Seeing Through Silicon Valley’s Shameless ‘Disruption’
The great folk singer and champion of the people Pete Seeger, with a wee bit of sarcasm, used to tell union members not to waste their pity on the scab taking the side of the bosses during a strike. Have no fear, Seeger would say, the scab will bounce back and “make a good living on what he takes out of blind men’s cups.” Seeger knew how to humble his foes.
Similarly, one might at first worry whether Silicon Valley food apps like Uber Eats, DoorDash, and Seamless will survive the public outrage following a recent New York Times exposé of the hamster-wheel existence of the delivery people who use the apps to make a living. The article details how the business models of these bright new startups require that their employees—excuse me, “independent contractors”—carry food from restaurant to customer at a ferocious pace for pay that often amounts to less than the hourly minimum wage.
Noam Cohen is a journalist and author of The Know-It-Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball, which uses the history of computer science and Stanford University to understand the libertarian ideas promoted by tech leaders. While working for The New York Times, Cohen wrote some of the earliest articles about Wikipedia, bitcoin, Wikileaks, and Twitter. He lives with his family in Brooklyn.
Already, DoorDash has succumbed to public pressure and vowed to reverse its policy of confiscating tips left for deliverers as part of its promise to pay a minimum for each assignment. But, with a nod to Seeger, I can declare that the founders of DoorDash are going to be OK. They can always start working on an app—call it See Me—to help blind people sell goods online. Just take 100 percent commission on the first $500 sold to recoup costs, and if anyone complains, boast that you are providing an entirely new market for visually impaired entrepreneurs!
As Seeger would tell us if he were still alive, self-interested “disruptors” have been around since forever. What’s new over the past couple of decades is the passion, the self-confidence, the ideological commitment. (Not to mention the shamelessness.)
Back in the early 1900s, during the height of labor fights, most everyone would look askance at “scab”-ism as a movement. What are you for, exactly? Seeing your opportunities and taking them? Um, OK. But disruption, that’s something different, something to strive for. There are entire university departments and venture capital firms that study, teach, and promote disruption.
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The tech monopolies leaned into this idea, appealing to and flattering our selfishness and solipsism. Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos is the high priest of customer worship. The customer is the center of everything Amazon does; there is no meaning unless the customer agrees. “Invention is not disruptive; only customer adoption is disruptive,” Bezos has said. “At Amazon, we’ve invented a lot of things that customers did not care about at all, and believe me they were not disruptive to anyone. It is only when customers like the new way that anything becomes disruptive.”
If only life were that simple. As if your moral responsibility could stop at the metaphorical front door, where food, cars, packages magically arrive for your use. We are discovering what a world devoid of moral responsibility looks like. It ain’t magical.
Only lately have we come to see disruption as a dressed-up version of scab-ism. It does not make the world a better place. There is the familiar litany by now: Facebook’s encouragement of our wrecked 2016 presidential election at home and genocide and ethnic warfare abroad. YouTube’s algorithmic promotion of anger and extremism. Amazon’s assault on small bookstores and local retail outlets even as it trains its workers to behave robotically. Airbnb’s corrosion of residential neighborhoods at the expense of hotel districts. Uber and Lyft’s encouragement of car riding at a whim. And food delivery apps that discourage local shopping, home cooking, and living wages for their not-quite-employees.
Because, let’s face it, Silicon Valley technology in nearly all cases isn’t so transformative that it would simply replace the existing systems on its merits. Uber isn’t better than a good mass-transit system; Facebook isn’t better than actual friendship; YouTube videos aren’t better than quality entertainment; a neighborhood littered with Airbnbs isn’t better than a community-oriented one; a computerized learning plan isn’t better than a great teacher. They may be more efficient or easier to use or less expensive, but better? Not even close.
The Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel got at this problem with his cranky comment about new technologies. “We wanted flying cars,” he said, “instead we got 140 characters.” But this is a typical bit of misdirection on the part of Thiel, a founder of PayPal and a board member of Facebook. As a billionaire investor who preaches building monopolies, he knows that the great marketable idea is social destruction, not a wondrous new device. A flurry of likes and comments is just as good as a flying car for all the money it makes its investors!
The proper response to this Silicon Valley disruption is to build up our social defenses. Car services on call? Build up our subways and buses. Cram hotel rooms within residential buildings? Encourage hotels and hostels of different sizes and in different neighborhoods. Install AI-empowered computers in classrooms? Add more teachers, librarians, and counselors, and invest in public education. Food delivery on call? Encourage healthy food options, and legislate to eliminate “food deserts.” You get the drift.
Because the truth is that having so much of life occur at the front door, as opposed to on the town square or the market street, is simply sad. Pathetic even. Who but a small minority would want to organize life around a siege mentality?
I think this was the other point Seeger was making about the scabs. Not only that they have no respect for others but that they have no respect for their own potential. Blind men’s cups, truth be told, are usually not very full.
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