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.