All is not well in the Bay Area. Join me on a journey of wealth and madness, where we’ll reach the limits of what can happen when we put blind faith into tech giants.
A ‘funny’ story
There’s something funny going on in San Francisco. That’s if you can consider human misery ‘funny’. However you feel about it, this is what’s happened: Over the last ten years, the city has slowly surrendered to Silicon Valley. Big Tech has become its defacto controller.
If you are unfamiliar with the geography of the area, know that the new Jerusalem of our times – the 21st century’s sacred place – Silicon Valley, is an area in the southern part of Northern California, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, mostly occupying the San Francisco Bay. Most companies, like Google, Facebook, Apple or Uber, are not based in San Francisco proper, but in the Silicon Valley Area; a glorified industrial park surrounded by dorms.
This story is not just about San Fran, by the way. All the cities in the area – San Jose, Fremont, Hayward, all the way up to Oakland – are facing the same problems: impossibly priced housing, sweeping gentrification, classism, and even racism.
Where the hipsters roam
Still, San Francisco is the perfect symbol of this whole situation. That’s because it was the ideal target for all the highly-paid hipsters recruited in droves by the tech giants. Thanks to its landscape, eclectic past, entertainment and culinary range, there was no better location for this lovable bunch.
The very presence of this monied, highly-influential crowd helped tech companies to sway local politics in a way that almost seems like hacking City County rulings. Starting from the tax breaks that Mayor Ed Lee introduced in 2011, the County failed to use its power to demand more from the tech companies. Instead, they were able to avoid fines, get a tech tax ditched, and generally used the town as their tech lab (think autonomous vehicles, gig economy, etc). Nowhere else on Earth do tech companies run city-wide experiments like in San Francisco.
The way the City Council is behaving, which will surely make liberal capitalists reach climax just by imagining the possibilities, is seriously bad for the actual community.
To begin with, housing has become ludicrously overpriced. We all know what happens when house prices rise beyond reason: locals get pushed out, poorer people end up homeless, the decay spreads, inequality runs rampant.
Look at what’s happening to Oakland, a town which used to be a vibrant hub of black culture. In the 80s, 50% of Oakland’s population was black. By 2010, the black population had shrunk to just 26%. Over the next few years, that number is predicted to fall all the way to 16%.
So what exactly is ‘funny’ about all this?
I’ll tell you. The situation has gotten so out of hand that many of the well-paid tech-sector employees – the very same ones terraforming the Bay Area – now hate living there. They find the quality of life so low that they’re running away and never looking back (take a look at these great articles on The Guardian and Curbed, which include interesting accounts of the self-displacement of tech employees). It takes them years because making good money is always something hard to pass on, nowadays. I mean, if you score a six-figure salary, you want to hold on to it. Don’t you? Maybe. Or maybe they are realising that capitalism really makes you a star only if you score the lottery ticket of your company going unicorn, otherwise, you will always struggle.
San Francisco has become an undesirable place to live for pretty much everybody; lifelong San Franciscans, nouveau riche interlopers, and everyone in between. It has become a city of such unbearable contrast that even the most cynical SCRUM master shudders at the thought of it. On one side of the street, you’ll see the latest Tesla hooked up to a charging port. On the other, a team of down-and-outs will be doing crack in the midday sun. It’s an extreme image, but you get the idea.
So, the real funny bit (alright, it’s more ironic than funny) is that, having fought to control and remake these cities, the tech giants are now unhappy with what they created.
I can hear the moaning of the intellectuals and modern thinkers saying that “gentrification is not a thing” and “how is making more money a bad thing”. If you believe that wealth distribution, and the lack thereof, is an irrelevant matter, there’s not much I can say to change your mind. It’s easy to see how lack of diversity, not just in gender and skin complexion, but also class and background, is just as destructive as inbreeding. So, if this is upsetting you, then, please, scoff, whine, dislike, and be on your merry way.
For the rest of us, San Francisco and Silicon Valley are just the most evident form of what can happen when we see tech giants as the harbingers of life, the saviours, the mythical creatures that will lead us out of the cave. Calling Silicon Valley a sacred city is a bit of a stretch. Or is it?
The next sacred city
Think about the buffoonery that was the Amazon HQ2 “contest”. Cities were ready to bend over backwards to get Amazon there, and emulate Silicon Valley They were so passionate and willing to let their communities be used and abused, that you would think that an Amazon office would cure a common cold just by its presence alone. The number of tax breaks (cleverly or less cleverly formulated) was astounding. Bezos and his team conned the entire US, making way for an unprecedented PR campaign totally free of charge, resulting in the obvious choices of New York and Washington DC, both places where Bezos already has a house (shocking, really).
There is a tendency to trust tech companies implicitly. They market themselves as benign, omniscient entities. And because they work with innovative tech, we see them as ‘looking towards the future’. There is an element of vision, with these companies, that is real and undeniable. But that’s just what it is: intelligent people working on the latest technology. Unfortunately, because this technology is sometimes groundbreaking, we think that these corporations “understand the future”.
If you met someone who you honestly believed could understand the future, wouldn’t you trust them with more and more decisions?
That’s what is happening. Unfortunately, the tech giants do not know anything about the future, beyond the futures they’re trying to create. Especially now, Alphabet, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and Amazon, are super-profitable companies that only care about shareholder value. And why not? They are corporations, not humans. We breathe, love and die. They have one function: generating shareholder value.
Let’s back to Oakland, for a second. Silicon Valley displaced Oakland’s original community due to gentrification. And no, it’s not a good thing. We’re talking about family tragedies, here.
Shouldn’t the tech companies be held accountable? When you syphon the wealth accumulated around the world into one small geographical area, when you reach the point where your six-figure paid engineers struggle to rent a studio, what then? How do you turn it around? How do you get waiters, cleaners, clerks, sales assistants, traffic wardens, etc… to serve your city? With Hunger Game-like Districts?
Us vs. The Corporations
There’s an excellent TV Series called Continuum, where the premise is that all governments have ceded their power to a council of 20 global corporations, creating a world where everything, absolutely everything, comes with a price tag (A policeman stops you? You get an invoice) and where shareholder value is the only law (starving a city in order to increase prices is absolutely legal). You know, the stuff dystopias are made of.
Looking at San Francisco, is that so hard to imagine? I think that if we don’t start getting more critical towards tech giants, we’ll end up in a world that won’t be too different than in Continuum.
Take what’s happening in San Francisco and apply it to a whole country. This is already happening with Corporate Tax. When companies that big don’t contribute to the economy of a country through taxes they are removing wealth from that economy. All in the convenient packaging of a one-day free delivery. You’re welcome.
It’s us against the big corporations. Sorry, I’m a nerd and a tech enthusiast, but I can’t lie. That’s what it is. Tech is a tool and their CEOs mere distractions. They project this fresh, relaxed, positive, liberal vibe, while they have zero interest in caring for the communities they impact, or the know-how to do so. I welcome the recent wave of attention given to them by the EU and the Federal government. And something is moving in San Fran: a small number of CEOs is starting to be more critical (in primis, Salesforce’s Marc Benioff) and a couple of rulings might be pointing to a change of trajectory (the famous ban on facial recognition tech and the latest Proposition C to fight homelessness).
I believe in the creative power of humans. I think that we can achieve great things while also being kind and generous. That’s the world we need if we don’t want to end up in a Blade Runner or The Fifth Element kind of future.
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