Last month at the Crunchies – an awards show run by news website TechCrunch in San Francisco – the host, British comedian John Oliver, gently roasted the gathered elites about how unpopular the tech industry has become. "You're not underdogs anymore," he told them. "It used to be that the people in tech were emotional shut-ins and you could get behind them. Now, you're pissing off an entire city!" Meanwhile, down the road, another awards event proved his point: the Crappies, a hastily arranged ceremony to celebrate the worst of the tech industry, held on the street by a rabble of protesters.
"It's our town! We paid for it!" declared one man, dressed as Dick Costolo, the chief executive of Twitter, as he waved his Tax Evader Award in the air – a golden lavatory brush. "I don't care if there are people here. That's progress!" Others stepped up to receive lavatory brushes on behalf of Marissa Mayer, Yahoo's CEO (and director of Walmart), and the so-called Godfather of Silicon Valley, the investor Ron Conway (who wins the Angel Investor of Death Award).
This is par for the course now in San Francisco, where a backlash against the denizens of Silicon Valley has been gathering steam for the past nine months. It started with blockades and assaults against the private buses laid on by companies such as Google and Facebook to shuttle their employees to work; a service that has enabled the tech elite to live in San Francisco (and push up property prices) despite working more than 50 kilometres to the south.
Angry banners screamed "F--- you Google" and graffiti referred to "Google scum". Before Christmas, a rock came through a bus window in the neighbouring city of Oakland.
Reports last year of lavish spending only heightened anxiety about the widening income gap between tech workers and "ordinary" citizens. Sean Parker, the founding president of Facebook, spent a reported $US10 million on his wedding to the singer-songwriter Alexandra Lenas, turning a hotel in Big Sur into what looked like a set from the HBO television show Game of Thrones, complete with fake ruins and waterfalls and outfits for guests designed by the costume designer for the Lord of the Rings films.
Billionaire David Sacks, CEO of social network Yammer, celebrated his 40th birthday with a Marie Antoinette-themed party under the motto "Let him eat cake".
And in recent months a series of gaffes by members of the technorati has intensified protesters' fury. One notorious example is an article posted on a blog last August by start-up founder Peter Shih titled "10 Things I Hate About You: San Francisco Edition". Number six was "homeless people" and number five: "All the girls who are obviously 4's but behave like they're 9's". Shih received death threats, and the counter post "10 Things I Hate About Peter Shih".
But the moment that captured tech's predicament best of all came on January 24 in a letter to the Wall Street Journal by Tom Perkins, the Mr Burns of the tech boom, a billionaire and self-described "King of Silicon Valley".
He likened the bus protests to the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany. "Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930," Perkins wrote. "Is its descendant 'progressive' radicalism unthinkable now?" Twitter exploded with invective against the industry that invented it, forcing Perkins to dash off a penitent letter to the Anti-Defamation League and mealy-mouth a half-apology on Bloomberg TV. Barely a month later, he did it again, this time suggesting the rich should get more votes than the poor as they paid more in taxes.
While he's a far cry from your typical start-up zillionaire – he's not a cocky young "bro-grammer"; he's 81 – Perkins nevertheless crystallised what this conflict was about: an arrogant and often tone-deaf industry, and a simmering theme of class war.
As Oliver jokes: "I heard that the new design for the buses had tinted windows, but with the tint on the inside: 'Look, I don't mind if the peasants see me, but I'd rather not see them ...'"
"What do we want?" Erin McElroy, of the San Francisco Tenants Union, yells into a megaphone. A crowd of 100 or so responds: "Stop the evictions!" They're gathered in the rapidly gentrifying Mission District, surrounding a Google bus. Googlers sit nervously behind the dark windows. After the violence in Oakland, they have security guards on board, but there's no hint of trouble today. There's even a brass band, the Brass Liberation Orchestra.
"From San Francisco to across the bay," McElroy says. "What do we want?" "Make tech pay!"
The buses are nothing new. Tech firms have long shuttled their staff to their offices in Mountain View, Palo Alto and Menlo Park. But for many locals, they represent an industry that is overwhelming their city. San Francisco, they say, is too small to absorb such a sudden influx of tech workers. And it's not just the companies out in Silicon Valley: there are almost 2000 tech companies based in San Francisco itself, of which Twitter is the highest profile, particularly since the company floated on the stock exchange, creating some 1600 new millionaires. The net effect has been a spike in rents, evictions and house prices – all the markers of aggressive gentrification.
"We have the highest rent in the country, at $US3250 ($3642) per month for a two-bedroom apartment," says McElroy, 31. "Evictions have gone up 83 per cent over the last three years. And Ellis Act evictions have gone up 170 per cent just from 2011 to 2012." The Ellis Act is a California law that permits landlords to evict tenants so long as they keep the property off the market for five years.
"San Francisco has always been a sanctuary city for lots of different kinds of people. And they're being driven out now – the people who made this city what it is."
Paula Tejeda, a 55-year-old Chilean woman who runs a coffee shop in the Mission, might fit this description. "I've put nearly 20 years into this community, and I've been told I've got six weeks to move out," she says. "I'm seeing people in their seventies get evicted – terminally ill women who have lived in their homes for 45 years."
But McElroy doesn't want to single out tech. Once the protesters let the bus go, they march to the San Francisco Association of Realtors to lobby property speculators, and then on to Mayor Ed Lee's office. "We want to connect all three," she says. "We know the mayor meets with the tech industry on Tech Tuesdays – what about Tenant Tuesdays? The shuttles are using public bus stops, but our public [transport] lines are being cut. Why give Twitter a $US50 million tax rebate when homeless services are being cut?"
Not all politics is local, though. The protests in San Francisco reflect a wider antipathy towards the new tech elite, which is evident in Britain as well. Google, for example, claims it wants to make the world a better place, but has been castigated for the way it exploits legal loopholes to minimise its tax bill. By basing its operations in Ireland, it paid only £6 million in corporation tax in 2011, despite revenues of more than £3 billion. The company has also been forced to apologise for harvesting homeowners' personal data during its Street View project to photograph and map neighbourhoods. Facebook has been accused of violating users' privacy in order to sell more adverts.
"They might have slogans like 'Don't be evil', but they're doing some pretty awful things," says McElroy. "Like when Google funded Ted Cruz [a Tea Party senator from Texas], who was on a crusade against ObamaCare. Or when Facebook and Google joined ALEC [the American Legislative Exchange Council, a far-Right lobbying group that denies climate change]."
It's a perfect storm – a famously left-wing city, during a time of economic disparity, at the epicentre of a boom that has created mind-boggling wealth for the very few. And then a gleaming bus drives into the middle of it, symbolising not just gentrification but a winner-takes-all system of politics and economics that is fundamentally corrupt.
"This backlash is long overdue," says Sam Biddle of Valleywag, a blog that scrutinises the tech industry. Since its relaunch in January 2013, Biddle and his colleague Nitasha Tiku – a grand staff of two – have gleefully lobbed missiles at Silicon Valley from their offices in New York.
"It's like how the public turned against Wall Street, except bankers have no delusions, they know their business is about greed," says Biddle. "But there's a utopianism in Silicon Valley. They truly think that they're ushering in a golden age. They talk in these grandiose terms about changing the world, or reinventing communication. So with these bus protests, they're not like the yuppies in New York or DC who can just afford a higher standard of living. They think they deserve that great apartment: 'Who are you to say I shouldn't move here, I'm making an app that's going to change the face of humanity!'?"
No doubt there's something delicious about seeing the mighty lampooned so mercilessly. A new sitcom about start-up entrepreneurs – Silicon Valley – starts soon on HBO. But Valleywag's attacks also chime with broader suspicions that these tech firms are so powerful as to be sinister – the keepers of our information, our tech overlords. In a recent scoop, Biddle produced an internal Google memo to its bus passengers that demonstrated the extent of its control. The memo provided staff with statements to say at a public hearing, such as: "My shuttle empowers my colleagues and I to reduce our carbon emissions by removing cars from the road."
Biddle's take: "This is what it looks like when the most powerful entity in the history of the internet starts to realise people hate its guts." To date, the defence of big tech has come mostly from individual workers, writing counter articles. Not surprisingly, they don't take kindly to Biddle. A rebuttal in PandoDaily – a Silicon Valley news site – described Biddle as a phoney class warrior and "grotesque hypocrite" who not only came from privilege himself – his father is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist – but also worked for a loathsome corporation: Gawker Media.
The tech defenders make the point that San Francisco's challenges are the product of a boom, not a bust – Detroit would love to have such problems. The industry has created 23,500 jobs since 2009, according to one report, so the city's tax base has grown and unemployment has shrunk to 5.3 per cent, the lowest since 2008.
Furthermore, tech workers are famously philanthropic to local causes. Maria Amundson of Edelman PR – which represents eBay, Adobe and others – cites the Silicon Valley Community Foundation's figure that Bay Area companies gave 20 per cent more than average per employee in 2012. "I think the industry should speak up more about all the good they're doing for the local community," she says.
She's referring to gifts such as the $US100 million that Mark Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce, gave to build the University of California, San Francisco Children's Hospital in June last year. Then there was Mark Zuckerberg's donation of $US990 million in Facebook stock to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. Tech sympathisers also point out that they and their colleagues would live closer to their places of work, but cities such as Palo Alto and Mountain View won't approve new housing.
"Remember, protesting is what we do for fun in San Francisco," says Gabriel Metcalf, the executive director of SPUR, an organisation that works towards better government in the Bay Area. "So we need to keep a sense of humour about this!" But, for now, the conflict continues.
"We're making progress," says McElroy. "These protests have got us a lot of attention, and the Mayor's office just met on the issue and came up with a specific policy proposal. So that's positive." The proposal, which passed recently, is to charge the buses to use the public bus stops – $US1 per bus per stop. In a year, it would raise $US100,000 per company for the city.
"But it's not enough," she says. "These are multibillion-dollar corporations, and they're already getting huge tax breaks. It doesn't do anything about the eviction crisis. So we're going to up the ante. We're confident."