An online video that recently circulated shows two bros trying to bounce some youths playing a pickup game in a park in San Francisco’s Mission District. The bros, wearing t-shirts bearing the logos of tech companies, purportedly reserved the field with a mobile app and felt entitled to remove the locals from their park. Although later reports indicated that the tech workers reserved the field through more conventional paperwork at the city’s parks department, this is likely a case where the myth is more true than the facts: smartphone-wielding techies in San Francisco and other cities are eroding access to public goods and services through disruptive apps and data management.
Here in Austin, a local tech incubator hosts a monthly transportation meetup, highlighting how startups want to reform the city’s dysfunctional transportation system, and a city council member tells an immigration-reform group that it’s “important for government to embrace technologies that will help solve urban problems.” Rather than look to local government for solutions to local public problems, government has turned to tech entrepreneurs to sprinkle some disruptive innovation pixie dust on traffic and a lack of functional public transportation in this rapidly growing city.
These developments reflect a consistent strain of technological optimism in United States culture, but where grand projects like the Hoover Dam and Apollo missions once addressed issues in the physical world, governments and citizens turn to tactical applications to solve social challenges. This entry of startup culture into local governance is also symptomatic of a habitus where people have more faith in free markets than in the ability of public institutions to solve public problems. As local governments are increasingly squeezed for resources and the support of citizens, it’s no wonder that well funded civic startups are greeted with open arms.
Local governance can often be sclerotic and slow to respond, but this faith in technology and entrepreneurship may pose a threat to equitable access to public services and public space. While mobile apps and big data may improve the urban experience for those who possess smartphones and the techno-capital to use them effectively, people who lack these resources may increasingly find themselves losing access to services they once had.
After a motorist killed a popular Austin lifestyle blogger this year, a grassroots group and some city leaders looked to transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft to address weaknesses in the city’s late-night transportation system. Smartphone users relish the ability to hail nearby drivers in a city where cabs are difficult to find and buses run infrequently, but turning to these private solutions to public problems raises some significant issues. Uber has been accused of distorting driver earnings, automating racist attitudes, and encouraging drivers to take on subprime debt. It also did an end-run around the local political process by operating illegally in Austin while flaunting a warchest for potential court battles.
For satisfied Uber users, it may seem like a high-tech convenience that improves upon current transportation problems. Here, I would argue, however, is one of the dangers of technoculture: the fetish of the new masks deepening inequalities and emerging opportunities for exploitation. Novelty makes it difficult for many to see how software systems may reconfigure individuals’ relationship with local government, possibly reducing their access to public services and increasing surveillance, while making life more precarious for many people. While positive dispositions toward technology aren’t bad in themselves, it is important to consider how introducing technology can further inequality.