In his new book, The Conservative Futurist: How to Create the Sci-Fi World We Were Promised, American Enterprise Institute scholar James Pethokoukis writes about the go-go years of the 1960s: Saturn V rockets were blasting to the moon, atomic power promised to make electricity “too cheap to meter,” and sci-fi TV shows like Star Trek depicted new marvels right around the corner.

Our high-tech future isn’t turning out quite like we expected. It began to go sideways in the 1970s. The “Space Age was suddenly grounded,” Pethokoukis writes, and “the Atomic Age began powering down.” What happened to that boundless 1960s optimism? To be sure, there are aspects of our lives that seem almost science-fictional. Our phones really are miniature miracles, and through them, as we walk down the street, we can access the sum of human knowledge in seconds. But we don’t have Pan Am flights to the moon, as 2001: A Space Odyssey predicted, or underwater hotels like the ones depicted in GM’s Futurama exhibit at the 1964 World’s Fair. Our biggest technological advances have been mostly in the soft-touch virtual, rather than the gritty physical, world.

It’s hard to believe it was over a decade ago that the tech savant Peter Thiel made his famous quip, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” The comment was meant as a dig at the triviality of Twitter, which was then limited to just a couple of dozen words per tweet. (How far we’ve come!) Of course, slagging social media was a little rich coming from Thiel, one of the earliest—and most richly rewarded—investors in Facebook. But he was serious. “We no longer live in a technologically accelerating world,” Thiel told a group of (presumably bummed out) Yale students in 2013. Was he right? As Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai said to Henry Kissinger about the impact of the French Revolution: “It’s too soon to tell.”

Since Thiel made his backhanded pronouncement, we’ve had some major technological breakthroughs: Among other futuristic wonders, self-driving cars and artificial intelligence seem to be on the brink of common use. But are they? It turns out that the road to the seamless high-tech future is bumpier than most of us imagined. Many of the technologies that were supposed to change the world are going through a rough spot at the moment.

Perhaps more worrisome are the everyday digital technologies that should have had the bugs worked out by now, things like shopping on Amazon, searching for information on Google, or using social-media sites. Have you noticed that those ubiquitous digital tools have slowly gotten crappier? Maybe Thiel wasn’t pessimistic enough. For not only have our flying cars been indefinitely delayed, even our humble digital apps are failing to live up to expectations.

The gap between expectation and reality is especially obvious when it comes to autonomous vehicles (AVs). In 2016, Ford’s then-CEO Mark Fields promised that within five years the company would be selling an AV so advanced that it wouldn’t even need a steering wheel. That same year, the president of the ride-sharing service Lyft predicted that by 2021, “a fully autonomous fleet of cars will provide the majority of Lyft rides.” Tesla has been charging a premium for “Full Self Driving” capability for years. But users report that the system remains prone to glitches—including phantom swerving and phantom braking—and requires diligent oversight from the human driver.

But that hasn’t stopped carmakers and tech companies from conducting uncontrolled autonomous-driving experiments on our public streets. Several states have allowed limited testing of AVs for years, usually with a “safety driver” behind the wheel, just in case. But in August 2023, California regulators decided to make San Francisco the test city for free-range, unsupervised robotaxis. Waymo, a subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet, and General Motor’s AV venture, Cruise, both got permission to operate at will. The experiment has not gone well. Within a week, a Cruise AV collided with a fire truck. Social media filled up with clips of AVs blowing through crowded crosswalks, freezing up in traffic, and driving into wet cement.

Writer Theodore Gioia spent several weeks riding in San Francisco’s autonomous ride-share vehicles for the urban news site Curbed. It was a nerve-wracking experience. “With outrageous delicacy, my robotaxis drove through the streets like we were navigating an active minefield, turning at a glacial pace and cautiously inching over each speed bump,” he writes. The cars took weird, circuitous routes, wouldn’t pick him up or drop him off where he wanted, and often had “seizures,” stopping unexpectedly with the steering wheel twitching nervously.

San Francisco’s AV experiment went from worrisome to horrifying on October 2, 2023, when a pedestrian was hit by a human driver on Market Street. The crash threw the woman into the path of a Cruise vehicle, which stopped with her leg pinned under its rear tire. Instead of just waiting for first responders to show up, the car then initiated a programmed safety maneuver: Seeking a “minimal-risk condition,” it pulled over to the curb, dragging the poor woman 20 feet across the pavement. This is the kind of incident you can’t easily train an AV to cope with, a one-in-a-million event. And attempts to anticipate how a car should respond to emergency situations might have made things worse. As Gioia writes, “this catastrophe resulted, in part, from a safety protocol.” It turns out that operating big heavy machines in the unpredictable physical world is a lot tougher than the digital hotshots expected.

California’s Department of Motor Vehicles soon suspended Cruise’s permits to operate on public streets, citing “an unreasonable risk to public safety.” With that, the company began to implode. Both founders quit. GM announced it was recalling all 950 Cruise vehicles deployed so far. And GM CEO Mary Barra told shareholders the company would be slashing the division’s budgets. As I said in a column two years ago (“Tapping the Brakes on Self-Driving Cars,” December 2021), the AV revolution will arrive eventually, but it faces a longer, bumpier road than tech boosters imagined.

In his nail-biting rides around San Francisco, Gioia noticed something interesting. Compared with riding in an Uber or taxi cab, travelling via an AV ride-share service is a big hassle. The passenger “must make sacrifices for the car’s convenience,” he writes. “Thus Waymo and Cruise flip the typical customer-comes-first capitalist logic.” Gioia has hit on one of the core features of modern digital businesses: They aren’t really built to prioritize the needs of their users. The companies pouring billions into self-driving cars aren’t responding to an overwhelming consumer demand. Few people say they want to own such a vehicle; many tell pollsters they’re afraid even to ride in one. Instead, these corporations are serving their own priorities. Big Tech wants access to the data we’ll generate as we travel around in these always-connected boxes. And the carmakers want to get into the ride-share business. Rather than simply selling us cars as a one-time transaction, they want to be paid for the time we spend in cars owned by them or their ride-share partners. In other words, they want to turn car transportation into a service.

There’s a certain arrogance to this plan. In order to convert automotive transportation into a digital product, large tech and auto companies need lots of people to ride in their robotaxis. But right now, those riders aren’t customers in the traditional sense. Sure, they pay money for the privilege of a herky-jerky ride across town. But their real value to Cruise or Waymo is in the data they provide that will help the companies refine their own services. Even people who don’t ride in the vehicles are providing value. As an AV makes its way through the city, the behavior of every pedestrian, cyclist, or car it encounters becomes part of the company’s vast database modeling how the AV should navigate around these unpredictable variables. That woman who got run over by the Cruise robotaxi? Another data point.

During the early smartphone era, tech insiders often repeated some version of the meme “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.” That was certainly true for services such as Facebook and Google. Their business model is to monetize their users—us—by collecting every scrap of data they can on our interests and then helping advertisers follow us wherever we go. For a long time that trade-off worked well for users. Google’s search function gave us access to a world of information and social-media apps seamlessly connected us to friends, family, and news. But lately, that deal has been breaking down. It’s becoming more obvious that the digital giants don’t care about us and, in many cases, don’t really trust us. The quality of their services is crumbling.

For example, a few weeks ago, Google Maps sent dozens of cars on a detour around a backup on I-15 heading out of Las Vegas. The detour was a jeep trail that ran straight into the desert for miles before vanishing in the sage brush. Some cars had to be towed out. “Nobody was turning around, so we figured that it led somewhere,” one driver said. This is not the future we were promised.

The tech theorist Cory Doctorow calls this downward cycle “enshittification” (pardon the scatology). He summarizes it like this: “Here is how platforms die: First, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die.”

Platforms like Facebook, Google, and Amazon follow a predictable life cycle, Doctorow explains. At first, they offer customers excellent services as they try to lock up users and lock out competitors. Google provided an uncluttered interface with the world’s best search algorithm; Amazon surfaced the best-reviewed products and offered the cheapest shipping, and so on. “Once those users are firmly in hand,” Doctorow writes, “the platforms degrade what made users choose the platform in the first place, making the deal worse for them in order to attract business customers.” Google’s search became cluttered with ads, and, worse, the company began to allow advertisers to game the search results. Amazon began to favor advertisers in rankings and tolerated rampant abuse of its product-review process.

In the final stage of this process, the big platforms start to squeeze their business partners. An antitrust suit charged Google and Facebook with secretly colluding on an advertising bidding platform rigged to keep their own ad rates up and potential competitors out. Regulators have accused Amazon of using its internal data to help Chinese manufacturers create cheap knockoffs of top-selling products on the platform (while giving Amazon an oversized cut, of course). The innovative companies that created those products in the first place got shafted. And so did Amazon’s customers—I mean users, buyers, chumps?—who wound up with inferior versions of the products they’d been looking for.

The Wall Street Journal reports that customer satisfaction with Amazon is slipping. Searching for products on the site used to be fun. Now, with hundreds of no-name, look-alike items jamming the pages, it’s a chore. As tech writer John Herrman notes, “the interface itself is full of junk.” Amazon is no longer treating us like customers; it’s not putting our needs first. We’ve become a product to be monetized.

Normally, I see myself as a techno-optimist. I know that, even with all these annoying trends, the digital revolution has unquestionably made our lives better. And we don’t have to accept the endless degradation of our digital tools. We can—and should—walk away from platforms that don’t serve our interests. (I’ve abandoned Google search for DuckDuckGo, for example.) But it is important to recognize that technological progress isn’t always easy, and it doesn’t always move in a straight line. And sometimes, progress seems slow until it suddenly moves very fast.

Today, we are in the early stages of what will likely be one of history’s biggest technological revolutions, the age of artificial intelligence. Some experts, including pioneers in the field, worry that AI could evolve into a world-destroying technology. Others, including futurist Pethokoukis, think those worries are overblown and believe that AI will boost global living standards dramatically. No doubt, the opportunities and challenges of AI will be the subject of many future Tech Commentary columns. (I just hope AI doesn’t write them for me.) But here’s one pitfall we should watch for. AI systems will feed on and learn from everything humans do and produce. There will be many situations in which—like those riders in San Francisco’s Cruise and Waymo vehicles—we think we are customers being served by a new technology when in fact we are serving its needs. We will need to make sure that we stay in the driver’s seat.

Photo: AP Photo/Paul Sakuma

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