urban tech

Hey, America: Big Tech Isn't Your Friend

Which way is Amazon taking us? (homebodynetwork)

Which way is Amazon taking us? (homebodynetwork)

In the hysteria surrounding Amazon’s RFP for a second headquarters, a lot of people have had fun mocking cities or states that have submitted bids with no realistic shot (I’m looking at you Danbury, CT.) Aside from the surprising comfort Americans seem to have with treating cities like American Idol contestants and the unsurprising willingness of many elected officials to submit to such indignity, this hasn’t raised many serious questions as a country.

But it should. How did a company get this powerful? How healthy is it that one company is retroactively creating a company town in the 21st century? What precedent is this setting for other big tech companies?

That could change with the revelation that Chicago is effectively endorsing massive wage theft as part of their proposal. That the 3rd biggest American city — which, along with the state it is in, isn’t doing so well financially — felt compelled to offer up billions in public money to Amazon should terrify all of us. But I’m skeptical that it will.

That’s because we, along with our civic institutions, have already surrendered to Big Tech. Companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Apple dominate our economy and society like no other companies in the history of the US. Not even during the height of the Gilded Age did Standard Oil or US Steel come close to dominating so many aspects of daily life.

Those companies were eventually broken up because they were seen as too powerful and too dominating. Rightfully so. They were killing the country. Capitalism is supposed to work for democracy, not the other way around.

In the Gilded Age, millions of Americans suffered because our country forgot that. Eventually, the sustained efforts of muckraking journalists, progressive politicians, and radicalized citizens ultimately led to the realignment — however imperfect — of American society that reached its high water mark during the New Deal.

However, today, we have forgotten the lesson of the Gilded Age entirely and those three groups are failing to make the same efforts to fight back. Our country’s peace and prosperity can’t last if they/we continue to acquiesce.

Tech journalism is for stenographers

We’ve seen a steady erosion of trust in media and certainly big tech has played a role consciously and subconsciously. That’s a well-travelled story. How terrible tech-related press has always been is not.

Part of this history stems from the tech industry coming of age outside of the media capitals of LA and NYC. There just weren’t that many people writing about tech in the early years, so few people understood it at a structural level (or at a technical level). The culture has simply never had a skeptical media auditing its evolution, which allowed it to develop some toxic habits.

When the media did start to question tech, albeit in a flawed manner like Valley Wag, the industry stood by as Peter Thiel crushed it — stomping on the very rhetoric of transparency and competition that supposedly defined tech culture.

What we are left with is a fawning tech press that chases each new trend, product, or founder with minimal skepticism and maximal deference. Rarely does tech press report on the racism, sexism, classism, and outright fraud that define much of the culture.

When journalists in tech are seen as “influencers” and “trend-forecasters” rather than truth-sayers and bullshit filters, we all suffer for the lack of transparency and accountability. Brave individuals like Susan Fowler have no one to turn to. Someone outside of the valley exposed Theranos. It took way too long for Juicero to look as stupid as it clearly was.

Terrible tech press is a big problem for all of us. Tech companies have a lot to answer for, but outside a small circle of investors and board members, they rarely have to.

Elected officials are clueless or too clued-in

Who elected Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg? We live in a democracy. That means we elect people to represent the will of the people. The fact that you’re rolling your eyes right now shows how far from that we’ve strayed. Yes, it’s flawed, but someone has to decide how to organize our society, and we have wisely tried to create a system where legitimacy rests with the people through our elected leaders.

It’s sad that so many mayors and governors have embarrassed themselves both on camera and on paper for Amazon, but the only outlier with Amazon is the sheer scale of its 2nd headquarters. This subjugation of the public good to private interest is the norm and has been for decades in one form or another.

Our elected leaders, particularly in the federal government have internalized private interest over the public good in breathtaking fashion. The tax bill and the repeal of net neutrality are just the logical conclusions of this trend. Most Americans are opposed to both, but that doesn’t seem to matter. The donor class gets what it wants.

If elected officials aren’t cynical or opportunistic, they are clueless about how the tech economy works and how tech companies think. They try to incorporate ride-sharing apps into transit planning instead of charging them for using our roads. They team up with Google to install fiber networks without treating them like public utilities. They hand out massive subsidies for company relocations instead of investing in long-term infrastructure to entirely create new ecosystems.

These companies want more customers, market share, and protection from competition.  They don't want to help cities in any meaningful or lasting way with their services. Relying on them as strategic partners is a colossal mistake. Too many officials seem oblivious to that.

There is little incentive for an elected official to worry about the future beyond immediate media and election cycles. There is little belief in the power of good governance and strong government in general at most levels. That leaves us with a vacuum in leadership and vision that tech companies are all too happy to fill to serve their own ends.

We are lazy shitheads

Before you think I’m casting stones, I’m part of the problem too: I have Apple products, I have Amazon Prime, I have Facebook, and I use Google all the time. Why wouldn’t I? They do things we want, really well. No one is at fault for using products that are useful. The power of social networks coupled with convenience has made these companies wildly successful for good reason.

However useful these products are to us as consumers, we are guilty of letting convenience and low cost cloud our judgment as citizens. We are just as indifferent about the labor practices of Apple with workers in China as we are to the last mile Amazon delivery people in America. We are as indifferent about the lack of privacy we have on Facebook as we are with the amount of information we freely give to Google.

I sincerely believe that we do this to some degree because many people assume there are safeguards on these companies. Somebody somewhere is watching to make sure they do the right thing, right? We have agencies that do that. We have courts that do that. We have competitors that keep companies honest. But that isn’t true.

So much of our political discourse talks about how government is inefficient and that we should trust the market to solve our problems. We have let this mindset seep into all corners of our society and undermine all of our public institutions, including our role as active citizens. As a result, the market has seeped into all corners of our government, blurring the distinction between corporate will and government will.

We’ve consistently undermined labor laws that people died for not 100 years ago. We’ve consistently sold off public assets to short term private gains at the expense of long-term investment. We’ve consistently surrendered our agency to stand up to corporations in court. Big tech came around after these trends started certainly, but it has been the biggest beneficiary.

For what it’s worth, I have been guessing that Amazon picks Washington, DC (or close by) just for that reason. Particularly in light of the 2016 election, people are starting to notice and to question the power of Big Tech. These companies are increasingly concerned that their unparalleled power could be in danger and are responding with spending millions in political lobbying. Given this emerging paradigm, it’s logical for Amazon to set up camp closer to the center of government to influence policy at a deeper level.

Alternatively, I can envision Big Tech actually splitting up elements of their operations to dispense across more regions in the country. Just as military contractors spread their operations across as many Congressional districts as possible, it’s easy to see the advantage of Big Tech following suit for the same reason. The military-industrial complex serves as a useful model to the technology-industrial complex. Both are too powerful and too destructive to our civic health.

In either case, unless we collectively stand up to Big Tech, we can expect a lot more embarrassing and shameful pitches from mayors and governors. And we will have many cool, convenient ways to watch them do so.

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.