“How Tech Companies Conquered America’s Cities” – (The New York Times)

A good followup to yesterdays piece exploring future tech seems to be present tech. How the innovations of today are being deployed against the once formidable structures of local political influence.

Part of my interest in this article comes from it resurrecting an old observation I had 3 or 4 years back but completely forgot about (until now). Following one of our local elections, a columnist for a local publication wrote an article showcasing the declining participation in local elections in the past decade or so. He outlined the participation numbers in decline as noted by the campaigns in 2006, 2010 and then 2014. Though he did not mention it, I realized that those years coincided with the rise of social media as an embedded part of the day to day life of most people.
Media consumption habits were (are) changing, the internet was (is) becoming ever more prominent in this area (compared to traditional mediums, such as television). People were becoming more intertwined with platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and less so with local papers and newscasts. So beaten down are the mediums here that we don’t have a local paper printed our cities boundaries. If not for our local cable operator being a regional co-operative, the city would have no local media presence (short of a local discussion forum). The two corporate-owned radio stations air prerecorded weather during the evening and night (the co-operative owned stations are staffed 24/7).
Imagine hearing “possibility for the development of thundershowers this evening” after a severe storm has wrecked havoc and flooded half the city. I don’t have to. I HAVE heard this.

Moving on, when it comes to smaller markets, I suspect that this is not all that uncommon these days. As we move online, local media is increasingly crippled or forced to play catch-up. Which is not always possible.

Replacing these local pillars, are the international tech platforms. Since money and attention is not garnered from niches, they tend to focus people more on the national and the international levels (as opposed to the local). If local news makes the algorithm, it tends to be for salacious reasons. Think of Rob Ford’s unfortunate rise to infamy (respectfully left out in this write-up), or my cities former mayor’s past gaffes.

I came to realize this problem because I saw it in my own life. As a millennial at the head of the group, I grew up in the internet age and was just exiting high school as social media was getting established. I have always been connected and politically active, never missing a single vote since reaching voting age. Despite this, the regional and local campaigns had a habit of sneaking up on me (“Holy crap, the election is this week!?”).

Call me ignorant, call me a typical millennial. My focus was elsewhere.
I am not a newspaper reader, my television is off around 70% of the time (I could easily live without cable television). My focus is just generally geared towards the national and the international. I have attempted to remedy this from time to time, but as The Stones once sang, old habits die hard (I hate that song).

Having read the slumping local participation numbers for our local election, it occurred to me that I was not the only one in this boat. Electoral participation is notoriously low to begin with, let alone when one is barely better off than flying blind.
At the time, I shared my observations with the author of that article VIA email, along with my plans to explore it in a future letter to the editor (it’s been awhile since I wrote one of those). But over time, I forgot about it and moved onto other things.

That is until the Times brought it back to the forefront of my mind (albeit in a different context).

Let’s begin.

I’m not saying America’s cities are turning into dystopian technocapitalist hellscapes in which corporations operate every essential service and pull every civic string.

But let’s take a tour of recent news from the metropolises.

■ In Seattle, the City Council decided last week to undo its plan to impose a $275-per-employee tax on local businesses, a measure it had approved unanimously last month as a way to address the city’s homelessness and housing-affordability crisis. Why the retreat? Many of the city’s businesses balked at the tax, including Amazon — and no one needed to remind Seattleites that Amazon is very publicly looking for a second city to plant its glass balls. So, the Council caved.

■ The mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, announced that he had tapped the Boring Company, Elon Musk’s second side-hustle, to build a high-speed transportation tunnel from O’Hare International Airport to the city center. Boring said it would fully pay for the tunnel, using no public funds, but it is also very likely to hold a long-term lease to the project, capturing all revenue from the private system.

■ You’ve heard of the app-powered electric scooters that descended like locusts on some American cities last spring. The start-ups that run them made a bold bet: Deploy now; worry about legal niceties later. The bet is paying off. Officials in San Francisco, Austin, Tex., and Santa Monica, Calif., have rushed plans for legalization. Bird, the most ambitious of the scooter start-ups, is now raising money at a $2 billion valuation, just weeks after raising money at a $1 billion valuation.

■ Finally, Domino’s Pizza announced a plan to pave America’s potholes. I wish I were kidding. As part of the program, Domino’s — which has been fashioning itself as a tech company now that it’s battling food-delivery start-ups for mind share — will imprint its logo into the roadway, because apparently Domino’s is the government now, and he who pays the paver gets to choose the toppings. (A Domino’s spokeswoman told that me cities could forgo the logo.)

O.K., so maybe I am saying that America’s cities are turning into dystopian technocapitalist hellscapes.

When I look at all of this, a couple things come to mind.

The first is questioning how much Domino’s contributes to the tax pool, given that they have to make a national advertising campaign out of putting a band-aid on chronic infrastructure issues.  And the second being, this is starting to look VERY similar to the economic landscape that did in Puerto Rico decades before Maria was a tropical storm. Just a new set of players.

How did tech companies become America’s most-powerful local power brokers?

This, along with the bit about techies being averse to politics, are both solved by the very same equation. Or more accurately, commodity.

Money. And lots of it.

Technology is the future, so this industry will increasingly become the new lynchpin of stability as time goes on. With monetary riches and reward comes an inherent need to play politics, because that is how you both carve out an edge for yourself AND keep as much of the take in your hands as is possible.

It’s the classic story of the growth of an industry, and of a handful of corporations cashing in on most of the riches. Same plot, a different cast of characters.

Only national issues matter now

One reason tech companies can command greater say in local issues is that many other local institutions, from small businesses to local newspapers, have lost much of their influence — thanks, in large part, to the internet.

In his new book, “The Increasingly United States,” Daniel Hopkins, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, points out that social networks and digital media created a media ecosystem that is increasingly obsessed with national issues, and a political-finance system that allows donations to flow nationally. As a result, local issues are sidelined.

“When the framers of the Constitution designed the American political system, they assumed that people would care a lot more about local issues that were tangible and concrete than they would care about the distant ways of Washington,“ Mr. Hopkins said. “Contemporary American politics is exactly the opposite — we are focused on the spectacle far away.”

This is the part that stuck out for me when skimming the article earlier today. My conclusions of a few years back, in an article within the New York Times. How’s THAT for being on to something?

In this increasing vaccum of information, many speculate that corruption will become much more common than it has in the past. A hypothesis that I can understand because it stands to reason . . . what is there to lose when no one is watching?

John Oliver touches on it in this clip:

No, the irony isn’t lost on me.

Mr. Hopkins argues that this has turned local politics sclerotic. For instance, in California, where I live, there’s a huge political disagreement between people who favor building more housing and those who argue that development is itself the problem (that is, Yimbys versus Nimbys). Yet among politically connected elites here, I noticed more interest in various faraway congressional special elections than the race we just had for San Francisco mayor.

The “key question for voters is always their national loyalties,” Mr. Hopkins said. There’s much less room for voting based on what’s happening nearby.

Interesting. And somewhat concerning. If this is the case in a big market like San Francisco, what hope does literally ANY OTHER MARKET have?

‘Travis’s Law’

What does this have to do with tech companies? While the fall of local media undermined interest in local issues, tech companies began to notice that their platforms gave them direct access to new levers of local influence. And they began to deploy those levers to withering effect.

Uber wrote the script. Travis Kalanick, the ride-hailing company’s founder and now-ousted chief executive, pushed into dozens of cities without asking permission. In many cities, the pushback was intense — Uber was disrupting local taxi cartels that had spent decades building their own political power base.

But what Uber lacked in political support it made up for in local popularity. Through its app, the company had a direct connection to thousands of riders and drivers who were making a living from its service.

They became the basis for “Travis’s Law”: When regulators tried to shut Uber down, the company could “turn its riders into advocates and use grass-roots political pressure to ensure Uber’s continued existence,” as Bradley Tusk, the political operative whom Mr. Kalanick hired to fight local battles, writes in his coming book, “The Fixer: Saving Startups From Death by Politics.”

The plan worked beautifully. In New York in 2015, Mayor Bill de Blasio floated a proposal to cap Uber’s growth. The mayor had the support of most of the City Council; Uber’s fight looked impossible.

But Mr. Tusk mobilized Uber’s constituency, framing the issue in stark racial terms — if Uber failed, black and Latino drivers would lose an economic opportunity, and riders would be stuck with taxis that had long discriminated against them. Uber won and, by following its example, so would the rest of the industry.

Very interesting and eye-opening. I only had half the picture. It wasn’t just circumstance, it was malice. Malice that no locality on this earth is immune from if even metro New York City can fall victim to these tactics.

I wouldn’t be being honest if I didn’t see the possible silver lining of new technology helping to bast up long-standing taxi monopolies in many markets. The fact that they call them cartels is telling. But having said that, not if the result is going to be just another version of the VERY SAME GAME, just with different players.

I’m starting to see a theme, here.

Is tech power so bad?

You might argue that this is all to the good: Cities are drowning in red tape, local leaders are naturally averse to change, and tech companies are doing exactly what innovative companies should do. Shouldn’t we be celebrating these innovators?

If this is you . . . go to the nearest mirror and give yourself a nice big slap in the face. After such an amount of slaps has elapsed that you feel that your head is completely and totally removed from the confines of your rectal cavity, come back and rejoin the conversation.

But tech power, at the local level, feels increasingly indomitable. With the mere threat of halting growth, Amazon can send shudders through cities across the country. Even Mr. De Blasio, once seen as a critic of tech, now swoons for Amazon; he lit up New York’s landmarks in “Amazon orange” to woo Jeff Bezos to open the company’s second headquarters there.

Or, consider the scooters. Some people love our new e-scooter overlords, and others hate them. But whatever your position, the real problem is that they just appeared out of nowhere one day, suddenly seizing the sidewalks, and many citizens felt they had no real agency in the decision. They were here to stay, whatever nonusers felt about them.

Which was all by design. The scooter companies were just following Travis’s Law. In Santa Monica, Bird’s scooters appeared on city streets in September. Lawmakers balked; in December, the city filed a nine-count criminal complaint against Bird.

Bird responded with a button in its app to flood local lawmakers with emails of support. The city yielded: Bird signed a $300,000 settlement with Santa Monica, a pittance of its funding haul, and lawmakers authorized its operations.

If you love the scooters, you see nothing wrong with this. But there was a time, in America, when the government paid for infrastructure and the public had a say in important local services. With Ubers ruling the roads, Birds ruling the sidewalks, Elon Musk running our subways and Domino’s paving our roads, that age is gone.

Ride-sharing has been proposed (and promptly, opposed) by many in my locality, of which keeps a fairly tight rein on the cities taxi industry (though not as tight as other nearby cities, as there is no cap on the number of registered taxies in service at any one time). Though there is fairly minimal push into this market at the moment, I will have to keep an eye on it.

As do us all.

 

 

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