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In Silicon Valley, You’ve Got To Read The Fine Print

“$29.99 for unlimited everything!” claims one phone company. “This is the plan for you!”

Only on closer inspection do you find that this price does not include the $20 per month “service fee”, nor the various taxes. And that the unlimited data they promise is actually only 2GB, after which the internet speed drops to only a few kilobytes per second. “You’ve gotta read the fine print,” says the attendant. “Welcome to America.”

I am in Palo Alto. The cockpit of Silicon Valley. The manicured lawns and sandstone colonnades of Stanford sprawl out on the other side of El Camino Real — the fabled freeway pumping hackers and investors around the Bay Area. Before me is the intersection of Camino with the equally famous Sand Hill Road, home of the venture capitalists. On this nondescript street in the dry North Californian scrubland is more wealth than many national economies put together. There are a lot of Teslas parked here.

Scattered around these hills are all the startups jostling in this peculiar world of unicorns and elevator pitches and convertible notes. On posh University Avenue are the slick glass and brushed-metal offices of the class favourites. Disrupting industry [X] using a crowd-sourced platform combined with deep-learning and augmented reality.

The best translation of ‘Palo Alto’ is ‘tall tree’. And here, among the Californian pines, are the tallest of them.

The gravity of the big players can be felt everywhere. Google, Apple, and Facebook all have their capitols here — part university campus, part temple to a new era of technology. Mountain View, Cupertino, Menlo Park — bland suburbia transformed into household names by their rock star residents. Forget monochrome hipster chic — logo T-shirts and Patagonia jackets are the currency here. There is a specialty tea shop, and a very well-appointed Whole Foods in Palo Alto with an entire wall of milks — soy, almond, coconut, lactose-free, organic flax — ready to be carried back to the leafy mansions of neighbouring ‘Professorville’.

The best translation of ‘Palo Alto’ is ‘tall tree’. And here, among the Californian pines, are the tallest of them. But dip below the canopy and you find the harsh world of Attenborough documentaries, where people are in a fierce competition to survive and thrive. A rough and unforgiving world.

In the school district of East Palo Alto, more than one third of the children enrolled are classified as ‘homeless’.

Back on Camino Real, a homeless man wheels all his worldly belongings in a shopping trolley while a Google driverless car whizzes past, unseeing. A 2013 survey showed that Santa Clara County had the fifth highest homeless population in the United States. In the school district of East Palo Alto, a predominantly Hispanic community, more than one third of the children enrolled are classified as ‘homeless’, temporarily residing with other families or living in motor-homes scattered across town.

When I first arrived, I caught an Uber from the airport down to Palo Alto. My driver was a middle-aged African American navy veteran, polite and articulate, with a college degree and a background in IT support. But he could not find a job. He is now living in his car, showering at the gym and surviving on a supply of canned soup in his car boot. “This is not uncommon,” he said. “It’s tough for people like us.”

To their credit, a lot of the biggest tech firms are working to reduce this wealth gap. Facebook has donated over $20 million to low-cost housing in the Bay Area. Google has backed a not-for-profit called Lava Mae which provides free bathrooms and showers for the homeless in decommissioned city buses. And in typical Silicon Valley style, apps such as Copia and Food Cowboy attempt to match excess food from restaurants and supermarkets with local homeless shelters.

But in a land already wrought with political division, the wealth disparities in Silicon Valley continue to grow. The Valley may not be the land of milk and honey that the world dreams of. “You gotta read the fine print.”

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