Once again tech has walked right into parody territory, or in this case rolled right into it. The Great Scooter Brouhaha of ’18 has reduced an idea with some merit into an argument about tech-bro culture. The combination of thoughtless tactics, arrogant pronouncements, and silly amounts of money swirling around electric scooters trivializes what should be a discussion about transportation alternatives.
Over the past few weeks, several U.S. cities have found themselves overrun with electric scooters, a land grab by three start-ups out to “Uber-ize” the scooters. Like Uber, they are app-based. And like Uber, the companies showed up in cities regardless of the local regulations. And like Uber, they have been the recipient of cease-and-desist orders from several city governments.
Riders can unlock the scooters with a QR code and pay by the minute to use them. When they are done, they can leave them wherever they want. As a result, many local residents complain the scooters are cluttering sidewalks and endangering pedestrians. The companies claim they are a solution to traffic gridlock, carbon emissions, and poor or no public transportation.
But rather than have that worthwhile debate, we are subject to something closer to a food fight. San Francisco, which once embraced the idea of being the incubator for big ideas, has lost patience and is fighting back — and it’s not pretty. Scooters have been tossed in the Bay, propped up in trees, had their brakes cut, had their QR code scanners covered over, and even been smeared with dog poop. (At least we hope it’s dog poop.)
Other cities have had strong reactions too, but nothing like what’s been going on in San Francisco, home of all three of the scooter startups, Bird, Spin, and LimeBike.
If the story sounds silly, that’s because it is. It certainly doesn’t help that scooters are a form of transportation that strips away the dignity of any rider over the age of 12, yet the startups have about $250 million in venture capital. But it does matter. Stories like this reinforce the idea that Silicon Valley is detached from reality. Stories like this affect whether we will give our trust to the companies that come out of the Valley, whether we will call for increased regulation, and in this case, whether we will support what in the right circumstances could be a perfectly good transportation alternative.
Sure, the electric scooter bubble will burst and we’ll move on to something else with equal parts promise and absurdity. But the trivialization of tech by tech will go on, and it will continue to undermine progress.