Opinion: Tech isn’t revolutionary if it’s only accessible to the rich

The profit-first mindset is no longer exclusive to the financial sector — it has now wormed its way through the tech industry as altruistic open-source culture and slow-boiling government R&D have become secondary to venture capitalists and their get-rich-quick schemes. From the release of the $1,000 iPhone X to the exploitation of labor at “unicorns,” or startups valued over $1 billion, the tech industry seems hell-bent on solving the non-problems of the upper classes and creating real ones for the rest of us.

A technology gap exists between the poor and rich, the old and the young, the rural and urban, the white, the Hispanic and the black, because a selfish kind of innovation is prevailing. As technology permeates our lives more each day, we need to correct our direction before creating a neglected underclass severed from an increasingly connected world.

Some of the most divisive “disruptions” are taking place in the transportation sector, which is already stratified without any help from the tech world. The sullied ex-CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick, gave the world a prototypic ride-hailing service that completely changed how we traverse our cities. But Uber’s biggest competitor in the ride-hailing market, Lyft, recently showed us what millions of dollars worth of research and development can achieve: existing ideas.

In March, Lyft revealed their newest innovation, Shuttles, an option for drivers to pick up passengers from communal stops before traveling fixed routes, all at a discounted price. You may recognize this as public transit but apparently the developers at Lyft didn’t. The backlash to Shuttles was swift and merciless. Headlines like “Lyft Shuttle eliminates those pesky poor people,” appeared, while users Twitter played into the absurdity too, “Lyft Public Transit For People Who Are Afraid Of The Homeless is really taking off,” user @tsmclarney tweeted.

Jokes aside, Slate writer, Will Oremus, brought up a point of serious concern — the app could pull middle-class commuters from public transit and into the private service, further hurting the ridership numbers (and political leverage) of the Metros, BARTs and MTAs of the country. “Lyft didn’t reinvent the city bus, any more than Uber reinvented the taxi,” Oremus writes. “It’s offering a service that is likely to compete with city buses, for better or worse.”

A Lyft exec tried to allay fears when she referred to Shuttles as a “micro-transit” option — a ride-hailing car system that fills in the gaps that trains and buses leave — rather than an alternative to government-backed public transit. Yet, as commenter Riley Cayote pointed out, “A true rideshare platform with local residents sharing rides with their neighbors is a great idea. But it should be implemented and managed as what it is — a public good, as part of the wider public transit system, with the benefits flowing to local residents, rather than being monetized by billion dollar corporations.”

The word “innovation” is often reserved for those who need it the least, rather than focused on access for all, and that’s if they’re not intentionally priced out.

Lyft is offering a competing bus service that caters to the young, well-off, tech-savvy crowd, rather than creating products that work in coordination with public transit, where at least in Los Angeles, the average bus rider’s income sits at $15,000 a year, compared to the general population’s average of just under $30,0000, according to Metro statistics. The word “innovation” is often reserved for those who need it the least, rather than focused on access for all, and that’s if they’re not intentionally priced out.

I remember walking into my first lecture at the University of Southern California and seeing an entire lecture theater dotted with $2,000 Macbooks, feeling terribly inadequate when I pulled out my own battered $200 Asus laptop. Apple has monopolized technology in certain circles of society in the U.S. as their products have become a clear visual identifier of the upper middle class, where using anything other than Apple technology is stigmatized — I’ve seen my own friends half-joke about not texting a guy back because of the “green bubble” (on iPhones and Macbooks, text messages from non-Apple products appear in a green block instead of the usual blue.)

Apple reaffirmed their luxury status with the iPhone X, revealed on September 12, which will cost over $1,000 for the first time ever. Obviously, many consumers are wary of the eye-watering price tag, but evangelists like Wired magazine (whose latest pop-up store in Los Angeles featured a champagne sabers and a $600 purifying fan) are embracing Apple’s luxury strategy, countering those skeptical of the iPhone X price with a piece smugly titled, “The iPhone X isn’t that expensive, actually.”

There’s no doubt that people will pay whatever price tag Apple slaps on their products. The brand power it commands among the elites in U.S and elsewhere across the world, now including China, guarantees a market of keen, even aspirational buyers. But contrast Apple with Android, Google’s proprietary phone software. Android has 81.7% of the world share compared with iOS’ meager 17%. When we talk about a “smartphone revolution” in developing countries, that these palm-sized supercomputers have improved millions of lives and there are more people with smartphones than access to toilets, we’re not talking about iPhones here.

Apple might titillate their consumer base in developed countries, it’s the highest profiting corporation in the U.S. after all, but in a global context, they’ve touched barely anyone, revolutionized barely anything. You could argue that Apple doesn’t even want to appeal to the everyman, but their penchant for maintaining mass-market appeal while offering products at exclusionary prices purposefully sidelines people who can’t afford the steep prices.

Silicon Valley frequently prioritizes the exclusive over the egalitarian. A company called Juicero shut down its operations just weeks ago, after a Bloomberg report made it the most laughable startup in recent memory. The $700 WiFi-connected smart “juicer” squeezed $5-$7 dollar individual packets of shredded produce. It had a built-in camera to scan a QR code on the back of the produce pack so the juicer could tell you if they were past their sell-by dates, which is similarly achieved by looking at the expiration date on the back.

Earlier this year, Bloomberg released a video showing one of the reporters squeezing one of the juice packets by hand. The result? The same juice, and it took even less time to hand squeeze than the machine. Humiliation ensued and the usual peanut gallery relished the absurdity of a device which cost near a month of rent for the average American.

Even without the $1,000 iPhones, $700 juicers and ergonomically-designed champagne sabres, Silicon Valley indulges itself in a time-old problem — exploitation. The destabilizing force that is the “gig economy” tells us the lack of steady long-term jobs is easily remedied by performing freelance-style tasks paired with small, sporadic payments. Our wonderful ride-hailing apps have undercut taxis, locking drivers out of minimum wage requirements, unions and other benefits by classing them as independent contractors rather than employees. Uber and Lyft drivers are barred from unionizing in the U.S., and have frequently been referred to as “sweated labour” in the UK, a Victorian term harkening back to the industrial revolution. British politician, Frank Field, described drivers’ wages as “barely sufficient to sustain existence.”

Then, of course, are the workers exploited in-house. Several reports have surfaced of tech leviathans, like Facebook, treating their service staff poorly, despite their outwardly egalitarian appearance. The social media company hires cafeteria staff through a contractor and despite the $15-plus minimum wage, the workers complain that with rising living costs (partially due to the influx of these same tech companies to the area) they are left struggling to live in the ever-gentrifying Menlo Park area, where Facebook HQ is located.

Compounding the financial stressors of their workplace is plain old classist behavior. A janitor at Facebook described the bevy of free amenities given to well-paid staffers, including hair cuts, food and laundry, whereas the janitorial staff only “leave with the check.” Cafeteria workers spoke on how they are forced to throw away any leftover food, and are restricted from accessing the medical clinics on the company’s campus. Even during Facebook’s “take your child to work” day cafeteria workers were excluded from the event. One of the cafeteria workers, Nicole, described their treatment in a Guardian article from earlier this year, “They look at us like we’re lower, like we don’t matter,” said Nicole of the Facebook employees. “We don’t live the dream. The techies are living the dream. It’s for them.”

Nicole summarizes the tech world down to its basic form; there are two classes distinct of each other. For one group, Silicon Valley promises a flurry of new products designed to make life easier, at least for those who can afford it. Everyone else can wait until prices drop years down the line, or at worst be exploited to help sustain the innovations for the upper classes. The narrative surrounding the tech world often assumes these “disruptors” as our saviors, that technology is somehow exempt from bias or predisposition. Yet, reality shows that Silicon Valley and its peers are more ingrained in harmful structures than they’d like to believe.

Categories: Culture, Identity, Technology.

Top image: (Kārlis Dambrāns via Flickr under CC BY 2.0. Modified by Sean Myers/Neon)