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Stop That Bus (I Want to Get On)
Kitty Morgan | Photo: Dan Escobar | September 27, 2013
What if the feeling you’re feeling when that Peninsula-bound luxury shuttle rumbles by isn’t resentment or hatred? What if it’s envy? The ballad of the left behind.
Tech culture thrives on the notion that it is always rushing forward, while everything and everyone else is always falling behind. That message is especially resonant in the Bay Area, home to more technology workers than any other metropolis in the country. One out of ten employees in San Francisco and Oakland is in tech—in Silicon Valley, it’s one out of three. The tech media capital is here, not in New York; the mythologizing of today’s billionaires happens here, not in Los Angeles. Here, we see the mightiest companies experimenting with our everyday lives right in front of us. Google’s ambition to organize all knowledge takes on very mundane forms here. An engineer at a Japantown festival shares his Google Glass with a cop. A prototype driverless Google car cruises beside you on 280 (human on board). Clamped atop a parked car on your block is a Google Maps Street View camera. We are eyewitnesses to the future in beta.
The lean-in language of the industry—especially that of the startup and the entrepreneur—permeates even our nontech lives. BloomThat, a floral service that delivers by bike messenger, trumpets that it was “founded with a rebellious spirit and a crazy goal.” We’re talking flowers to your door. By bike. Hardly crazy. When Twitter employees venture onto Market Street to clean up around their headquarters, they tweet #FridayforGood: Even picking up trash becomes, when hashtagged, a meme for global progress. Recast in tech speak, everything sounds cool. Amateur cab drivers are renegades; app developers who map your morning run are revolutionaries. Anyone who fixes anything is a hacker.
And then there’s the whole celestial rapture language. Investors are angels. Walking into an Apple Store, with its soft pure daylight and white surfaces, is like stepping onto a Hollywood movie set of heaven. The June cover of Wired—still improbably printed on dead trees—is an image of an otherworldly pastel sky. “Awake,” the headline reads. “When the objects around us can talk to one another, the elements of our physical universe will converge and spring to life.” And lo, on the seventh day, Silicon Valley rested.
Not on the Bus? Not heading to heaven.
Logging on to LinkedIn, I check on that Google position I applied for. “On fire!” the listing says in hot orange type. “96 people have clicked.” The tiny flame icon begins to look like a cartoon symbol for hell.
Some friends think I’m getting ridiculous. “You’re feeling anxious because you’re in publishing. You’ve been upended by technology,” says one, an executive at a nonprofit. Another laughs when he hears me talking about feeling like an outsider looking in. “It’s the magical unicorn castle thing,” he says. His software development business, like hundreds of others, is in fact a business, not a revolution. The tech industry, he says, “wants you to think there’s something really special going on. It’s a fantasy. It’s still an industry, with lots of people working hard who aren’t making that crazy money.” And, he adds, there are plenty of people who don’t get the big-company perks or the security of full employment, let alone the ticket to heaven. Don’t take the magic castle thing seriously, he advises. “Just a lot of hype.”
True, but forgive me for wanting to ride that unicorn. I network around to find a colleague of a colleague who recently started working at Google. He’s a sane guy, extremely creative, who worked in the media and advertising worlds long enough to know that he needed out. I ask him what he likes about the new job. Turns out it’s not the perks. “Google really does want to change the world,” he says. “We think about that every day.” I listen for irony, but he’s sincere. I not only believe him—I find myself craving what he has. There was a time once when I had that kind of idealism, but a couple of decades of reality forced the notion to the back of my brain. Even if tech culture is inflated with hype, I can still see the shiny kernel of something different at its core. And that thing I see isn’t hype—it’s hope.
The last day of June, I’m jostling at the edge of Market Street as the Pride Parade rolls by. This year’s parade is notable for the newly married and triumphant couples, but also for the large numbers of marchers representing high-profile tech companies. Waves of employees, LGBT and friends of, march for Twitter, Zynga, Facebook, Yammer, Google. Each contingent wears its own version of a rainbow T-shirt. Mark Zuckerberg is there, wearing purple, waving and smiling from an imitation cable car along with 700 Facebook friends and family.
Google has a turnout of 1,300 Gayglers (the official name— Google it) in a range of colors and nationalities, all smiling gorgeous smiles. Their T-shirts are cleverly written in a bit of HTML code—an inside joke that I, of course, am not privy to. As the groups pass, I forget all about the Bay Area as a hub of gay culture. Right now it’s the epicenter of smart, happy, sincere, socially aware, HTML-conversant, well-employed people. Every one of them under the age of 35.
I scan the teams: Women, check. People of color, check. Couples both straight and gay, check. But I don’t catch a glimpse of one middle-aged woman. Except, perhaps, maybe, among the Oracle folks—is that gray hair? Then the Oracle team is gone. A much smaller turnout, a little more ragtag, T-shirts not nearly as cool.
This parade of youth, of course, is simply a fact of the industry. The median age of the average American worker is 42, while the median age at leading tech firms (as reported by the employment data company PayScale this July) is much younger: At Apple, it’s 32 years. LinkedIn, 32. Google, 29. Facebook, 28. The more established hard-core computing firms trend a little older, such as Oracle (38) and Hewlett-Packard (at 41, the oldest in PayScale’s group).