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Tuesday 22 Aug 2017 | 00:50 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 22 Aug 2017 | 00:50 | SYDNEY

Hyperloop: The politics of Silicon Valley



16 August 2013 11:56

By now you might have heard of entrepreneur Elon Musk's recent proposal for the so-called Hyperloop, a mass-transit system that would be faster, cheaper and greener than air transport and high-speed rail.

After making his fortune with PayPal, Musk has since founded SpaceX, which is making space launches a lot cheaper, and Tesla, which has put electric vehicles on the cusp of mainstream acceptability. An impressive record which suggests Musk's ideas are not to be lightly dismissed. But it's worth reading this detailed critique of the Hyperloop, not just because it exposes the financial and technical questions over the proposal, but because of what it says about the culture encouraged by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs like Musk:

This culture of superstars is a major obstacle frustrating any attempt to improve existing technology. It more or less works for commercial websites, where the startup capital requirements are low, profits per employee are vast, and employee turnover is such that corporate culture is impossible. People get extremely rich for doing something first, even if in their absence their competitors would’ve done the same six months later...

...In infrastructure, this is not workable. Trains are 19th-century technology, as are cars and buses. Planes are from the 20th century. Companies can get extremely successful improving the technology somehow, but this works differently from the kind of entrepreneurship that’s successful in the software and internet sectors. The most important airline invention since the jet engine is either the widebody (i.e. more capacity) or the suite of features that make for low-cost flights, such as quick turnarounds. What Southwest and its ultra low-cost successors have done is precious: they’ve figured how to trim every airline expense, from better crew utilization to incentives for lower-transaction cost booking methods. This requires perfect knowledge of preexisting practices and still takes decades to do. The growth rate of Microsoft, Google, and Facebook is not possible in such an environment, and so the individual superstar matters far less than a positive corporate culture that can transmit itself over multiple generations of managers.

There's a related point here made by Evgeny Morozov in his critique of web culture, To Save Everything, Click Here. One defining feature of this culture is its impatience with politics. The Silicon Valley culture encourages technological or technocratic solutions to stubborn policy problems (think One Laptop Per Child or the charter city movement) because it regards the political process as so inefficient that they need to work around it.

Everything happens fast in Silicon Valley, and there is little patience for a process which throws together competing interests and insists on observing archaic parliamentary rituals. And whereas Silicon Valley focuses on solving problems permanently, the political process is usually just about managing them, which is far less satisfying.

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