Disrupting reality: Silicon Valley is busy ignoring the real world

Don’t feel like talking to anyone ever again? Don’t worry, there’s an app for that.

Earlier this week, San Francisco-based Melian Labs launched its MyTime app on Android, promising to take the hassle out of making appointments by letting you book services from local businesses directly through the app. On the surface, this may be a good idea. But combine it with other apps and services meant to make your life easier, and a troubling pattern is starting to emerge — one of a app-powered service that has the single goal of taking out the “friction” of interacting with the the people who live around you.

Here are just a few examples:

Uber. Love it or hate it, Uber is changing the way people get around. People with enough money not to rely on public transportation, that is. The company likes paint itself as an alternative to car ownership, while aggressively going against traditional taxi cabs — but it also directly competes with bus and rail, and has the potential to further stigmatize public transporation as a way for poor people to get around.

[pullquote person=”” attribution=”” id=”914967″]If Silicon Valley truly wants to get real, then it has to stop shielding itself from reality, and become part of society, instead of pledging to disrupt it from the outside.[/pullquote]

Adding to that is Uber’s built-in reality filter. Ever wondered why cabbies are so much more moody than Uber drivers, even though both have long shifts and endure lots of stress driving through traffic and dealing with customers all day? There’s an easy explanation. Uber drivers have to keep up a high rating to stay in the game, and no one likes complainers, so it literally pays to lie through your teeth as an uber driver. “This is the best job ever!”

Shyp, Taskrabbit & Co. Don’t want to stand in line? Then make someone else do it for you. It’s the new servant economy, with the added benefit that you don’t have to ever visit your local post office, dry cleaner or supermarket again. You know, those places where you used to run into other people living in your community, and possibly get a glimpse into their lives.

Birchbox, Barkbox, Amazon Prime. I’ve always loved getting mail, and I also love ecommerce. But every now and then I have to remind myself that the premise of the endless shelf space doesn’t actually make a whole lot of sense if you are just buying things that are also available in your neighborhood store. At that point, you’re just trying to avoid your neighbors — and as a result, you’re removing money from your local community.

Homeschooling. Education is a polarizing topic. I’m a parent myself, and my wife and I decided early on to send our daughters to a public school, as opposed to a private or charter school. I also know that this is a decision every parent has to make for themselves to find a solution that’s best for their child. That being said, I thought it was troubling to read about the latest Silicon Valley fad in Wired recently: Parents who are “hacking education” by homeschooling their kids. From the story:

“This may come as a shock to those of us who still associate homeschooling with fundamentalists eager to shelter their kids from the evils of the secular state. But it turns out that homeschooling has grown more mainstream over the last few years. According to the most recent statistics, the share of school-age kids who were homeschooled doubled between 1999 and 2012, from 1.7 to 3.4 percent. And many of those new homeschoolers come from the tech community.”

The article goes on to describe how techies who “never liked school” themselves are now taking their kids out of school to teach them at home, and paints homeschooling as taking DIY to the next level. What it fails to mention is the idea of raising citizens. Of having children play and learn with others who aren’t like them, and who may not be able to afford having one parent stay at home to play teacher. This is troubling for us as a society — in many parts of America, schools are now more segregated than they used to be in the 1960s — but it’s also another example for Silicon Valley building an alternate reality, devote of the problems the rest of the country is facing, instead of trying to solve these problems together.

The collapse of the American community

I know, the world isn’t black and white, and there are good things to many of the businesses mentioned above as well. But what gets me really about this trend is that it wasn’t supposed to be that way.

I still remember listening to Meetup.com co-founder Scott Heiferman talk at an early O’Reilly conference in 2005. Back then, Heiferman, told his audience that the book Bowling Alone, which chronicles the collapse of the American community, inspired him to launch Meetup, with the intent to get people to go out and come together again. At the time, many of the so-called Web 2.0 services had similar ideas, be it Upcoming.org, Craigslist, or even local blog networks like Metblogs.

Fast forward a decade, and a lot of that spirit has been replaced by the imperatives of the sharing economy. It’s not about meeting your neighbors anymore, it’s about putting them to work.

The irony is that all of this happens as the tech community is starting to grow a conscience, and looking to “give back” through volunteerism and initiatives like Ron Conway’s 111 initiative. Those are noble efforts, but if Silicon Valley truly wants to get real, then it has to stop shielding itself from reality, and become part of society, instead of pledging to disrupt it from the outside.