TechCrunch Disrupt: Tech Icons Have Social Issues on the Brain

<b class="credit">TechCrunch</b>Michael Moritz of Sequoia Capital speaks at TechCrunch Disrupt 2013.
TechCrunchMichael Moritz of Sequoia Capital speaks at TechCrunch Disrupt 2013.

SAN FRANCISCO -- TechCrunch Disrupt, a showcase of new companies and ideas, wasted little time Monday in getting to what everyone is talking about: the arrogance and hubris of the technology industry and the well-paid people in it.

Various speakers in the morning sessions directly addressed the issues that surround the new economy -- jobs, housing, transportation and education -- in positive and diplomatic tones. In fact, it was almost hard to tell whether TechCrunch founder and moderator Michael Arrington was playing devil's advocate or simply trolling when asking San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee whether he was going to "crush labor," and what he was going to do about the scourge of our times: bicyclists. (In his blog, Arrington had signaled he was going to be asking tough questions, writing that he was galvanized by the government's surveillance efforts.)

Lee was unfazed: "That's what the challenge is, to accommodate 100 percent of the people" even as rents are soaring and housing development has not kept pace. He did point out that there are almost 2,000 tech companies operating in San Francisco now, and that the technology industry is responsible for more than 45,000 jobs in the city.

A-list angel investor Ron Conway, who talked about hosting former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords at his home when the Sandy Hook school shooting took place last year, said that besides spending 70 percent of his time helping entrepreneurs, he was working on gun control, immigration and civic engagement. But Arrington asked him about the NSA's snooping: "Why haven't you done anything to stop this?" Conway replied that the TechCrunch founder himself would be an ideal candidate for such a campaign, and the audience noted its agreement with applause.

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Regarding education, California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom was happy to be sharing the stage with Sebastian Thrun of college-course provider Udacity, who said "I don't see myself as a threat" to established institutions. Still, he noted a discrepancy in how schools are preparing students and what are the needs of the job market. "I want to see a person," he called out to show attendees, "who wants to hire a psychologist" rather than an engineer.

Newsom elaborated on that rhetorical point by saying the current system isn't sustainable because of higher costs and issues of access. "Are we conveying enough talent for the jobs that exist today?" he asked, noting that more than half of young people are going to end up getting jobs that haven't been invented yet once they begin working. "We've got to radically alter our approach."

The highlight, however, were the remarks by Michael Moritz of Sequoia Capital about what he dubbed "the Data Factory." Going back to before the Industrial Revolution, his quick overview roped in the sweeping changes for the world economy and society, and how the rewards are unevenly distributed. Global companies like Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google offer revolutionary capabilities (some of them free) and are closer to their consumers than in any other model. "Never before have humans been furnished with tools as powerful," he said. But, sticking to the morning's theme, he listed major caveats.

"This is the first shift in technology ... simultaneously around the world," he added, pointing to China in particular. Also, this revolution is happening with far fewer employees than in any other economic inflection point in history, and it's not having much effect on the U.S. gross domestic product.

"If you're not like us," Moritz declared to the crowd, "it's tough."

For more from the conference, visit the TechCrunch Disrupt website.

Anthony Lazarus is a contributing editor for DailyFinance. Follow him on Twitter @Sr_Lazarus.