For all the stories of 2014, few got the attention of the press like the tension between San Francisco residents and the rising tide of engineers and startup founders who started calling the city their home. Accused of driving up rents for apartments as well as blocking bus stops, these techies have been under constant criticism from locals who see these newcomers enjoying the city without truly engaging with its culture and society.
The roots of this conflict are deep. As our own Kim-Mai Cutler wrote in her epic report on the issue, the policy antecedents of the SF housing crisis are long, complex, interconnected, and largely impregnable to change. SF hardly reached this point in a day, and it will not solve it in a short period either. There is such a deficit of housing and office space in the city, that even with all the construction going on in South of Market and other neighborhoods of the city, it will barely make a dent in housing prices.
That’s why the average sale price for a home in the city passed the $1 million barrier for the first time this year. Compare that to the price of a decent single-engine plane like the Cessna 400, which is approximately $620,000, and you start to understand where some of the criticism against techies is coming from. Another few more startup IPOs, and residents might as well live in the skies on a new private jet just to find an affordable housing option.
It is easy to look back over the year’s events and assume that housing prices and ridiculous comparisons to luxury planes are the cause of the animosity toward our industry. But if we learned anything from the past year of blowback in San Francisco, it is that housing prices are just a small part of the problem with the technology industry and its interaction with society.
Indeed, in my very first article for TechCrunch almost a year ago, I discussed the sudden rise of hatred toward the Valley and its workers. My argument was simple: “Today’s companies are increasingly destroying the value of existing companies to create the next generation of products and services. We can argue whether the end result is a net benefit to society, but we cannot avoid the immediate impact our work has on the rest of the country anymore.”
Little did I know that 2014 would shape up to be a cataclysm between techies and almost everyone else living in this country.
As the technology industry quickly engulfs all other sectors of the economy and threatens the livelihoods of more workers, the cacophony of criticism has grown louder. As just one example, Kevin Roose attacked the rise of on-demand startups for their use of contract workers, noting that these workers receive none of the benefits of full-time employment, despite extensive regulations placed on their work by the companies.
Despite the importance of this dialog, there has been little real work done to openly engage on the problems that our startups are creating for society. The hubris of our industry has only grown with the valuations of companies like Uber and Airbnb, leading to a further distancing between the work we do and the effects we have on every person in the country, and really, the world.
What does it mean for American society if we bifurcate it into service-requesters and servants? This is a fundamental question, particularly given how much the technology we are building is shaping this outcome. Do we want this two-tier structure, or are there ways to build other technologies that can ameliorate and maybe even eliminate it?
It can be hard to experience the vitriol directed toward technology startups today yet continue to seek out root causes. But that is precisely what we must do. People aren’t angry at startups and technology, but those are among the most visible signs of the huge inequality that has grown in America over the past thirty years.
As we start into the new year and the second half of this decade, it is time to revisit these issues and reconnect with the optimistic spirit that made Silicon Valley what it is today. We don’t have to live with income inequality if we can design the right economic structures to slow its growth down and ultimately reverse it.
Just take education as an example. Outside the hype around education startups like MOOCs, there has been very little real progress on addressing the yawning gap in education outcomes in America, despite the importance of education in staying ahead of the continuous automation of jobs. The internet, despite all the regulations being placed on it, is still a wide canvas upon which to draw the future, and that is why techies are our greatest hope for a gentler, fairer society.
I am deeply optimistic about what we can accomplish. I strongly argued that algorithms have the ability to do more for worker rights than labor unions in the twenty-first century, simply because a single decision in the design of an algorithm can instantly improve the quality of life for thousands of people. That is precisely what is happening at Starbucks, which is adjusting its scheduling algorithms to go easier on parents through more consistent work shifts. The politics over these policies won’t disappear, but solving them will become simpler than before.
We are only halfway through this decade, and we have already seen some of the negatives that startups pose for workers. But with so much potential left with technology, there is no reason why the next five years have to be the same. There must be a better way, and it is my new year’s wish that we seek it out.