We first got excited about web startups because they didn’t have to follow the script. Two kids in a dorm room could develop a platform that would change the world with little or no capital behind them. More than disrupting a particular industry, these companies had the potential to disrupt business itself, and we–the common people–would all be better and richer for it.
Or so the thinking went. Then the rapid growth of companies like AOL and Amazon–no matter the strength of their underlying businesses–whetted Wall Street’s appetite for exponential growth. And young founders took the bait, prioritizing inflated valuations over sustainable business models. The ideal shifted from building a company to getting it acquired. And so the startup scene became a version of Flip This House: buy low, sell high.
Now, more than a decade into the tech boom, it’s clear that digital startups are not the great equalizers many people thought they were. Rather, they’ve just found more effective ways to extract value–from drivers (Uber), neighborhoods (Airbnb), personal data (Facebook) and more. And by and large, the profits go to wealthy investors.
Perhaps we should have seen this coming. After all, when startup founders are invited to ring the bell on the stock exchange, it’s not because they’ve disrupted the way we do business. It’s because they’ve maintained it.
Rushkoff is the author of Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity
This appears in the March 21, 2016 issue of TIME.
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