George Packer's thesis in this week's New Yorker is simple and sober: "After decades in which the country has become less and less equal, Silicon Valley is one of the most unequal places in America." Yep. But it's the hideous truth behind the gilded new information economy, and the sloppy apologias are already streaming out.
It takes only a zap of criticism to irritate the egos of Big Tech. The investors, founders, and engineers all live in a vacuum of negativity, where unbridled optimism is the neutral state, and food delivery via iPhone is tantamount to Nobel physics. When these fantasies are disturbed, the hive reacts in one coordinated throb—like lifting a log off a mass of Stanford-educated worms. So when Packer accuses Silicon Valley of presiding over a massive, violent shift in values, wealth, and politics, it notices—and cheerily, it tries to disrupt right back.
Both retorts are gracious to the point of meek, and only really serve as flaccid reminders of Packer's point: the industry is self-centered and oblivious.
"To dismiss all the 'hottest tech start-ups,'" Pando complains, "is to ignore the work being done by serious entrepreneurs tackling serious problems." For example, medical tech software firms like Practice Fusion, Zenefits, or something called "Asthmapolis." Most of these companies are rarely covered by sites like PandoDaily. Instead, what we hear about—and where the money slides—are startups that are about "solving rich white-boy problems in Silicon Valley." Sure, "It’s easy to point to the likes of Uber and Exec," says Pando if you want to make an argument about startups favoring the indulgent and trivial. It's easy because Pando writes about them so much, and tells tales of their funding with the wide-eyed amazement of a Homeric singer.
Startups that dream of enhancing medical care are fine and all, but they're a relative rarity, and take for granted the fact that you have health care—something plenty of people in Silicon Valley don't enjoy.
Johnson tries to sort out Packer's spotlight on the Valley's growing split between paper millionaire and guy sleeping on a pile of newspaper:
No doubt about it, the explosive rise in wealth and income inequality in the U.S. may well be the single most pressing problem that we face, the slow but steady reversal of the last century’s rising tide.
I think he gets the Silicon Valley part of the story wrong, even if his motives are in the right place. Early in the piece, he cites a telling statistic: “There are fifty or so billionaires and tens of thousands of millionaires in Silicon Valley.” Think about that for a second: tens of thousands of millionaires, almost all them created by companies that didn’t exist two decades ago.
So there you have it: wealth inequality ain't no thang, because there is more... wealth... Wait. This is exactly the problem of wealth inequality! There are indeed a hell of a lot more millionaires (and beyond!) strutting around SoMa, made overnight at the detonation of an IPO or Yahoo acquisition. This is the entire basis of the growing silicon money gap, not its antidote. It's these Google engineers and Facebook designers who are pricing out working class families and cruising in Wi-Fi-enabled buses past bread lines. There's an income explosion in California, but it's a laser-focused one, favoring, largely, the fair-skinned employees of lucrative haute tech firms. To Johnson, this is evidence against the techno-libertarianism Packer describes: would a cabal of Randians spread wealth around like Facebook is? "There’s a real estate crisis in Silicon Valley because," John has the gall to claim, "the companies in the region are much more generous in the way they share the wealth, not less." Self-generosity is not generosity. There's another term for it: selfishness.
PandoDaily and Steven Johnson aren't malicious, they're just thoughtless. Tech's greed is a generally thoughtless one, the greed of children who don't realize that by hoarding toys, the rest of the class gets less—the greed that sees itself as progress, as a thrill, never as greed at all.