Big Tech promises a utopia, but delivers more takeout than innovation


Nolan the robot is very clever at weaving his way through the homeless camps. He doesn’t stop for crime scenes; Just keeps walking along regardless.

Nolan is a bot on a mission: to deliver $24 pad thai and crispy arepas to the well-heeled denizens of Los Angeles. He is fulfilling this mission on behalf of Uber Eats. The suffering he goes through on the way is not much of a concern.

I met Nolan on the streets of West Hollywood last week, and saw him walking along the sidewalk behind some of the roughly 42,000 homeless people who live on LA’s streets.

His short research seemed to me to include what has gone wrong with Silicon Valley and the utopian future it has promised us for decades. In a US region preoccupied with shaping our future and using technology—as we’re often told—to upgrade the human condition, robots ensure quick and frictionless delivery of overpriced poke bowls. Empowering disillusioned men of the direct past to create.

It’s a scary sight.

As Silicon Valley nudges us toward the promise of a more rosy future, one run by robots like Nolan, it’s worth taking a moment to wonder what this astonishing, decades-long entrepreneurial movement has actually delivered. have done

What did Silicon Valley create?

Nolan Bot delivers food for Uber Eats in Los Angeles.

All that dynamism and ambition; All those billions and trillions are invested; All this effort by all those titans of industry and design – what do we really have to show for it? Laptops and smartphones, yes. A galaxy of social media and apps. A world connected like never before.

But where is our supersonic air travel? Driverless cars? Hyper-fast city trams? Next generation nuclear technology? Where’s my damn jetpack?

What we’ve really seen from this modern gold rush is extraordinary innovation along a narrow digital path mostly focused on optimizing the user experience and finessing the advertising industry.

Whether you want to order food instantly, hail a taxi in minutes, rent a room in a foreign city, watch a flashy series of porn or have general retail goods delivered to your home within 24 hours. If you want, you can thank the technological gods. For their blessing. Amazon, Uber and Deliveroo have made it easy to buy products that already exist. Apple has made it easy to buy those products instantly from your awesome device. Google and Facebook have made it easy to follow us around the internet to advertise those products.

Servo Robotics tests autonomous delivery for Uber Eats in West Hollywood.
There are approximately 42,000 homeless people who live on the streets of LA.

It’s one heck of a sales machine, but beyond that?

Perhaps it all sounds a bit like “What have the Romans ever done for us?” All these innovations have positive aspects: extraordinary convenience, ease of communication, increased security — we all appreciated Amazon during the pandemic.

And there are exceptions to the rule: Say what you like about Elon Musk’s wild tweets, but the man is undeniably dynamic. One of the reasons people have such lasting respect for his achievements in business is that by building electric cars and putting rockets into space, he bucked the trend of stagnation.

But overall, in terms of changing human society for the better, despite all the hype and hockey-stick growth, the era of Silicon Valley has been a little rough. We might be better off investing all that time and money elsewhere.

Peter Thiel, one of the more visionary tech investors, has been raising the issue of tech stagnation for some time.

“We wanted flying cars; Instead we got 140 characters,” is how he often sums up his frustration, bemoaning the fact that the bulk of our efforts have gone into the world of digital bits, not machines.

We love our whizzy gadgets and fast delivery services: they certainly make life comfortable, but they also distract us from the fact that we’ve made very little technological progress in the real world.

For example, Thiel points out, air travel has barely improved in decades. In fact, with the demise of Concorde, we now have less access to high-speed air travel than we did 30 years ago. We are still using nuclear reactors designed by our grandparents. Some of our best and brightest are doing a lot about it, as they’re building on it by designing all the payment apps and Snapchat algorithms.

As a libertarian leaner (and a Trump supporter to boot), Thiel blamed too much stagnation on the overregulation and red tape that has stifled innovation outside of IT.

Economist Tyler Cowen has argued that tech companies were too easily seduced by low-hanging fruit rather than shooting for the moon. Cowen first made this argument a decade ago, and subsequent developments have proven him right.

BART Police Officer Eric Hofstein displays fentanyl seized while patrolling the Civic Center Station BART platform in San Francisco, Calif.
Drug-related deaths and homelessness have skyrocketed in Silicon Valley.

When you walk the streets of San Francisco, the cradle of the tech industry and still home to many of its moguls, it’s hard not to feel dismayed by Silicon Valley’s shortcomings.

A fair portion of the city’s downtown area now resembles a kind of Bosian abyss, centered on the Tenderloin district but spreading outward. The streets smell of needles and human waste. Fentanyl-aided homeless people spin the zombified cycle. Whole Foods recently had to close one of its city outlets because staff felt too unsafe.

There are several reasons for San Francisco’s sharp decline. California is a one-party state, which means that far-left Democrats have enacted anti-homelessness and anti-drug policies. An epidemic-induced UP exodus from the city to the absurdly pleasant lowlands of Marin County hasn’t exactly helped, either.

Police officers and emergency workers park outside the Louis Vuitton store in San Francisco's Union Square.
Police officers and emergency workers park outside the Louis Vuitton store in San Francisco’s Union Square.

Still, there is something deeply troubling about the extreme inequality now found in the Gulf region, especially when the beneficiaries – the tech elite – have delivered such slim results.

America has always made big winners and losers in its white-knuckle quest for reform. But in the last American Gilded Age, robber barons would at least have been men whose factories welded steel and whose workers built railroads.

Marin’s tech brahmins, on the other hand, have built most of the selfie apps and co-working spaces. Or maybe they just invested in people who built selfie apps and co-working spaces.

I don’t begrudge the Brahmins their wonderful pinot noirs or $30-million mansions or spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge. But as they come back to sell us a more utopian vision of the future, this one run by Nolan and friends, I can’t help but wonder what happened to their hometown.

I can’t help but remember the man I saw walking through downtown San Francisco last week, his bun hanging out of his trousers, his skin ravaged by addiction, his eyes bright with confusion. had happened, and wondered if our future was in the wrong hands.

Sunday Times / News Licensing.

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