Yes, hailing an Uber with your smartphone relies on innovations that made a small group of startup founders extremely wealthy. But think of all the other innovations that also make that experience possible, and the different economic models behind them. The Android operating system is a fork of the open-source operating system Linux, which was collectively authored by thousands of people all over the world, with no traditional ownership model for their creation. An iPhone contains many lines of code taken from open source platforms maintained by nonprofit working groups. The Web and TCP/IP protocols that allow the device to communicate with servers at Uber were developed by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN and by a handful of computer scientists around the world, many of them partially funded by the United States government. The network of GPS satellites that allow you to pinpoint your location on a map were initially created by the U.S. military. The atomic clocks that make GPS work were first built by national laboratories in the United States and the United Kingdom. Cellular networks were originally invented at Bell Labs, a research lab inside a giant corporation, whose innovations were effectively socialized thanks to the anti-trust agreement Bell, and then AT&T, struck to preserve its monopoly.
Those of us lucky enough to live in an age and a society where we can casually pull out an iPhone and grab an Uber are indeed sitting on top of an extraordinary technological curve. But startups are only part of the story of how we got here. In fact, it is one of the strange ironies of modern technology that the more conventionally high-tech the product, the lower the percentage of pure unfettered capitalism you will find in its DNA. From the sweatshops and rubber factories to the Nike store, your sneakers are pretty much market economics from the first stitch, all the way down the chain. But your iPhone isn’t just made up of startup brainstorming and Foxconn labor; it also has in its makeup open source networks, and academic research, and military funding, and government-subsidized science labs, and whatever strange hybrid of socialism and monopoly capitalism Bell Labs was. Some of those systems increased inequality by making their founders rich; some of them decreased inequality by making a valuable resource free. Indeed you could make a strong case that the most important innovations that drove the triumph of Silicon Valley did not emerge inside traditional private corporations at all.
Steven Johnson on the disruption lie.