Elon Musk reflects Silicon Valley’s ‘move fast and break things’ culture

Some might be shocked that Elon Musk had openly defied the local government’s shelter-in-place order, a move that helped force the county to allow him to reopen the Tesla factory in Fremont next week, risking the safety of workers and the public to make luxury cars. We aren’t. While Musk’s move may be controversial, the attitude behind it is too common in Silicon Valley.

Silicon Valley’s foundational ethos is to “move fast and break things.” When Facebook first made that their motto, Mark Zuckerberg meant to capture his company’s, and Silicon Valley’s ethos of radical innovation — that if you weren’t moving fast enough to break things, you’d be left behind. But we’ve come to understand that for too many Silicon Valley firms, moving fast means breaking things at other people’s expense. And permission is not necessary.

Musk’s impatience to reopen the Tesla factory puts workers at unnecessary risk, and could still lead to dozens or hundreds of COVID-19 deaths via community spread. Zuckerberg’s impatience about spreading unvetted news and political ads through Facebook has spread misinformation, undermined confidence in the media, and threatened our very democracy.

Startups like Lime flooded San Francisco’s streets and sidewalks with e-scooters in the spring of 2018, seemingly overnight. Despite a cease-and-desist letter from the city attorney around unlawful public safety impacts and thousands of citizen complaints, companies continued to operate until the city instituted a permit program balancing mobility and climate goals with safety and public space protections.

Just last week the state attorney general and city attorneys from San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego filed a groundbreaking lawsuit against Uber and Lyft, alleging these corporations broke laws regarding minimum wage, paid sick days, workers compensation, unemployment insurance and more.

Uber, Tesla, Google spinoff Waymo and others are competing to put driverless cars operated by artificial intelligence on our streets, with little pause on live testing after fatal accidents. Under the hood of that experiment is the growing question of AI systems being rapidly deployed in health care, hiring, criminal justice, and education with little guidance.

“Move fast and break things” has made a virtue of disregard for our well-being and safety. And the consequences are particularly disturbing when these things broken are actually people’s lives.

Take, for example, the on-demand independent contractor model embraced by Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Instacart. In their rush to dominate the market, they’ve rejected the employer-based protection of their workers that we expect. Last week, we released the results of a large survey of ride share and food delivery workers in San Francisco, the heart of the gig economy.

We found that the gig economy, a supposed emblem of Silicon Valley entrepreneurship and opportunity, is actually impoverishing drivers. Shockingly, 20% of drivers we surveyed might be earning nothing once estimated expenses are accounted for. And 13% of food delivery drivers use food stamps to feed themselves, 32% reported sleeping in their car and 21% of workers had no health care, despite San Francisco’s health care security law.

In this, Silicon Valley has not been so innovative after all, but replicated a common pattern of generating poverty jobs in the pursuit of profit.

What would be innovative is a public health system that eradicates the racial inequities in poor health and vulnerability. Or a food production and distribution system that generates living-wage jobs. Or a reliable public information and voting access system to ensure a well informed and engaged public drives our democracy.

Perhaps it is time for Silicon Valley firms to slow down and stop breaking things, and instead help create a California that works for all.

Chris Benner is director of the Institute for Social Transformation, and a professor of Environmental Studies and Sociology at the University of California Santa Cruz. Kung Feng is executive director of Jobs with Justice San Francisco.


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