A group of protesters in San Francisco have been butting heads with the ever growing technology workforce at Google, and others, flooding into the Valley. Their presence and their high salaries are forcing out longtime residents who can no longer afford the rising price of real estate. They have been targeting the daily shuttle buses that carry employees to and from tech campuses. They have even targeted specific engineers at their homes.
I don’t believe these protests are outliers. What we’re seeing now are the real consequences, and inequalities, of information technology.
Technology is about automation and efficiency. It’s an enabler. It allows one to do more, faster, over greater distances and with more people, than without it. Think of the telephone, the TV and the internet.
But efficiency can also create inequality. That’s the ugly side of it. By building products at internet scale, for the first time, fewer people can control and effect the lives of many, and profit handsomely from it–with no renumeration to the very people who give it value. Instagram had 23 employees when it sold to Facebook for $1 billion. That’s an incredible concentration of wealth into the hands of very few people. That’s what’s happening in San Francisco.
This problem will only accelerate because every corner of human life is becoming digitized and put on the internet–how we amuse ourselves, date, do business, communicate–and people with real power are those that control information networks. Don’t believe me? Just tell that to the millions of Target customers who’s credit cards were recently hacked. There are real, tangible consequences.
This topic is important to me because everything I do has a context. Every action draws onto a larger canvas. And it’s important not just as a programmer but as a human being to understand the real reach of my actions. How much of what I do everyday is creating good instead of creating distances between people? Am I contributing to this problem?
I don’t know. I’ve been struggling for some time with this question even before I read about the protests. It always bothered me reading in TechCrunch startups being valued at sums for products I felt were asinine.
What I do hope is that every technology worker thinks hard about this problem. Information is not “free.” A lot of what technology promises is just advertising: A promise land of perpetual “sharing” and it’s unquestioned benefits when all that company wants is to gather more information about you. Consolidating the world’s information into the hands of the few might be worth getting off the bus for.