independent

Friday 25 April 2014

Tech firms risk losing their cool with elitist tendencies

Mark Zuckerberg...Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg smiles during an announcement in San Francisco, Monday, Nov. 15, 2010. AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)...I
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO

Is our crush on technology companies starting to fade? Or can workplace hoodies and start-up chic continue to charm us out of a growing concern over extreme tax avoidance and some nasty, elitist tendencies?

In the past five years, we've been in love with tech types. They don't wear stuffy suits. They bike to work. They appear devoid of ego and smarm. Most importantly, they embody a desire we all have to identify hope in an often gloomy industrial landscape.

But things may be starting to change. The pizza 'n' beer cordiality is, in some quarters, giving way to a cold, calculating culture that believes it is unconnected to the wider challenges faced by society.

Nowhere is this being played out more publicly than in San Francisco, home to the largest concentration of highly funded digital start-ups in the world. There, multimillionaire coders are growing tired of having to share a city with poor people.

"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," wrote Greg Gopman, the chief executive of San Francisco start-up AngelHack last month. "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. 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 realise it's a privilege to be in the civilised part of town and view themselves as guests."

Mr Gopman subsequently apologised for his remarks. But not before fellow tech workers backed his sentiments up.

The episode, along with the controversy over Google limo-buses using San Francisco bus stops to pick up workers, illustrates an emerging problem among the tech community: elitism. Many outwardly friendly men and women who work in tech firms are starting to believe they're a cut above others. There is plenty of reinforcement for this view, too, not least from a media (myself included) that allows claims of social 'missions' to pass by without a sufficiently rigorous challenge.

The result is a generation of tech (and wannabe-tech) entrepreneurs, investors and marketers who have increasingly elitist views about their role in society.

Could this be one reason why so many big tech firms apparently feel no ethical qualms about paying little or no tax?

Earlier this month, the 'Financial Times' analysed the combined tax payments of popular technology multinational firms operating in Britain, such as Google and eBay. They found a tax payment total of £54m (€60m) on revenue of £10bn (€11.1bn). (Ireland's part in this tax avoidance was, as is the habit now, a focus for the analysis.)

At home, the situation is even more extreme. Apple, on its own, managed to book over €20bn of revenue here (from foreign sales) in the last five years without paying a cent on it.

To be fair, individual tech tycoons can be extraordinarily generous. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg donated the guts of $1bn via a charitable foundation in 2013. Microsoft's Bill Gates has given even more away.

Also, we in Ireland can hardly be too picky about getting on a high moral horse about this issue: Google, Facebook, Microsoft and all the rest are absolutely crucial to the Irish economy.

Still, there is a discernible cooling of attitudes toward tech firms going on at present. If the anti-collectivist attitudes among many of its workers remain on an upward trajectory, the schism is likely to deepen.

Irish Independent

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