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Greetings, carbon-based lifeforms! I’m David Streitfeld, here in San Francisco to fill you in on a busy week in tech.
I got umpteen-dozen press releases, all of them about how new tech products and new tech people and new tech services will make you a better, happier, more successful person. To be honest, every week in tech is exactly like this. The future is full of promise, or at least promises.
The present, however, can be brutal. To my mind, the week’s most important tech story was the slaying of an 18-year-old woman at a BART station in San Francisco’s East Bay, just a few miles from Silicon Valley, as she was getting off a train. Nia Wilson was traveling with her older sisters Lahtifa and Nishiya when, in a shocking act of terror, a man slashed her neck. She died at the scene. Lahtifa Wilson was wounded. A transient with a history of violence has been arrested.
How does this relate to tech?
The murder happened in one of our most public spaces, the transportation system used by all but the wealthiest. And it’s decaying visibly, rapidly, painfully. Every commute is an ordeal for BART’s two million weekly users, with cars jammed beyond capacity. Trains are filled with trash, the homeless sprawl over the seats, and the system is increasingly unsafe. Right before Ms. Wilson’s killing, there was another homicide. Right before that, there was an attack that might have prompted a death. (An investigation is ongoing.) Violent crime on BART is up 69 percent over the decade.
Like New York’s and Washington’s subway systems, BART is falling apart. But even as public transit stumbles, another transportation story is playing out. Start-ups are deploying motorized scooters across the country — Charlotte, Baltimore, Cambridge — generally on the principle that it is better to ask forgiveness than permission. They dump them on sidewalks, and people turn them on with an app. Bird, the leading scooter company, now has a valuation of $2 billion. It is less than a year old, but investors are convinced that sidewalks are the next road to riches.
Supporters say the scooters are fun and sensible, and will help relieve congestion. Critics say that once again the public infrastructure is being carved up for private gain, and it’s dangerous besides. Beverly Hills just banned scooters for six months, but that is an option that very few communities seem willing to take.
All of this poses a fundamental question for Silicon Valley: As real life — BART, traffic, the cost of living — deteriorates, will people turn to tech in relief or in anger? Economic inequality stokes powerful emotions, especially when your nose is rubbed in it. There has already been one significant demonstration in San Francisco against the scooters.
The scooter companies are part of Silicon Valley’s push for driverless cars, which advocates say are on the verge of happening in a major way. As a result, my colleague Emily Badger reported, they advise holding off on big mass transit projects that may soon be unnecessary. Some futurists go further. Brad Templeton, a software architect, argues the subway should be paved over to transport autonomous vehicles instead.
Readers commenting on the story smelled a rat. “Autonomous cars are the new mechanism to kick the can down the road further instead of dealing with current realities,” wrote JeffB of Plano, Texas. “A reality where federal, state, and city governments are so dysfunctional and uncoordinated that they no longer have the political will to fund large infrastructure projects.”
San Francisco still has some political will left. A law was recently proposed to ban new corporate cafeterias in the city. The measure stems from the tax break that Twitter and other companies got for moving into a struggling part of town. Restaurants followed them, hoping to capitalize on the generous tech salaries and refined tech palates. But the employees generally ate in the cafeterias, and the restaurants failed.
Aaron Peskin, the city supervisor who co-sponsored the legislation, said he recognized it may be controversial, but that he wanted the tech companies to be more outward facing. He received the usual criticism on Twitter and in story comments, although I also saw one interesting counterproposal: Force the companies to open up their cafeterias to outsiders. If Twitter insists on supplying us with bile, the least it could do is subsidize our lunch.
I have to get back to the press releases now, although I don’t even understand the subject headings on announcements like this: “Hitachi Vantara Named a Leader in 2018 Gartner Magic Quadrant for Solid-State Arrays.”
But that’s my problem. For you, I’ve got more compelling reading:
■ Facebook stock lost $120 billion in value on Wednesday afternoon after chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said its two billion users really needed to get a life. Kidding! All that really happened was its quarterly numbers came in a little short and Facebook said that they would not immediately get better, but Wall Street thought it was the end of the world. For those who can’t get enough of tech’s favorite whipping boy, Casey Newton of the Verge has an excellent daily newsletter discussing the day’s social media tribulations.
■ In “The Political Education of Silicon Valley,” a long piece in Wired, Steven Johnson discusses how tech folks have evolved from libertarianism to left-wing, kind of. I didn’t agree with all of it, but that’s politics.
■ In a test of Amazon’s facial recognition software, the American Civil Liberties Union ran photos of members of Congress against a database of 25,000 mugshots. The software concluded that 28 of the lawmakers were criminals, including six members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Amazon said the software, which is being tested by police departments, was a tool and not a final authority.
David Streitfeld has covered technology and its effects for 20 years. In 2013, he was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting. You can follow him on Twitter here: @DavidStreitfeld.
Orignially published in NYT.