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Dark side of technology: The streets of San Francisco seethe with resentment

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Demonstrators block the path of a Google commuter bus to Mountain View, in San Francisco, highlighting many residents' growing concern that an influx of affluent technology workers is driving up costs in the city.

Demonstrators block the path of a Google commuter bus to Mountain View, in San Francisco, highlighting many residents' growing concern that an influx of affluent technology workers is driving up costs in the city.

Demonstrators block the path of a Google commuter bus to Mountain View, in San Francisco, highlighting many residents' growing concern that an influx of affluent technology workers is driving up costs in the city.

Tech companies are a great thing, right? They bring jobs, modernity and hope, don't they? This is the narrative in Ireland. But it's not so straightforward in the US.

Last week I was in San Francisco, where the average one-bedroom apartment now costs almost $40,000 a year to rent. I encountered real resentment toward the tech sector among some 'ordinary' workers.

"That recent earthquake wasn't strong enough," said a 30-year-old man called Jason, working as a taxi driver. "We were hoping it'd take some of the city. Maybe then rents would come down."

This man had a hard story to tell. His relationship had just broken up. His girlfriend and newborn daughter had just moved to Philadelphia.

It happened, he said, because their rent doubled, forcing them from San Francisco to a rougher neighbourhood in outlying Oakland. She didn't want that for the baby, so she left.

He blames planning laws that have, he says, been disproportionately stacked in favour of tech companies and against local residents.

"The tech companies have taken over the city and the politicians," he said. "The mayor won't squeak against them. I don't want to go to jail, but I'd smack him if I saw him in the street."

Jason typifies a wave of anger sweeping parts of US cities where high-tech workers are displacing local communities en masse.

The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco is now $3,250 (€2,504) per month. This includes city-protected low-income 'single room occupancy' units.

It has happened largely because San Francisco is the place to locate a tech company. New companies like Stripe, Airbnb and Adroll locate in the city and not in Silicon Valley, which is over an hour away by car. So high-paid tech staff now look for apartments nearby. And landlords are kicking out long-time locals to make way for the digital elite.

"I've been here all my life," said Jason. "That's America, I guess. But it's breaking up the community here."

Even employees from companies such as Google and Apple, who used to live close to the companies' locations in far-off Cupertino or Palo Alto, are now moving into town. These people are mostly paid over $90,000 a year.

And it is the out-of-town workers that have thrown up one of San Francisco's most visual flashpoints - the controversial 'Google buses'. These wifi-enabled coaches pick up city-based staff using public bus stops and bring them free to Google's headquarters over an hour away. For the company, it's a practical solution for talented workers who want to live in San Francisco. For others queuing at the bus stop, it's a reminder of the increasing disparity and separateness between them and the wealthy technology classes.

"Those buses should have to pay way more," said Jason. "Google can afford it. They're creaming the system and using things paid for by families."

European collectivism is often sneered at by US policy makers and 'new economy' technology advocates. But Jason is full of admiration for what he has read of German and French resistance to 'disruptive' industries.

"The way those drivers over in Europe blocked up streets and stood up for themselves against Uber was great," he says. "It'd never be allowed here. They just wouldn't allow it."

This, of course, is one side of the story. There is another interpretation to living and working through San Francisco's boom, It is far more positive. It was explained to me by Bryan O'Connell, a 30-year-old Limerick expat who is growing an innovative online medical startup - FirstLine - from San Francisco. O'Connell spoke of the city as a place of opportunity, where background, culture or creed is not important. Ideas, skills and hard work are rewarded.

"Everyone's an immigrant here, no one really cares that much about labels. It's very fast-moving. The rewards are big but it takes a serious amount of work, especially if you're starting a company from scratch without a previous exit."

O'Connell spends long days meeting potential investors while simultaneously helping oversee development of his company's product, a subscription app that provides professional medical advice online for anyone who signs up. Like everyone else, he has to cough up a lot of money in rent. But that is the simply the cost for the massive opportunities on offer.

That is no comfort to people like Jason, however. He has completed his move to Oakland, he said.

"You're not allowed to be poor in San Francisco," he said. "It's only a city for millionaires. They don't want people like me here. Sorry for boring you about this."

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