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Fear and Loathing in the Tech Industry

Thursday, October 15, 2015
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Daily Report

Fear and Loathing in the Tech Industry | –>There are two emotional threads in tech news these days: The public’s loathing of pretentious tech start-ups and the fear of hackers.

Let’s start with the loathing.
Leap Transit’s tricked-out buses might have made sense ferrying high rollers around the Las Vegas Strip, but as a daily commuter bus in San Francisco they appear to have been a hapless overreach.
What Leap, the defunct high-end transit service, intended to do made sense: Cater to customers frustrated by overcrowding on popular transit lines traveled by the city’s Muni buses. But where Leap appears to have gone off the rails is an assumption that customers weren’t just frustrated by local buses, they ached for something fancier, and were willing to pay $6, or about triple a public bus ride, to get it.
The result: Swanky buses with organic snacks and drinks, plush seats, and – in keeping with fashion – distressed wood paneling. In short, décor that looked more like the lobby of Twitter than a bus.
It didn’t work. The company had brushes with regulators and slow customer adoption. What’s more, this start-up lobby on wheels quickly came to represent the well-heeled tech industry’s disconnect from the rest of San Francisco.
Interestingly, privately owned mass transit is something of a San Francisco tradition, as this story in the local news website MissionLocal explains. Even as late as the 1970s, jitneys, as they were called, were ferrying up to 7,000 people to and from downtown.
But there was one big difference: While Leap was targeting the moneyed set, the jitneys of old were mostly a working-class affair. Passengers usually spent 10 cents a ride. By comparison, Muni’s adult fare was 25 cents and jumped to 50 cents in 1980.
At a recent auction, Leap’s two buses fetched $11,100 and $12,100. The buyers were anonymous. But don’t be shocked if they show up as moving art installations at next year’s Burning Man event in Nevada.
Now for the fear: If 2014 was the year of the hacker, an optimist would say 2015 is the year companies are going to the root of the problem: Programming mistakes. A number of big tech outfits like Google and Facebook as well as start-ups and industry groups have begun significant efforts to root out programming mistakes, bugs, and other errors made in the industry’s endless pursuit of improved technology.
Will they work? No doubt, there are still major weaknesses in critical infrastructure, and new technologies like the computerization of cars comes with risk. But in recognizing that hackers thrive on the imperfect work of people inside the industry, tech may finally be plugging the gaps that let the bad guys inside.
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