Let's get real

Disrupting reality: Silicon Valley is busy ignoring the real world

Don’t feel like talking to anyone ever again? Don’t worry, there’s an app for that.

Earlier this week, San Francisco-based Melian Labs launched its MyTime app on Android, promising to take the hassle out of making appointments by letting you book services from local businesses directly through the app. On the surface, this may be a good idea. But combine it with other apps and services meant to make your life easier, and a troubling pattern is starting to emerge — one of a app-powered service that has the single goal of taking out the “friction” of interacting with the the people who live around you.

Here are just a few examples:

Uber. Love it or hate it, Uber is changing the way people get around. People with enough money not to rely on public transportation, that is. The company likes paint itself as an alternative to car ownership, while aggressively going against traditional taxi cabs — but it also directly competes with bus and rail, and has the potential to further stigmatize public transporation as a way for poor people to get around.

[pullquote person=”” attribution=”” id=”914967″]If Silicon Valley truly wants to get real, then it has to stop shielding itself from reality, and become part of society, instead of pledging to disrupt it from the outside.[/pullquote]

Adding to that is Uber’s built-in reality filter. Ever wondered why cabbies are so much more moody than Uber drivers, even though both have long shifts and endure lots of stress driving through traffic and dealing with customers all day? There’s an easy explanation. Uber drivers have to keep up a high rating to stay in the game, and no one likes complainers, so it literally pays to lie through your teeth as an uber driver. “This is the best job ever!”

Shyp, Taskrabbit & Co. Don’t want to stand in line? Then make someone else do it for you. It’s the new servant economy, with the added benefit that you don’t have to ever visit your local post office, dry cleaner or supermarket again. You know, those places where you used to run into other people living in your community, and possibly get a glimpse into their lives.

Birchbox, Barkbox, Amazon Prime. I’ve always loved getting mail, and I also love ecommerce. But every now and then I have to remind myself that the premise of the endless shelf space doesn’t actually make a whole lot of sense if you are just buying things that are also available in your neighborhood store. At that point, you’re just trying to avoid your neighbors — and as a result, you’re removing money from your local community.

Homeschooling. Education is a polarizing topic. I’m a parent myself, and my wife and I decided early on to send our daughters to a public school, as opposed to a private or charter school. I also know that this is a decision every parent has to make for themselves to find a solution that’s best for their child. That being said, I thought it was troubling to read about the latest Silicon Valley fad in Wired recently: Parents who are “hacking education” by homeschooling their kids. From the story:

“This may come as a shock to those of us who still associate homeschooling with fundamentalists eager to shelter their kids from the evils of the secular state. But it turns out that homeschooling has grown more mainstream over the last few years. According to the most recent statistics, the share of school-age kids who were homeschooled doubled between 1999 and 2012, from 1.7 to 3.4 percent. And many of those new homeschoolers come from the tech community.”

The article goes on to describe how techies who “never liked school” themselves are now taking their kids out of school to teach them at home, and paints homeschooling as taking DIY to the next level. What it fails to mention is the idea of raising citizens. Of having children play and learn with others who aren’t like them, and who may not be able to afford having one parent stay at home to play teacher. This is troubling for us as a society — in many parts of America, schools are now more segregated than they used to be in the 1960s — but it’s also another example for Silicon Valley building an alternate reality, devote of the problems the rest of the country is facing, instead of trying to solve these problems together.

The collapse of the American community

I know, the world isn’t black and white, and there are good things to many of the businesses mentioned above as well. But what gets me really about this trend is that it wasn’t supposed to be that way.

I still remember listening to Meetup.com co-founder Scott Heiferman talk at an early O’Reilly conference in 2005. Back then, Heiferman, told his audience that the book Bowling Alone, which chronicles the collapse of the American community, inspired him to launch Meetup, with the intent to get people to go out and come together again. At the time, many of the so-called Web 2.0 services had similar ideas, be it Upcoming.org, Craigslist, or even local blog networks like Metblogs.

Fast forward a decade, and a lot of that spirit has been replaced by the imperatives of the sharing economy. It’s not about meeting your neighbors anymore, it’s about putting them to work.

The irony is that all of this happens as the tech community is starting to grow a conscience, and looking to “give back” through volunteerism and initiatives like Ron Conway’s 111 initiative. Those are noble efforts, but if Silicon Valley truly wants to get real, then it has to stop shielding itself from reality, and become part of society, instead of pledging to disrupt it from the outside.

14 Responses to “Disrupting reality: Silicon Valley is busy ignoring the real world”

  1. James Rivington

    You lump “bus and rail” into a giant amorphous blob. In my experience, there is a broad spectrum of quality and value embodied in bus and rail. So, yes, that includes a huge slice of one-size-fits-all “urban transportation” monopolies that are low cost but offer crappy value. Especially buses that are packed to the rafters and take forever to go places other than where you need to go. Who wouldn’t want an option to pay extra for better service? Even “poor” people opt for alternatives when they are available; that is, when the transportation unions don’t attack them and get them shut down (see: dollar van). So, there’s nothing about Uber that’s inherently anti-social. Bring it on, and the sooner the better.

  2. Marcus Nelson

    This has been a concern of mine for some time, not just in SF but also after having moved to Orange County. It seems we’ve raised a few generations of anti-social behaviorists — however technology can not be blamed entirely (though it does have a tendency to perpetuate it).

    Generally speaking, we’ve grown up with a spirit of fear for the last three decades. Media tells us halloween candy is tainted, playgrounds are teeming with child molesters, politicians are liars and crooks, and neighbors are not to be trusted.

    Add to that the rise in working two-parent households and distractions of Internet and television which leave little time for civic duties and participation. Few are members of Lions Clubs, Kiwanis International, or for that matter the local Chamber of Commerce.

    As a result, we are no longer trusting of our communities, neighbors, or leadership. We also don’t know our own communities to make change in them, so it becomes easier to criticize without actually doing anything to change it.

    If think this is the crux of the matter. Not knowing the people you live near. And that’s a shame, but it’s not entirely a technology issue.

    In the end though, I am just as guilty as the next person.

  3. Ketharaman Swaminathan

    I get your drift but I’m hooked to many such apps viz. FoodPanda for food delivery, UBER competitor OlaCabs for taxi. Not having found something similar for bill payment and a few other daily chores, I’m developing them myself. By doing this, I know I’m shying away from human interactions. But, what am I to do when they subject me to duh-like moments much of the time? Or when they refuse to apologize for their mistakes or change their ways in future? Unfortunately, these problems are extending even to white-collar professions like software, as I’d highlighted in a recent blog post: http://gtm360.com/blog/2015/02/06/why-customers-may-flee-abroad-before-tech-startups/. I know, as a fellow human being, I need to have patience and all that, but there’s a limit to everything. IMHO, these apps harbinger the growth of “power users” who demand greater efficiencies and better CX. Unless humans shape up, these apps will ship them out. This makes me sad as a human being but happy as a power user.

  4. Loved the beginning of the article, but I couldn’t bring myself to read beyond the bashing on homeschooling.

    It’s difficult to continue giving attention and credit to an article where someone talks negatively about a community that they clearly know very little about and have had very little experience in.

    As a business owner I actually actively seek out people who receive home schooling to work for me. My experience has been that they are far superior communicators and have a much better attitude to work without needing to be supervised 100% of the time. I do not have any children being home-schooled as of yet, but it’s definitely an option I’m looking to as my children grow up.

    Please look more into home schooling communities and meet some home schooled children before passing judgement on whether the kids are developing the social skills they need or not.

  5. Paul Bailey

    I think a lot of US culture is optimized for extroverts and so this trend is not really a collapse of any community but just a swinging of the culture back to the center.

  6. This is a glib take on a serious issue. Having spent the last several years trying to get really basic environmental health fixes in our schools that are promised in our bond measure anyway so my asthmatic child could safely attend, and being downright abused by untrustworthy, petty district people who are willing to even bully children to push out those who dare to try to bring improvements to the educational system (i.e., change), I am being encouraged even by educational experts the district hires to save myself the headaches. The Wired article is wrong, though, it’s not a new phenomenon, and if they had looked a little harder they would have found that San Jose district (not my home district) has for decades had a program that allows families to partly homeschool and partly school.

  7. scottwharton

    The people who benefit from the sharing economy are those that have assets (cars, apartments, time etc) that is inefficiently being utilized but can be monetized through these services. It’s a way of making money from something they already own as a choice. Only an elitist would be upset from people choosing to have more income

  8. If Silicon Valley wants any relevance it shouldn’t bother with the US anyway. The US is less than 5 % of the world population, almost 10% of the Internet population and more (but hard to estimate and declining) when it comes to revenue for the tech.segment.\
    Them being so American is actually a big problem and being so Californian makes it even worse.
    As for the US , If anyone, anywhere wants to fix anything in the US they need to fix money in politics first, nothing can work before that. When the law is made by corporations for corporations the outlook can only be negative (both economic and social).
    How about we start by asking Silicon Valley and all other corporations to stop putting money into politics or spend on lobbying. It’s bad to dump oil into the sea or to spy on people, but it’s so much worse to corrupt the entire political system.
    As for social interactions, don’t forget that digital interactions matter too and they are becoming more and more “real”. It could be that you don’t understand or value that properly but it’s not little. For whatever reason you seem to like a tribal organization where the small bubble around you matters but maybe a global bubble enabled by digital is a lot better since it expands our horizons. If a service or an app increases efficiency and saves us time and/or money ,it’s not a bad thing. Not having the localized community ,that is after all a forced one , doesn’t mean that people are not part of communities that fit them much better.
    Maybe kids have fewer friends on the same street but they have friends on Twitch and a bunch of other communities. Even if you take this article here, you are not talking to one of your neighbors but to anyone around the world that stumbles upon it.
    Tech will evolve, glasses and beyond will make digital interactions a lot better and then robots will fundamentally change the economy and the society- but that’s a far bigger topic.

  9. exhibit44

    I am taking a non-degree IT class at a top college, and the students walk in, hide behind their monitors, never talk to each other, and walk out. Virtually no interaction with each other. And these are mostly kids.

  10. I understand the author’s point, but it’s important to keep in mind that these apps are also becoming popular in places where there is no public transportation (i.e. small towns and rural areas), and in neighborhoods where there are few stores (e.g. “food deserts”). Discouraging the use of technology in a misguided effort to preserve a romanticized sense of “community,” would be a mistake. These apps do encourage commerce and communication. It is just the format of the commerce and communication that is changing – not the people. People are still as social as we’ve ever been. We just have more options about HOW we choose to interact than we’ve ever had before.

  11. mhszymczyk

    I personally don’t get the entire fad with the ‘sharing economy’. In order for the sharing economy (and it’s startups) to thrive and grow requires that there be an inequal class and income system – royalty and serfs. The sharing economy only works if you have people that are able and willing to do the service end for low wages. Given we already have growing inequality in the U.S., one of 2 things happens. Inequality gets too extreme where there aren’t enough customers for the sharing economy startups to grow revenue. Or, the sharing economy pulls the serfs out of poverty to afford it’s services. But given the wages most people make as serfs on the sharing economy service end, doesn’t seem likely. Take Uber for instance, there’s numerous studies now showing that a driver really is only netting $10-$12 an hour (if that) after all their other expenses. This isn’t a future customer that can afford to take Uber or much less pay for ‘surge pricing’. Maybe it’s me, but it seems most of the current tech bubble is concentrated in these types of services….there’s no way they should be getting close to the valuations they are.