Is tech OK? It's not just the mass layoffs. It's that, to an alien observer, many of the most hyped ideas emerging from America's vaunted tech industry over the last few years would seem untethered from reality, if not outright unhinged.
Facebook renamed itself Meta and pitched us the metaverse, insisting we'll all soon want to immerse ourselves in a giant pixelated 3-D cartoon where no one has legs. So-called web3 startups enlisted celebrities to sell us on NFTs and blockchain technology built to prove we owned doodles of depressed monkeys. Crypto companies proposed we abandon a regulated financial system for a freewheeling digital one overflowing with volatility and fraud.
Some unhinged-ness is good, you might argue. Where would civilization be if we didn't take some big technological swings? Making vast amounts of information easily searchable for billions of people, and then making it accessible through a screen that fits in your pocket — all that once seemed like a fantastic notion. It's also true that buzzy concepts have filtered in and out of Silicon Valley for decades, some fizzling, others enduring. But something feels different this time.
The buzzwords seem to be coming faster, the ideas further detached from the real world and the ordinary consumer. The industry that delivered us the iPhone, Google search, social media and Uber seems to have entered into a phase of prolonged magical thinking. Tech, one might say, has found itself in La La Land.
Interesting, then, that tech's metaphorical drift has paralleled its physical migration into Los Angeles, where Silicon Valley companies have lately entrenched themselves. Recent years have seen the conquest of Netflix and streaming, each of the tech giants rapidly expanding their presence in so-called Silicon Beach, and the cross-pollination of Hollywood and Silicon Valley — the enmeshing of the science fiction industrial complex and the tech sector that turns to its visions for inspiration for its products. It makes sense: Having built the pipes, in the forms of the internet servers and the social media networks, the next need was for content to pump through them — and who produces content better than L.A.?
Am I blaming the influence of Hollywoodland for tech's latest period of virtual loftiness? Not necessarily. Am I being overly clever in order to introduce some of the key themes that will figure into a column about tech written in Los Angeles? Some questions might never find answers.
But consider, for a moment, that when I moved to L.A. nearly eight years ago, in 2015, the dominant trend in tech was on-demand app services. Remember the days of "Uber for everything"? (The pitch for Uber, by the way, was appealing and very tangible: What if you could summon goods and services with the tap of your smartphone? It was all about giving the user access to physical stuff and experiences: a ride to the airport, sushi to your doorstep, groceries for the coming week.) VR was niche, TikTok didn't exist, and Netflix barely had a presence here. Nudged on by the pandemic, the trend has shifted, and hurled us back into online spaces with a vengeance.
Since then, streaming and digital content production have boomed, and every tech giant has become a content producer as well as an entertainment platform — Amazon Prime, Apple Plus, YouTube Premium, Meta's Horizon Worlds, you name it. Video game studios such as Santa Monica-based goliath Activision Blizzard challenge Hollywood for revenue supremacy. And the rise of virtual and augmented reality, technologies that live or die based on the content that can be produced for them, has spawned startups and content studios across L.A.
"Tech has now become the bedrock of Los Angeles," Petra Durnin, the head of market analytics at Raise Commercial Real Estate, said back in 2020. And that's still the case, if not more so now. "If COVID had not restrained demand we would have seen 15 to 20% growth in what I call tech-tainment," Durnin told me.
Raise collects data on how much office space tech companies buy up or lease, and according to the numbers, tech's takeover of L.A. has been pretty staggering. In 2015, tech companies were leasing about 500,000 square feet of office space. Now Netflix alone has nearly a million. Tech has some 5.5 million square feet of space in L.A. today — around 10% of all commercial real estate on the Westside. "From 2018 on, it's been really sizable and steady increases," she says.
As tech invaded L.A. and rubbed shoulders with the entertainment industry, new formations of what we consider "tech" were born. Don't take it from me. The Yale anthropologist Lisa Messeri, who's previously studied Silicon Valley, conducted her most recent fieldwork in L.A.'s growing virtual reality community. Even though Southern California has a massive aerospace industry and was an early player in electronics manufacturing and internet research, she says that L.A.'s roots and role in developing modern tech often get overlooked.
"Thinking about tech from L.A.," Messeri tells me, "is a project in both remembering that there is a tech history in the city, but then also reflecting on how entertainment and storytelling are increasingly important for the current tech climate." How, perhaps, gambits like the metaverse may rely less on a particular technological achievement than on the stories and experiences one might encounter inside it. Or even on the narratives generated about it — "Ready Player One" was a blueprint for Facebook's metaverse, and Tom Cruise's swipe-based future policing in "Minority Report" famously helped inspire touchscreen user interfaces.
"And entertainment," Messeri adds, "is of course a 'tech industry' in its own right."
It certainly is, and now more than ever, the lines are blurring. Film franchises such as "Avatar" and the seemingly infinite Marvel Cinematic Universe require state-of-the-art film production technology; Big Tech is hiring Hollywood special effects artists to build virtual realities, and the film industry is debating the merits of AI-generated effects and actors. Messeri says the current formulation of VR and the metaverse is the result of a cross-pollination between L.A. and Silicon Valley. Tech, quite literally, in La La Land.
(Trends such as crypto, web3 and NFTs are another story — cases of the valley coming off a frothy period during which investors had access to cheap money and glommed onto some wild ideas in much the way they always have. Tech, metaphorically, in La La Land.)
Regardless, given the link between Silicon Valley's latest visions for the tech of tomorrow and the technologizing of the City of Angels, it makes for a fascinating vantage point to think about where it's all heading.
For all the reasons described above, and plenty more, L.A. is a particularly interesting place to watch the future of tech unfold; not just to take a window seat to the innovations happening in entertainment and virtual reality, but to explore the toll of all tech in its La La Land phase.
Take Uber, which I mentioned above as an example of a Silicon Valley idea that resonated with consumers — which it undeniably did. Uber became a global phenomenon, and transformed and redefined an entire category of work. But its business model turned out to mostly be magical thinking, and neither it, nor the competitors that followed it, have ever turned a meaningful profit. They've turned instead to finding novel ways to keep wages low and drivers overworked and steeped in precarity. It's left L.A., one of the biggest markets for gig work in the nation, rife with struggling drivers forced to sleep in their cars because they can't afford rent.
But instead of finding sustainable solutions, righting the ship, or offering workers meaningful seats at the table, tech often seems to be doubling down on lofty thinking. Take Facebook, which transformed itself into Meta only after it faced years of scandals over how it chose to let harmful or misleading content spread on its massive social media platform. Facebook chose to juice its metaverse gambit over governing its huge and unwieldy social platform. It's one reason people have increasingly negative opinions toward tech companies, and why things like web3 and NFTs have seemed to fizzle so fast — we see the problems piling up, and we're increasingly wary of receiving a fresh wave of hype when the issues from the last one are still so prevalent.
This will be a major thrust of this column: What's fact, what's fiction, what's made palatable with impressive special effects but lacks any real depth or staying power? Even beyond the entertainment-tech nexus, L.A. is an ideal place to pinpoint how tech is going to be felt, broken-in, and embraced — and whom it will leave out. It's got the largest port, some of the largest Amazon fulfillment centers and largest attendant fleet of delivery vans, and all of the above are increasingly automated and algorithmically directed. What happens to that vast, interconnected machinery, and the people who make it run, as temperatures and costs rise?
(To that end, my inbox is always open — I want to know how you use or make technology, and how tech uses or makes you.)
Because L.A. is also where teenagers whiz by encampments of unhoused people on Bird scooters, where smoke from wildfires wafts into newfangled home air filtration systems, and where Hollywood's top talent agencies hire metaverse officers while production crews strike for decent working conditions. It is, in other words, both a theme park of technological wonders and a potential dystopia incubator.
It's La La Land, and it's producing the future. I suggest we keep tabs on it.
Brian Merchant is the Los Angeles Times’ technology columnist..
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