The weird criticism that Big Tech is too digital

At the start of this decade, billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel famously decried America's persistent lack of technological progress. "What happened to the future?" he wondered. "We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters," he lamented, neatly encapsulating the sense of underwhelming tech achievement.

Now at decade's end, Twitter offers twice as many characters but little else seems to have changed despite all the attention given to Silicon Valley's high-flying "unicorn" startups. Forget about flying cars dotting the skies of Manhattan. Even the dream of safer cars roaming highways right here on the ground — autonomously driven by supersmart software — now seems like an overhyped fantasy. What's the Next Big Thing coming from Big Tech, a fourth iPhone camera? A new algorithm to better serve targeted ads on social media? Tweets with, wait for it, 420 characters?

So plenty of reason, it might appear, for Thiel to work up a sequel: "What keeps happening to the future?" Or he could just tweet out a new essay in The Atlantic, which similarly explores Silicon Valley's lack of achievement in the real-world of atoms rather than just the digital economy of bits and bytes. "Big Tech continues to find new and profitable ways to sell ads and cloud space, but it has failed, often spectacularly, to remake the world of flesh and steel," writes journalist Derek Thompson.


Similarly unimpressed by smartphones and the social media revolution is Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), at the forefront of efforts in Washington to regulate the tech sector. As he wrote earlier this year in The Wall Street Journal, "Men landed on the moon 50 years ago, a tremendous feat of American creativity, courage, and, not least, technology. The tech discoveries made in the space race powered innovation for decades. But I wonder, 50 years on, what the tech industry is giving America today." Or to put it another way, "We wanted Mars colonies and all we got was infinite scrolling!"

It's a core criticism: If only all those smarties at Apple and Google were working at NASA or the National Institutes of Health. Of course, we can't know for sure that, say, less social media innovation over the past decade would have resulted in huge leaps in biotechnology, green energy, and space tech. Indeed, we have plenty of reason for skepticism. For starters, it's profoundly weird to use the 1960s and 1970s Apollo mission to attack Silicon Valley when it's tech billionaires who are leading America back to space.

More importantly, where are all the stunning physical-world innovations coming out of Europe? It's also a region with a rich economy and lots of smart people — but unlike America it has no consumer-facing tech titans to distract its entrepreneurs and technologists. Then again, maybe Europe is instead distracted by constantly producing reports and studies about why it can't produce its own Amazons, Facebooks, or Googles. Policymakers there sure don't seem to think what Big Tech does is a triviality. Nor do most of us. If forced to choose, would most people prefer having a small pane of glass in their pockets that gives them easy access to virtually all human knowledge and creativity or a few astronauts hunkered down on the Red Planet? (Though we don't have to choose.)

The problem isn't too many engineers spending their best years tweaking Uber's app. If we want more stunning tech innovation then we are going to have to invest more in basic science discovery that Silicon Valley can then further advance and commercialize, as it always has. Economists Jonathan Gruber and Simon Johnson note in Jump-Starting America: How Breakthrough Science Can Revive Economic Growth and the American Dream that the U.S. now spends just 0.7 percent of GDP on government science research vs. 2 percent in the 1960s. And that decline has happened at the same time big ideas seem to be getting harder and more expensive to find. As a group of economists led by Stanfords' Nicholas Bloom concluded in a 2017 analysis, "Unless we keep raising [science] research inputs, economic growth will continue to slow in advanced nations such as the U.S."

So more investment would be good. So, too, would be thinking harder about how regulation hinders innovation with atoms. This also: It is simply too early to tell whether in 2030 or 2040, we'll look back at the 2010s as the decade when technologies such as artificial intelligence and genetic editing — or even smartphones — first showed the sort of transformative promise that was then fulfilled over subsequent years. After all, it took decades for something as significant as electrification to really change how factories operated and boost worker productivity.

Even with patience, of course, we still may not get the sort of physics-defying flying cars Hollywood likes to depict. But whatever amazing advances do happen, Silicon Valley will almost certainly keep playing a big role in them.

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