Tech companies are reinventing the past. So is the future in the wrong hands?by / 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 ideas have always pushed us forward. But we need to remember that the interests of private companies don’t always align with those of the public. Hyperloop’s primary goal is to make money for the people behind Hyperloop; changing the world comes second. To pick a particularly alarming example: when a pharmaceutical company funds its own clinical trials, then publishes the results selectively to show their products in the best possible light, we all suffer.
It matters who gets to build transport systems, and for whose benefit
Which brings us back to Lyft Shuttle. Jokes aside, the service actually makes a lot of sense against the backdrop of San Francisco’s moribund public transport system. It’s maybe even a good way to plug the gap. The problem is, it leaves anyone without a smartphone out in the cold. It also only runs the most profitable routes at the most profitable times. In short, it’s just not as good as a proper public transport system – because it’s not a proper public transport system.
This is a microcosm of a wider phenomenon. A 2009 paper from the Brookings Institution examined technology innovation in the private and public sectors. The authors found that private companies generally moved faster to implement new technologies—but often at the expense of consumer protections and accessibility. The question isn’t just, “How much innovation do we want?”; we also need to ask, “What kind of innovation do we want?”
With government budgets ever more constrained on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s likely that the trend towards private innovation—or quasi-innovation—will continue. That’s a shame. Not because private companies are evil, but because the authorship of new ideas matters.
It matters who gets to build transport systems, and for whose benefit. It matters whether we know everything there is to know about the drugs that may or may not save our lives. And it really, really matters when those in power choose to spend money on shiny vapourware —or pork barrel projects—rather than projects that will actually improve people’s lives, now or in the future.
Tech companies often say that good ideas can come from anywhere. They’re dead right. The question we need to ask ourselves is: what kind of good ideas do we want?