For decades, the tech community has waved away its humdrum macroeconomic impact by touting some imminent leap forward. Take, for example, self-driving cars, which would replace flawed human drivers with huge fleets of vehicles steered by cameras and computers, saving lives and creating a new manufacturing industry. As recently as April, Elon Musk predicted that 1 million “robotaxis” would be on the road by 2020, and his optimism has been shared by automakers and technology companies alike. Yet progress on self-driving cars has been stubbornly slow. Encoding in computers visual and manual skills sharpened by millennia of human evolution is no easy task. But this is precisely the kind of near-miraculous accomplishment that Silicon Valley has long promised.
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Ironically, the most visible consumer-tech innovation of the past decade hasn’t been computers driving cars but rather contractors driving cars. We’ve seen an explosion of companies that allow consumers to summon products and services to their door, whether it’s food (DoorDash), a handyman (TaskRabbit), or a ride (Uber and Lyft). Goods in this so-called platform economy tend to be shepherded around by workers whose part-time status allows the platforms to avoid providing full benefits, including health insurance. These bargain-rate services make yuppie life convenient. But far from improving transit or enriching workers, these companies exacerbate congestion, deplete resources for public transportation, and entrench urban inequality. Is this what passes for real-world progress in the digital age?
Here’s a fair objection: What if everything I’ve told you about the slowdown in progress and human ingenuity is true—but it’s not Silicon Valley’s fault?
“I think we should be much more disappointed about the slowdown in progress than most people tend to be,” says Patrick Collison, a co-founder and the CEO of the financial-technology company Stripe. “But the slowdown predates the internet, and I still consider the digital revolution, viewed in its totality, a very bright spot in the broader picture of the last 50 years. The status quo, and our broader societal ability to generate innovation, is almost certainly in need of significant change. But if we’re not producing enough gold, it’s important that we blame the geese, not the eggs.”
Collison is right that Big Tech shouldn’t be blamed for all negative economic indicators, many of which are the fault of bad governance, the difficulties of improving productivity in industries such as energy and home construction, and other factors. The digital revolution has in many ways ameliorated the broader slowdown. Yes, geographic mobility is in decline, but the internet has made remote work more feasible. Yes, air travel is no faster than it was 30 years ago (and, in some cases, even slower), but travel-comparison sites have made fares cheaper and in-flight Wi-Fi has made flights more productive.