Congratulations, you invented a horse
On making fun of Silicon Valley
Twitter loves to dunk on Silicon Valley. It goes especially crazy when tech companies “invent” something that already exists – whether that thing is good or bad. Yesterday the bright idea was Google’s plan to build affordable housing on its property in the Bay Area, to which someone retorted, “You’re describing a company town.”
Previous versions of this meme format have followed similar lines.
For co-living: “IT’S CALLED ROOMMATES YOU INVENTED ROOMMATES“
For so-called ‘job mortgages’: “Congratulations, you invented taxes and public education“
For the automated bodega: “Congratulations! You “invented” vending machines.“
As much as I agree with the sentiment here, i.e. please fuck off with your platform capitalist solution to this social problem, I think it’s interesting how detached these responses are from reality. Let’s consider a meta-shitpost:
Ok, yes this joke is extremely dumb, but it articulates something important. Platforms don’t just want to replace whatever dominant institution they resemble; they aspire to fundamentally remake the political economy of their sector, in addition to all the ways it intersects with public life.
The history of driving is actually a good example. The affordances of the car were completely at odds with the norms of public space, which meant early drivers killed lots of people and caused all kinds of problems. As local governments took up regulations to rein in this violence, the industry went on a lobbying campaign to transform the legal and spatial structure of the streetscape. They shamed pedestrians for carelessness and invented the crime of “jaywalking.” Auto dealers in the 1920s even sent mailers to their customers urging them to vote against speed regulations (sorta like Uber and Airbnb almost a century later). In short, they accommodated the world to the car rather than the other way around.
The parable of the auto industry suggests we should think about “disruption” not just as a pattern of competition, but almost as a terraforming process which brings forth a different material and political environment – one that’s hostile to existing social relations and hospitable to new ones orchestrated by centralized digital platforms.
The “congratulations” joke only works if you’re actively thinking about how to sabotage that process. If we don’t want to end up in dystopian co-living pods, we should be working to expand rent control and unwind the massive acquisition of housing stock by private equity. If we want equitable transportation, we’ll need proper funding for mass transit but also a complete transformation of the environment that gives ride-hailing platforms an artificial advantage.
Platforms are quite fragile during the process of “scaling,” which is partly why they spend so heavily to popularize their proprietary vision of the future. Uber is maybe the best example of a company that needs to burn billions of dollars to create its own reality. As Hubert Horan wrote recently on Naked Capitalism, “Much of the Uber/ridesharing story can be seen as a battle between perceptions based on the artificial, manufactured narratives that the media has embraced, and perceptions based on economic/financial evidence.” Its recent IPO flop shows just how far Uber will need to bend the rules of the market in order to become the so-called “Amazon of transportation” and actually turn a profit.
I don’t want to ramble on too long here, but I think it’s worth noting there’s a relationship between the debt that finances startup world-building and the debt which constrains the possibilities of ordinary people and governments. Here I’m thinking of the links Jackie Wang makes between finance, governance, and policing in her book Carceral Capitalism. When platforms disrupt existing industries, such as when Uber forces drivers into predatory leases and labor arrangements, they deepen what Wang calls “a form of financial citizenship that compels us to accept indebtedness as inevitable and to constantly engage in self-disciplinary acts that authorize and extend the debt economy.” They make premium lifestyles available to the already “creditworthy” while allowing predictive policing and to basically update redlining for the digital age. That’s a whole other topic, but I really recommend the book (you can read an excerpt on The New Inquiry).
What else I’m reading right now:
Sam Stein (author of Capital City) recaps what the tenant victory in Albanymeans for New York renters
Kaitlyn Tiffany profiled the gun influencers of Instagram
How Teach for America Evolved Into an Arm of the Charter School Movement(yikes)
Jiayang Fan’s profile of Cixin Liu in this week’s New Yorker
Casey Newton’s latest story on working conditions for Facebook moderators
All hail Lord Rod and his yam car
Thanks for reading.