Silicon Valley accelerates climate breakdown

New York, 2013-17, the combined number of taxis and ride-hailing vehicles rose by 59 per cent, even as the latter drove many of the former out of business; their combined mileage rose by more than one third.

Despite its success in trashing labour regulation and traffic reduction measures, Uber was losing money. Mountains of it: about $25 billion, between 2016 and 2020.

Uber not only transformed the taxi industry at drivers’ expense, and flooded the streets with cars that worsened traffic: it also “cycled through several bold visions to keep investor money flowing, as it failed to profitably deliver its ride-hailing service”, Marx writes.

It burned through billions, dabbling in micromobility services and with failed attempts to automate drivers and launch flying cars.


But losing money does not mean Uber produced no benefits for capital, Marx argues. “Even if Uber eventually dies”, its contribution to the class struggle in rolling back gig economy workers’ rights will remain – potentially “a far bigger win in the long term” for capital, if not reversed by government action.

Marx, a technology journalist by trade and host of the Tech Won’t Save Us podcast, contextualises the tech bros’ actions in the social processes of which they are part. They “move fast and break things”; they undermine labour rights and state regulation; their wealth is deployed in ways that exacerbate the climate crisis.

This suited government, Marx argues. In the post-recession decade, the venture capitalists who financed tech companies’ loss-leading adventures “acted as the US’s central planners”, as the New York Magazine writer Eric Levitz put it.

Marx writes: “While the political right criticised government decisions to provide support to particular companies and sectors, they ignored how a powerful group of wealthy men educated at Ivy League institutions were in control of multi-billion-dollar funds that they used to cherry-pick companies – that could corner particular market segments and finance them while they recorded substantial losses, […] driving out competition.”

It was not just that Uber. Google and Tesla did most in the early 2010s to promote the “dream of ubiquitous autonomous vehicles”, Marx writes – a fantasy that is not being realised.


The dream was not just about self-driving cars. It was larger and more insidious: the idea that “we could all step back and let the tech sector solve the problems that have built up over the past century of bad political decisions about transportation” – problems that have cost millions of lives and devastated communities by spreading cities out for the sake of cars.

But autonomous vehicles are “not the solution to the problems created by automobiles, because they themselves are still automobiles”. They take up too much space; they encourage car-oriented urban development patterns; and they bring a whole range of new vulnerabilities.

One of the most cringe-worthy stories Marx tells is of Elon Musk’s ludicrous Boring Company, that aimed to drive tunnels under cities.

Musk dismissed the concept of induced traffic – i.e. the fact that more roads produce more traffic, developed by decades of transport research – as “one of the most irrational theories I’ve ever heard”, and vowed to build “super safe, Earthquake-proof tunnels under cities to solve traffic”.

The plans came almost to nothing, as did those for flying cars.


Marx shows how such schemes reflect the privilege of Silicon Valley’s movers and shakers. To them, transport policy is about clearing the way for moneyed car owners to move faster – and break more things, I suppose.

Electric vehicles, unlike driverless ones, do actually work, Marx argues – but large-scale adoption would bring new environmental dangers caused by demand for metals and other materials.

Cars are cars, and tackling the climate crisis means reducing their numbers: “Instead of trying to have personal electric vehicles match the scale of personal gas or diesel vehicles, the emphasis should instead be on getting people to shift from driving to taking transit and cycling, while building more walkable communities where necessities are closer to home.”

Marx doesn’t cover the role of the big car manufacturers, who use their foothold in electric vehicle making to greenwash their unsustainable main business, just as oil and gas companies do with their miniscule investments in renewables.

Are there motoring journalists out there who will do as thorough a job on Ford, VW, Nissan et al as Marx does on Silicon Valley? If so, they will be swimming against the tide. As the tech bros careered disastrously into urban transport systems, journalists, along with ride-hailers, bought the story they were selling.


Marx writes: “In the years after Uber’s launch, and especially its move into competition with the taxi industry, the media adopted the language of Silicon Valley to echo marketing claims that innovative new technologies were being developed to disrupt traditional industries for the better.”

I recommend Road to Nowhere not only for what it says about transport, but for its approach to technologies more generally.

Marx understands that gadgets – be they ride-hailing apps and electric vehicles that work, or flying cars that don’t – need to be considered in their social context. He also compares this generation of technologies with the people-damaging way that cars were introduced to rich-country cities in the early 20th century.

Further, Marx shows how the relationship of private capital and the state counts here; and how the assumptions inscribed in our culture, that technofixes will solve the problems capitalism has piled up for us, are as dangerous as the Silicon Valley whizz kids’ delusions.

Road to Nowhere shows how those whizz-kids are empowered by crisis-ridden capitalism to develop technologies in ways that hurt us all. The question, “how can technologies be shaped to benefit people, not to harm them?”, can only really get asked in the course of our fight against capital. 


In a final, forward-looking, chapter, Marx welcomes the measures taken by Paris, Oslo and other cities to de-centre cars, but insists that we need to go further. We need publicly-supported mobility apps, not Uber apps.

Transport systems must become an expression of “public abundance”, as opposed to inequality and private wealth. Computerised transport technologies must work together with urban planning, which is also about technologies – even if they aren’t all flashy gizmos.

Road to Nowhere is far ahead of the depressing pile of texts that put a “left” gloss on techno-optimism, rather than understanding its social function, such as the books by Holly Jean Buck and Andreas Malm embracing geoengineering – to say nothing of the crass “eco modernism” of Jacobin magazine’s Leigh Phillips.

Socialism desperately needs an understanding of technology in its social context. Without this, we will never learn how to develop the technological systems – including urban transport systems that minimise the car’s role – that we need, to live a better life and to avert dangerous climate change.

This Author

Simon Pirani is honorary professor at the University of Durham in the UK, and author of Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption (Pluto, 2018). He writes a blog at Follow him on Twitter: @SimonPirani1.


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