Back in the 1980s, people talked about the 1 percent by referring to "young urban professionals," or yuppies. The term was supposed to contrast with hippies, the youth culture of a previous generation. Today in cities like San Francisco, the idea of the yuppie has been grafted onto a new term: techie.
San Francisco is ground zero for this yuppified use of the word techie. It's interesting to consider that fifteen years ago, during the so-called Dot-Com Boom, the term techie was rarely used — when it was, it generally referred to a geek or software developer. Basically, it meant somebody who was hip-deep in code and might get into a bar brawl over Linux distributions. Today, we'd call that kind of person a geek or maybe a developer. Techies, meanwhile, are the elite business class of the multi-billion dollar tech industry, including venture capitalists and C-level types as well as entrepreneurs and the bizdev high rollers.
Techie has become a term of derision, but not because we hate nerds. Here in San Francisco and in other cities like it, people are fucking pissed at techies in part because they're not nerds. They are fundamentally business people, but they happen to be in the tech industry. Across the Bay, in Oakland, protesters waylaid Google buses to express their discontent with the techie class; and right now people in San Francisco are gearing up to protest the lavish, techie-centric Crunchies award gala. Here in the city, techie-related gentrification is the focus of intense political debate.
A couple of weeks ago, entrepreneur Anil Dash wrote an essay where he talked about why there's so much hate for techies in San Francisco. He suggested that it's because we don't have a New York-style financial industry elite; instead, we have a very visible and wealthy tech elite. So city dwellers focus our rage over economic inequality at this region's perceived ruling class:
The leaders of the technology industry in Silicon Valley are among the richest people who have ever lived in the history of the world. That's some crazy shit right there. And I know firsthand, from living in New York City where we have an egregious, unacceptable and immoral level of economic inequality that these are difficult problems to face. But the two biggest reasons techies in New York don't face the same blowback are because 1. We have the finance industry to shield us by being more disgusting than tech in almost every regard and 2. Our local technology community has a very strong ethos of community involvement, with the expectation that people who work in tech will also be involved in their community to solve bigger problems.
I think Dash's second point is debatable, but his first point about the finance industry is right on the money. In the absence of a "disgusting" finance industry, San Franciscans have techies. They are what people on the west coast think of as our ruling class.
But techies aren't just stand-ins for the 1 percenters of California. Unlike finance industry types, techies of the 2010s have a distinct culture that is redolent of the classic 1980s yuppies. They are overwhelmingly young and urban, and they have pretensions to hipster refinement. Yuppies ate quiche and brie and watched foreign films. Techies collect bespoke furniture, eat locally-grown food, and support indie music on Kickstarter. Maybe techie is to indie as yuppie was to hippie. I don't want to overthink this, but my point is that techies represent both a class position and a fashionable youth culture associated with conspicuous consumption of fancy items.
Perhaps most importantly, the hated techie is as much a figment of our wrathful 2010s imagination as the yuppie was of the 1980s. Sure, there are real-life people who fit the stereotype of techies, like Mark Zuckerberg. But I think people are more familiar with the fictionalized, monstrous version of Zuckerberg from The Social Network — just as people probably remember Wall Street's coke-snorting psycho Gordon Gekko better than the real-life yuppie villains like Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky.
As people lose jobs in the middle of the country, and the income disparity between city dwellers grows beyond anything we've known in this generation, it's handy to have a caricature to blame. Because who really wants to do all the mental math to figure out that it's not just a few shitty techies, but in fact an economic system that over-rewards some people while under-rewarding almost everybody else? It's easier to hate over-simplified symbols than it is to challenge our whole troubled economy.
Still, the rise of the techie makes it obvious that tech industry magnates are on the cusp of replacing bankers as the robber barons of our imaginations. Maybe the next urban class war really will be fought on the campuses of Facebook and Google. Or maybe techie is just an ephemeral term, like yuppie, that will dissipate when the tech bubble bursts — only to return, like the problem it represents, under a new name.
Annalee Newitz is the editor-in-chief of io9 and the author of Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction.