Essays on Technology and Culture

The Rest of the World isn’t Silicon Valley

The world of Silicon Valley isn’t like the rest of the world in many ways. I’ve written in the past about how location and context awareness break down in the urban density of New York City. It’s a lot easier for GPS-based location services to pin you down when all the places you go are separated by more than a quarter-mile. The sprawling suburbs of the southern Bay Area where so much of this technology is born presents a way of life that is alien to many, and if any of it is going to catch on and spread, it’ll have to adapt to our way of life, not the other way around.

Electric cars, as an example, are currently ill-suited to East Coast urban environments. In cities, many people lack dedicated, private parking to plug a Tesla in. No garages, no carports, no driveways. It’s either on-street parking, or not owning a car at all. So, where is a theoretical Tesla owner with no private parking space going to charge their car at home? Short of communal parking lots with charging stations, which would be tricky in places with high land value and existing construction, I can’t see a reasonable solution for residential areas. In downtowns, though, the first city to roll out combination parking meters and car charging stations stands to make a killing.

With home ownership rates falling, particularly among younger, and likely more tech savvy adults, I wonder how well the latest batch of “smart home” hardware will do. Many leases, for homes and apartments alike, don’t allow for replacement of major home hardware. Even installing simpler hardware like “smart” light switches wouldn’t be worth the hassle if you don’t plan to stay permanently. And I’m still not convinced that adding “smarts” to simple, functional hardware is an improvement, and not just adding more points of failure. [1]

Google’s self-driving car works well enough in the wide streets and highways of car-centered Silicon Valley. I’d like to see how well one deals with rush hour traffic in Manhattan. dealing with delivery trucks, fare-seeking cabbies, suicidally crazy bike messengers, and the typically lackadaisical attitude towards traffic of New York pedestrians—author included—is taxing enough for human drivers. I can’t see AI being an improvement. I could see self-driving technologies applied to urban busses, but even then dedicated bus lanes, or good old-fashioned light rail are more reliable, thought the latter is pricier.

It’s possible that most of these issues will be worked out in time for mass adoption. The only thing I’m truly skeptical of is wide adoption the self-driving car. With the global rates of people living in dense urban environments already high, and growing, if the businesses behind these technologies want real mass adoption, they’ll have to figure it out. Shaping the technology of the future is a give and take process, and right now it’s more give than take.

  1. I’m still amused that adding a computer to a device makes it “smart,” when the first thing I was taught about computers is that they’re dumber than a box of rocks.  ↩