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It's become cliché at this point to describe the tech world as a bubble, but that word has an important double meaning: It's not just that it could pop at any moment, it's that it is in, but not quite of, the rest of the world — even as it's changing it. The work is often abstract and piecemeal; the setting is a continent away from old financial centers. The culture is insular, specific, and self-affirming. As Catherine Bracy, director of international programs at Code for America, wrote in a December Tumblr post, tech's power-players are "making widgets or iterating on things that already exist. Their goal is to ... get bought out for a few hundred million dollars and then devote the rest of their lives to a) building Burning Man installations, b) investing in other people's widgets, or c) both. They really don't care that much about making the world a better place, mostly because they feel like they don't have to live in it."
But sooner or later, everyone has to live in the world they've created. Tech has made a world where certain skills are highly valued, and that has implications. "It used to be, the cleverest people in the world are being called to work at NASA," Pleeth of IamRich@Google.com notoriety said toward the end of our interview. "But now I can make a billion dollars building a cool photo app or targeting ads to people more effectively. And that is a problem: More and more people in tech are making huge amounts of money, and people aren't curing cancer because it's not an attractive thing to do." Pleeth was being intentionally hyperbolic — and to some degree, what the economy values and what society values have never been entirely in line with each other — but he raised a good point: Maybe this isn't just unsustainable on the level that funding art via Kickstarter is untenable, or that taking Ubers instead of hiring a driver is shortsighted, or that living hand-to-mouth on a $2,000-a-week paycheck is imprudent. Instant gratification isn't necessarily just something individuals indulge in — maybe societies can, too.
There's a strong, specifically technocratic conflation between efficiency and good in Silicon Valley — that is, the idea that information is king, and that giving people more or better access to it is akin to being a socially responsible company. There's also a large focus on libertarian thinking, on both an individual and corporate level: The venture capitalist Peter Theil is famous for his political views; Uber founder Travis Kalanick has as his Twitter avatar a detail from the cover of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. Especially along the richer end of Silicon Valley's spectrum, free markets are vaunted, regulation is deplored, and higher obligation — to art, to equity, to each other — is markedly absent.
The idea, essentially, is that the market will settle itself, and the consumer, aided with the right information (preferably with a clean design and user-friendly interface), will be able to make the right choice. The idea is that the good projects will rise to the top, that the Execs with the best star-rating will get hired for more jobs, that the Kickstarters with the most compelling sells will meet their goals, that the people with money will spend it on the right things. But you don't need to see a tiger at a party or attend an electronics show to know that consumers don't always spend their money rationally, and you don't need to be a far-left liberal to understand that regulation exists in order to protect the most vulnerable members of society. (A couple weeks ago, the AP reported that Silicon Valley's poverty rate is on the rise, even as its companies continue to rake in millions. "Simply put," the article said, "while the ultra-rich are getting richer, record numbers of Silicon Valley residents are slipping into poverty.")
Companies like Google and Facebook have grown so big that they've effectively become utilities, and they, we, and the people who work for them are all invested in the idea that the world is a better place because of them. This may be true on balance, and it certainly is in some ways, but the danger in thinking that way is we ask fewer questions. When Yahoo! conspired with the Chinese government to hack into activists' email accounts, it was acting in its business interest, even though those actions have geopolitical consequences that extend far beyond Yahoo, and far beyond China. When a 24-year-old rents a $3,000 studio or funds a watch on Kickstarter or hires another 24-year-old to iron his T-shirts at minimum wage, these actions drive up rent and drive down wages, help some businesses while hurting others, essentially carry with them economic and political and social consequences that extend far beyond the transactions themselves.
I recently asked a friend of mine, a former tech employee who recently fled to pursue a Ph.D at UC Berkeley, about all this. "We can dream and this is the world we made?" he said. "We have all these capabilities and what are we going to do? We're gonna figure out how to monetize some poor folks in the center of the country who we've convinced need to buy some shit that they don't actually." He's not, and no one else is, really, either, arguing for the bubble to burst. After all, as anyone who was in the Bay Area for the last dot-com bust can attest, it truly eviscerated parts of San Francisco. Gentrification isn't a neatly reversible process, and something that's burst can't easily be put together again. But as the bubble keeps growing, more and more of these questions will come up, and as tech's young money continues to spend the way it has, its reach on the rest of us will continue to grow. The parties will continue happening, and lawns will continue to get dug up to make them happen.
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