Secrets of Silicon Valley BBC2

This is the first of 2 documentaries by blogger Jamie Bartlett whose intelligent, low key investigation of the big tech companies are seen to be very different to what they claim. He visits Silicon Valley, the main source of so many inventions that claim will improve our lives, but he finds they are based on a new concept, that of “disruption” ,  not the traditional introduction of new ideas but the total ripping up of what has evolved locally.

He visits Barcelona to witness protests against Airbnb which claims to be bringing the world together, but is destroying affordable housing for locals. He talks to taxi drivers in India who were encouraged to take out huge loans to buy new taxis, with promises of rising incomes, but the demand for new taxis did not grow, so as more drivers joined uber, their average wages fell, leaving many in despair of ever paying off debts. One driver committed suicide, leaving a wife and several young children.

Much is made of the bright new future promised by tech giants such as Amazon, google, apple etc., but Bartlett talks to local government official who complains of their refusal to pay local taxes, predicting a decline in local services such as schools and hospitals on a par with that of the rust belt. He worries the region will become another Detroit.

Parallels are made with these new companies and the industrial revolution, and the social disruption that happened to build our modern world, but these people are very different.  To see these young entrepreneurs bouncing ideas off each other is inspiring, but only up to a point. They are out of touch with most of the planet. A young woman at a party was celebrating because she had invented a way to grow vegetables using less water. She was overjoyed, claiming she was going to feed the world. We’ve been there decades ago. You don’t helicopter into a poor community and give them a magic invention to save them. Such thinking assumes poor people are stupid, that farmers do not understand farming, and that centuries of history and tradition amount to nothing when faced with young inventors with their wads of venture capital funding.

At the core of the technology revolution seems to be a desire to relieve people of the need to work. One inventor spoke of giving people money so they could just what they want. Where is all this money coming from? I’ve never met anyone who wanted to spend all their time on leisure; if you talk to retired people they often complain of boredom. Very few people are able to fill their days, especially without a lot of money. Work keeps people socially engaged, and physically active.

As with the conversion of urban housing to high rise, there is also the matter of ownership. Bartlett spoke to Uber who claimed not just to be getting people into taxis, but to drive down car ownership itself. Again, this ignores that a lot of people like driving, and that not everyone wants to go to the same place at the same time. There is no lack of irony that the USA has spent a century getting people to own cars, now they are proposing communal transport. It used to exist – trams, trains etc, which have been lost in many areas, and suburban sprawl means it is not viable in many areas. So these new firms are involved in large scale social engineering, claiming they are for public benefit, but it is all about their profits.

Bartlett visits a former Facebook executive who is so terrified by the way the world is heading he has retreated to an isolated island where he hopes to survive the coming apocalypse. He notes how many guns exist in the USA, mostly in the hands of people who are being made redundant by all this new technology. It’s a terrifying image. He is stockpiling guns and food for the apocalypse, but he seems to share the same lack of insight. Can he really survive? What happens when his car needs petrol? When his shoes wear out, when even his knives need replacing? Can he really survive long? I doubt if I would want to. He claimed many others are doing the same. If so, why aren’t they getting together to prevent the apocalypse? Like so much in our modern world, people seem to be concentrating on the end result, rather than trying to avert disasters.

Can’t wait for the next episode.

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