"The tech community really cares about changing the world."
That quote didn't come from a startup publicist or crisis manager or even a nonprofit director who's just been handed a big check. That was Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook (FB), talking about his work in education and immigration at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco.
The 29-year-old CEO's comments Wednesday capped the three-day industry event, a showcase for startups, hackathons and wide-ranging interviews with high-profile figures in technology and venture investing. Those on stage talked agriculture, schools, jobs, health and medicine, and more, as well as business; not in attendance were libertarian rants, nor laments about red tape and regulation.
Right from the get-go, speakers and panelists acknowledged the elephant in the room -- that the great wealth generated by their industry has come in tandem with a growing inequality problem in America, and that the tools they've built have yet to solve vast dysfunctions across our society. Disrupt (so named to reflect the way technology and innovation can shake up established markets) is fittingly set in San Francisco, where recent incidents have highlighted the rifts between the tech industry and just about everyone else. Sought-after managers, developers and engineers have sent the city's rents and home prices into the stratosphere. Really. (The bidding appears most intense near the routes of exclusive shuttles that carry tech workers to their companies' campuses, with their free cafeterias, game rooms and laundry service.)
When workers for a Bay Area transit system went on strike this summer, a couple members of the tech community were quoted in the media, suggesting that most of those kinds of jobs should be automated away. Those comments struck quite a chord.
Flash-forward to the TechCrunch show, where the first keynote speaker, veteran venture capitalist Michael Moritz, capped a quick overview on economic history with the following: "Life is very tough for most everybody in America." While there are plenty of examples of people earning extra money posting extra bedrooms on Airbnb, acting as TaskRabbits or selling items on eBay and Etsy, "life is very tough if you're poor, life is very tough if you're middle class," he said.
While companies like Walmart (WMT) and McDonald's (MCD) each employ more than a million workers, Moritz noted jobs at those companies paid far, far less than what Google (GOOG) and other tech firms pay their thousands of employees. "General Motors at its peak employed 750,000 people; today Apple including retail employs 80,000 people."
He went on to detail how median U.S. incomes have stagnated and how the purchasing power of minimum-wage earners has collapsed in recent decades. "We are very lucky here, we are extremely fortunate and we belong in a real small minority," he said.
Wasn't this supposed to be a tech conference about startups and innovators and investing in new ideas? Yes, our economy seems stalled five years after the global financial crisis. Also, the bubble that puffed up around social-media phenomenons like Groupon (GRPN) and Zynga (ZNGA) has lost a lot of air. But the sentiment at Disrupt was more than just not as frothy as in the past few years. The tenor instead reflects a tech industry that is maturing, and become refreshingly attuned to what's happening beyond its whiteboards and cubicles.
%VIRTUAL-pullquote-Absent from Disrupt were libertarian rants or laments about excessive regulation.%
A more cynical way to view the tone of the conference, according to Jason Pontin, editor and publisher of the MIT Technology Review, is to "consider much of this socially conscious talk just that -- talk," a way for very wealthy founders and executives "to dilute criticism of their companies, industry and selves."
Salesforce.com's Marc Benioff, for example, spoke at length Tuesday at Disrupt how Steve Jobs had inspired him spiritually, and how from the time he launched his firm, he was determined to give back profits, equity and volunteer time to the community. He lauded onetime competitor Bill Gates: "What he's done for the world ... he's saved 10 million lives!"
Yet "the 'jobless recovery' or the 'two cities' are sufficiently commonplace cultural ideas that the industry neither can nor wishes to ignore," Pontin said. "At a time when the recent productivity gains have not translated into higher wages or full employment for those outside the magic circle of Silicon Valley and a few tech hubs, this is bound to create resentment."
Bridging the Tech Disconnect
With 60 million Americans unable to be productive online -- lacking computer skills and the know-how to search for jobs and send resumes -- there's certainly a large pool of disaffection. That statistic came from Christina Gagnier, CEO of JobScout, a digital-literacy startup that was exhibiting at TechCrunch Disrupt. With her co-founder and COO Stephanie Margossian, she runs JobScout as a free learning platform for desktops and mobile devices. "This is all about access" to tools of economic empowerment, Gagnier said. "Our goal is to tackle the Internet."
The two executives met at law school and worked respectively in the intellectual-property and corporate fields before reconnecting at Trail, which partnered with the Link Americas Foundation and the California State Library to develop JobScout. The portal offers 39 online lessons, a resume builder and job-search engine, among other features. Gagnier and Margossian were sanguine about their challenges, including raising capital and awareness for JobScout with its target users -- millennials, veterans, single parents, workers in transition and others -- in more than one language.
But they saw their work as "not just an opportunity to educate," Gagnier added, pointing out that JobScout's users are a demographic "ignored by the consumer Web." That's why Trail is planning to expand into other vertical categories, including health care later this year (just in time for the Affordable Care Act) and financial information and education in 2014.
What the Super-CEOs Have Learned
Back on Disrupt's main stage, the best was saved for last: For the final sessions Wednesday afternoon, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Zuckerberg had their moments in the hot seat. Mayer remarked that she has learned that she needs to make fewer decisions, but make them "exactly correctly and exactly perfectly." (In short, one person on Twitter wrote, not be in charge of everything.) In addition, Mayer said even as she's working on turning around the Web portal, she has sought to empathize with employees that have put up with a lot of corporate turmoil.
Facebook's co-founder, for his part, told stories about his stumbles learning Mandarin and volunteering at a middle school, where he was surprised to realized some students were undocumented. "My mind was blown," he said. That drove him to call other tech-industry people and start thinking about what could be done about immigration issues, and for more than self-serving reasons regarding skilled workers on H-1B visas.
"We made it very clear up front, this is not just about the high-skilled piece, we're not going to compromise," Zuckerberg said. "We're going to push for getting full, comprehensive immigration reform done. ... I've never really been prouder of my peers in the community for coming together to work on an important issue like that."
That kind of talk may be lofty, but it does carry a broadly resonant tone. Wtih JobScout's Gaigner and Margossian attesting that libraries here in the United States are still hooking up to the Internet via dial-up modem, the hype about yet another upcoming tech IPO is cast in a different light. At this stage in the tech industry's history, the VCs, founders and well-paid professionals might finally understand the idea that we're all in this together.
"Most of these executives got into technology because they wanted to be part of a daring tribe of innovators who did ambitious things," said MIT's Pontin. "That many of them work on small, incremental things like creating an advertising model for social networks on mobile devices must be a disappointment to them. Technology has always promised to solve big problems and expand human possibilities."
For more from the conference, visit the TechCrunch Disrupt website.
Anthony Lazarus is a contributing editor for DailyFinance. Follow him on Twitter @Sr_Lazarus.