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The Infrastructure Bill Needs to Succeed Where Tech’s Utopian Promises Failed

Decades of disruption made Silicon Valley rich, but its ideology of technological solutionism failed the rest of us. It’s time to reinvest in public goods.

A truck stops at the top of a road destroyed during Hurricane Michael near Eastpoint, Florida

As the multitrillion-dollar infrastructure bill wends its way through Congress, its exact parameters and legislative outcome remain uncertain. But whatever the eventual contours of the final bill, a certain ideological argument has already been put forward—and it should be a winner in the public imagination. Whereas the private sector and the efficiencies of the profit motive were once hailed as the key to good governance—“run the government like a business,” went the tired logic of privatization—that consensus may now be falling apart like a pothole-ridden Midwestern highway. As years of economic decay, a devastating pandemic, and the rise of China have proved, we cannot simply trust the self-interest of private capitalists to furnish the basic infrastructure and essential services of public life. And yet, for decades, we have ceded that territory to the commercial sector, with private equity and Silicon Valley, relying on the ethos of disruption, remaking whole industries in their image: technologically advanced, rent-seeking, profit-focused, and divorced from any sense of public good. The result is we have far too many impoverished, surveilled Uber drivers and far too few unionized, pensioned municipal train operators.

Two decades of glittering tech industry success have left us no closer to solving some of society’s infrastructure problems. As Lyft attempts to reinvent the city bus, Amazon colonizes health care, Elon Musk’s hyperloop and other dubious tunnel projects absorb chunks of city transport budgets, and shoddy contact-tracing apps fail to help contain the pandemic, the lesson should be clear: Big tech doesn’t fix our problems, it monetizes them. Even in the midst of a devastating public health crisis, instead of free universal health care, we have an increasing number of pharmacy apps, telehealth specialists, and well-capitalized biotech startups. Somehow tech has narrowed our civic ambitions, as we send billionaires to space instead of astronauts. The internet itself, once a great digital commons, has become irreparably commercialized and surveilled, and even accessing it is a challenge for millions of Americans lacking reliable, affordable broadband.

The infrastructure bill has the chance to change that. Promising tens of billions of dollars in funding for broadband access, transit hubs, roads and bridges, water and power systems, and electric vehicles, the bill is a brief for centralized planning, for state management of infrastructure that, left untended or leased out to private interests, tends to go fallow. Espousing the kind of nation-building that has recently been isolated to America’s imperial periphery, the infrastructure bill offers something basic but potentially profound: an effort to ensure that the basic “machinery of government,” as my colleague Alex Pareene wrote last year, “simply works.” This shift in mindset and government priorities is long overdue.

As Pareene explained, reorienting the business of government around providing useful services, around ensuring that people get what they need, and that efficiencies and value aren’t confined to the private sector, would be a tremendous step forward for American governance and in the life of this country’s people. “Such a focus would be revolutionary, as it would necessitate a massive reinvestment in the state’s capacity and a complete rejection of neoliberal ideas about the role of the state,” he wrote. It would also be a rejection of the ascendent economic consensus that holds that innovation comes only from private interests and that the government’s main job is to get out of the way of the people’s ability to prosper.

To get a better sense of where the infrastructure bill might succeed, it’s worth examining how deeply the tech industry, ostensibly this country’s powerhouse of innovation, has failed—how, in its pursuit of untold scale and profits, most of its leading lights have largely invested their fortunes in useless apps, gaudy digital baubles, risky bets like autonomous vehicles, exploitative gig platforms, and other ventures that do little for the common good. These are not just individual failures; they are collective ones that display the follies of what Evgeny Morozov once dubbed “technological solutionism,” the belief that for every problem there exists an apolitical, technologically based solution. It’s a stubbornly enduring ideology that still finds expression in the highest echelons of state and corporate power.

An important, and still influential, entry in the annals of technological solutionism appeared last August, as the country was reeling from the pandemic and careening toward an uncertain election. Marc Andreessen, one of Silicon Valley’s most powerful venture capitalists, published a short manifesto for our age of societal dysfunction. Titled “It’s Time to Build,” Andreessen’s opus declared: “Every Western institution was unprepared for the coronavirus pandemic, despite many prior warnings. This monumental failure of institutional effectiveness will reverberate for the rest of the decade, but it’s not too early to ask why, and what we need to do about it.”

Lamenting everything from the lack of affordable housing in San Francisco to insufficient protective equipment for frontline workers, Andreessen took stock of the nation’s struggles and wondered where it all went wrong. “Where are the supersonic aircraft?” he asked. “Where are the millions of delivery drones? Where are the high speed trains, the soaring monorails, the hyperloops, and yes, the flying cars?”

Mostly overlooking economic inequality and politics—though he did say that it was time for the right to support government investment in new industries—Andreessen attributed America’s failures not to the neoliberal ideology of privatization and austerity, nor to the Trump administration’s venal incompetence, but to a general societal “inertia.” We don’t “desire” or “want” to build the kind of infrastructure and essential systems that would move society forward, he claimed. As for the left, its challenge was to “prove” that public institutions could be better, Andreessen said, without acknowledging that decades of austerity had gutted these services, making his proposition almost impossible. “Demonstrate that the public sector can build better hospitals, better schools, better transportation, better cities, better housing,” he wrote, before going on to quote right-wing economist Milton Friedman in an essay he considered free of politics.

“It’s Time to Build” ignored core concerns about politics, labor, inequality, even race. Still, these gaping holes at the heart of Andreessen’s argument didn’t prevent the essay from becoming a sensation in Silicon Valley and the tech press. Now Andreessen’s essay anchors a site called Future, which is designed to provide a more optimistic gloss on our moribund digital age than what’s found in some skeptical media outlets. But rather than follow through on Andreessen’s call and invest in long-term capital projects, Andreessen Horowitz, the internet pioneer’s venture capital firm, has put tens of millions of dollars in nonfungible token companies, including a just-announced investment in a virtual horse-racing NFT platform. It’s hard to find a more glaring example of an ephemeral investment based on a specious sense of value, but this is where industry titans have chosen to put their money.

From Andreessen’s call to build stuff to Biden’s already well-worn motto, “Build Back Better,” there’s an overriding sense in the American scene that things have fallen apart. The initial excitement of the information age—and its vast but unevenly distributed profits—captured public attention, but no amount of addictive TikTok algorithms can distract from the glaring fact that nothing seems to work. Health care, transportation, broadband, clean water—in many parts of this country, life’s essentials, which should be the province of the state, simply are unaffordable or don’t work, and glossy rental apps or side-hustle gig platforms can’t fix the problem. The massive semiconductor shortage—which affects everything from automobiles to video game consoles to heavy industry—may take years to be fully ameliorated, in part because tech companies like Intel are only now getting around to investing in new U.S.-based foundries. (Intel’s commitment to build stateside factories came after a similar pledge by Taiwan-based TSMC, an industry-leading manufacturer, which received federal subsidies for its planned foundries in Arizona.) Across the economic scene, the need for significant capital investment is obvious, and with tech companies like Apple and Microsoft hoarding tens of billions of dollars in cash, it’s unlikely that these necessary outlays can come from anywhere but a massive government program.

There are notable concerns about the infrastructure bill. Some supporters think it should be far larger—$6 trillion or more, with a special focus on responding to climate change. There’s plenty of possibility for self-dealing, corruption, or vanity projects that don’t work. A recent Vice story denounced New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed AirTrain at LaGuardia airport as “likely to be a flop” and “a blatant example of poor planning,” since it’ll do nothing to cut down on travel times. (As a talking point, though, new transportation projects sound nice to voters.) Other important efforts like repairing the digital divide face impediments from telecom firms and from a lack of understanding of the problem. As CNN reported, the FCC’s maps of broadband access—and where it’s unavailable—are wildly inaccurate; it’ll cost at least $98 million to fix them. Then the building can begin.

It’s also doubtful that we’ve broken the grip that privatization holds over the business of governance. There’s too much money to be made. A grim report in The American Prospect chronicles how private equity firms are fronting cities hundreds of millions of dollars in order to obtain long-term leases on essential infrastructure like storm drains, street lights, water systems, and basic utilities. With money flowing to municipalities via the infrastructure bill, investors expect “a public asset bonanza.… Private equity is seeking to capitalize on the one-off spending spree in President Biden’s infrastructure plans, using environmental violations and crumbling buildings to make the case that municipalities can’t manage their own assets.”

Unfortunately, the argument that municipalities can’t manage their own affairs has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, thanks to skimpy budgets, bad investments, fractious politics, and increased privatization. We don’t build much anymore, not without huge subsidies offered to would-be innovators like Elon Musk or foreign manufacturers like TSMC. And we certainly don’t provide for people’s needs. It doesn’t have to be this way, nor do we need reflexively to cede influence to the private equity firms and other vultures circling what looks like a big potential payday. The infrastructure bill has a chance to be a major initiative in the public interest. But it may require something unprecedented from tech and business elites that can’t be found in Andreessen’s call to action: a sense of humility, and a willingness for tech’s failed disrupters to get out of the way.