Off the beat: Considering the tech revolution

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The Daily Californian recently published an article criticizing the tech community in Berkeley and at large. It was conceived from the attacks against the buses of Google and Facebook, which are believed to build a gentrified community. It is difficult to talk about such issues because they are steeped in the stereotypes of the members of the tech community, and stereotypes often dominate discussions more than facts.

This may happen out of a sense of laziness, comfort or maybe the exact opposite — we do so in order to minimize our sense of discomfort and fear. Regardless of the reason, overcoming the power of stereotypes is enormously difficult. The purpose of this piece is to go some way to change opinions of the tech community.

I believe fear is the true motivation behind the numerous attacks we have recently witnessed against the Silicon Valley buses. And the buses are only one of plenty of examples of a reaction against the tech world — witness the Uber drivers attacked in France last month.

People, especially those living in the Silicon Valley but not working in the tech sector, have begun to realize that this wave of new technologies is threatening to take their jobs and, very realistically, their homes as well. Machine labor is more efficient and cheaper than human labor; advances in artificial intelligence are paving the way to make many jobs obsolete. What will the autonomous car do to taxi drivers? What will it do to car manufacturers and all their employees when the demand for cars goes down? And the backlash has started. As such, these attacks are not so much a clash of communities or salaries or egos but a clash of generations. This is one of the great legacies of the microchip — by quickening the pace of life, we have manufactured ourselves into a state in which machines are required to sustain further progress — efficiency driving efficiency. Those who aren’t code-literate (a phrase I recently heard and have become attached to) fear they will be left behind, and so they react. What else can you expect from them?

But this begs the question: If the result of developing these algorithms and machines is negative, what is the intention of the various companies and individuals that build them? What does the computer scientist aim to accomplish? Is Google evil? My experience thus far suggests that the answer is no, that computer scientists are driven by an incredible passion — the same creative force that one witnesses in artists, musicians and authors, that one can see flourish in the mind of the computer scientist.

When I first came to the Silicon Valley I was astounded by the sensibilities of the computer scientist — he or she is empowered to fix what he or she thinks doesn’t work. That is the fuel that has built the Silicon Valley, the mix of the creative and flexible minds of ordinary people fused with the emboldening sense that the world should be different, and why wait to see it change? I don’t see how else one could explain the mad hours of work that my friends put in and the hours on top of that that they spend on side projects, often just for fun.

It is the same force that drives English majors to journalism and artists to lose themselves in a fit of pathos. We believe in what technology offers, a future made more intelligent, real and interactive. This vision has given back to the world in a multitude of ways — from advances in communication delocalizing democracy and spreading it out from the capital to work students at UC Berkeley are doing such as DropSense, a tool for diabetics to be safer at night. Last summer, I met two investment bankers at the company where I interned, and I asked them why they left New York for San Francisco. Their response was that, while the money was good (to put it somewhat modestly), they wanted to be part of the creative culture that draws the minds and artistic palettes of the Silicon Valley.

I recognize this is a contrasting view of technology, but often the optimism of the scientist challenges the rules and opinions of the society he is in. Leonardo da Vinci was vilified for his work on dissections, the Roman Inquisition harassed Galileo Galilei and the list goes on. The scientist discovers and creates a new way of thinking and interacting with the world. And herein lies the rub: Commentators (such as Libby Rainey, recently) are correct to point out that some in the tech world are of the opinion, “Get behind the bus, or you will fall underneath it.” It is easy to get lost in the idea of creating and begin to act elitist.

I feel, however, that this is the small minority of the tech world, because by their very nature, computer scientists are accepting and welcoming. Numerous tools exist online to help you learn how to program; email a startup and chances are it will reply; clubs on UC Berkeley’s campus often host events to nurture the community they love, which aren’t exclusive to computer scientists.

It is easy to judge, it is difficult to take part, but you are welcome to.

“Off the Beat” guest columns will be written by Daily Cal staff members until the spring semester’s regular opinion writers are selected.