Hey Silicon Valley: Tech will not solve every problem
Technology is great. It has made our lives better in countless ways. It has the potential to solve a lot of problems. However, it will not cure every social ill or remedy every injustice.
That doesn't stop some folks in the Bay Area from letting their tech evangelism go just a little over the top, making it sound like they think technology will indeed solve every problem. This video advocating for a San Francisco tax law change, released today and featuring a number of well-known entrepreneurs, edges over that line:
Uptown Almanac poked fun at the video, translating its text:
0:02 - "San Francisco is dope and all..."When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, said some guys named Abraham, and Silicon Valley attracts hordes of people who have a lot of computer, smartphone, and social network hammers. When I go back to visit friends there, there's always a bit of culture shock hearing some people talk so effusively about how their piece of technology is going to singlehandedly solve problems of illiteracy, poverty, war or whatever.
0:05 - "...but people get parking tickets and bikers look like assholes in my rear-view mirror."
0:10 - Disenchanted high school vice principal reveals himself: "It'd be awesome if we used technology to cure aggro cyclists. Let's give it a shot."
Of course, Washington can sometimes fall into the opposite trap, thinking that government can solve every problem. Neither is true. We need innovative startups, large companies, and boring government agencies all working together. It doesn't help when government officials are totally ignorant of startups, but also a little ridiculous for startup people to ignore the value of institutions besides those with 2-100 software engineers in a suburban garage or San Francisco loft.
This particular video happens to be an ad for a ballot initiative, Proposition E, that would change the tax code in a way that would work better for startups. Uptown Almanac notes:
Now, this isn't all to say that Prop E is bad (it isn't, and it's supported by pretty much every politician, NGO, and newspaper in town), nor that free public wifi would be bad for SF (it would plug up all those cellphone dead zones, reduce utility bills for businesses and residents, provide ever-necessary connectivity to low-income students and families).Twitter co-founder Biz Stone talks in the video about how great it would be to place a real-time information screen on every bus stop. That would, indeed, be great. The obstacle to doing that is very little about tech startups and very much about the fact that someone, probably the government, has to pay to buy, install, and maintain that equipment. It would be great if San Francisco, DC, or other cities did just that, but they're not going to do it with tax policy.
However, this ad does more than exaggerate Prop E's benefits or make small fibs
— it is straight up deceitful in claiming voting in favor of Prop E will do anything to improve ordinary San Franciscan's problems. Prop E won't give you wifi or fix Muni; all it will do is improve the San Francisco business tax code, largely for the benefit of tech start-ups.
(Disclosure: I worked with Biz for a little while, after Google bought his innovative startup Blogger and gradually smothered it under a mountain of amazingly scalable yet complex infrastructure and brilliant executives who all wanted to make every decision, and before he left to start some more innovative startups.)
At a recent conference, Google Ventures' Joe Kraus said, "In 5 to 10 years, your smartphone will replace your car." Smartphones can perform the function of watches, flashlights, even bubble levels, but unless they get a lot bigger and grow wheels, they won't replace the car, bus, train, or bike.
Kraus obviously knows this, and really meant, "your smartphone will be your first go-to resource for a trip instead of just hopping in your car." And it will. It'll let you plan a trip by driving, bicycling, or transit. It can let you compare the travel times, costs, and greenhouse gas impacts of each mode. It can get you a taxi or a shared ride (if regulators don't shut many of those down). It can show you traffic and transit delays.
Kraus wouldn't have gotten the same level of press if he had just said, "Your smartphone is going to be really useful for transportation." But while his statement might have been a lot of puffery, there's a fine line between saying that and a lot of people actually believing that the only thing you have to do to solve social problems is devise the perfect app.
Sometimes, an app or just cheaper technology can make a lot of people's lives better, but sometimes you also need other tools as well.
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