The word “innovation” has become synonymous with Silicon Valley to the point of absurdity. Indeed, the tech industry’s entrepreneurs and “thoughtfluencers” throw it around as casually as a dodgeball in a middle-school P.E. class; what it really means is perpetually unclear and purposefully hazy. It is vague enough to be suitable in nearly any situation where a new product, service or “thing” is advertised as superior to the old — never mind if the so-called “old” thing has some distinct advantages, or if the new thing’s superiority is solely that it makes more money than the old thing, or if there are other old things that are actually superior yet which won’t make anyone rich. (Consider Apple removing the headphone jack from its new phones to be Exhibit A.)
That summary may sound flippant, but it is a good explication of the path of the tech industry over the past two decades: Some venture capital–backed entrepreneurs jackhammer their way into a new industry, “tech”-ify it in some way, undermine the competition and declare their new way superior once the old is bankrupted.
Thus, rather than confine themselves to operating systems and PC software like they did in the 1980s and 1990s, the tech industry has figured out that the real money lies in being a middleman. By that I mean serving as the in-between point for, say, web traffic to newspapers and magazines (like this one); or being the go-between for taxi services, coordinating drivers and passengers through apps. In both of these examples, the original product isn’t that different from the pre-tech world: a taxi ride, in the latter case, a news article in the former. The difference is that a tech behemoth takes a cut of the transaction. And also in many cases, the labor — the people making and producing and doing the things the tech industry takes a slice from — is more precarious, less well-remunerated, and less safe than it was in the pre-tech era.
Looking at it this way, the tech industry doesn’t really seem innovative at all. Or rather, its sole innovation seems to be exploiting workers with more cruelty, and positioning itself in the middle of more transactions. Granted, there are certain services that have become more convenient because of apps and smartphones — but there is no reason that convenience must come at the high cost that it does, besides the tech industry’s insatiable lust for profit. Here are but a few examples of how our livelihoods and our societies have been worsened by Silicon Valley as it sinks its talons into new industries.
Public transit was never great in the United States, with the exception of a few big cities like New York, and thus private taxi services were around to supplement. Being a taxi driver was once a much-vaunted job, so much so that a taxi medallion was perceived of as a ticket to the middle class.
Then came Uber and Lyft, who flooded the market for private transit and undercut the taxi industry by de-skilling the industry and paying their workers far, far less. Driving a taxi is no longer a middle class job; once-valuable taxi medallions have become burdens for some taxi drivers. The outlook for career taxi drivers is so dismal that an alarming number of taxi drivers have been committing suicide.
Meanwhile, because of the precarious nature of Lyft and Uber jobs, those drivers are frequently not vetted or under-vetted — resulting in significant safety concerns for passengers. And unlike a taxi back in the old days, being a rideshare driver isn’t a ticket to the middle-class at all: a recent study of such employees revealed that most contractors use these kinds of jobs not as their sole source of income, but as supplementary jobs to make ends meet.
Richard D. Wolff, an economics professor at the New School in New York City, describes gig economy companies like Uber as “winning the competition” by taking shortcuts that “frequently endanger the public.” Regulatory agencies for taxis were created in most countries, Wolff says, because taxi companies were historically unsafe. “Taxi companies are required now to have insurance, training for drivers, well-inspected cars, and other safeguards to protect the public. The cost of riding in a taxi reflects those safeguards,” Wolff said, adding:
Lightbulbs have existed for around 140 years, and home refrigerators for about 100. In that span, they haven’t changed too much, besides getting more energy-efficient, mostly because they haven’t really needed to: we need to keep food cold, and we need light. The appliances that do these things don’t really need to do much else.
Now, tech companies are putting wi-fi and Bluetooth chips in all kinds of things that didn’t used to be internet-connected. They call it the “smart home,” and while the word is open-ended, the common thread with smart home devices is that they can generally be monitored via an app.
The smart home is sold to us as next-gen, a new advance on traditional appliances. But these devices tend to waste more of our time, and have both privacy and safety risks that regular appliances lack. You can’t just put a wi-fi chip in a mundane household object like a lightbulb or a smoke detector without doing something to fix the security holes that emerge with having another device connected 24/7 to the web. But that is exactly what happened: a tremendous number of smart home devices have been hacked and turned into digital soldiers forming massive botnets that can be called up by hackers to engage in distributed denial of service attacks. An Atlantic reporter did an experiment that found that their fake smart home device attracted hundreds of hacking attempts in a matter of hours after being plugged in.
Part of the reason that companies are so eager to market the smart home to us is because these devices can be used to build digital dossiers on customers to market things to them. A refrigerator without an internet connection can’t generate any data about a consumer, but a fridge with one can regularly report back all kinds of data on the person using it — data that can be monetized and sold.
Even barring the hacking issue or the privacy issue, smart home devices aren’t necessarily an innovation because their whole function seems to be to create more work for us and turn us into (essentially) managers. There is a certain managerial mindset that trickles down from the device’s creators (who are, at some level, managers themselves) to consumers — as if I wanted to spend my days and nights studying graphs and charts of my fridge’s power consumption, or do a data analysis on my Roomba’s path. That sounds horrible.
Additionally, the difficulty of setting up many of these devices in the first place can be mind-numbing for those lacking technical savvy; notably, drastically increasing the number of wi-fi enabled devices in one’s house often means that you need to invest in new internet equipment, either routers or faster internet service or both. Not everyone is an engineer, nor wants to be, but smart home devices often compel us to be — and this increasingly complex domain of appliances is supposed to be superior to the simplicity of flicking a lightswitch on the wall.
And speaking of turning us into managers…
Steve Jobs’ greatest genius was not in engineering, but in marketing. He understood that late capitalism no longer fulfill needs, but create them; inevitably, Apple became the premier exporter of desire, master marketers who compel us lust over their clean-looking products and obsess over them once we own them.
To that end, there was never really anything wrong with fitness; it wasn’t an industry that needed to be “disrupted,” to use Silicon Valley’s favorite dystopian verb. But if you slap monitoring devices on your shoes, your watch, your armband, and your water bottle, suddenly you have a huge cache of data points about your body and activity that you can analyze later. Apple and a slew of other apps even help you monitor your ovulation cycle, and some analyze and monetize that intimate customer data. This can create some funny situations when those devices stop being updated or get corrupted; Nike was widely mocked when a $350 pair of “smart” sneakers were ruined by a faulty update. The idea of being able to hack into someone’s shoes and ruin them is not exactly where I thought the future was headed.
I suppose if you were dreaming of being a statistician collecting data on your body constantly might seem kind of interesting, but if you aren’t, it’s just a new source of busyness in your life. Again, building devices to quantize as much fitness data as possible wasn’t an example of capitalism fulfilling consumer desire — no one, save a few data scientists, ever said, “I want to turn my leisure activities and exercise regime into spreadsheets” — but the tech industry has been very effective at making us desire just that.
This obsession with quantifying our existence is known in academic circles as “computationalism.” Previously I interviewed Professor David Golumbia, who has written about this extensively, and who describes computationalism as “the philosophical idea that the brain is a computer” as well as “a broader worldview according to which people or society are seen as computers, or that we might be living inside of a simulation.”
“There is a small group of people who become obsessed with quantification,” Golumbia told me. “Not just about exercise, but like, about intimate details of their life — how much time spent with one’s kids, how many orgasms you have — most people aren’t like that; they do counting for a while [and] then they get tired of counting. The counting part seems oppressive.”
In many of the above cases, Silicon Valley has torn into an industry and taken good jobs and turned them into bad jobs. In the case of the corner store, Silicon Valley’s aim seems to be to eliminate the human component altogether.
There are a few different business spins on how this might be done. The most infamous is Bodega (now known as Stockwell), which we reported on in 2017:
Unsurprisingly given that the friendly neighborhood corner marketplace is something that has existed for centuries across most cultures, seeing a group of out-of-touch tech bros working hard to destroy that touched a collective nerve. In the wake of internet outrage, the two of them apologized and then later rebranded.
Stockwell/Bodega is far from the only example of Silicon Valley’s crusade against human interaction. There’s a company that is trying to make robots that make, serve and sell smoothies, which we reported on ruefully last year. There are multiple companies, including CafeX, making robot baristas. Amazon is creating Amazon Go stores that lack cashiers, and rather rely on cameras to track what people pick up and then bill them accordingly.
The thing is, baristas and cashiers aren’t things that we are all dying to get rid of; this isn’t a comparable situation to the horse-and-buggy days, where cars felt like a serious improvement on using beasts of burden for transit. Silicon Valley is only trying to put baristas and cashiers out of business because human labor costs money; the difference between a $4 coffee from a robot and a $4 coffee from a human is that there are no labor costs in the former purchase, something that makes Silicon Valley go googly-eyed with dollar signs. The tech industry’s vision of the future is of a world with less human interaction, less conversation, less humanity; and more surveillance and more monetization of our buying habits. No one wants this, but it’s being forced upon us.
Tesla slices prices on Models S and X as its stock plunges
Tesla has sliced the price of its two most expensive models after several Wall Street analysts questioned the demand for its cars. The company on Monday cut $3,000 from the price of the Model S sedan and $2,000 from the Model X SUV.
The Model S now starts at $71,250 while the X starts at $71,950. The prices don’t include federal and state tax credits for electric-vehicle purchases.
Tesla wouldn’t say if slowing sales influenced its decision, but it said it periodically adjusts prices and available options, according to the Associated Press. Tesla said the decreases offset price increases from a month ago when it offered longer battery range and added a new drive system and suspension.
The moves come as Tesla’s stock is under pressure, at times dropping below $200 per share this week. Several analysts have questioned whether the company can sell enough cars to cover its expenses without dipping into its shrinking cash reserves.
Shares traded Tuesday afternoon at $205.62, up slightly from Monday’s closing price. They are down more than 38 percent so far this year, cutting the company’s market value more than $20 billion to $36.5 billion. On Monday the shares hit their lowest point since late 2016.
Tesla said in a statement that the reductions are about 2% to 3% on the prices of the S and X. The company last week raised the price of its top-selling Model 3 by $400, pushing the base price to $35,400. “By any reasonable standard, these small changes are not newsworthy,” the company said in a statement.
Wedbush analyst Daniel Ives wrote on Monday that he was concerned about Tesla’s growth prospects and the demand for the Model 3 during the coming quarters. He called Tesla a “code red” situation. “We have continued concerns around Tesla’s ability to balance this ‘perfect storm’ of softer demand and profitability concerns, which will weigh on shares until Musk & Co. prove otherwise in terms of delivering solid results over the coming quarters,” Ives wrote, referring to CEO Elon Musk.
After two profitable quarters, Tesla said last month it lost $702 million in the first quarter of 2019, one of its worst performances in two years. Sales tumbled 31% in the period. Musk predicted another loss in the second quarter but said Tesla would be profitable again by the third quarter.
The carmaker recently closed a $2.7 billion funding round, giving it enough cash to survive another 10 months, Reuters reported. Musk now is on a cost-cutting mission, with plans to review “literally every payment that leaves our bank account,” according to Reuters.
In January, the automaker cut its prices by $2,000 per vehicle, acknowledging that the pending expiration of a $7,500 federal tax credit for its electric cars will hurt sales. The credit is gradually being phased out for Tesla by the end of the year.
Genesis Essentia Concept Planned for Production as an EV, Possibly Powered by Hydrogen
The Genesis Essentia concept is still under development for possible series production, Genesis CEO Manfred Fitzgerald told Car and Driver in a recent interview. “There are so many beautiful concept cars that have a very short life span; they are shown and then never seen again. We are trying not to follow that road,” Fitzgerald said, adding: “We are still working on it, and it is still alive. It shall be an electric vehicle.”
Fitzgerald also said that it would not necessarily be a battery-electric vehicle but that it could also be powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. “The Essentia can have different means of electrification, and that is something that we are currently debating,” he explained.
Fitzgerald is a fan of hydrogen-powered cars: “I believe the battery-electric vehicle is just a transitional technology. I see a lot of potential in telling the hydrogen story in the right way, and as soon as people really see it they will recognize the upsides and all the benefits,” he said, adding that hydrogen cars could “kill a lot of pain points of what they are associating right now with electrification.”
Yet there is a strong hint that the Essentia could actually be a battery-powered car: Hyundai recently invested $90 million in the Croatian carmaker Rimac, which specializes in battery-electric supercars. The Genesis Essentia could be one of the projects Hyundai is planning to assign to Rimac, although a Genesis spokesperson called our question about it “pure speculation at this point.”
The Genesis Essentia was launched at the 2018 New York auto show and dominated automotive coverage of the show. The New York launch was followed by appearances at the Concorso d’Eleganza at Villa d’Este on Lake Como and at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in Monterey, California.
Apple Accidentally Reveals Radical New iPhone Upgrade
Unimpressed by Apple’s upcoming iPhone 11 and iPhone XR2? New information directly from Apple itself has teased a red-hot new iPhone upgrade that’s worth waiting for.
Picked up by the ever-alert Patently Apple, Apple has quietly filed a patent which reveals its ambitious plans to bring Touch ID back to iPhones. And it works in a way, unlike anything iPhone owners have experienced before.
Taking inspiration from rivals, Apple has detailed how it will build Touch ID into the display of new iPhones by installing an array of pinhole cameras under the screen. Unlike rivals, however, Apple’s patent shows a touch area which fills the screen allowing users to place a finger anywhere to unlock their device. This is a major breakthrough given the unintuitive nature of textureless in-display readers compared to their physical predecessors.
In addition to this, the tech is clearly taking shape since Apple has included photographs of a working prototype. The furthest step yet for technology the company is clearly accelerating, with no less than four in-display Touch ID patent filings since December (1,2,3,4). Including how user fingerprints will not only be mapped, but 3D modelled.
And even Face ID’s biggest fans should be excited. Firstly, the all-new Touch ID is not designed to replace Face ID but to augment it, giving users both an alternative unlock option as well as military grade security by combining both in hypersensitive situations. Yes, payments would be one example, but Apple is thinking bigger already having filed plans for iPhones to replace your passport and that’s where dual biometrics are crucial.
Excited? You should be. No, Apple’s ugly 2019 iPhones won’t get this but we are seeing more and more reasons why you should skip them anyway. Instead, the big 2020 redesign looks more likely. After all, Apple appears very keen for us to know about it.
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