How did tech companies become America’s most-powerful local power brokers?
I’m not saying America’s cities are turning into dystopian technocapitalist hellscapes in which corporations operate every essential service and pull every civic string.
Across the country, cities are straining. Housing costs are exploding, transportation systems are overwhelmed, infrastructure is crumbling, and inequality is on the rise. Yet there’s little support from federal or state authorities — “infrastructure week” is a punch line in Washington, not a policy. Efforts to raise money for local projects are under siege from conservative activists, while measures to build more housing are halted by liberal ones.
One reason tech companies can command greater say in local issues is that many other local institutions, from small businesses to local newspapers, have lost much of their influence — thanks, in large part, to the internet.
In his new book, “The Increasingly United States,” Daniel Hopkins, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, points out that social networks and digital media created a media ecosystem that is increasingly obsessed with national issues, and a political-finance system that allows donations to flow nationally. As a result, local issues are sidelined.
The “key question for voters is always their national loyalties,” Mr. Hopkins said. There’s much less room for voting based on what’s happening nearby.
What does this have to do with tech companies? While the fall of local media undermined interest in local issues, tech companies began to notice that their platforms gave them direct access to new levers of local influence. And they began to deploy those levers to withering effect.
Uber wrote the script. Travis Kalanick, the ride-hailing company’s founder and now-ousted chief executive, pushed into dozens of cities without asking permission. In many cities, the pushback was intense — Uber was disrupting local taxi cartels that had spent decades building their own political power base.
But Mr. Tusk mobilized Uber’s constituency, framing the issue in stark racial terms — if Uber failed, black and Latino drivers would lose an economic opportunity, and riders would be stuck with taxis that had long discriminated against them. Uber won and, by following its example, so would the rest of the industry.
You might argue that this is all to the good: Cities are drowning in red tape, local leaders are naturally averse to change, and tech companies are doing exactly what innovative companies should do. Shouldn’t we be celebrating these innovators?
But tech power, at the local level, feels increasingly indomitable. With the mere threat of halting growth, Amazon can send shudders through cities across the country. Even Mr. De Blasio, once seen as a critic of tech, now swoons for Amazon; he lit up New York’s landmarks in “Amazon orange”to woo Jeff Bezos to open the company’s second headquarters there.