Tech companies are reinventing the past. So is the future in the wrong hands?by Samuel Palin / July 20, 2017 / Leave a comment
Lately, Silicon Valley’s tech giants have spent a lot of time and effort inventing things that already exist.
Lyft Shuttle, a new ride sharing service that offers cheap rides along a predetermined route, sounds a lot like another form of public transportation: the bus. And Google’s new worker villages would be familiar to many Victorian mill owners—not to mention many feudal landlords.
It’s easy to laugh at stories like this. But it’s also worth pondering what they mean. Are tech companies out of ideas? If they are, where should we turn to for new ones?
For many, Silicon Valley is synonymous with innovation. It brought us William Shockley’s silicon transistor, Apple’s iPhone, and everything inbetween. Nowadays, this innovation is big business: Silicon Valley has an economy the size of Ireland, and tech continues to outpace the rest of the US economy.
That growth is partly down to Silicon Valley’s knack for creating products and services people really want. But it’s also down to massive investment—both public and private—towards future products and services.
Take Hyperloop: the sci fi train touted as the future of public transportation. Its creators have pocketed $80 million from SNCF, the French state rail operator, not to mention a slew of private investors. But the current prototype, Hyperloop One, is a glamourised rollercoaster—and as Alex Hern pointed out in the Guardian last year, it’s hard to see how this will ever turn into a real transport system (certainly not for anything close to the current estimated cost).
The libertarian argument is that private companies come up with ideas the public sector can’t. Government is too slow, too cautious, too bureaucratic. But is this true? Frank Pick’s transformative design work for the London Underground came as part of a long and ‘boring’ career in transport administration. MIT’s Building 20, a hodgepodge of research labs working on everything from psycholinguistics to electronics, was arguably the most creative workplace in history—and there wasn’t a ping pong table in sight.
In both these cases, the profit motive didn’t come into it. What mattered was that people had time and space to solve big problems.
That’s not to dismiss private innovation. From the telephone to ibuprofen to new technologies like the what3words global addressing system, private…