We often read talk about how there is a ‘tech bubble‘ or more accurately ‘another tech bubble’. People with long memories can recall the insanity of boo.com, and then look at current valuations for airbnb and uber, and wonder if there is another day of reckoning coming. Maybe there is, or isn’t, I honestly have no idea. There is however, another ‘bubble’ issue with silicon valley, and in some ways its both more worrying (for what it says about society) and more destructive (for whom it hurts). To explain the bubble, I need to talk about my car, and its autopilot features.
I am stupidly fortunate enough to drive a Tesla Model S, with autopilot. It is AWESOME. Its by far the best car I have ever owned. I love Tesla, I have Tesla stock, I believe in the company, I have a Tesla T-shirt, I’ve read that book about Elon Musk, I am a Tesla fanboy. Autopilot is amazing, and cool, and awesome, and worth the money. Now let me tell you why it is completely oversold, overhyped and rubbish.
Autopilot does exactly what its advertised to do. On a motorway (highway to you Americans), its basically a self-driving car. It is pretty flawless at staying in lane, steering, and changing lanes, and the ‘Traffic aware cruise control’ is awesome. On smaller, but good quality wide A-roads, its also amazing. Its very, very good at what it does. The trouble is, all the things it really sucks at are very interestingly all the things you don’t get much of in Silicon Valley.
Autopilot is bad, even maybe a bit dangerous if one side of the road is unmarked with lines, has no kerb, and a hedge. It hugs the side of the road way too much in that case. Its not very good in heavy rain, where you have dirty roads and muddy roads and the lines are obscured or just not even there. It doesn’t like cars parked on the roadside. It is absolutely useless / dangerous if it encounters a roundabout (mini or otherwise). None of these are surprising to me, none of these are a problem. I drive with autpilot on maybe 20% of the time (at most). (By the way, I live in a tiny tiny village in rural England.)
So far, so good. The problem is, lots of the tech/money people in silicon valley seem to think driverless cars are imminent. No Fucking Way. A car that does 95% of your motorway driving? Sure. A car that maybe does 90% of your driving in general? Sure. But a car that does 100% of your driving and you can read a book? Not now, not soon, not for a lot longer than people think. The trouble is, if you live in Silicon valley, you commute from your home with a garage, drive along highways and wide open US roads in California sun, never encounter a roundabout, never get stuck behind a horse, never see a road that has the remains of straw bales scattered all over it to cover horse crap…never encounter any of the 1,000 other ‘anomalies’ that I see on my roads every day…then sure! Self-driving is imminent. And those hedge fund managers who live in ‘grid-layout’ new york will agree with you too. The car industry as it was is DEAD. All cars are about to become robots.
The most dangerous thing in the world is to think that everyone lives like you, thinks like you, and wants what you want. That way, you start to disregard whole areas of thought, whole groups of people, and become insular, closed minded and prejudiced. The vast majority of non tech people I know do not give a DAMN about self-driving cars. They want cheaper rent, more stable jobs, better pay. They are happy if they can afford *any* car. The idea of lusting after a self-driving one is a laughable past-time for the super-rich.
Leave this problem with cars and it doesn’t matter. I think it leads to over-optimistic tech stock valuations, but that’s no big deal in the grand scheme. The problem is the ‘driverless cars are here’ cries are a symptom of a wider problem. Most of the people with big financial clout are living in a bubble, where the only concerns they understand are the concerns of *people like them*.
Here is a shock: My phone is cheap enough, light enough, and has enough features. My laptop is thin enough, light enough, and has enough features. By the way so does my car, so does this desktop PC, so does practically everything I own. I have some fucking virtual reality goggles for crying out loud. if you ask me what is *missing* from my life, I’d have to start dreaming up some really crazy stuff. maybe a self-filling voice-activated kettle? errr maybe it would be nice if my TV was voice activated. errr…
And this is dumb as hell because there are VAST swathes of people out there who can rattle off their top needs with no problems. Ask a Syrian refugee, or someone in a country with no running water or mains electricity what their needs are. or better still, don’t even go that far, just walk outside your luxury office with its canteen with pastry chef and neck massages for all staff, into the streets of San Francisco and ask someone homeless what they want. I doubt they will start talking about how they hope the iphone 7 has a new headphone connector. Its not going to make their list.
I get the economic argument. Homeless dude and Syrian dude have no money, whereas I do. So you try and sell me a new phone to replace last weeks phone. I understand the maths. I understand that trying to develop a business model where you can provide goods for people with very little money is REALLY hard. But the tech elite keep telling us how clever they are. If so, you guys can do it. You just need to step outside your silicon valley bubble and take a look in the real world. Thankfully, and ironically given this blog post, the one guy who seems to ‘get it’ is actually Elon Musk. The Model S was a stepping stone to the model 3, and I fully expect the cars to get cheaper and cheaper until *shock horror* they are available to ordinary people. My question is… where is the Elon Musk for food, for housing? for education? It seems like the ‘real world’ problems of access to education, clean water, food, shelter, are ‘too dull’ or maybe just too boring for the tech elite to bother with. That doesn’t need to be the case, they just need a little imagination. And if the only thing they can possible invent is a slightly thinner, slightly faster phone? then how about just paying the fair share of corporate tax, and let the government use it to do the ‘dull’ work?
By the way, if you do happen to be a tech-elite type, and feel bad reading this, you can build a whole school in cameroon for about $25,000. It’s easy.