The worst thing about Silicon Valley techno-libertarianism – even worse than the willful ignorance of the essential role played by public investment, infrastructure, and research in the development of the industries booming there today – is the insistence that the Valley uses technology to solve society's problems. This is true only inasmuch as Silicon Valley solves the problems of its own society: the problems of being a young, rich white guy who wants to be waited on by servants like the rich of the Gilded Age but doesn't want to hire (or pay) servants. After all, that would be tacky and inconsistent with the Bohemian-meets-Randian ethos of the Valley. Silicon Valley "empowers" and "frees" and all that other delightful prattle, it doesn't have maids and butlers!
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This is the kind of problem they solve, and from their perspective it is a complicated one.
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It's tricky to meet so many conflicting goals at once: being waited on hand and foot by peons without having to pay servants and while somehow making it seems like paying the peons to serve him is Empowering them or Freedom or something. The perfect solution is to create ways for people with money to take advantage of people who can no longer make ends meet while putting a slick, happy face on the whole arrangement.
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And that's why Wired, the official newsletter of the breathless bullshit industry, has a cover story this month about "The Trust Economy."
Things like airbnb and Uber (a car sharing service, for those of us who don't live in a city large enough to make the prospect of paying a stranger to drive you somewhere viable) are "building trust" among Americans, bringing them together and facilitating economic activity. Plus, they make the economy more efficient, partially eliminating the dead airtime in daily life. Why leave your house empty when you can get someone else to pay you to stay in it? Why sit around watching TV all evening when you could make money driving people around?
It all sounds great, at least according to the fawning sycophants who provide all of us out here in the provinces with such worshipful coverage of the amazing achievements of the Techno-Demigods. And it is great as long as you don't bother to ask (or care) why people are suddenly employing themselves as improvised innkeepers and taxi drivers. After all, does anyone really want to let some strangers stay in their home for a few bucks? To drive some trust fund asshole to the airport on Saturday after a 45 hour week? I doubt it. People turn to the "Trust Economy" because they're somewhere between financially stressed and desperate. They don't make enough or they're without any steady source of income at all.
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They do it for the same reason that people go to work at a temp agency or loiter in a Home Depot parking lot to do day labor: because they have no better options.
The tech media work hand in hand with the mainstream media to put the brightest and prettiest coats of paint on economic developments of this kind, but who really benefits from this kind of arrangement? Hold on to your hats, kids, but it isn't you. The beneficiary is the guy who can get people like you to perform for pennies on the dollar all of the tasks that a driver, personal secretary, and butler would do. It's remarkable how many of the recent Big Developments from the omniscient men of the Valley have managed to make the lives of the well-off easier without actually creating any jobs that pay a livable salary or have benefits. Oh, and they convince the media to cover these breakthroughs in a way that makes it sound like they're doing you a favor. You're free at last, free at last. Say goodbye to the chains of full time employment and hello to the boundless freedom of working piecemeal, making phone calls on Mechanical Turk for a quarter and driving Damon the Junior Content Developer to the airport so he can spend the weekend in Cozumel with his frat bros.
The future is here, and it blows.