Silicon Valley Keeps Solving Problems—Just Not the Big Ones

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Silicon Valley keeps solving problems—just not the big ones Robert Galbraith/Reuters

I still get the New York Times delivered, in paper form, every morning not because I’m nostalgic (I own vinyl records but never listen to them, for instance) but because I still like that way of consuming news.  I work online every day, writing and editing news stories for the web, and between that and my other chore and hobbies, I don’t really have time to read news stories as they break. Register them, yes – the Times news alerts, the Washington Post’s, Slatest News, Twitter et al keep me semi alert.  But by the end of the day, when I have an hour left, I am more prone to watch an episode of Orange Is the New Black or Orphan Black or anything with Jack Black.

The newspaper is like my news weekly, but daily.

And each day my wife and I play a game: find the hopeful story on the front page! Today was tough; they were two stories on the insurgency in Iraq; one on the Tea Party insurgency in Mississippi; one on the relationship between liver disease and obesity; a news analysis about how President Obama is screwed no matter what he does in Iraq (though he doesn’t have to worry about obesity) – and the winner, by default: a story about how restaurant apps can help you get a better table from your phone.

The running-gag on HBO’s trenchant comedy series Silicon Valley this season was the phrase “Making the World a Better Place.” The slogan appeared everywhere – in sales pitches, advertisements, even stuck to the wall of a startup that imploded. In his 2013 New Yorker piece on the tech industry, George Packer famously observed, "the hottest tech startups are solving all the problems of being twenty years old, with cash on hand, because that's who thinks them up.” It’s not that the thousands of strivers here don’t care about the insurgency in Iraq; they probably haven’t heard of it.

I’ve been using Uber since I moved here a year ago and have had only a good consumer experience: occasionally the drivers don’t know the best route to where I’m going, but I’m happy to tell them and they all have GPS. They usually offer water, snacks and even a phone charger as well; their cars are clean and they’re professional and they don’t talk much unless I engage them.

A few drivers have tried to network; I exchanged cards with one guy who then asked to join my network on LinkedIn. (I said yes, of course; I’m the Walt Whitman of LinkedIn, “refuses nothing, shuts none out.”) The other day I met a guy who had one of these striver stories I hear a lot here. He started driving for Uber when his own delivery business crashed (his partner, the tech guy, had a stroke, which is worse than having your server crash: “He’s learning to talk again”) and now he was learning their business model from the inside out. He had just met a guy from Google Shopping Express, their new delivery system whose little trucks are flooding the valley; “They’re hemorrhaging money,” he confided, but he got his business card.

And what did he think of the Uber protests that had swept Europe the day before, I asked? London cabbies blocked the streets protesting the app, and other drivers in Spain and France protested as well. Though the story had made the front page of the Times and other papers, he hadn’t heard of it.  And didn’t much seem to care.

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