The top US tech stories of 2017: the utopian dream comes to an end
The utopian dream of Silicon Valley is no more – 2017 made sure of that. Every month has brought fresh scandal to the titans of the industry, from Russian interference to sexual harassment; from Uber’s never-ending woes to YouTube’s advertising scandals.
Facebook and Google’s coffers may be overflowing, but these companies are being held increasingly responsible for their role in a divided world, where inequality is rising and extreme points of view thrive – and are even rewarded – online. Here are some of the pieces that captured the mood:
‘Our minds can be hijacked’: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia
Paul Lewis spent several months tracking down and interviewing the designers and thinkers who were at the forefront of the smartphone and social media revolution, and found many of them now regret their involvement in these hyper-addictive technologies. The resulting piece expertly questioned the role the attention economy is playing in undermining democracy itself.
“If the people who built these technologies are taking such radical steps to wean themselves free, can the rest of us reasonably be expected to exercise our free will?
Not according to Tristan Harris, a 33-year-old former Google employee turned vocal critic of the tech industry. “All of us are jacked into this system,” he says. “All of our minds can be hijacked. Our choices are not as free as we think they are.”
Harris, who has been branded “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience”, insists that billions of people have little choice over whether they use these now ubiquitous technologies, and are largely unaware of the invisible ways in which a small number of people in Silicon Valley are shaping their lives.”
Facebook worker living in a garage to Zuckerberg: challenges are right outside your door
In June, as Mark Zuckerberg continued on his stage-managed tour of every state in America, looking pensively at cows and awkward in trucks, Julia Carrie Wong reported from a scene a little closer to the Facebook founder’s home. Two Facebook cafeteria workers who live in a garage near the social network’s HQ wondered openly if Zuckerberg had any idea of the struggles of his less-well off employees.
“I felt more secure at my other job. You didn’t have people looking down at you,” Nicole said. Now she works at cafeterias with names like “Epic” and “Living the Dream”, and the distance between the two classes of Facebook worker can feel immense.
“They look at us like we’re lower, like we don’t matter,” said Nicole of the Facebook employees. “We don’t live the dream. The techies are living the dream. It’s for them.”
The smaller indignities are numerous. At the end of every shift, Nicole watches large amounts of leftover food go into the compost – food she’s not allowed to take home. Cafeteria workers cannot access healthcare from Facebook’s medical clinics. Facebook recently held a “Bring your kids to work” day, but cafeteria workers’ children were not allowed.
Homeless, assaulted, broke: drivers left behind as Uber promises changes the top
In 2017, Uber lurched from crisis to crisis, with allegations of harassment and discrimination against women ultimately resulting in the ousting of the company founder and CEO Travis Kalanick. But aside from a recorded confrontation between Kalanick and one angry driver, too little was written about the drivers at the heart of the company’s success. Sam Levin and Carla Green exposed how the realities of working for the poster child of the gig economy can be brutal, with many drivers homeless and sleeping in their cars to make ends meet.
Just after 2am on a recent morning, Renee emerged from her car in a parking lot about two miles from Los Angeles international airport, eyes heavy with sleep.
“Most of these people here are fronting,” she said, meaning they were hiding the fact that they slept in their cars. She looked out at the lot, which is reserved for Uber and Lyft drivers, who colloquially refer to the parking zone as “Jenny lot” or the “pig pen”.
Most of the hundred-odd parking spots were taken. A handful of drivers stood around smoking and chatting. The rest were in their cars, most with the driver’s seat fully reclined.
“There’s no business right now,” said Renee, who used to stay overnight in the parking lot all the time when she was homeless, but now only does so when she is too tired to drive back to her mother’s house in Lancaster. “If you have a place to go, why are you going to sleep here?”
“Now I know what people mean by two paychecks away from the street,” she continued. “You’re like, I’m a whisper away from being [homeless]. So you drive, and drive, and drive.”
The Silicon Valley execs who don’t eat for days: ‘It’s not dieting, it’s biohacking’
Just when you think Silicon Valley is beyond parody: everybody starts extreme fasting. Many CEOs, venture capitalist and other technologists credit the trend not just with weight loss but increasing productivity in a place where everyone is looking to get an edge over the competition. Olivia Solon asked the question: Are they crazy?
Eight months in and Libin finds fasting easy and frequently attends “nice dinners” with friends where he will only drink water.
“People think it’s torture but it’s actually really pleasant. I get the social interaction, I can see the food and smell it. All of those things are pleasant,” he said. “I usually leave a dinner where I eat nothing feeling kind of full.”
Does he still have to split the bill? “I have done that, yes.”
The WeFast community now has more than 6,000 members across a Facebook page and Slack channel. Participants discuss the latest research on fasting and share tips and results. WeFast also convenes offline: there’s a monthly meet-up in San Francisco where members “break fast” at a restaurant.
The membership skews, said Geoffrey Woo, CEO of biohacking and nootropics company HVMN, towards Silicon Valley engineering types in their twenties and thirties.
“In Silicon Valley and other competitive global markets more people are looking at any technique to gain productivity,” he added.
America has become so anti-innovation – it’s economic suicide
Everyone laughed when Juicero was exposed as a sham. It turned out that rather than forking $400 for a high-end juicer, you could just squeeze the pre-sold packets of diced fruit and vegetables by hand. In a well-argued column, Ben Tarnoff said Juicero exposed the harsh truth at the heart of American business: that the country has forgotten how to innovate.
At the root of the problem is the story we tell ourselves about innovation. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a lone genius disappears into a garage, preferably in Palo Alto, and emerges with an invention that changes the world. The engine of technological progress is the entrepreneur – the fast-moving, risk-loving, rule-breaking visionary in the mold of Steve Jobs.
This story has been so widely repeated as to become a cliche. It’s also inaccurate. Contrary to popular belief, entrepreneurs typically make terrible innovators. Left to its own devices, the private sector is far more likely to impede technological progress than to advance it. That’s because real innovation is very expensive to produce: it involves pouring extravagant sums of money into research projects that may fail, or at the very least may never yield a commercially viable product. In other words, it requires a lot of risk – something that, myth-making aside, capitalist firms have little appetite for.
This creates a problem. Companies need breakthroughs to build businesses on, but they generally can’t – or won’t – fund the development of those breakthroughs themselves. So where does the money come from? The government. As the economist Mariana Mazzucato has shown, nearly every major innovation since the second world war has required a big push from the public sector, for an obvious reason: the public sector can afford to take risks that the private sector can’t.
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