SF Weekly: The Robber Barons of Big Tech

Remember when we thought we were going to make the world a better place?

In the city where Jello Biafra once ran for mayor on a platform that would have required businessmen to wear clown suits, recently graduated engineers arrived wearing jeans and pocket-tees. Like the countercultural icons who came before them, they thumbed their collective noses at the stuffy protocols that had come to dominate the white collar workforce. While New York’s business elite had members-only clubs, local tech CEOs kept a kegerator in the office — right next to the ping-pong table and bean bag chair lounge. The Silicon Valley “campus,” complete with outdoor shopping centers and arcades, replaced the corporate headquarters, and open floor plans dismantled the sterile grid of cubicles.

This was the Left Coast. On this side of the country, the son of a teen mom and a Cuban immigrant could rise to become the world’s first trillionaire and a couple of bearded, shaggy college dropouts could build a world-conquering personal computer company while pledging to Think Different.

Silicon Valley social media platforms were as aspirational as they were inspirational. Rather than making money on the backs of the working class, like the oil and railroad tycoons of yesteryear, the titans of tech sought to liberate underserved people around the world and give a voice to the voiceless. In the early days of Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, some journalists seized on the idea that Twitter and Facebook were pivotal tools of the revolution. Big Tech was happy to take the credit — positioning itself as the perfect industry for an idealist and progressive Bay Area: it strove for diversity, social justice, and freedom of expression.

But a decade removed from these movements and the hype that surrounded the rise of Web 2.0, the tech industry resembles just about every other major industry that came before it. Like the robber barons of the 21st century, Big Tech has exploited an unregulated market for financial gain, and San Francisco has become the West Coast Wall Street.

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