What people really want

The controversy-du-jour roiling tech this week has been, if you can believe it, how extremely wealthy Silicon Valley tech investors (virtually all white men) feel oppressed. Lots of these guys have been complaining of “censorship” of late, evidently not knowing or caring why that term doesn’t really apply to their situation; but then Sam Altman unburdened himself of his own hurt feelings in a cringe-worthy post in which he explained, evidently without irony, how much freer he felt in the less “restricted” environment of… Beijing.

I don’t mean to dunk on Altman, or the other (wealthy, white) dudes in tech who I’ve heard complain about not being “free” to say whatever they want without consequence. I would only refer them to xkcd, which has, per usual, the most succinct clarification of this issue around, as well as Anil Dash’s excellent rebuttal.

Rather, it’s more interesting to examine the growing popular ennui with the tech-utopian-visionary schtick that I, too, have noticed. It does seem that people are less in thrall to the “crazy, audacious dreaming” thing of late, and are increasingly likely – in the tech press, twitter and elsewhere – to encounter it with frustrated exasperation. I’ve begun doing this more, too.

One big reason for this, I believe, is a growing dissatisfaction with the status quo of public goods that many of these utopian plans are either based upon or seek to “solve” for commercial gain. For decades now, the political power structure has systematically starved much of our public good infrastructure of investment: from housing, to transportation, to healthcare, to the social safety net and much more. This has conditioned many of us (I’m particularly thinking of millennials and our Gen-X brothers-and-sisters-in-arms) to simply believe that this is the way things are: public transit sucks. Housing is scarce. There is no safety net. Such is life.

Yet… it doesn’t have to be this way. As this generation has increasingly found its voice over the last decade, it has realized that, actually, many of these problems are more properly ones of deliberate public investment, not opportunities for tech-utopian rent seeking; and that in a society increasingly characterized by inequality, “tech” that caters primarily to the wealthy isn’t as attractive anymore.

In the midst of a healthcare cost crisis, that people are turning to Ubers instead of ambulances to get to hospitals is not a triumph of “tech” – it is a sad symptom of a broken system. Tech seems to have no answers whatsoever for the national housing crisis, which is top of mind for every millennial I know, and in fact insists on its employees clustering in ultra-high-cost metros. We have Musk dreaming of hyperloop schemes and dissing public transit for being a “pain in the ass,” and then being petulant at the blowback. Altman (after unironically comparing himself to Newton and Galileo) is surprised at irritation at the notion that advancing medical science requires tolerance for chauvinism and hate.

The tech industry is not to blame for most of these social ills. Our shoddy political leadership and their economic stewardship is. Yet I think many of these tech celebrities have deeply misread the current public’s eagerness to celebrate their private, profitmaking ventures as somehow superior or more important than the public goods that we really want.

Entrepreneurs trying to make a buck is what this country is all about – good for them! But perhaps the public is just less interested in hearing what whiz-bang innovation schemes some tech gazillionaire has cooking next, as opposed to figuring out what we’re going to do to address the real material needs that aren’t being met for many folks in our society.


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