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The wolves of the web
Booming technology firms are now at the centre of worries about inequality
But for many people in San Francisco this is a distinction without a difference. For months now protesters have been blockading the fleets of private buses that Google and other technology giants use to ferry their employees to and from Silicon Valley 40 miles to the south. They are particularly incensed that the buses pay almost nothing to use public stops, often blocking city buses. Protesters are also angry that an influx of well-paid geeks has pushed up property prices and rents.
This resentment turned a recent awards ceremony—the Crunchies, sponsored by a website called TechCrunch—into a festival of tech-bashing. Outside, protesters held their own mock ceremony, the Crappies, with a golden toilet brush for “tax-evader of the year” to Twitter’s boss, Dick Costolo (a reference to a legal but controversial tax break it got from City Hall). Inside, John Oliver, the comedian hosting the official awards, gave the assembled billionaires a dressing-down. “You already have almost all the money in the world,” he said. “Why do you need awards as well?” He suggested that the next iteration of Martin Scorsese’s new film, “The Wolf of Wall Street”, should be set on the West Coast with “all the money, all the opulence and about 10% of the sex”.
Last month Tom Perkins, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, compared critics of the tech elite to Nazi stormtroopers on Kristallnacht—thereby handing ammunition to those who accuse that elite, of which he is a member, of being arrogant and out of touch. Nevertheless, much of the criticism is nonsense. San Francisco has more than its fair share of professional protesters—including those who think they have a right to live in one of the world’s most desirable places even if they can’t rub two pennies together. The much-maligned private buses are providing workers with an energy- and time-efficient alternative to private cars. The much-abused tech money-tree is scattering riches on lower-paid industries too. During the gold rush, Levi Strauss made a fortune by providing the “forty-niners” with jeans. Modern-day equivalents will undoubtedly make fortunes providing geeks with organic food, “dress-pants sweat pants” (a cross between pyjamas and jeans, apparently), and, if one Kickstarter-funded venture pays off, “ten-year hoodies”, made to last a decade.
Tech titans have also suffered from backlashes before: Bill Gates was once vilified as a modern robber baron before he transformed himself into the world’s greatest philanthropist. Most people outside San Francisco still look on its tech firms with admiration, not disgust. But it would be a mistake to ignore the backlash by the bay entirely. It is being driven by two developments which will eventually reshape attitudes across the world.
The first is the end of tech-exceptionalism. Silicon Valley’s elite has always cherished its roots in the counter-culture—in the world of home-brew computer clubs, Utopian cyber-gurus and damn-the-establishment hackers. But it also had a conventional side: Hewlett-Packard may have been started in a garage but soon became a corporate behemoth; tech firms’ links to the military establishment were highlighted when Dave Packard became deputy secretary of defence in the Nixon administration. The current protests symbolise a growing recognition that tech is an industry like all others: mostly run by corporate stiffs—square pegs in square holes in Jobs’s language—and driven by the need to maximise profits. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, has become a billionaire despite not having founded the company. Apple’s success has created huge numbers of manufacturing jobs, almost all in cheaper places than the United States.
Some of the most savage criticisms of the tech industry are inspired by the contrast between its self-image as a haven of hooded nonconformists and the reality of ruthless capitalism. Valleywag, a website, pokes fun at its affection for ostentatiously wacky corporate titles: AOL has a digital prophet, Tumblr has a fashion evangelist and LinkedIn a hacker-in-residence. It also exposes the Valley’s addiction to politically correct consumption and frictionless capitalism. Tesla electric cars start at $62,000. Google Glass lets its wearers, “Glassholes”, consult the internet as they walk down the street. TaskRabbit, a website, lets geeks contract out domestic chores to the lowest bidder.
The second development is the triumph of the meritocracy. This is not to say that tech is entirely merit-based: women and non-Asian minorities are clearly under-represented. But its logic is nevertheless meritocratic: you can’t program a computer or develop an app without a high IQ and a specialised education. So the tech industry is heightening the relationship between IQ, education and reward: young tech geniuses earn many multiples of the service workers who reply to their ads on TaskRabbit.
Succeed, then secedeRobert Reich, Bill Clinton’s labour secretary and now an academic at Berkeley, once complained about the “secession of the successful”, as the monied elite moved into gated suburbs. But today’s money-gorged young techies want to enjoy the perks of city life. Thus they buy up, occupy and gentrify whole urban districts: they are seceding in plain sight. This inevitably creates tensions as the service class sees a parallel world being constructed before their eyes. San Francisco has a history of anticipating cultural earthquakes, from the hippies of the 1960s to the greenies of the 1980s. The wolves of the world wide web should beware.