WHEN people think of Silicon Valley and the tech giants that have turned San Francisco into their personal playground, I imagine many picture the golden sunshine and sprawling, trendy campuses of Google, Apple and Facebook; images of sleek robots rolling from administrative building to creative hub; coffee shops where world-changing conversations take place as the general public side-eye hip execs in the hope they might catch the next piece of tech in their pocket or on their face.

Yet, when I think of the particular brand of technological innovation that labels itself as a market disruptor, I don’t think of those bright streets and glass rotundas but rather a small, dark stage in the late summer of 2021.

In a room crowded with journalists and tech reporters who had just spent an hour and a half listening to detailed plans of how the technology behind Tesla cars was evolving, CEO Elon Musk brought to the stage the future of robotics – which in this case turned out to be a man in a white and black spandex suit awkwardly dancing out of time to a room of bemused spectators.

Not a prototype of the announced Tesla Bot. Not even something close to a working model. Just a man in a tight-fitting suit, walking like a robot onto a stage before spasming into a dance routine. Musk went on to claim that robots just like this one (except for every way in which it will be nothing like a living human in a onesie) will likely have a prototype sometime in 2022. OK.

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This is maybe one of the most accurate representations of what has come to be known as “disruptive” tech, and this trend should serve as a warning to us all – particularly as Twitter prepares to hand the keys of the kingdom to the poster boy of unrealistic expectations himself.

Musk (right) is emblematic of a Silicon Valley culture of identifying a square-shaped problem then jamming a circular solution into it in the name of “disrupting” the market – and he in no way stands alone on this front.

One of the most famous recent examples is that of Elizabeth Holmes, the millionaire founder of tech start-up Theranos, who lied about the technology behind her proprietary blood-testing invention and is currently awaiting sentencing after scamming more than a billion dollars’ worth of investment from financial backers.

Or, if we want to look closer to home, there’s the example of GB News. Despite assurances from the founder of one of Britain’s newest news outlets – and I use the word news here very lightly – the channel has increasingly swung to more and more extreme right-wing partisanship as it has stumbled from failure to failure.

A fascinating piece from Stuart McGurk in the New Statesman this week has dived deep into the troubled first year of Britain’s answer to Fox News; a title that its founders allegedly take issue with. But if the shoe fits…

Standing in a Hilton hotel a year before its disastrous launch, GB News founder Angelos Frangopoulos outlined to those who had signed up to his vision that GB News was not a broadcaster – it was a tech company. Importantly, it was here to “disrupt” the world of TV news.

And by disrupt, what Frangopolous appeared to mean was to do away with many traditional broadcast roles in favour of piling the work high on fewer staff under the guise of revolution – and we all saw how that went.

This phrase – to disrupt – has increasingly become a red flag in the tech industry for half-baked ideas and products that rely more on the cult of personality surrounding their founders than any proven ability to work. It has come to paint a picture of a group of supposed change-makers who are more interested in the perception of innovation over the act itself – and with that comes a litany of worker’s rights violations.

There was a point that technological innovation meant building towards a world where there was more time for leisure. Instead we have the same exploitative work practices of the past repackaged as aspirational hustle culture; an intrinsic marker of so-called disruptive tech startups.

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GB News piled the work onto too few staff to run efficiently. Theranos hid its failures behind a Stasi-like prison of security and lies that has been attributed to the suicide of its chief scientist Ian Gibbons. And Elon Musk fired Tesla workers who took unpaid leave after catching Covid-19, following the reopening of factories against the advice of California health officials.

Across the board, organisations that have successfully “disrupted” billion-pound industries, such as Amazon and Uber, seem inextricably tied with virulent anti-union practices and the burgeoning gig economy. The future, it seems, is built on the back of worker exploitation; something worth thinking about on this May Day.

Instead of real technological advancement, we have polished reworkings of existing, inefficient tech that seem to rely more on the star power of their proponents than common sense. I doubt very much that Elon Musk’s plan for the future of transport – not a reworked public network but rather a series of underground tunnels for cars that can only carry a few people at a time – would have even been considered a legitimate proposal if it didn’t have his name and wealth behind it.

As figures like Elon Musk, alongside Mark Zuckerberg, edge closer to having bigger stakes in how we even communicate, we would all do well to consider not only the human cost of these enterprises, but of the nature of the world that tech giants are building. While they may have the money to avoid the worst consequences of their decisions, it is a future that the rest of us will have no choice but to live under.