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Culture


In November, The Economist warned of a coming peasants’ revolt against the tech industry, predicting: “The tech elite will join bankers and oilmen in public demonology.”

By the close of the year, it started to look like they already had — at least in the concentrated tech hub of the San Francisco Bay Area.

On Dec. 20, protesters blocked a bus picking up Google workers near a mass transit station in Oakland, the latest in a string of demonstrations singling out the sector for rising evictions and gentrification in the region. Before the incident ended, a shuttle window shattered and tires were slashed, according to media reports.

It was just a few short months ago that activists were limiting their assaults to Google bus piñatas, rather than the real deal, and the escalating hostilities have clearly caught the sector’s attention. Some industry and political leaders are taking steps to cool temperatures before anything worse transpires — and well before anything like the “Occupy Silicon Valley” movement forecast in the Economist comes to pass.

Notably, on the same day as the Oakland protest, the influential Sf.citi tech coalition announced a plan “to help address common challenges in housing, education, jobs and affordability facing San Franciscans.”

But it’s unclear how much the industry can do to address these pocketbook issues — and how big a difference it would make in the public mind. Some observers believe a deeper set of resentments is cementing that could haunt the sector for well beyond the current boom.

“Tech, oilmen and bankers fund the same reactionary kooks in Washington that deny global warming and carry water for tobacco companies.” — Chris Hoofnagle, Berkeley Center for Law and Technology

Silicon Valley tends to see, or at least portray, itself as a force for good in the world. Tech companies and execs proclaim “don’t be evil” as a corporate principle, speak out for workplace equality, take stands for sustainability and build products that make lives easier (except when they don’t).

The gadget-loving public has tended to view the sector, if not exactly as virtuous, then at least a step closer to benign than Big Oil and Wall Street banks.

So what could be changing?

The rhetoric increasingly doesn’t seem to square with the reality, said Chris Hoofnagle, director of the information privacy programs at the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology.

In other words, it’s hard to see the sector as benign after a long list of revelations about worker safety shortcomingstax avoidance schemes and privacy scandals. And it’s difficult to think of companies as virtuous when they contribute to trade groups deliberately distorting science or fund ads praising the Keystone oil pipeline.

“Many Valley companies engage in a kind of confused progressive rhetoric, but there is little reason to believe that these companies have small-l liberal values,” Hoofnagle said in an email. “The political agenda of Valley companies is not much different from the oilmen or the bankers. Tech, oilmen and bankers fund the same reactionary kooks in Washington that deny global warming and carry water for tobacco companies.”

Isolated though the cases may be, the public perception isn’t helped along when tech entrepreneurs say obnoxious things (see: Shih, Peter or Gopman, Greg) and venture capitalists propose establishing libertarian utopias apart from the normals.

But if there’s a tipping point issue in the Bay Area, a galvanizing offense that gets protesters out in the streets, it’s the spike in housing costs and evictions.

“The tech industry’s reaction has been shameful.” — Tony Robles, Senior and Disability Action

Rents rose more than 20 percent across San Francisco in the last year, but leapt between 30 percent and nearly 50 percent in the poorest neighborhoods. Ellis Act evictions, used to eject all tenants from a building to clear the way for a sale, soared 170 percent in the last three years.

Many activists and residents pin the blame on well-to-do tech workers moving into traditionally working-class neighborhoods, pushing up rents or buying up buildings that had been rent-controlled for decades. And some argue the sector that lures them here has shirked responsibility for these social impacts.

“From Google buses invading the neighborhoods, to the evictions of elders, to the very real effects of speculator-fueled evictions, the tech industry’s reaction has been shameful,” said Tony Robles, an organizer with Senior and Disability Action who joined the Oakland demonstration, in an email.

“This is an industry who prides itself on being plugged in, bringing the world together through technology,” he added. “Yet, when it comes to this very bad crisis — and one need only look at the latest eviction map and eviction statistics from the rent board — what have we heard from the tech industry, with all of their know-how, intelligence and technological brilliance?”

But the backlash does seem to have reached a volume where tech and civic leaders can’t ignore the complaints.

“We recognize we must be part of the solution.” — Ron Conway, angel investor

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, who has closely aligned himself with the industry, wants to ease economic inequality by boosting the minimum wage in the city. Talks are also under way to require private shuttle operators to limit and pay for the use of public transit stops, changes protesters have been demanding.

The tech industry has made a point of highlighting its philanthropy, including the recent announcement that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg will donate nearly $1 billion in stock to various charities.

Finally, the Sf.citi organization, spearheaded by prominent angel investor Ron Conway, has established committees focused on philanthropy, tech training and affordable housing.

“The tech community recognizes that the rising cost of housing — and its scarce supply in the city and region — is a challenge we must tackle collectively,” Conway said in an email response to Re/code. “It’s an issue for our tech workers as well, and we recognize we must be part of the solution.”

“There are some who seek to pit the need for housing against the need for jobs,” he added. “We think that’s a false choice. We need both! We need to sustain this economic recovery and see that it reaches every family and neighborhood.”

Gabriel Metcalf, the longtime executive director of urban planning group SPUR, will lead the affordable housing committee. He applauded the industry for taking steps to address these issues.

“The tech community needs the Bay Area to work,” he said. “I don’t think they have more responsibilities than other businesses, but they have the same responsibilities. They’re part of this community and they have the same obligation as the rest of us: To be civically engaged in helping to solve the problem.”

But he’s the first to admit there are no quick or easy fixes for the city’s affordability challenges. In fact, since it would take years to add substantially to the local housing stock, odds are the social/app/mobile boom will go bust before any new housing policies could make a real dent in the marketplace.

Peter Cohen, co-director of the Council of Community Housing Organizations, doesn’t think Sf.citi’s initiative will do much to alter perceptions because he doesn’t think it’s much more than a PR exercise.

“I imagine they’ve got a posse of consultants giving them damage control advice on their public perception,” he said. “I don’t really think they have any substantial ideas up their sleeves.”

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Shutterstock / serazetdinov

Cohen said one concrete way the tech industry could ease the affordability crisis would be to cut big checks. He notes that San Francisco’s hotel tax produces about $5 million a year that goes into subsidized housing, and said it’s appropriate to call on the tech sector for similar contributions since their workforce is primarily responsible for driving up housing costs. (Those engaged in local protests have their own long list of suggestions for tech workers.)

It’s unclear what Sf.citi’s exact proposals will be, much less what could ultimately translate into new policies, since the committees have yet to meet. But Conway stressed they’ll explore a wide array of options.

“There are a lot of sound ideas and proposals for housing on the table that merit consideration,” he said, “and the tech sector wants to partner with the city, the developers, affordable housing advocates and other sectors to support sound proposals that will increase the supply of housing, including below-market-rate housing, in San Francisco and the region.”

Why should any of this matter to the industry? What’s the big deal if people resent the sector, block the occasional bus or mentally file techies alongside bankers and oilmen?

There are real costs to negative reputations. Just ask Walmart.

Activists target you. Reporters dig deeper for dirt. Politicians don’t have the cover to push through your next tax break.

But most of all, customers start to view you differently.

Using tech services isn’t like using a toaster. It’s often an act of faith. Logging into Apple, Facebook, Google or Square products requires confidence that those companies will treat intimate information in an aboveboard manner, including your contacts, communications, location, medical history, shopping preferences, surfing habits and more.

“The cost comes in less flexibility,” Hoofnagle said. “It will be more difficult for tech companies to say ‘trust us’ and still get their way.”




8 comments
jasonlotito
jasonlotito

Growing tech backlash?  Good headline there.  This entire article talks about San Francisco and the people there.  More tech happens outside of SF then within it's borders.

zeroecco
zeroecco

 This is yet another misplaced series of attempts to band-aid social issues. 



AT THE CORE:


1. The mean income increases from good jobs => diminish job pool for those good jobs as people train themselves to take those jobs.


2. Additional demand via company success leads to those companies filling those jobs by bringing in foreign talent (other states, countries, etc).


3. Increased talent import means higher demand for infrastructure (homes, water, food, power etc) and higher wages as a function of demand.


4. Cost of infrastructure increases due to higher demand (homes, business establishments, etc) => COGS increases for companies (higher wages, rent, etc).


5. As a function of personal interest, people look for the greatest value for infrastructure (value in this example == what you get vs how much you pay for it)


6. This leads to core services being pushed further outside of the city => increased COGS for core services.


A natural progression from step 6 is the decay of the cities' infrastructure and its' inhabitants (increased crime to compensate for increased Cost Of Living).


There is a VERY simple solution to this issue. Allow and promote remote workers for these good tech/administrative jobs and promote it as a corporate culture. This in turn has a positive compound effect:


1. Good jobs are universally accessible to people


2. Impoverished communities benefit from cash inflow from said good jobs.


3. COGS for infrastructure remain at levels that do not crush impoverished communities.


4. Barriers for talented workers is reduced.


5. Civil interest has no longer has a place in business interest aka corporate pressure to force change is reduced.


6. The average cost of talent acquisition is reduced thus making companies more profitable and can contribute back to those communities they are stationed in easily (jobs, infra improvements, etc)


I could go on but you get the point.

Student
Student

What would it take, to get cities south of SF to densify enough to a) become delightful walkable/bikeable communities & b) relieve the pressure on SF housing stock?

Lurking_Grue
Lurking_Grue

Why on earth is that band running their back end using windows 98?   Funny image but still!

Jen Citrolo
Jen Citrolo

The "trust us" piece is also coming into play across the US in the education sector, with growing parent concern about privacy and student data collection. Anti-reformers are using fear tactics to promote the sinister Big Brother stereotype. Reform supporters and data collection advocates have been virtually silent at the local level, enabling anti-tech/reform movements to gain momentum.


Seems like using unique identifiers rather than student names could be an easy fix (parents already use these types of systems for online school meal prepayment programs)--and would eliminate privacy concerns. But so far, there doesn't seem to be any flexibility in terms of creating a solution that would balance privacy concerns with the need for intensive data collection.


An opportunity for leadership is being squandered.

marin
marin

Yeah, there does seem to be a weird tone-deafness to these issues from many of the big tech companies. It seems to stem from a detachedness from these issues: most tech workers don't have to worry about making rent or having to rely on the Muni. 


Many like to separate tech industry from the larger overall political and social ecosystem. It's much cleaner and efficient that way but it's also self-serving. It's in their best interests to really engage in local communities and become a strong part of it instead of some disinterested interloper. 

Well, at least until Google creates its own fleet of barges and aircrafts for its workers ...   

markbyrn
markbyrn

The revolt of the technophobes and come on guys - you got irritating red backgrounds galore and now you have to use a red story background too?  

Markkus
Markkus

@markbyrn Re/code is clearly the White Stripes of tech sites, and there's just no breaking of that color scheme.

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