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2014: The Year in Tech 

Tuesday, Dec 30 2014
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San Francisco loves to think of itself as a cradle of innovation. And for the most part, it's made good on that claim. We're a city that harbors a whole bevy of social media companies; a checkerboard of streets dominated by electronic bikes and motorized skateboards; a hotbed for 3D-printing startups with engineers aspiring to build houses and prosthetic limbs. Tech enthusiasts in San Francisco use buzzwords like "maker" and "gamification" with no sense of irony; politicians wax poetic about the city's vast constellation of sharing-economy services. Software-savvy business moguls have disrupted everything from housing, to eating, to transportation.

Because of its proximity to Silicon Valley, San Francisco has become an urban laboratory of sorts. It's the place where products are prototyped and ideas are test-run, where young consumers with disposable income become lab rats for a new crop of entrepreneurs at Stanford.

But even as technology drives the city's economy, it's inevitably created fault lines. Car-hire startups such as Uber and Lyft have all but decimated the cab industry, sparking regulatory battles at San Francisco International Airport and provoking a fierce backlash from cab drivers. The conflict reached an apex in December, when district attorneys from San Francisco and Los Angeles filed unfair business practice claims against both companies, settling with Lyft and pursuing a joint lawsuit against Uber.

Airbnb, too, has become a major point of contention, beloved because it's allowed San Francisco residents to earn extra cash by turning their spare rooms into vacation squats, but reviled for its part in diminishing the city's already limited housing stock. The company's lead investors held sway at the ballot box this year, stumping for ex-Supervisor David Chiu's legislation to legalize their app-based hospitality business, and setting up an independent expenditure committee to boost Chiu's campaign for state assembly — mainly by undermining his opponent, David Campos.

Increasingly, tech has become entwined with politics in this city. Silicon Valley venture capitalists such as Ron Conway and Sean Parker are recasting themselves as political fixers. Yesterday's scrappy startups are today's massive behemoths. Airbnb was valued at $13 billion just ahead of its employee stock sale in October; Uber's valuation crept up to $40 billion this winter, even as it faced a major PR maelstrom. The biggest tech companies have employed high-powered lobbyists to serve their interests both in the state capital and on the Beltway; Facebook and LinkedIn are steering our national immigration debate, while Google and Apple have made software patents a hot political topic du jour.

With so much money and power on the line, it's little surprise that in the course of a year, San Francisco's relationship to its tech economy has become ever more volatile. We started 2014 with a spate of bus blockades, meant to highlight the disparity between regular commuters and the gentry who get chauffeured to work aboard luxury corporate coaches. Those protests helped fuel an anti-eviction movement whose leaders bewailed the effect of new wealth on an already-intractable housing crisis.

Tech became synonymous with affluence this year, in ways that often seemed trite — terms like "tech bro" and "tech baron" have already become cliches — while occasionally both apt and poignant. In October, a group of Dropbox and Airbnb employees squared off with Latino teenagers over use of the soccer field at Mission Playground; the incident was caught on video and posted to YouTube, where it quickly became a gentrification parable. San Francisco became known not just as an Emerald City for startups, but as the battlefront for a major class war. Images of soccer field feuds and tech-bus blockades are now iconic.

The danger here is rendering tech into a one-dimensional villain, when the reality is far more complicated. To be sure, the city's ascendant economy has laid waste to some of its sacred traditions. New arrivistes have priced out the artists, working-class families, the hippies, the drifters, and the nonprofits. San Francisco residents, with their unflappable pride of place, recoiled at these changes.

But tech has enhanced the city too. It's brought in a new class of engineers to develop eco-friendly toilets, and municipal wifi networks, and HIV vaccines. It's despoiled parts of our old infrastructure, but it's made other parts more efficient. Under pressure from Uber, the cab industry unveiled its own mobile apps to promote faster service. Anti-eviction activists launched a data-based mapping project to address housing disparities. And a local web developer created a heat-based poop map to track human waste.

It's only natural for a city to be split by conflict as it transitions from mere municipality to global metropolis. Technology, for better or worse, has fueled that growth spurt in San Francisco. It might be ill-fated — we've already witnessed one dot-com bubble, and seen the ruinous aftereffects. But it could also lead to a future of 3D-printed architecture, high-efficiency toilets, and cabs that all run on time.

That's the kind of innovation that inspires harmony.

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About The Author

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Bio:
Rachel Swan was a staff writer at SF Weekly from 2013 to 2015. In previous lives she was a music editor, IP hack, and tutor of Cal athletes.

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