Why do we keep prais­ing Sil­i­con Val­ley for rein­vent­ing the wheel?

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - Amelia Tait

For a good pe­riod in the mid­dle ages, Euro­peans to­tally for­got how to make con­crete. The Ro­man recipe for the tough stuff – <Italic>opus cae­men­ti­cium</Italic> – was lost for roughly 600 years af­ter the fall of the em­pire, and the mod­ern for­mula we know and love wasn’t in­vented for an­other 300 years af­ter that.

I’m telling you this be­cause hu­man progress isn’t lin­ear. It’s fine to go back­wards and for­wards – to re­tread old ground and im­prove old ideas. Yet if some­one ap­proached Theo Paphi­tis with a cin­der block to­mor­row, he’d rightly tell them to get the hell out of the Dragons’ Den. So why do we keep fall­ing over our­selves to praise Sil­i­con Val­ley for rein­vent­ing con­crete – or, if you pre­fer your analo­gies more straight­for­ward, the wheel?

Last week, the New York Times ran a piece prais­ing a “rad­i­cally new” fee plan of­fered by a Sil­i­con Val­ley-based uni­ver­sity. In­stead of charg­ing tu­ition fees up­front, Lambda School al­lows stu­dents to pay back their debts af­ter grad­u­a­tion – charg­ing them pro­por­tion­ally, based on their salary. Sound fa­mil­iar? Any­one with ex­pe­ri­ence of the English ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem will balk at the New York Times’s in­sis­tence that Sil­i­con Val­ley is “break­ing the sta­tus quo” – this has, af­ter all, been the tu­ition fee model in Eng­land for 30 years.

It’s not that this is nec­es­sar­ily a bad idea – the av­er­age Amer­i­can grad­u­ate owes $37,172 (£30,000) in stu­dent loans, with stud­ies pre­dict­ing that in­flex­i­ble monthly re­pay­ments will mean re­cent grads can’t re­tire un­til they’re 75. Yet it is the lan­guage we use to praise these al­legedly “new” ideas that needs re­form. It’s not “rad­i­cal” if it al­ready ex­ists.

Take, for in­stance, the ride-hail­ing

app Lyft’s 2017 in­ven­tion, Lyft Shut­tle. For a small fee, pas­sen­gers share a sin­gle car that fol­lows a pre­des­ig­nated route – in­stead of be­ing picked up and dropped off at their cho­sen lo­ca­tion, they must walk to or from one of the de­ter­mined stops. It’s con­ve­nient! It’s af­ford­able! It’s a bus.

Tweets mock­ing Lyft Shut­tle in­stantly went vi­ral, but there’s ac­tu­ally very lit­tle that’s funny about it. Not only is the whole idea ar­guably clas­sist (on­line, peo­ple have praised Lyft Shut­tle for al­low­ing them to get around with­out sit­ting next to com­mon riffraff), in prac­tice, the ser­vice could harm in­vest­ment in ex­ist­ing pub­lic trans­port. As Salon writer Keith A Spencer pointed out in 2017, by com­pet­ing with ex­ist­ing in­fra­struc­ture, Lyft Shut­tle could leave poorer peo­ple with fewer and worse tran­sit op­tions than they had al­ready. Not only is Sil­i­con Val­ley wrap­ping up an old idea in a new bow, they’re threat­en­ing much-needed pub­lic ser­vices.

Then again, some “in­ven­tions” are just funny. Last year, the fash­ion com­pany Atoms promised to “mod­ernise the footwear ex­pe­ri­ence” by of­fer­ing ten­nis shoes in quar­ter sizes (for the bar­gain price of £140!). In 2017 a team of Swedish in­ven­tors re­leased their Pause Pod – a “pri­vate pop-up space” where busy em­ploy­ees could re­lax, which – yes, yes, you’ve guessed it – was just a tent. “We never claimed that it’s not a tent,” the Scan­di­na­vian de­vel­op­ers of­fered in their de­fence.

The ex­am­ples are in fact end­less: in 2017 We Work launched co-liv­ing spa­ces which were es­sen­tially just stu­dent dorms with added yoga; a startup’s brand new Bodega boxes were just vend­ing ma­chines; and no one will ever for­get Juicero (rest in peace), the £300 ma­chine that – in­vestors re­alised all too late – es­sen­tially just poured juice. Most re­cently, ev­ery­one’s favourite Sil­i­con Val­ley cy­borg, Elon Musk, was mocked for his loop sys­tem, which pro­vides un­der­ground tracks for cars. Aus­tralians felt this bor­rowed heav­ily from Ade­laide’s O-Bahn sys­tem, which has ex­isted for buses since 1986.

Again, there’s noth­ing wrong with at­tempt­ing to im­prove old in­ven­tions (though I have to po­litely in­sist that the rel­e­vant par­ties bring back pre-sugar tax Irn Bru). It’s just egos and the lan­guage em­ployed by Sil­i­con Val­ley are au­to­mat­i­cally an­noy­ing. While prod­ucts might be mar­ginal im­prove­ments on their pre­de­ces­sors, they of­ten come with a host of new prob­lems – such as Lyft’s dystopian in­sis­tence that a driver who gave birth on the job was some­how “im­pres­sive”, in­stead of a vic­tim of lax mod­ern labour laws.

Not only are these prod­ucts nowhere near as revo­lu­tion­ary as they sound, these com­pa­nies and their in­ven­tors of­ten ig­nore the ma­jor­ity of peo­ple to im­prove lives for a priv­i­leged mi­nor­ity. They’re too busy op­er­at­ing in a bub­ble of their own per­ceived bril­liance to know what might work – old and new – in the wider world.

• Amelia Tait is a free­lance fea­tures writer

By com­pet­ing with ex­ist­ing in­fra­struc­ture, Lyft Shut­tle could leave poorer peo­ple with fewer and worse tran­sit op­tions

A pas­sen­ger wait­ing for a ride-hail­ing ser­vice. ‘Not only is Sil­i­con Val­ley wrap­ping up an old idea in a new bow, it’s threat­en­ing much-neededpub­lic ser­vices.’ Pho­to­graph: Tom Wil­liams/CQ-Roll Call

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