An Alternative History Of Silicon Valley Disruption

They promised the open web, we got walled gardens. They promised individual liberty, then broke democracy -- and now they've appointed themselves the right men to fix it.

It is only now, a decade after the financial crisis, that the American public seems to appreciate that what we thought was disruption worked more like extraction -- of our data, our attention, our time, our creativity, our content, our DNA, our homes, our cities, our relationships. The tech visionaries' predictions did not usher us into the future, but rather a future where they are kings. [...]

Economist Mariana Mazzucato chips away at another myth of Silicon Valley exceptionalism: the idea that big tech and its investors deserve massive profits because they are risk-taking innovators who create value, rather than extract it. "In the case of venture capitalists," Mazzucato writes, "their real genius appears to lie in their timing: their ability to enter a sector late, after the highest development risks had already been taken, but at an optimum moment to make a killing."

Much of the hard work of innovation, she argues, has been funded by the government, which sees little direct return. Contrary to tech industry sneering, public funds are responsible for a lot of the technology we attribute to Silicon Valley. Mazzucato points out that GPS was funded by the US Navy, touchscreen display was backed by the CIA, both the internet and SIRI were funded by the Pentagon's DARPA, and Google's search algorithm was funded by a National Science Foundation grant.

Yet the government reaps few of the rewards. For instance, the same year the government loaned $535 million to solar-power company Solyndra, it also loaned Tesla $465 million. "Taxpayers footed the bill for Solyndra's losses -- yet got hardly any of Tesla's" gains, she says. Solyndra has become "a byword for the government's sorry track record when it came to picking winners," a story that has helped keep regulators at bay, she says.

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One Response:

  1. Kaleberg says:

    In the old days, they'd argue that the government would make it up on taxes, but that was back when corporate taxes were 40-50%. Now it's strictly extractive.

    I'm glad people are pointing out the government's role in advancing technology from interchangeable parts to self driving cars, from rubber rain coats to flying machines. The private sector really doesn't take all that many risks. The government puts up the real risk capital.

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