Paris Marx: Improving the world is a political project, not a technological one
Tech Won’t Save Us host and ‘Road to Nowhere’ author on the many problems with Silicon Valley’s visions of the future
Paris Marx is one of the leading authorities on all things “tech.” As host of the award-winning Tech Won’t Save Us podcast and author the upcoming Verso book Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong about the Future of Transportation, Marx expertly dissects the countless promises—and far more often, failures—of Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and fads like cryptocurrency and the Metaverse.
Canadian Dimension spoke with Marx, who’s based in St. John’s, Newfoundland, about their new book, some of the core claims made by the tech industry, and how “ultimately, improving the world is a political project, not a technological one.”
Canadian Dimension (CD): You’ve been writing and thinking about these issues for many years, including your essential Radical Urbanist blog and newsletter, your podcast Tech Won’t Save Us, and many articles for different publications. What was the process in forming a central argument and coalescing these critiques and analysis into the book?
Paris Marx (PM): It’s really the product of many years of working on and thinking about these issues. I really started to write about them around 2015. Then I did a master’s degree that was focused on the tech industry and transportation, and what was going on there. That obviously helped me to develop my perspective on it and the theoretical side of the argument.
When I went into actually shaping the book, I had this idea that I wanted to focus on these different proposals that the tech industry had for transportation. But I knew that it had to be more than that. It was really talking about it with my editor, Leo Hollis, that made me realize that it couldn’t just be about what has happened with these ideas over the past 10 years or so. It needed to stretch beyond that to give it that broader perspective, to historicize it, and to actually let us see it in an even more critical light than just looking at those past 10 or 15 years.
That’s where building out the history and looking more broadly at how these ideas—whether it’s electric cars, or ride-hailing services and the history of the taxi industry, or autonomous vehicles which were first proposed in some form around the 1920s—are not novel at all, have been around for a long time, and how looking at that history helps us to see it another way and get out of this mode where we believe that Silicon Valley is doing these things that are totally new and innovative when really it’s just making the same promises that have been made so many times before and not delivered on.
CD: What is the ideology of tech? How does it differ from a more general concept of technology?
PM: It’s a big question and you can look at it from multiple directions. I think actually knowing the history of the tech industry really helps us to understand how it approaches problems and the ideology that underpins Silicon Valley. It’s really important to look back at that to see that Silicon Valley really comes out of all this public funding that went into the Bay Area around the Second World War and later the Cold War, how it was this really conservative place back then. And then how these ideas of the libertarian counterculture really start to infect it through the late 1960s, 70s, and 80s, and how those libertarian ideas about technology, particularly about how personal technology can empower the individual.
So you have this real individualization and really libertarian ideas around technology, and how this fuses with neoliberalism in the 1980s as Ronald Reagan is pushing it—and Reagan is certainly connected with the tech sector. You have these ideas pushed by people like Steve Jobs that the personal computer is going to empower the individual in the way that the mainframe computer empowered the hierarchical organization.
The idea is that by engaging with these technologies, we’re going to transform the economy and society, when what we see time and time again is that technology serves to further empower these existing power structures and elevate new ones in the place of old ones. Really, we see the same dynamics repeating themselves, even though this narrative is suggesting that’s not what happens.
Then, when we look at that in the present, we need to recognize that the narrative we’re receiving about Silicon Valley does not reflect the real ideology that underpins it with these kind of libertarian ideas of what technology can do and how neoliberalism and this kind of entrepreneurial culture is so baked into the very foundation of the ideology of the tech industry.
I think when we look at the solutions being presented by people in the tech industry, we also need to recognize where these people come from. A lot of these people are from rather well-off backgrounds, a lot of white men who have a particular experience of the world. The way that they see how they can solve these problems is shaped by their experience of the world. You have Travis Kalanick of Uber finding it hard to get a taxi or black cab, so he has a really particular way of seeing the solution to that through Uber. Or Elon Musk, who gets stuck in traffic and all of a sudden wants to build a ton of tunnels under the city and that’s the solution to transportation.
Recognizing that the solutions that we’re being presented for the transportation system are shaped by the type of people who are proposing them. And they think that particular solutions are going to work because of how they perceive the problem with transportation, even if that isn’t actually the problem that most people face when they try to get around.
CD: Tech journalists obviously get very enthralled with new companies and technologies like Tesla. But in the big picture, many of the companies that will profit most from this transition are the huge established companies in auto manufacturing, road construction, real estate, and resource extraction. What continuities do you see between the last era of mobility and the future era?
PM: It’s so important to recognize. The narrative that we have is that these tech companies are entering into the mobility landscape and “disrupting” what was there before, completely altering it to make it better for people—at least that’s what they would say, even though we can very much see that’s not what happens.
But when we actually dig into their ideas for transportation and seeing what they’re actually doing in the city, you can see that they’re not actually disrupting very much. They’re trying to stick themselves and their technologies in the middle of a bunch of interactions that are already happening.
For the most part, there’s not really a fundamental challenge to the dominance of the automobile within the city, particularly here in North America. There’s also not a challenge to the way that our cities are constructed with these sprawling suburbs that have particular impacts on the way that we live. That is not really what they see as what they’re going to change because their idea is that to solve these problems we just need new technologies: we don’t need these larger-scale political solutions or transformations to the way that we live. Rather, we just need to stick a new technology within what already exists and then that this is going to solve these problems around traffic or emissions or equity or anything else.
We can see that’s not accurate but that is the assertion that gets made. The tech companies then serve to relegitimize what already exists, and we see that the auto companies are going to benefit immensely from whatever is happening because the automobile is still central to transportation. If we do have this shift towards electric vehicles, they’re going to sell a whole load of cars—or trucks and SUVs, more accurately—in a short period of time. There are a ton of companies that supply those automobile companies, there’s a ton of companies that rely on the construction of cities for the automobile that will continue to benefit from the existing structure because not a whole lot is changing.
There’s an example that Elon Musk gives when he’s talking about the Boring Company where he basically says you can have this transportation system, you can place it in your community, and your community is not going to change. The implication being that you can have this Boring Company and tunnel but you can still have your suburban auto-oriented landscape and it’s not going to change that.
CD: There’s been a lot of recent efforts by these tech companies to frame themselves as becoming more “progressive” or “responsible.” What do you make of these moves?
PM: The framing is the key piece. How much they’ve actually materially changed is something I would be very suspect of. I think the key is rebranding. If you look at Uber, in particular, they turfed Travis Kalanick and brought in Dara Khosrowshahi. The notion was “we need to change the culture of Uber because it has created all these problems.”
I am sure there have been some internal changes that have happened. But since Khosrowshahi took over, they have still gone to war against the drivers. They have still tried to ensure that they’re not regulated as a taxi company or anything else; they still fought for deregulation. They campaigned hard for Proposition 22 in California to ensure that drivers would be a subclass of workers and not get the same rights and benefits as an employee. In the UK, they have fought and got this court decision that went against them, but then they didn’t actually observe all of the rules that came out in the decision, so drivers have to take them back to court again just to get the original ruling. So I don’t think there’s been a significant change.
I think that’s particularly visible in the past year or so where there has been all this enthusiasm in some corners about Web3, crypto, and the Metaverse. And very much after five years of what people call the “techlash” where there was this more critical approach to technology and it felt like the tech companies had to accept that there might be some changes to their business models or rein things in. Then all of a sudden, there was a new attempt to rearticulate and reassert the values of Silicon Valley, and that was seen in particular with Marc Andreessen—a prominent venture capitalist—writing a blog post not long after the pandemic began saying that it’s “time to build.” The idea being that after these years, Silicon Valley needs to reassert itself and needs to build all these new technologies to transform the world and make its imprint on society.
You saw that language being used by other people in the tech industry to justify what they were trying to do, even though these were really harmful companies. The most prominent one is Mark Zuckerberg, who before his keynote address to introduce the Metaverse recorded a short video. This was just after the revelations from Frances Haugen about all the problems within Facebook and how it knew about all these problems. Zuckerberg basically asserted that there are some people who want to imagine a better future and other people who want to hold us back from that. He was with the “builders” and the people who were trying to “build” that better future. It was very much “I’m not accepting this criticism, I’m trying to change the world and sometimes you mess things up.”
There hasn’t actually been very much that has changed. I think that there’s kind of a renewed boldness, almost, or we have seen that more recently.
CD: In the final chapter, you contrast Silicon Valley’s ideology of tech with Ursula Le Guin’s thoughts or writings on technology. What drew you to Le Guin’s approach and what do you think it offers the left in terms of thinking about alternatives?
PM: I love Ursula Le Guin’s work. I can’t say that I’ve read everything but I’ve read quite a bit of her fiction and non-fiction. I think what’s great about Le Guin is you can read her fiction and she really is able to bring you into these other worlds and use fiction to have you reassess the world that we’re in. The Dispossessed is one that I always go back to, of course, because it contrasts these two different societies against one another, or The Word for World is Forest with these thoughts on imperialism.
But then you look at her non-fiction work that looks at the way that we conceive of history, certainly inspired by her upbringing by two anthropologists. And her writings on technology and science fiction, as well. She just challenges this idea that progress is achieved by developing these major new technologies that require all of this industrial work and that technological development is what drives society forward. She notes that we can think of technology in so many other ways but industry are purposefully narrowed what we think of as “technology” to serve its ideas of what progress and technology should be.
I drew upon her because I thought it was really important after a book digging into and criticizing the ideas of Silicon Valley—for transportation, for the future—her ideas really give you a way to say “just because these people are proposing new technologies, just because they’re saying they’re developing these big new systems, that doesn’t mean that things are going to automatically get better or that we’re going to have a better world as a result.”
Because ultimately, improving the world is a political project, not a technological one. We need to recognize that before we can actually start to make the world a better place. I feel like Le Guin’s work can help us do that.
CD: Finally, what’s the main thing you want people to takeaway from the book?
PM: The core idea of the book is really to have people question these ideas that we get from Silicon Valley, and their ideas of what the future should be, what progress looks like, what it actually means to create a better transportation system or city. I think that we need to stop accepting that because a company in Silicon Valley or in the tech industry proposes something, that that’s naturally a positive addition to human society and world.
What we find again and again and again is after taking them at their word and believing the big promises they make initially, they very rarely follow through on those things and often they actually harm a lot of people and cause a lot of negative consequences while benefiting people who are already doing OK in society and don’t need the help. If we think about what, in the context of a transportation system looks better, it really requires a rethinking of how we think about mobility: to be less focused on the individual solution of the automobile and building cities around that, to thinking about the collective solutions that make mobility better for everybody.
That means investments in public transit, certainly. Investments in cycling infrastructure, so people can easily get around without having a car. And ensuring that our communities and neighbourhoods are walkable and accessible and have the services that people need within a reasonable distance of where they’re going to live.
The key to that is also recognizing that it’s not just about changing transportation, because transportation is just one factor in a much larger system of systems. Because if you make these transportation improvements but then they cause housing prices to skyrocket, that’s really not making life better for a lot of people who need it to get better. Better transportation is one piece of a larger framework that ensures that people can actually afford to live in these great neighbourhoods that we’re talking about and can actually see the benefits that come from these investments, rather than just being priced out and pushed out to the areas that don’t have them.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
James Wilt is a freelance journalist and graduate student based in Winnipeg. He is the author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars? Public Transit in the Age of Google, Uber, and Elon Musk (Between the Lines Books) and the upcoming Drinking Up the Revolution (Repeater Books). You can follow him on Twitter @james_m_wilt.