2020年4月2日 星期四

On Tech: When silly start-ups falter, we all lose

The pandemic is devastating start-ups. This matters in ways we can’t always see.

When Silly Start-Ups Falter, We All Lose

Maria Chimishkyan
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By Shira Ovide

It feels like the world is burning, doesn’t it? It’s hard to care about the struggles of silly scooter start-ups.

Some young tech companies are being crushed as customers shelter at home during the coronavirus pandemic, and they’re laying off workers at lightning speed, as my colleague Erin Griffith writes.

This can be devastating to people who work at start-ups, although the layoffs are a small number compared with the speed and scale of America’s job losses. For the rest of us, these start-ups matter in ways that we can’t always see.

Many of us have come to rely on what these companies provide. There is an economy of homeowners and others who rely on income from Airbnb.

And even if you never take an Uber ride, have groceries delivered by Instacart or eat burritos brought by DoorDash, the start-ups’ existence has made transportation authorities, supermarkets and restaurants bend to our needs.

We also risk losing a can-do spirit. I tend to roll my eyes at the rah-rah of start-ups that say they’re trying to change the world. These are for-profit companies, not cancer-curing charities. But in my cold heart, I know that behind every start-up is (usually) a noble idea: What if there’s a better way?

Navigating around cities, buying a home, finding reputable child care, running payroll for your business and feeding your family could be better, more efficient, more joyful. Along with the good ideas, there were reckless, exploitative and trivial ones — how many leggings companies do we need? But for the last decade there has been encouragement and cash for people who said they could find a better way.

When start-up boom times turn to doomsday, as Erin chronicled, both clunkers and promising ideas may not have a shot. (Although this could be a breakthrough moment for remote work, school and fitness technologies.)

I get it. We have more pressing things to worry about right now than frivolous start-ups. But when they falter, we all lose something. You and I have been reprogrammed to think, “Why does it have to be this way?” That nagging question will outlast some of the young companies that inspired it.

If you were laid off from a tech start-up and want to share your experience, contact us at ontech@nytimes.com. A reporter may get in touch with you.

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Software is not magic

There is an understandable desire right now for technological fixes for a global health crisis. We want tech to track people who might be exposed to the coronavirus, help hospitals manage a crush of patients and tell us if our symptoms are serious.

These are good ideas — with potentially serious trade-offs. But what if they don’t even work?

This 2014 research paper, recommended by my colleague Jennifer Valentino-DeVries, is a reminder of the limits of fighting a virus with technology. Google Flu Trends, which collected billions of illness-related web search terms to spot outbreaks early and consistently, sometimes wildly got the numbers wrong.

The authors’ conclusions were that data gleaned from technology can supplement but not replace traditional flu-tracking methods like reports from doctors on influenza-like symptoms they were seeing. (There’s a new, follow-up research paper here.)


Data we generate online and from our phones can be useful — including now for economists using Google searches to forecast the number of unemployed Americans. Even this data has limits. Tech isn’t a silver bullet. In a health crisis, a website will not create ventilators out of thin air or replace effective leadership.

They have thoughts

Greg Bensinger, a member of The Times editorial board, said our reliance right now on big companies like Amazon and Walmart should not override questions about whether they mistreat workers or unfairly muscle out rivals.

Forced by the pandemic to drop in-person performances for online ones, classical music has become more accessible and charming, writes The Times’s Joshua Barone. (But Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, says webcasts are a pale imitation of live performances.)

Frank Bruni, the Times Opinion columnist, is in Gelb’s camp about the limits of online activities, including the use of emoticons and emojis. “There’s not a one of them, no matter how colorful, that has the melting warmth of a flesh-and-blood smile that’s happening right in front of me.”


Before we go …

  • A pandemic is the perfect time! To become bakers, or fitness buffs! Everyone online seems to be using enforced at-home time to become more productive. But truly, it’s fine if we just muddle through instead of trying to optimize our lives, says our internet culture writer Taylor Lorenz. I tried and failed to read a single page of a book last night. I’m not sorry.
  • OK, but maybe we can be a teeny bit productive? Here’s a helpful, manageable task: Digitize your important paper documents and mementos, like birth certificates and family photos. My colleague J.D. Biersdorfer walks you through how to do this.
  • The video-meeting app Zoom has become a fixture of quarantine life, which makes it a target for horrible people to break into calls and harass others. One fix the company can make is to change settings, as it has done for schools, to not let people share what’s on their screen without the host’s permission, and to require the host to approve any attendees. Consumer Reports also has a good guide to the information Zoom collects on people using its app. The company said it turned off a data-gathering feature after my Times colleagues asked about it.

Hugs to this

May I present: the celebrity chef Ina Garten and a martini glass the size of a toddler. She posted this video Wednesday, before 10 a.m. (Thanks to the Briefings writer Melina Delkic for showing me this gem.)

Take care of yourselves and those around you. And please let us know what we could do to serve you better. We’re at ontech@nytimes.com.

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