Silicon Valley is no ‘free market‘, take control of the future, SUVs increasing emissions, automating poverty, & more!

Issue 108

Hey urbanists,

How should we imagine the future? I highlighted a speech by Murray Bookchin where he emphasized the need to change the present to change the future, instead of simply projecting the present a hundred years down the line as is common.

Plus, how Silicon Valley is a state project, tech is being used to automate poverty, Star Wars’ white male future, SUVs are causing a huge increase in emissions, flying cars are bullshit, and my argument to break up the media giants.

I’m in Sydney for another few days, then I fly to Honolulu en route to Canada.

Have a great week!


P.S.— Hit the heart button below the title of the newsletter or at the very end of it if you liked the issue. Thanks!

🔮 In 1978, Murray Bookchin spoke on the need to embrace utopianism instead of futurism, and it still feels relevant with techno-optimism and rising ecofascism.

Futurism is the present as it exists today, projected, one hundred years from now. […] The simple fact is, I just don’t believe that we have to extend the present into the future. We have to change the present so that the future looks very, very different from what it is today. This is a terribly important notion to convey. So a lot of people are walking around today who sound very idealistic. And what do they want to do? They want multinational corporations to become multi-cosmic corporations—literally! 

They want to bring them up in space, they want to colonize the Moon, they can’t wait to go to Jupiter, much less Mars. […] Most futurists start out with the idea, ‘you got a shopping mall, what do you do then?’ Well, the first question to be asked is, ‘why the hell do you have a shopping mall?’ That is the real question that has to be asked. […]

You can travel all over the country and learn nothing, because you’re carrying something that’s very important with you, that will decide whether you learn or not, and that is: yourself. Move to California tomorrow, and if you’ve still got the same psychological and spiritual and intellectual problems, you’ll be sweating it out in San Francisco no differently than you do in Amherst or New York. That is the important thing—to recover yourself, to begin to create a community. And what kind of community imagination can begin to create.

Tech dystopia

🤖 Tech companies “say they have our best interests in mind. We can’t go back, they say. We can’t stop the ‘natural evolution of technology’. But the ‘natural evolution of technology’ was never a thing to begin with, and it’s time to question what ‘progress’ actually means.”

📉 Neil Irwin writes that it’s increasingly clear the gig economy will not be the future of work, but Joshua Clover argues it’s not for the reasons Irwin thinks. The failure of the gig economy demonstrates it was not a break from capitalism, but the companies were simply too focused on increasing relative surplus value through cutting costs, increasing productivity, etc. without first having absolute surplus value from which they could take a greater share.

📚 “The growing concern about the role that technology plays in our lives and society is fueled in no small part by a growing realization that we have been duped.” In Margaret O’Mara’s “The Code,” she demonstrates that “American leaders deliberately pushed public funds to private industry rather than government programs because they thought the market was the best way to spur technological progress while avoiding the specter of centralized planning.” In the 1980s, “Silicon Valley was championed by the rising stars of supply-side economics, who hitched their drive for tax cuts and deregulation to tech’s venture-capital-fueled rocket ship,” and that relationship “helped ensure that the market would guide the Internet’s development in the 1990s.” In short, Silicon Valley is very much a creation of the state and its early ties to neoliberalism are essential to understanding how its developed over time.

😔 “Vast sums are being spent by governments across the industrialized and developing worlds on automating poverty and in the process, turning the needs of vulnerable citizens into numbers, replacing the judgment of human caseworkers with the cold, bloodless decision-making of machines.”

🍅 Uber is planning to get into grocery delivery after buying Chile’s online grocery provider Cornershop. Meanwhile, the company fired another 350 workers across its Eats and self-driving teams.

☠️ The recent death of a worker at an Amazon warehouse has drawn further attention to the company’s terrible working conditions. The man laid on the floor for twenty minutes before anyone found him. Amazon is on the National Council for Occupational Health and Safety’s Dirty Dozen list of most dangerous employers in the United States. Six workers died from November 2018 to April 2019.

💰 Derek Thompson argues the millennial lifestyle is about to get more expensive because companies like WeWork and Uber are finally being expected to show profits or go bust. But his piece acts as though the losses of VC-backed “tech” companies were some egalitarian transfer from capital to labor, when in fact they primarily benefited knowledge workers in the upper-middle class and above, while creating externalities that made life worse for the working class.

☠️ With companies like Uber and Juul, Silicon Valley “has subtly rewritten our conception of the public. The industry has undoubtedly improved people’s individual, private lives—that’s the business model. But it has not necessarily benefited their communal ones. […] Solving one’s own problems can de-escalate interest in solving communal ones. This libertarian individualism also grips the big-tech companies themselves, which pursue their private aspirations no matter the public cost.”

✊ Denying drivers their rights as workers is key to Uber’s future. Greg Bensinger explains how Uber tries to maintain the fiction that drivers are not key to its business, and that it’s a tech company, not a transportation provider. Meanwhile, workers at Foodora in Norway and Uber Eats in Japan have become the first unionized delivery app workers. Foodora workers in Canada could be next.

🇨🇦 “Sidewalk Labs proposes multiple rules for itself as public planner, real-estate developer, builder and manager of critical physical and digital infrastructure and a creator of the rules and standards that will affect all businesses and residents within the smart city.”

🚀 In a 1977 review, science fiction author Samuel Delaney criticized Star Wars’ white male future: “In Lucas’s future, the black race and yellow race have apparently died out and a sort of mid-Western American (with a few South Westerners who seem to specialize in being war ship pilots) has taken over the universe. By and large, women have also been bred out of the human race, and, save for the odd gutsy princess or the isolated and cowed aunt, humanity seems to be breeding quite nicely without them.”

💸 WeWork could be out of cash by next month, and its financing options aren’t great. Airbnb first-quarter loss more than doubled to $306 million.

🖋 Highly recommend Kyle Minor’s essay “The Uber Diaries” in the New Ohio Review

🍿 By Paris: Break Up the Media Giants (OneZero): “Deregulation should serve as a warning for streaming’s effect on the media industry: It’s not ushering in a new era of competition, but swapping one oligopoly for another as consolidation and higher production costs further raise the barrier to entry and increase the market power of dominant players.”

Climate crisis

🌇 Designers will need to rethink their processes and their professions in order to respond to the challenge presented by climate change and to contribute to a Green New Deal. “[T]hey will need to think through what it means to design for the public—to think more purposefully about who is centered in the process, how people will experience the major transitions a program like the Green New Deal would entail, and how the design professions themselves need to change to meet this moment.”

🇬🇷 Greece is planning to open up oil exploration as it phases out lignite coal to reduce its imports and generate resource revenue. But there are major environmental concerns with the project, particularly vulnerable marine ecosystems.

🇪🇹 Ethiopia’s massive dam on the Omo River could become one of the world’s worst environmental disasters on the scale of the Aral Sea as it radically reduces the flow into Lake Turkana, diverting the flow for commercial projects.

🇦🇺 With 97.2% of New South Wales in drought, towns around the state are struggling to maintain a reliable water supply

🇬🇧 Extinction Rebellion targeted the Tube in London. It’s become a PR disaster.

📦 Amazon’s push for one-day shipping is bad for the environment. When does convenience go too far?

Critical mobility

🚙 “SUVs were the second-largest contributor to the increase in global CO2 emissions since 2010 after the power sector, but ahead of heavy industry (including iron & steel, cement, aluminium), as well as trucks and aviation. […] If consumers’ appetite for SUVs continues to grow at a similar pace seen in the last decade, SUVs would add nearly 2 million barrels a day in global oil demand by 2040, offsetting the savings from nearly 150 million electric cars.”

🚫🚗 It’s official: San Francisco’s Market Street will be car-free in January 2020, with priority for buses, bikes, and pedestrians. Jump, Spin, and Lime also now have permission to operate scooters in the city.

🇺🇸 Scooter ridership in San Diego has declined from 33,000 average daily trips in July to 17,000 in the first half of September

🚁 Jarrett Walker on ‘flying cars’: “by allowing elites to opt out of the transportation problems that everybody else in the city is having, they will encourage elite disinterest in solving those problems.”

🛴 Scooter companies are hiking their prices, making it harder for some people to continue justifying the expense. “The new prices can be comparable to taking Uber Pool and much higher than taking the bus, which costs $2. A 20-minute ride on Bird runs nearly $8.80, plus tax; the same ride is $5, plus tax, on a Jump scooter, the cheapest option.”

🇨🇦 Canadians go to the polls on Monday, but James Wilt argues none of the parties’ transit plans are good enough: “Across the board, every major party has failed to propose any real alternative to the crises of austerity, privatization, and inefficiency facing transit agencies in almost every city and region.”

🇨🇱 Mass student-led protests erupted in Santiago, Chile over hikes to transit fares, including jumping fare gates and damaging equipment. The government declared a state of emergency and sent in the army.

💰 “The truth is that there is no inherent difference in efficiency between public and private sector organisations. But privatisation wastes £250 million [$318 million] a week on shareholder dividends and cost of borrowing.”

🇫🇷 Uber is adding Cityscoot’s electric mopeds to its app in Paris

🚲 Europe’s e-bike market is expected to triple within five years

Housing crisis

🇺🇸 Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ new housing bill would effectively force local governments to repeal parking minimums by withholding federal transportation funding from jurisdictions requiring on-site parking

🚗 With affordable housing becoming harder to find, some cities are designating safe parking lots for people who live in their vehicles

🇬🇧 Over the past several decades, the U.K. government has overseen a massive program of land privatization, but people are pushing back against an agenda that primarily benefits landlords and developers at the expense of local communities

🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿 Glasgow is coming to terms with a series of bad planning decisions and trying to address them to improve the health of its residents

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