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Techies Are the New Puritans

Silicon Valley's ugly treatment of homeless people has a long history.

I've been thinking a lot in recent months about just why some of the tech world is so apparently repelled by homelessness. Just today, Valleywag published the comments of yet another tech-worker saying awful things about the indigent. Greg Gopman, who is the CEO of a startup that organizes hackathons, wrote this on his Facebook page (though he later deleted it). 

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. Like it's their place of leisure... In actuality it's the business district for one of the wealthiest cities in the USA. It a disgrace. I don't even feel safe walking down the sidewalk without planning out my walking path. 

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. 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. Believe me, if they added the smallest iota of value I'd consider thinking different, but the crazy toothless lady who kicks everyone that gets too close to her cardboard box hasn't made anyone's life better in a while.

One of his Facebook friends, Li Jiang, replied, "why is this the showcase of the center of San Francisco. We're supposed to be a gleaming utopia of what a city could be. Why should we have homeless shelters, method one [sic] shelters, strip clubs all in the center of town."

Emphasis added by me, because Jiang's "gleaming utopia"—which is a vision of San Francisco I think many in the tech world share—echoes the famous "city on a hill" formulation that the Puritan Reverand John Winthrop plucked from the Sermon on the Mount way back in the 1600s. It's a beautiful sentiment, but it's also a strikingly unforgiving, rigid one (that is, a remarkably Puritan one). In the Puritan model of charity, the rich have an obligation to do good for the poor—but the poor also have an obligation to the rich, to try to be a useful part of the same society. It sounds not unlike the way Silicon Valley understands homelessesness: Why are the poor dropping their end of the bargain?

This is, of course, a conservative worldview, where harder work will solve most problems. In his farewell speech, Ronald Reagan called America, "a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity." Commerce and creativity are two things that the tech world, like Reagan, sees as inextricably linked. But I was also reminded of Reaganism when I read an update on the homeless man whom a New York City startup employee offered to teach to code as a means to a better life. The homeless man, whose name is Leo Grand (or "Leo the Homeless Coder," in the language of Business Insider clickbait headlines), has successfully created an app—which is the new American dream. Grand's app is called Trees for Cars, and is meant to help people organize car pools to work, which in turn will help the environment. This is a classic tech trope: It can be profitable to save the world. And judging by the glowing Business Insider profile, the tech world very much wants Grand to succeed, and to become its symbol. He has the chance to be a bootstrapping success story, someone whose journey from the gutter to the iTunes store would serve as a ready anecdotal rebuke to people who say that tech can't save the world, or that there are endemic problems related to inequality that an app can't fix. It's very similar to what Reagan Republicans and their intellectual heirs did with so-called "welfare queens." They were endlessly decried as drags on society—but a few turnaround successes, like Eloise Anderson (a former welfare recipient turned conservative welfare reformer) were held up as examples.

This problem of how the tech world thinks about homelessness isn't a newfound phenomenon. It's an old philosophy—economic and cultural conservatism—applied to a new world and by a new generation.