There’s a particular and common species of criticism of Silicon Valley, in which someone points out that a supposedly “disruptive” tech-industry innovation is really just a slight brand refresh of something that has been around all along. For instance, last June, the ride-hailing app Lyft announced a new type of service on which users “[r]ide for a low fixed fare along convenient routes, with no surprise stops.” As many observed, this brand-new product from one of Silicon Valley’s leading consumer companies is … a bus. They invented a bus. Lyft has iterated upon an idea that, relative to human history, was only slightly newer than the invention of the wheel.
The response to this kind of criticism is generally to insist that the supposedly new invention is, in fact, in ways the average consumer or critic can’t understand, groundbreaking. Or that the new development is self-evidently groundbreaking and it’s the critics with heads buried in the sand who simply refuse to recognize it. Here’s a particularly glib example, from venture capitalist Benedict Evans.
Setting aside that the most famous tech-industry medical company, Theranos, is also one of its most famous scams, a cure for cancer is unquestionably a good (if impossible) thing! And yet, Evans says, even an unassailable leap forward from Silicon Valley would be met with Twitter criticism. Maybe he’s right! Indeed, it is rare that anything happens these days without some measure of criticism on Twitter.
But is he right because we’re all bitter and jealous, or is he right because, well, it’s hard to imagine a situation in which Silicon Valley, as it’s currently arranged, would create a cure for cancer without a host of drawbacks, catches, and problems? Here is how the largest and most successful tech companies in America are currently doing business: hoarding cash, crafting accounting schemes to avoid paying taxes, and making money off of users who see little in return.
Will the cancer cure be sold at an obscene markup, like most cutting-edge technology, available only to those who can afford it? If you just wait a year or two, maybe the old cancer cure will fall within your price range.
Will the cancer cure be given out for free in exchange for an intrusive amount of health data that the company can then use to serve up ads targeted at cancer survivors and their blood relatives? And then when the company gets criticized for distributing bad cancer cures, will they put up smoke screens and spend months denying a problem that people have already proven runs rampant?
Will the cancer cure only be available to its most popular users, just as all but the most popular YouTubers have trouble monetizing their work? “Hey, folks, if you’d like me to keep on living, make sure to like, comment, and subscribe.”
Will the cancer cure be available exclusively to people willing to pay $100 a year for a cancer-cure membership? Will the workers who run around putting cancer cures into boxes to ship to customers be eligible to receive the cancer cure?
Maybe the cancer cure will be subsidized for users through investor funds, but all of the doctors and nurses administering the cure will receive unsustainably low pay. Thousands of doctors moonlighting, making house calls to cancer patients for minimum wage.
The current, and dubious, model that most tech-industry businesses are pursuing is the exchange of services for either user data or subscription fees. Now imagine if someone with that mind-set developed a cure for cancer. Sounds like a bad situation for everyone who doesn’t own the cancer cure!
But Silicon Valley loves open-source stuff — code and design that is freely available to use and iterate on, right? But would any of these companies make pivotal trade secrets akin to a cure for cancer available? Absolutely not. Google’s search algorithm is secret, Facebook’s News Feed and People You May Know algorithms are kept under wraps, and Apple sure as hell isn’t going to tell anyone else how to build an iPhone.
But the real reason people might say “these bros think they’ve invented medicine” is that the bold new ideas techies think they’re developing are actually iterations on decades or centuries of established work, rebranded and oversold to consumers. This is why Silicon Valley impresarios focused on curing cancer, like Sean Parker, are donating to and facilitating the work of extant cancer centers, rather than trying to “disrupt” cancer research in a for-profit enterprise.
Can many of these developments be neat and even useful? Sure! But in a tech industry known for grandstanding and “paradigm-shifting,” sometimes it’s fun to do a reality check.