Are Silicon Valley Techies Becoming 'The Man'?

In the good old days, technology types were viewed as likeable geeks, the underdogs everyone could root for. But these days, techies are seen as wealthy elite. How did they become the most despised group of the Valley?

In the old days, executives in traditional industries were berated for being out of touch with the commoner. Who can forget auto executives flying to Washington D.C. in private jets to ask congress for a handout? Or Senator John McCain unable to tell a reporter how many homes he and his wife own?

Now the great wealth gap has a new face of the enemy: the techie.

Oliver riffed on an audience that had quickly grown quiet: "You're no longer the underdogs. It's very important that you realize that. You're not the scrappy people that people get behind. It used to be that people who worked in the tech industry were emotional shut-ins who you could root for. Now those days are gone. You're pissing off an entire city. Not just with what you do at work, but how you get to work. It's not easy to do that."

Indeed, Silicon Valley has become ground zero in the nation's growing wealth disparity war, as technology-driven gentrification takes on a polarizing, nasty turn here. From Google gag orders to hateful Facebook and Twitter posts to protesters blocking Google buses and spray-painting nasty messages, a culture war has begun. A wood panel in San Francisco's Mission District was tagged with the words, "F- your startup."

Ignorance and Obamacare

It doesn't help that rich tech executives continue to show their ignorance.

Earlier this month, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong told employees that he decided to cut some benefits because of increased healthcare costs due to Obamacare and "distressed babies." Never mind that Armstrong made $12 million in 2012 and AOL had just reported strong quarterly earnings.

"We had two AOL-ers that had distressed babies that were born that we paid a million dollars each to make sure those babies were OK in general," Armstrong said. "And those are the things that add up into our benefits cost."

One of the mothers, Deanna Fei, wrote an emotional retort that's worth the read.

"I take issue with how he reduced my daughter to a 'distressed baby' who cost the company too much money," Fei wrote. "How he blamed the saving of her life for his decision to scale back employee benefits. How he exposed the most searing experience of our lives, one that my husband and I still struggle to discuss with anyone but each other, for no other purpose than an absurd justification for corporate cost-cutting."

Within days of Fei's searing rebuttal, Armstrong apologized and restored the benefit cuts -- but the damage was done. Armstrong had put "distressed babies" into the lexicon of the nation's culture war.

Armstrong's missteps followed on the heels of yet another silly statement made by a Silicon Valley tech billionaire. In a Wall Street Journal letter to the editor, venture capitalist Tom Perkins compared the treatment of wealthy Americans to the Nazi's persecution of Jews. Backlash ensued, and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers quickly distanced itself from its founder's comments.

Perkins only made the situation worse when he issued a non-apology hinting that the reader was at fault. "I deeply apologize to you and anyone who has mistaken my reference to Kristallnacht as a sign of overt or latent anti-Semitism," he wrote.

A few months before the Perkins snafu, Greg Gopman, founder of AngelHack, infamously posted a rant on Facebook that also fanned the flames of class warfare.

"In downtown SF the degenerates gather like hyenas, spit, urinate, taunt you, sell drugs, get rowdy, they act like they own the center of the city," Gopman wrote. "There is an area of town for degenerates and an area of town for the working class. There is nothing positive gained from having them so close to us."

Geeks Over Harvard Grads

Outrageous comments from tech titans have made them persona non grata and increased the disconnect between the super wealthy and, well, the rest of us. These days Silicon Valley arrogance is turning off just about everyone, from comedians to mothers to Harvard Business School grads, who risk losing financially to the new tech elite.

Earlier this month at a conference in Boston put on by Harvard Business School's venture capital and private equity club, Chamath Palihapitiya, founder of the venture capital fund Social+Capital Partnership based in Palo Alto, Calif., told attendees that they probably won't be invited to the party.

According to the New York Times, Palihapitiya said entrepreneurs with technical prowess, such as an oddball computer programmer who uses a computer mouse with his feet, will come up with the next world-changing ideas and score the necessary venture capital to make them happen -- not those with a keen sense of traditional financial instruments.

"It's really unfair to you guys, but I think you're discriminated against now," Palihapitiya said, adding, "I would bet a large amount of money that the overwhelming majority of us would not look favorably on a company started by one of you."

Welcome to the Silicon Valley Haters Club.

Tom Kaneshige covers Apple, BYOD and Consumerization of IT for CIO.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn. Email Tom at tkaneshige@cio.com

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This story, "Are Silicon Valley Techies Becoming 'The Man'?" was originally published by CIO .

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