerge from Silicon Valley proper, but they’re outliers, and Teslas are still private cars.

At the very moment when we needed people to get out of their cars, Lyft and Uber have developed a model to get people back into them. Transit expert Bruce Schaller concluded last year that transportation network companies (TNCs) “compete mainly with public transportation, walking and biking, drawing customers from these non-auto modes based on speed of travel, convenience and comfort. About 60% of TNC users in large, dense cities would have taken public transportation, walked, biked or not made the trip if TNCs had not been available.”

He also concluded, “TNCs have added 5.7 billion miles of driving annually in the Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington DC metro areas.” In the San Francisco Bay Area, many of the Lyft and Uber drivers live in poorer regions and drive long distances in order to chauffer the more affluent around in increasingly car-clogged metropolises. The dystopia that is Silicon Valley, as it annexes more and more of the Bay Area, shows that the tech overlords have little interest in a better world, as opposed to a more profitable one for themselves.

One reason many politicians like neoliberal policy prescriptions–and I use the word neoliberal sensu Sawicky–is because they can avoid having to make difficult political decisions. If Uber fills the transportation gap (for some, some of the time), then they don’t have to make difficult choices about housing and transportation (and the two are tightly intertwined). Because Uber et alia are private companies, one can even claim the market wants this, even if it isn’t good (e.g., all the problems Solnit describes). It’s just the ‘natural’ working of companies, and people shouldn’t interfere with that. Of course, if public services were provisioned, if communities actively decided how they wanted to live, then there might not be a need for Uber and all of its attendant problems.

The issue isn’t that political leaders (which includes officials, bureaucrats, and public interest group leaders) don’t ‘understand tech.’ That makes it sound like they, erm, need to learn how to code. That’s really not the problem. The problem is most leaders have failed to ask what should and should not be done by private tech companies (at least without serious and strong regulation). In other words, they leave governance to people who want “a more profitable [world] for themselves.” That might not work out so well for the rest of us.

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