A Bad Week for Urban Tech Reveals a Feature Not a Bug

We're own our own (Flickr)

We're own our own (Flickr)

Despite being in a tech start-up, I generally don’t write about the tech scene. We believe housing is a right at homeBody and are building a company that helps landlords and tenants work together to improve rental housing. That leaves plenty to talk about. However, the specter of the tech scene undeniably hangs over housing and cities in general.

Tech — which at this point is a rather meaningless word, but I’ll use it for a shorthand — could be a major ally of urbanism. But it isn’t. This week we have seen several examples of urban tech running amok. We see how it is growing too powerful politically, co-opting our public spaces for private profit, and isolating us as consumers in the process. More importantly, this week shows how tech is designed to do these things, how hard it will be for us to combat them, but how necessary it will be to do so.

Amazon’s Second Headquarters Shows Big Tech Is Too Powerful

It is simply unprecedented that one of the most powerful private firms in the world would announce an RFP to house a second domestic headquarters. Amazon, based in Seattle, is floating a $5 billion 50,000-job balloon into the inbox’s of mayor’s around the country. The company has a wish list with all the urban catch phrases of public transit, anchor universities, degreed-workforce, urban amenities, and so on.

Despite the posturing of an open competition, I agree with those that think DC will ultimately “win”. (I put it in quotes because there are plenty of people in Seattle who don't think they are winning with Amazon there.) Aside from the fact that the Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos recently bought a $23 million house there and owns the Washington Post, the move makes more sense when you consider the increasingly obvious political power major tech firms have — and need to protect.

Amazon dominates many aspects of our economic lives in a way that few companies has ever done before. Nearly half of all American households have an Amazon Prime account. Up until now it has largely avoided concerns about monopoly power, tax issues, and other regulatory concerns faced by more traditional economic powerhouses. The climate in the country is changing against this, albeit slowly.

Amazon and other tech companies are no longer the outsider-upstarts mythologized in Silicon Valley. They are the main actors in our economy and increasingly in our politics. Moving to DC would be an acknowledgement of this and a signal that we can expect more political consolidation of big tech firms to correspond to their economic power.

We should be very wary of its interest in shaping our politics, but moving to DC would at least put more Americans on notice. If you believe DC is inevitable, then the RFP to other cities seems more like a cynical PR stunt or perhaps a shot in the dark at getting an absurd public subsidy from some desperate city. Either way, Amazon’s second headquarters won’t just dominate the “winning” city. It will help dominate a larger portion of our country.

Apple Stores as “Town Squares” Shows Tech is Killing Civic Space

The iPhone X debuted last week, 10 years after Steve Jobs launched the first iPhone. It’s hard to think of an innovation that has had a larger impact on our society over that span. What was telling about this demonstration outside of the phone itself was how Tim Cook described Apple stores as “town squares”.

This isn’t new. Henry Grabar has written about Apple’s project to restore DC’s Carnegie Library as an “Apple plaza.” As Mr. Graybar points out, the difference between Carnegie building the library 100 years ago and Apple repurposing is stark. Carnegie used ungodly private profit to enhance public spaces and public intelligence. Apple is using ungodly private profit to…create more private profit.

Adopting the language of public spaces and civic engagement to further the interests of private retail is so ubiquitous that we hardly notice the sleight-of-hand anymore. But it is a plague. A truly public space is supported by an elected government and public funds and is open to all citizens to congregate and to contest. That isn’t what an Apple store’s “Genius Grove” provides.

There is nothing wrong with Apple building retail stores that double as semi-public spaces. But whether it’s repurposing an old public library or taking up space in one of our great public spaces, Grand Central, we are allowing a massive, wealthy private tech company to erode not only our access to public spaces, but also our philosophical support of openly democratic spaces.

As we have seen with Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, even at Charlottesville, we have fewer and fewer public spaces where people can safely protest. Cities have historically been centers of political change and protest. Killing public spaces in them is deeply unhealthy for our society.

Bodega Startup Shows How Tech Isolates Us

On the other end of the tech spectrum, startup culture can be just as pernicious to cities. This week we were given a perfect example in the form of Bodega, a startup that is trying to replace the local corner store. Started by two-ex Googlers (which, along with Facebook, is guilty of many of the same sins as Amazon and Apple and shouldn't be left out) it has raised $2.5 million for what all of us quickly recognize as a vending machine. Dressing it up with smart technology and predictive-algorithms can’t really change the fact that it’s a couple of shelves housing toothpaste and tampons.

It’s a staple of startup culture to try to turn something like a vending machine into a revolutionary product. It’s also a staple to cater to lazy upwardly mobile people by solving a problem that really isn’t a problem– going to a bodega around the corner. It is also a staple to be incredibly tone-deaf about privilege and displacement.

The co-founders and one of their investors Hunter Walk were shocked, shocked that there was such a media backlash. They tried to explain that the name “tested well in Latin American communities” and that they weren’t trying to disrupt the local corner store. Both statements are bullshit.

Eater has a great article about why it’s a bad business idea outside of the politics (Bodega doesn’t “disrupt” managing inventory, restocking, and maintenance, which are issues that always plague the vending business, trust me.) But it’s also not really about that. It is really about the fabled “last mile” in the supply chain of delivering goods.

Whether its localized vending machines, drone deliveries, or an on-demand delivery person, a lot of tech money is pouring into being the final service between Amazon and consumers. Which is why some of the backlash against Bodega is pretty bullshit. How many of those folks have Amazon Prime already? Are you upset that our online delivery preferences are destroying local businesses or are you upset that some tech bros are more overt about it?

It might be a smart play to show some traction in a vending business to get bought up by an Amazon or maybe Walmart-owned Jet. But this mindset also reveals the larger issues inherent in the expansion of tech to every aspect of our lives. It is making us interact less with each other and making us less tied to neighborhood institutions, be it public or private. 

The increased isolation of our consumerism and the concentration of wealth it generates is a destructive combination for our society. These forces are driving the inequality undermining our cities across the country. We currently don’t seem to have any good answers for this. And don’t hold your breather for a killer app to fix it.