Natural Disasters Are Tech's tall Chance To Save The World — And The final Product Demo


On Tuesday, note Zuckerberg took to his social media platform to issue an apology for — and a defense of — his decision to broadcast a cartoon version of himself exploring the virtual landscape of hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico. The plan, it would seem, was to demonstrate potential exercise cases for virtual reality and Facebook Spaces, including virtually visiting storm-ravaged communities.

But the public didn’t respond well to the image of a tech billionaire “visiting” a catastrophe zone from the consolation of Silicon Valley. The moment in which Zuckerberg’s curly-haired, smiling avatar virtually high-fives another Facebook employee’s avatar before a backdrop of flooded streets — “you can earn the feeling that you’re really in a residence,” his avatar says in the broadcast — is particularly jarring.

Wow, can’t believe Facebook’s own PR team is now working to waste Zuckerberg. #ImagineTheMeeting https://t.co/WMIJ5oUuXi

Wow, can’t believe Facebook’s own PR team is now working to waste Zuckerberg. #ImagineTheMeeting https://t.co/WMIJ5oUuXi

Zuckerberg’s VR tour of Puerto Rico is everything wicked approximately Silicon Valley. People live in a bubble there, and need to visit the real world

Zuckerberg’s VR tour of Puerto Rico is everything wicked approximately Silicon Valley. People live in a bubble there, and need to visit the real world

In his Tuesday apology, Zuckerberg said his “goal here was to demonstrate how VR can raise awareness and abet us see what’s happening in different parts of the world.”

“I also wanted to share the news of our partnership with the Red Cross to abet with the recovery,” he wrote. “Reading some of the comments, I realize this wasn’t clear, and I’m sorry to anyone this offended.”

But Facebook is far from the only major Silicon Valley player to insert its brand and products into the recent string of natural disasters in the United States. Following not only the crisis in Puerto Rico, but also hurricanes, floods, and wildfires in the continental US, companies including Tesla, Airbnb, Uber, Lyft, and Google possess jumped at the chance to showcase what they’re capable of in a crisis.

“Silicon Valley sees suffering as a problem they can solve.”

These initiatives appear to be undertaken out of an earnest desire to abet, and at least some of them actually did. But tech’s tycoons, who badly want us to believe they and their companies exist to manufacture the world a better residence, often possess wretchedness seeing past their own estimable intentions. There’s a gap between how they perceive themselves, and how the public that’s being sold their products perceives them. These natural disasters possess allowed companies to not only boost their brands and earn PR points, but to demonstrate their innovation at a time when people are no longer blindly accepting the notion that technology is a force for estimable.

“I guess it’s sort of the logical conclusion of tech solutionism,” tech CEO and commentator Anil sprint told BuzzFeed News. “Every startup will judge any social issue or natural catastrophe is best solved with their unique product.”

Like Zuckerberg, Elon Musk experienced a minor backlash after one of his attempts to aid hurricane victims. Following the flooding and damage that Hurricane Irma brought to parts of Florida, Tesla quietly told customers it would flip a software switch and extend the battery life for Teslas in affected areas. Longer battery life is something full the cars are capable of, but it’s an additional feature that (on certain models it no longer produces) Tesla throttles unless you pay for it. Tesla owners knew this, but the general public did not, and people were surprised and disturbed by the plan that in 2017, you can buy a high-tech, state-of-the-art car, but still not fully control it.

Wow. Unlocking that additional battery power generally,normally costs customers $9,000. estimable on you Tesla but kind of scary how muc… https://t.co/gUWNb3lLeV

Wow. Unlocking that additional battery power generally,normally costs customers $9,000. estimable on you Tesla but kind of scary how muc… https://t.co/gUWNb3lLeV

The public responded more favorably when Musk offered to abet re-electrify Puerto Rico, which lost 95% of its power grid following Hurricane Maria. CNBC called his plan for bringing Tesla-made battery packs and solar panels to the island “a game changer.” Architectural Digest called it “incredible.”

Like so many of Musk’s propositions, his proposal to save Puerto Rico started off with a tweet. By Friday, he was on the phone with the governor of Puerto Rico making plans, and then back on Twitter announcing that Tesla would divert resources to producing batteries for Puerto Rico — never intellect that it’s already behind on production goals for the latest Teslas and its employees are in what Musk cheerily describes as “production hell.”

Tesla Semi unveil now Nov 16. Diverting resources to fix Model 3 bottlenecks & increase battery production for Puer… https://t.co/VfWMLeTAwN

Tesla Semi unveil now Nov 16. Diverting resources to fix Model 3 bottlenecks & increase battery production for Puer… https://t.co/VfWMLeTAwN

Reached for comment, a Tesla spokesperson said Musk’s tweets were the only statement the company would be making on the subject. But the image of a future Puerto Rico that runs on clean, sustainable, affordable energy thanks to Elon Musk is already burned into the collective memory. And this shimmering opportunity was crafted by someone who — after acquiring Solarcity final year — just so happens to be a solar panel salesman.

Elon Musk: I'll exercise this tragedy in Puerto Rico to manufacture an ass of myself
Zuckerberg: Hold my soylent
https://t.co/qPbga2XcmH

Elon Musk: I’ll exercise this tragedy in Puerto Rico to manufacture an ass of myself
Zuckerberg: Hold my soylent
https://t.co/qPbga2XcmH

For Zuckerberg and Musk both, the ongoing crisis in Puerto Rico is a chance to play hero and showcase the real-world impact of the technologies they’ve committed their lives to developing. While solar panels and batteries will recede a lot further than virtual visits, both initiatives undergird the people-connecting, planet-saving self image these companies strive to project.

“The issue,” web designer and tech writer Paul Ford told BuzzFeed News, “is that Silicon Valley sees suffering as a problem they can solve.”

One of tall tech’s more far-fetched proposals for aiding Puerto Rico’s recovery is Google’s plan for bringing cellular data to the island. The gambit made headlines after Google got permission from the FCC to exercise its experimental balloons, a moonshot project with the company known as Project Loon, to beam down connectivity. But Google can’t actually deploy the solution until it finds a telecom provider on the island to work with. “To deliver sign to people’s devices, Loon needs be integrated with a telco partner’s network — the balloons can’t enact it alone,” a spokesperson said in a statement. But as of Wednesday, no such company had arrive forward and no deadline for executing the project had been named.

By far, the tech company that has received the most credit for its post-catastrophe relief program is Airbnb. Airbnb has encouraged its hosts to offer free housing during crises since 2012, an initiative it formalized under the name “Open Homes” in 2016. Through the company, hosts possess housed roughly 2,800 people for free in 2017 alone.

The program costs Airbnb virtually nothing, but without fail gains them a warm round of congratulatory press with every unique wildfire, earthquake, and flood. Airbnb even turned on the feature following Trump’s travel ban, vowing to facilitate housing for 100,000 refugees by the pause of 2017 and raising the bar for progressive corporate opposition to the president’s controversial immigration policies.

In addition to helping people in crisis find a residence to stay, Airbnb Open Homes exemplifies Airbnb’s core marketing pitch — that by inviting strangers into our homes, not only will travel become more affordable and pleasurable, but life itself will become more meaningful. attach more succinctly, Open Homes is grand for Airbnb’s brand, something that its Super Bowl commercial suggests it’s willing to pay a lot of money to preserve.

It also brings unique potential hosts to Airbnb’s platform. While the majority of people who possess participated in the program were already hosts on the platform, some were not. When you sign up to host evacuees or refugees for free on Airbnb, you’re directed to create an Airbnb listing profile much as you would whether you were hosting for money. Though you don’t automatically become a paid Airbnb host after creating a free listing, the listing you created continues to live on your host profile page, and you’re still setting up an account, sharing your info, and familiarizing yourself with how to design a hosting profile.

The parade of tech initiatives in response to these recent natural disasters is an attempt to reanimate the myth that technology is progress, and progress is estimable.

Lately, the plan that technology exists as a force for estimable — to associate, to put through (telephone) people, to save the planet — has been looking by a long shot threadbare, particularly in light of recent revelations around the role social media companies played in the presidential election. Zuckerberg himself recently walked back his initial reaction to these allegations, acknowledging that Facebook was more influential during the election than he was previously willing to confess. The parade of tech initiatives in response to these recent natural disasters is an attempt to reanimate the myth that technology is progress, and progress is estimable.

Macej Ceglowski, leader of a national grassroots tech activism group called Tech Solidarity that sprung up after President Trump’s election, said tech companies aren’t helping displaced catastrophe victims as much as they’d like to judge. “Puerto Rico is an example of the government failing its citizens, who possess no Federal representation. These tech companies possess huge, immense lobbying clout, but choose instead to promote their own science projects in a moment of crisis,” he told BuzzFeed News.

Ceglowski specifically cited Musk, whose promise to abet Puerto Rico he sees as a continuation of the billionaire’s history of “claiming he can build infrastructure (tunnels, high-speed rail, mars colonies) at a fraction of the price, without delivering.”

“There is the same failure here to associate, to put through (telephone) with reality in any useful way,” Ceglowski said. “They’re taking advantage of a tragedy to spin their sci-fi dreams.”

The reality is, the government is struggling to handle catastrophe recovery on its own, particularly given the rate at which disasters are currently occurring. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is advertising a desperate need to hire more workers as 85% of its workforce is currently deployed in recovery efforts across the country. Back in August, former FEMA spokesperson Rafael Lemaitre told BuzzFeed News that partnerships with private companies like grocery stores and Walmart are a vital piece of recovery efforts across the country. Lemaitre worked on FEMA’s public-private partnership program under the Obama administration and now works for IEM, a company that facilitates such partnerships. He said tech companies — particularly those with presences on the ground — could be a tall abet.

“Before Katrina, people thought it was government’s job or the fire department’s job. But particularly since Katrina, we possess to seek beyond just government to incorporate citizens themselves and the private sector to play a piece in this,” he said. “When it comes to Uber, Airbnb, or those types of companies, they enact possess a role.”

And tech companies possess done things that are genuinely helpful, for which victims were genuinely grateful. Facebook donated $1.5 million to two aid organizations on the ground in Puerto Rico, and sent employees there to work with the NGO NetHope on bringing connectivity back to the area. Tesla started shipping free battery packs to Puerto Rico as soon as the hurricane passed. After hurricanes hit Texas and Florida, Uber and Lyft made monetary donations to local organizations and gave absent free rides to shelters, paying for driver time without charging passengers. And apps like Zello and Nextdoor were fundamental for communicating during recovery efforts in Texas and Florida.

But every well-meant gesture — every free room, free ride, or free phone call — bolsters the public image of these corporations as the savior we should turn to whenever a unique, seemingly insurmountable problem arises, even as the public controversies around these companies, and the unchecked role they play in our lives, grows.

“Tech thinks of itself as problem solvers,” said Nathan Jurgenson, a sociologist who works for Snapchat. “And disasters are an opportunity to sell their solutions.”

Caroline O’Donovan is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.

Contact Caroline O’Donovan at caroline.odonovan@buzzfeed.com.

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