iPhone, therefore I am ... a selfish disruptor

Summary:'Disruption' is a good thing? No: Next time you hear some Kool-Aid-sculling startup genius boast that they're 'disruptive', punch them really hard. Smashing things at random is not progress.

This little blue bus symbolises everything that is wrong with the current bubble and boom of internet startup culture. It's in San Francisco. It belongs to Leap Transit. And, on May 13, this "better bus" — OMFG, it has leather seats and wi-fi! — began operating as part of what's billed as a "shuttle service for San Francisco commuters".

Image: Screenshot by Chris Duckett/ZDNet

Provided, that is, that you're a San Francisco commuter who lives in the Marina, a suburb the San Francisco Chronicle describes as "the land of SUVs, chic fashion, and killer spa treatments".

"The apartment buildings, shops, and restaurants seem to be bursting at their seams with beautiful, young, and fit 20- and 30-somethings. The singles scene is hopping on Friday and Saturday nights, with lots of fresh-faced post-grads with cocktails in one hand and cell phones in the other ... If you're looking for diversity or an edgy or progressive feel, the Marina probably isn't your neighbourhood."

Provided also that you work downtown during normal business hours, can afford the fare of US$6 each way, and have an iPhone through which you can pay that fare. You do? Then, sure, this is indeed a shuttle service for San Francisco commuters. I guess they just forgot to put the asterisk at the end of that slogan.

Leap Transit is, in other words, Uber for buses.

Just as Uber's embarrassingly popular service for hiring a limo through your smartphone appeals to people who think they're too important to wait for a cab, or too special to plan ahead, Leap appeals to those who simply can't bear standing up for a few minutes when all the seats are taken, or even sharing space with lesser humans.

They therefore appeal precisely to that sub-species of style-conscious solipsistic social climber who doesn't realise that something exists until they've seen it on their iPhone.

As developer Johan Oskarsson put it, who wants to "share the wonderful experience that is the commute with your fellow man? Nothing like an armpit in your face"?

The people who create our glorious digital future don't have armpits that might inconvenience other people's faces. They are building an armpit-less future.

The first irony in this is that San Francisco already has excellent public transport, ranging from the energy-efficient electric street cars and trolley buses of the Muni, to the handful of remaining historic cable cars, to the glorious 1970s retro-futurism of BART.

The second irony is that hiring a limo or starting a private bus service have always been options for people who are dissatisfied with even excellent public transport, and rich enough to do something about it. The only thing that's special about Uber and Leap is that a smartphone is involved. They therefore appeal precisely to that sub-species of style-conscious solipsistic social climber who doesn't realise that something exists until they've seen it on their iPhone.

I say "iPhone", because initially, such services are always "Android coming soon" — because even common people can afford the droids these days.

Now, there's nothing wrong with spotting cashed-up punters and selling them an expensive service. That's a good business. But what disturbs me is that businesses like Uber and Leap are put forward by the startup cheer squad as examples of being "disruptive". And being disruptive is starting to be seen as something good in and of itself — quite unlike the way my teachers used that word to describe me last century.

I can see where this disruption-is-good mentality comes from. Smart people with an understanding of digital possibilities look at some last-century service, and see how they can improve it in ways that matter to them. To achieve those improvements, they have to break the inefficient structures — disrupt them — because the radical changes they envision simply can't be achieved with incremental improvements at the edges.

Disrupting services like this wouldn't be a problem if the disruptors were genuinely interested in improving a public service.

But often, some of the inefficiencies are there for a reason.

As just one example, the Muni has to serve everyone in San Francisco right through the day and night and on weekends, not just the beautiful people of the Marina with comfortable daytime office jobs — and that includes night-shift factory workers who might be a bit whiffy after work because their employer doesn't provide showers, and the weird, muttering people on their way to pick up fresh medication.

Organisations like Muni also have to provide their staff with training, sick leave, insurance, and such, and need to provide burst capacity to cover special events and emergencies. And, as a public service, it has to set prices that everyone can afford.

Disrupting services like this wouldn't be a problem if the disruptors were genuinely interested in improving a public service. Some are. But most seem to be motivated not by service, but purely by money. The service role and sense of responsibility to their staff, service, or even customers seems completely absent. That's all someone else's problem.

If you've got a problem with the limo experience you booked through Uber, for example, well, take it up with the driver. Uber just made the introductions. And, of course, pocketed its cut regardless of the outcome.

Designer and software engineer Luke Andrews nailed this business model in one tweet: "'This socialized [x] is slow and unprofitable. Let's start a [x] for rich people that pays its employees less.' #rinserepeat"

These disruptors are not to be admired. They're just spoiled kids. They're blind to the complex, real-world needs of complex, real-world societies, and are just smashing the piñata of public services to scoop up the shiniest, most profitable parts for themselves — and damn the rest, because they're not cool.

Topics: Start-Ups, Government


Stilgherrian is a freelance journalist, commentator and podcaster interested in big-picture internet issues, especially security, cybercrime and hoovering up bulldust. He studied computing science and linguistics before a wide-ranging media career and a stint at running an IT business. He can write iptables firewall rules, set a rabbit tr... Full Bio

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