Essays on Technology and Culture

Neither Revolution Nor Restoration

Silicon Valley strives to “revolutionize” and “disrupt”, but are their many “revolutions” and “disruptions” actually all that significant? Were they absolutely inevitable? Were they necessary? And are people happy to perpetually accomodate these new technologies?

I’d say no on all counts. And I certainly wouldn’t consider a vast majority of technological innovations revolutionary.

J.D. Bentley – “Restoration vs Revolution”

There’s a popular image of Silicon Valley as a place where the future is made. After all, it birthed the microprocessor, the personal computer, the GUI, and the iPhone. The problem is that all but the last of those children of the Valley happened during the 60s to the 80s. Since then, it’s coasted on its reputation, and the occasional good idea—if not a “good” idea, at least a commercially successful one. With the rise of Startup Culture over the past few years, that image of Silicon Valley is being replaced by one of young people creating new companies that raise obscene amounts of Venture Capital funding to be bought out by Google, Facebook, or Apple. They’re not making microprocessors or iPhones, they’re making silly apps that get huge user growth, and promoting them with “disruption” or “revolution.”

No wonder tech news has become either boring, or an outrage factory.

This is why Silicon Valley is such an uninteresting place. Its culture is one of future worship without purpose, ever driven by the idea of the next development without any regard for whether or not it’s worth being developed. Silicon Valley is in the business of validating delusions while earning as much money as possible, even if its product is detrimental to the various communities who use it.

Here’s where J.D. and I differ. I don’t think the Valley worships the future, so much as they worship the investment cycle. The culture’s not about the idea of the “next development” as much as it’s about making a big win for your investors. This explains the “sharing economy” startups that hire contract workers for abysmal pay, so they can drive their numbers up and raise their valuation. You can’t tell me that Homejoy doesn’t know that charging $25/hr for cleaning a house isn’t a sustainable model. What looks like “future worship” is little more than marketing spin to get VCs to open their checkbooks, and customers to give up their data.

There are people using technology to solve real problems and do interesting things. Whatever your opinion is on Elon Musk, Tesla is creating real “disruption” in the automotive industry by making electric cars that people actually want to drive, unless you’re the sort of asshole who likes rolling coal. Which is why you have established business interests trying to keep them from selling cars. That’s disruption, not the crap Uber is pulling. [1]

That said, it’s a mistake to think you can solve a problem, or make people’s lives better by just throwing an app, or a piece of hardware at it. I don’t know if the rise of “[s]mall businesses who use traditional methods and local resources, who want to make quality products from the best materials.” is as much a frustrated reaction to technology not living up to its marketing spin as it is a rediscovery of our abilities to do things by ourselves. If it’s the latter, then it’s a rise enabled by technology that allows us to share knowledge of skills. Plug any skill you want to learn into YouTube, and you’ll come across someone willing to teach it. And this includes making real things, not just apps.

If that’s the real revolution, then it’s something we can credit, in part, to Silicon Valley, albeit the Silicon Valley of the late–80s and early–90s. If you want to talk about a technology people have been happy to adopt, I’d put the Internet at the top of that list. We can haggle on the pros and cons of that happy adoption, especially around the omnipresence of it in our pockets, but there have been quite a few positive outcomes. Though “revolution” might be the wrong word to describe this—as might be “restoration.” “Renaissance” might be correct, in the sense of a rebirth or renewal of some old ways of doing things, aided by technology. If so, it’s something I’m excited to be a part of.

  1. As an urban dweller, I’d like to see a startup try to improve public transit, not put more people in cars, but I don’t think there’s any money in it.  ↩