Silicon Valley has a tendency to believe that every disruption in society is necessary and just — especially when those disruptions benefit the wealthy tech employees who are driving out everyone else in San Francisco.
Washio, a two-year-old startup that provides on-demand laundry service, caters to that elite: those new residents of the Valley who have never been to a laundromat in their life. As wealthy startup employees drive up rent and force out residents who depended on the convenience of nearby laundromats, those laundromats are now closing down.
If the tech sector feels guilty about this, they're hiding it well, as demonstrated by one Google employee who attempted to justify the extreme gentrification with a tone-deaf tweet explaining that no one needs laundromats anymore. No one who matters, that is. No one rich.
Let's unpack what was said here. Steve Silberman observes that laundromats are shutting down in his neighborhood. Rohit Jenveja, who helps build Google's email platform, says that this is because startups like Washio are killing the need for laundromats. He's wrong on a couple levels here.
The need for laundromats isn't going away. Silicon Valley isn't elevating every San Francisco resident to an income bracket that allows for on-demand laundry, just a select few. For everyone else, they're stuck doing their laundry the traditional way, waiting hours in a laundromat, a stack of quarters in hand.
Jenveja's perspective sheds a light on his privilege. It represents Silicon Valley's insistence on prioritizing free-market ideologies and tech industry boosterism over common sense and the needs of the poor — an ideology convinced that the invisible hand of the market, with some guidance from these innovators, will sort everything out naturally.
So why are San Francisco laundromats actually closing down? Two reasons: real estate and the tech boom. There is a shortage of housing in San Francisco, which is a problem exacerbated by the boom in startups and the influx of highly paid employees. The rich want homes, and they're willing to buy the poor out of them.
The tech industry intensifies this crisis by paying obscene prices for just about any home they can in the Valley, creating one of the most visible and notorious gentrification crises in modern history.
Once wealthy startup employees move in with private washing machines and, yes, on-demand laundry apps, they stop patronizing services needed by the locals, many of whom don't own washer/dryer units and can't afford a luxury laundry service. And because the startup scene has inflated the price of the local real estate, rents go up, and laundromats — like other services many working-class families depend on — can't afford to stay.
The big irony here: Washio depends on laundry services too. Like many delivery apps, Washio doesn't create or provide goods — it's really just a middleman. It doesn't replace laundromats, it just takes your laundry to other laundry facilities and "third-party providers" and does it for you.
As George Packer wrote in the New Yorker, the apps that supposedly "change the world" don't really affect anyone except for the wealthy young men who design them:
"San Francisco is a place where we can go downstairs and get in an Uber and go to dinner at a place that I got a restaurant reservation for halfway there," [startup founder Dave Morin] said. "And, if not, we could go to my place, and on the way there I could order takeout food from my favorite restaurant on Postmates, and a bike messenger will go and pick it up for me. We'll watch it happen on the phone. These things are crazy ideas."
It suddenly occurred to me that the hottest tech start-ups are solving all the problems of being twenty years old, with cash on hand, because that's who thinks them up.
Services like Washio act like handmaids to wealthy young elites; Washio even hands you a nice warm cookie when they come to pick up your laundry, since you'll be missing your blankie while it's in spin cycle.
And this is the way it is with many Silicon Valley startups. The services are designed to nurture the needs of those who can afford to use them.
Uber, the multibillion-dollar on-demand ride service, is largely eating away the taxi-cab business by providing a more convenient, boutique service. It's another middleman between independent contractors and customers. It is not meant to supplant public transit, because public transit is a utility created by municipal governments to serve those who can't afford private cab services to begin with.
Free marketeers who fancy themselves "innovators" believe that by cannibalizing other services, they can prove that these old industries are clunky. They want to break apart the existing structure and start reassembling it into their own ideal. But in that world, not everyone benefits equally.
If we stop sharing risk and responsibility, only those who already hold wealth and privilege will benefit. Let's think about health insurance for a moment. We all buy into it by sharing risk, knowing that at some point it may be us whose number comes up and who needs medical attention.
But now there are health trackers: devices that monitor your vital signs, the amount of exercise you're getting and your nutrition. Soon, we might be able to compute to within a statistical certainty who is most likely to need that trip to the hospital. Why would a healthy person pay into a system if he knows he's paying for the unhealthy person's bill and not benefiting himself?
Laundromats, buses, trains, restaurants, health insurance — we share these things precisely because it benefits society as a whole to participate, even when we are not individually always actively benefiting.
Businesses have always been at war to replace one another in a constant struggle to provide a better quality of life. It's always been an organic ecosystem, but technology, like a steroid, has injected a fuel into this ecology that's causing rapid flux. Titanic businesses like Kodak are replaced by tiny startups like Instagram in a handful of years, and Uber is swallowing the cabs of the world — both public and private — whole. The question is: When we have all of these new, boutique services, who will benefit?
So how does Silicon Valley think? Keep calm and carry on disrupting, they say, and download our app. As for your utilities and necessary services: These things will sort themselves out.