That’s a Bus. You [Identified the Sweeping Implications of a Staggering, Generational Technological Change, and Re]invented a Bus

Every so often, you see somebody try to summarize somebody else’s worldview in a way that accidentally perfectly encapsulates their own. Here’s an example I keep coming back to: last year, Lyft launched a shuttle bus service that offered fixed-price, fixed-route transportation during commuting hours.

The predictable response:

Well, okay, “A bus” also offers fixed-price, fixed-route transportation, especially during commuting hours. If that’s the definition of a bus, and if any service that satisfies those criteria has reached some Platonic ideal of busdom, then yes, there’s no need to reinvent it.

But busdom is really an instance of a different ideal: the ideal of transportation. And transportation has changed, thanks to phones. In the bad old days, the best way to ensure that you had a way to get from A to B was to reserve approximately ten to fifteen years of on-demand transportation by buying a car. This was convenient (you usually had a ride close to wherever you’d left from) but had its downsides (95%+ dis-utilization rate).

GPS-enabled phones completely changed this equation. Now, anyone who needs transportation can summon it at will. Like many innovations, it started out as an ad hoc service for the rich, but as it scaled up it went downmarket. And as you go through the tiers of intra-city passenger transit, you start at limo service and work your way down to public transit. Ride sharing is a scale business: a larger network of drivers begets a larger network of passengers, and vice-versa. At a critical mass, you get additional economies of scale from tracking and harvesting demand — you know which neighborhoods will need cars when, and you can get them there in time to harvest demand. And at an even larger scale, you can start to play games with traffic, too: if a single ride-sharing company had sufficiently high market share, they could theoretically make some lanes de facto carpool lanes, or turn a four-lane road into three northbound and one southbound lane during rush hour one way, and one northbound/three southbound at other times.

(Okay, so that wouldn’t be legal under the current regime. But what politician is going to oppose a constituency that consists of a majority of commuters, who are being told their commute will slow down for purely political reasons. It would be like the outrage at the MTA’s decision to slow down their trains, multiplied by a thousand. Oh, and political mobilization is a lot easier for ride-sharing companies, too: a smartphone is also a phone, so commuters in transit are a vast labor pool for a temporary, distributed phone bank.)

Even if we take a more limited view, a ride sharing company has a better sense than a municipal bus authority about:

a) Where commuters live

b) Where price-sensitive commuters live

c) Commuting times

d) Day-of-week and holiday demand

And, lest we forget, a private company can kick people off the bus, or ban them for life from the service. Despite the literal rock-throwing protest, privately-run bus-like services are probably safer than the public-sector alternative.

Basically, it’s completely bananas to imagine that, if someone had invented buses a decade after the invention of the smartphone, they’d use the same approach buses use today. Moreover, it’s an insult to the intelligence of the municipal transit authorities themselves: if they had the data and the budget, they’d want to run a smarter system, too.

I suspect that the explanation is a culture clash between the journalists who cover tech and the people who make it happen. Tech journalists, as a rule, don’t like or understand technology. This isn’t a character flaw. Everybody has different interests. I don’t like or understand modern art, for example, and that’s not a sin. It’s a good reason for me not to work as a modern art critic. (“It’s a rectangle, Mondrian. You drew a rectangle.”)

I don’t entirely understand how this happened. One possibility is that there are ample opportunities to make money from understanding technology trends — as an investor (public or private), a product manager, as a founder — and of these, journalism pays the worst and thus attracts the worst. But that can’t be all: there was a time when Wired was good. Remember that time they let Neal Stephenson write 40,000 words on undersea cables?

Journalists don’t like the future very much, because it’s further away from the past. And the past was a good place for them. It would be nice for professional writers to be able to live like Christopher Hitchens, having a couple bottles of wine with lunch at Eleven Madison and putting the whole thing on Graydon Carter’s Amex. So their tendency is to mock new stuff.

It’s the path of least resistance, too: nearly every company that raises money has been rejected by the vast majority of the VCs who they pitched; most people look at AngelList job ads and decide to pass on a given idea; and most people who visit a website for the first time bounce. So the single most common opinion about every startup is that it’s a bad idea, or, if it’s a good idea, that it’s overvalued. You’ll always be popular if you can rephrase the consensus as something new and daring.

“It’s a bodega.”

“Reference librarians, Larry and Sergey. You invented reference librarians.”

“My college already has a facebook. Your college, too.”

This null criticism extends past tech, too: one of the knocks against Jordan Peterson is that it’s silly that he’s so popular. We don’t need someone to tell young men to sit up straight and clean their rooms; their parents have been telling them that for years. The Peterson magic isn’t that the advice is especially groundbreaking; it’s that he got his audience to listen.

I worry that Peterson’s schtick, of rephrasing common opinions in a more compelling way, will catch on. Maybe tech journalists will start thinking of ways to make their opinions more viral and compelling, more culturally contagious. Maybe they’ll come up with more effective ways to preemptively mock anything new and different, or any attempt to improve on the status quo. And maybe people will start to listen. But I doubt it; it’s not a very exciting or engaging message, and people have always complained about progress, until it’s inevitable.

It’s curmudgeonry, journalists. You’ve invented curmudgeonry.