Every so often one comes across an article that is worth reading in depth for what it can tell us about new media and high tech in the days to come. David Rotman’s longish piece in MIT’s Technology Review is one of the best on offer.
First, he points out a long-neglected fact about Silicon Valley:
The signs of the gap—really, a chasm—between the poor and the super-rich are hard to miss in Silicon Valley. On a bustling morning in downtown Palo Alto, the center of today’s technology boom, apparently homeless people and their meager belongings occupy almost every available public bench. Twenty minutes away in San Jose, the largest city in the Valley, a camp of homeless people known as the Jungle—reputed to be the largest in the country—has taken root along a creek within walking distance of Adobe’s headquarters and the gleaming, ultramodern city hall.
The homeless are the most visible signs of poverty in the region. But the numbers back up first impressions. Median income in Silicon Valley reached $94,000 in 2013, far above the national median of around $53,000. Yet an estimated 31 percent of jobs pay $16 per hour or less, below what is needed to support a family in an area with notoriously expensive housing. The poverty rate in Santa Clara County, the heart of Silicon Valley, is around 19 percent, according to calculations that factor in the high cost of living.
An Indian tech prof warns of worse to come:
“It’s like what you see in India,” adds Wadhwa, who was born in Delhi. “Silicon Valley is a look at the future we’re creating, and it’s really disturbing.” Many of those made rich by the recent technology boom, he adds, don’t seem to care about “the mess they’re creating.”
The problem, of course, is complex because it isn’t clear (at least to me) just how much responsibility Silicon Valley has for this specific mess. It is true that high tech firms’ innovations have eliminated many low- and middle-earner jobs. But they have surely created many others. My local nerd might have been hauling boxes on the loading dock if he had been born forty years earlier. And driving a team of six for mainly his room and board if he had been born eighty years earlier.
We are told that the income gap is greatest in the United States. But that surely is in part due to the fact that high tech was born there. In France, some probably still fight speaking English in air space. A lot depends on what people think is important.
As Rotman explains, there is a current dispute among economists about whether gross income inequalities will lead to class war. One difficulty, perhaps not always factored in, is how much of the inequality actually causes needless suffering?
An unequal ability to see a doctor, dentist, lawyer, or accountant can certainly cause needless suffering.
But now a question arises: Does the unequal ability to buy a Ferrari (logo pictured above) really cause much non-self-inflicted suffering? If high tech winners drive Ferraris and the rest of the country drives Fords and Hondas, must we face a social revolution? Will people take a chance on a radical change in government for a whimsy? Historically, the deciding issues have been bread-and-butter or personal safety issues.
This is just a thought, but maybe the modern social safety net deprives radical revolutionaries of the fuel they would need—serious outrages to our natural sense of justice. Well, in the coming years, we shall see.
The article starts to peter out toward the end, as it gets into feelgood social justice solutions.
Not that the solutions are wrong so much as they are often irrelevant. Consider, for example, stay-in-school programs and early childhood learning: These programs tend to work best among cultural groups where the parents are already sold on such ideas. They may not work so well when there is no cultural backup at home and/or among peers where the proposed solution may in fact be subtly or openly ridiculed.
Typical SiliconValley explanation:
Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.