Tech Stereotypes Are Getting Us Nowhere
By Max Kirchoff
Editor's Note: It's 2014 and much of the conversation about changing San Francisco feels stuck in last year. We're reading the exact same articles about the frictions in this city in different outlets, few of them addressing how we can make this a city that feels inhabitable to everyone, irregardless of the industry they work on. We're looking for voices that push the discussion about tech's impact on San Francisco forward, and we welcome multiple points of view on the subject. The first piece comes from Max Kirchoff, a developer who started working for the Bold Italic at the end of last year. If you have strong opinions on how we can all live together in this great city, and the ways we can move through and beyond the current civic and political frictions happening here, you can pitch your ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I have both the pleasure of being a former resident of Portland, OR and the curse of being a recent transplant to San Francisco. It's not a curse because I dislike this city, I love SF. The rich history of this place, its neighborhoods and communities, its progressive priorities and openness, have made it come to represent Portland’s sophisticated and thoughtful older sister to me for many years. San Francisco is the place where I knew I could replant my Portland roots and hopefully contribute to the urban environment at an even larger scale then I did in the NW. The curse of being a new transplant, though, is that I also contribute to the economic and social ills within the city.
I am, superficially, typical of the new wave of technology workers, with their significant economic affluence and socio-economic homogeny. I am the "techie," the enemy of the (real) San Francisco that finds itself being forced out, its communities eroding, and its political power evaporating. This is not just something I have been told, it is something I have seen and felt, something I have come to understand and empathize with. The San Francisco I want to live in is, at best, diluting, and at worst disappearing. But there’s something we can all do about it. We can shed the stereotyping and work together.
Local activists have gone to great lengths to stand up to the changing tide and inform the public about the economic disparities happening here. From their compelling eviction data to their informed literature and civil protests, I deeply appreciate the work these organizations do to educate both new and established residents about the changes happening in San Francisco. But I’m disheartened by the individuals polluting the social justice movements with mud-slinging. If we want to solve the problems plaguing economic victims in San Francisco, we must focus on combining communities, not demonizing them.
It is undeniable that a new wave of transplants contributes enormously to dissonance in the cost of living and abuses of public goods within the city. But these same transplants are more than just office drones, they’re a collection of people with various passions, and many of us have roots in social justice. From Open-source to social entrepreneurship, technology workers around the world participate in communities that promote egalitarianism and also seek outlets for their personal activism.
In Portland, activism and technology were seen as overlapping pathways, not enemies of one another. Previous mayor Sam Adams challenged the technology industry to grow thoughtfully and contribute to the city's public goods. Civic data hacking groups and, specifically, CivicApps.org led the way to locally focused collaboration with an aim on social change. Celly, a Portland startup, helps schools and political organizations organize and communicate efficiently. In Portland, it is not only accepted, but also expected, that a technology worker be civically involved.
The very same transplants who are demonized on their shuttles here may be powerful advocates in turning the tide of social justice in San Francisco. Technology companies as corporate entities may choose as a whole to ignore those yelling in the faces of their employees. But if the activists and the workers in the technology sector see one another as advocates and not enemies, if we work together to resolve the big challenges here, San Francisco will see changes like no one-sided protest could ever illicit. We must combine the civically minded from both communities into one undeniable voice.
How do we get our voices together? We need to work together, period. One suggestion? Meetups. Honestly. The tech industry loves Meetups, activism groups love Meetups, let’s have some together. We need to invite social justice groups into technology communities to give their perspective, and activist groups should be working to create connections within the tech community.
Corporate sponsored education. Google, Facebook, all these big tech companies should be educating their employees on the area’s civic problems and encouraging local involvement. Smart, well-rounded employees are involved with their community and understand their impact.
Cut the rhetoric directed at technology workers. The Peter Shihs and Greg Gopmans are in the vast minority, stop comparing every person who writes code or carries a Google badge to them. They represent the technology industry in the same way that Donald Trump represents entrepreneurs.
We need to leave our generalizations and petty divides in the past. This is the time to rally around one city, with one community of voices, hell-bent on preserving a San Francisco that we all fell in love with.
Image from Thinkstock