Technology is one of the fastest growing sectors of the American economy. We have seen 13 tech IPOs during the last quarter alone; the NASDAQ computer index just hit a 13-year high, and nothing indicates this trend slowing anytime soon.
Is there a tech bubble that is going to burst? I don't know -- I certainly hope not -- but a different kind Bay Area bubble gives me cause for concern. It's a bubble that combines naiveté and narcissism, and it's a bubble that needs to be burst.
This week Greg Gopman, the CEO of a startup called AngelHack, was in the news because of comments he made on Facebook about San Francisco's homelessness problem. Specifically Gopman said:
"The difference is in other cosmopolitan cities, the lower part of society keep to themselves. They sell small trinkets, beg coyly, stay quiet, and generally stay out of your way. They realize it's a privilege to be in the civilized part of town and view themselves as guests. And that's okay.
In downtown SF the degenerates gather like hyenas, spit, urinate, taunt you, sell drugs, get rowdy, they act like they own the center of the city. Like it's their place of leisure... In actuality it's the business district for one of the wealthiest cities in the USA. It is a disgrace. I don't even feel safe walking down the sidewalk without planning out my walking path.
You can preach compassion, equality, and be the biggest lover in the world, but there is an area of town for degenerates and an area of town for the working class. There is nothing positive gained from having them so close to us. It's a burden and a liability having them so close to us. Believe me, if they added the smallest iota of value I'd consider thinking different, but the crazy toothless lady who kicks everyone that gets too close to her cardboard box hasn't made anyone's life better in a while."
Gopman's rant (which he later apologized for) reminded me of the recent speech by Balaji Srinivasan, a Stanford lecturer and co-founder of genetics startup Counsyl, whose proposal "Silicon Valley's Ultimate Exit" calls for those in technology to "build an opt-in society, outside the US, run by technology." Srinivasan went on to say that "We need to run the experiment, to show what a society run by Silicon Valley looks like without affecting anyone who wants to live under the Paper Belt." The Paper Belt is his term for our government.
Gopman and Srinivasan's proposals are symbiotic. Gopman wants the poor, mentally ill and homeless "hyenas" to hide themselves from him. Inherent in Srinivasan's proposal is the notion that there would be no poor people in his new tech-utopia.
I don't believe in empathy as an argument -- some people just don't have it -- so instead let me present three simple reasons why Gopman and Srinivasan's proposals are naïve, narcissistic and absurd:
- They know nothing about addressing social problems. It's easy to spout off about how ineffective the government is and how the poor should be removed from your line of sight when you have never worked in government and have never spent any time trying to fix social problems. It's about as germane as social workers commenting on the difficulties of starting a tech company.
- Launching a start-up is far easier than fixing deeply rooted social problems. I've done both, and despite the often held view that being a "founder" is the highest level of life achievement, the social worker who manages to get a homeless mother and child off the street has done something harder. Countless times I have worked with tech people who entered philanthropy and at some point uttered, "Wow. This is much harder than I thought".
- Our system of government and our social safety net have given them the luxury of launching starts ups and freely expressing their radical views. Government investments in things like DARPA, student loans and small business tax incentives have fueled start-up companies. In many countries Srinivasan's statements would result in him being immediately imprisoned, tortured or worse. Those homeless "hyenas" that Gopman thinks shouldn't be allowed to stand on the street corner? Their right to assemble is protected by the same constitution that allows Gopman to speak freely on Facebook. And when one of those "hyenas" breaks in to Srinivasan's house, who will he call? The police, one of the many public services provided by the government he despises that allow him to live a safe, comfortable life.
Most people I know in the technology sector are far more thoughtful than this, and I hope they burst this bubble of ignorance. We need a new level of philanthropic and civic engagement which could be led by great minds of Silicon Valley -- a movement that leads to stronger, more innovative and strategic solutions to the social challenges we face.