Did you like it when Steve Jobs threatened to leave Cupertino?

You’ll love Farhad Manjoo’s How Tech Companies Conquered America’s Cities in Wednesday’s New York Times:

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…

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.

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?

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.

My take: I think Manjoo is on to something here. Steve Jobs’ pitch for Apple Park—in what turned out to be his last public appearance—would have fit right into his narrative, which included Amazon bullying Seattle, Elon Musk hustling Chicago and Dominos Pizza paving America’s streets with the Domino’s logo. But my favorite example was one I’d just witnessed—and nearly broken my neck on—in San Jose:

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… 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… 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 [$3 million] 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.

11 Comments

  1. Ken Cheng said:

    “Deploy now; worry about legal niceties later… “

    Wasn’t that the Uber strategy?

    Does big company bullying potential worry me? Yes.

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    June 21, 2018
  2. Richard Wanderman said:

    What’s interesting is that at the time, I applauded Jobs’ presentation to the Cupertino City Council: Apple is Cupertino’s largest taxpayer and I thought it was brilliant that he balked at providing the city free wifi.

    Maybe now, given Farhad’s excellent article it’s time to reexamine that “deal.” And, given the ideas in the article, Apple may have left money on the table by not providing wifi for the city, implemented in a way that would pull in some revenue.

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    June 21, 2018
    • Fred Stein said:

      Good point. Was Apple/Jobs bullying the city or was the city trying to shame Apple into giving free wifi?

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      June 21, 2018
      • John Blackburn said:

        The city counselor’s attempt to wheedle free wifi from Apple was so petty and small-minded that it appeared to startle Steve Jobs, who paused a moment before replying that the company was already bringing significant riches to the city’s coffers simply through its large real estate presence and workforce.

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        June 21, 2018
  3. John Kirk said:

    Well, I have a different take on this. Governments are always trying to preserve the status quo and protect the incumbent. And that can lead to stasis.

    Uber had competitors who strictly obeyed the existing laws. And do you know where they are now? Gone. Uber literally broke the law because the law said Uber had to be licensed like taxis were. And Uber got away with breaking the law because they ended up providing a service that was so valuable that when lawmakers tried to shut them down, voters revolted and ended up shutting legislators down instead.

    Take New York city (please!). They said they were going to do a study of ride-sharing — which would have taken about two years — and ride-sharing would be “suspended” during the duration of the study. In reality, that would have been the end of ride-sharing in New York. However, legislators got so much pushback, that they relented and let the ride-sharing services continue.

    On the other hand, New York city has been pushing AirBNB around for years and they’ve finally passed legislation that makes it all but impossible to use AirBNB in the city. That’s great news for the incumbent hotels, but not such good news for new tech or for consumers.

    And let’s return to Steve Jobs and Apple Park. Steve Jobs went before the city council and one of the city councilmen asked him what Apple was going to do for the city in return for them allowing Apple to build its new facility. Jobs shot back that he thought bringing construction jobs and permanent jobs and improving a large part of the city was enough. (He actually said it better than that. I’m just too lazy to look up his precise language.) The council agreed. But that’s because Apple was constructing a 5 billion dollar building and because Apple was, well, Apple It’s not at all unusual for city councils to hold businesses hostage, extracting as many concessions as possible for the privilege of being allowed to operate in their bailiwick.

    This is the kind of argument that can lead to heated debates. But let me put it this way. There may be a proper balance between the rights of cities to regulate themselves and the rights of tech newcomers to initiate change. But my sympathies lie with the companies who have to persuade us to do what they want, not with the politicians who can force us to do what they want.

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    June 21, 2018
    • Steven Noyes said:

      John,

      I find my self conflicted with AirBnB. Is it good for consumers? It does provide a nice option though I don’t find the prices really different. I have used a few times and found it acceptable.

      Should it be considered a hotel? Yes.

      We have an AirBnB property in our 75 house community and it is no end of issues. It has had 9 noise complaints (with police called) in the last 12 months. “Guests” have, on multiple occasions, simply thrown all the pool furniture into the pool. The property owner (who simply uses the property as a short term rental) refuses to pay for the damage his “guests” do to the community resulting in multiple ongoing law-suits against the property owner.

      Basically, most of his “guests” are well mannered but (just like a hotel) he gets the occasional group that causes destruction to the community. They don’t hurt his house (What? Forfeit deposits?) but will tear up green belts, destroy pool areas and just basically mis-behave.

      AirBnB needs to do some serious reform with how they run their business and how they need to force the people using their service to make money take true responsibility for their guests when they are staying in residential neighborhoods.

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      June 21, 2018
      • John Kirk said:

        It doesn’t sound like you have a problem with airBNB. Is sounds like you have a problem with the owner of the apartment. If guests are destroying property, the apartment owner is responsible for damages, right?

        airBNB is incredibly diverse. There are people who literally rent a couch for something like $15 a night so you can crash and continue on to wherever you’re headed. Eliminate that diversity and you eliminate what makes airBNB great.

        I haven’t studied airBNB, so I don’t know much about it one way or the other. But I do know that if you force airBNB users to get licenses, then it’s game over. Licensing is the most efficient way for incumbents to squash innovation and hold onto their monopolies.

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        June 21, 2018
        • Steven Noyes said:

          The problem is AirBnB is the enabler. They provide all the infrastructure to put this in place and don’t really have any standards placed on their property owners. The reviews are from USERS of the service and the people impacted by the use of their service.

          The property owner refuses to accept responsibility for damage (he didn’t see it happen and isn’t just take the word from some people living in the area they saw it happen) which is why there are multiple on-going law suits. He is running dozens of such AirBnB properties and this is just another expense to the business. In the mean time, it adds significantly to the legal expenses of the neighborhood (an area he is not vested in really).

          This is the conflict I have with AirBnB. It does provide a nice set of options for many people but, increasingly, it is being used to book more “hotel” like experiences. Not just a couch but the entire house. At some point, these properties are either rentals or hotels and need to fall under these laws. That determination is on AirBnB but because AirBnB is not vested locally, they simply do not care.

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          June 21, 2018
  4. Jonathan Mackenzie said:

    I’m not sure the phenomenon is as new as Manjoo thinks it is. I grew up in a couple IBM towns and their local influence was broad, including public works and local property tax rates. Large corporations have been steam rolling local governments for decades. Include the power that railroads wielded over their whistle stop communities, and you’re up to more than 150 years of big national money pushing the local yokels around. The most important local issue is always jobs/economy and these companies have to power to giveth and taketh away.

    The social media influence on local politics is new, but this is a bludgeon that many groups are learning to employ, not just tech businesses.

    The issue exists, for sure. But it’s less clear to me how any of this is new or whether it’s any worse than it has been for a long time. c.f. Roger and Me (1989)

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    June 21, 2018
  5. Fred Stein said:

    Good point, Richard, Jonathan, and John. I agree and add.

    The NFL and other sports franchises, as well as many major companies, get concessions, tax relief, etc from local governments. And the process is nearly identical to the one in Manjoo’s article – they get the local citizens on their side. I’ll bet the Medici’s, with disruptive new banking practices, did the same when they brought prosperity and birth of the renaissance to Florence.

    Are tech and new media worthy of so much blame? Let me introduce the Koch brothers and their network, local news talk radio, SONlife broadcasting, local newspaper – yes these exist. However most urban(and coastal suburban) liberals (self included) don’t engage with such powerful sources. They have big impact.

    As for scooters: Mixed feelings. Parking is insane in most cities. Young people cannot afford a car plus the cost of parking plus sky high rent. Augmenting mass transit with ride sharing, bicycles, skateboards, and scooters is good. BUT WAIT! the side walk is for pedestrians..Conundrum.

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    June 21, 2018

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