wikimedia COMMONS photo

Let them eat cupcakes

A class at San Jose State has succeeded in raising the pay for 70,000 workers by 25%. But Silicon Valley’s biggest issue last week was making the photos on Facebook’s Newsfeed 50% bigger.

That’s a significant disparity between a bunch of college students and an industry of people not much older than them. Not just in execution, in priorities.

Sociology prof Scott Myers-Lipton’s Social Action class helped minimum-wage workers in Silicon Valley raise their full-time annual earnings by $4,000 a year. Myers-Lipton told the Associated Press, “Regular folks can change economic policy in this country."

Yet the best and the brightest are chipping away at memes, dreams and money-making schemes.

As The San Francisco Chronicle’s James Temple eloquently posted over the weekend, “innovation” in Silicon Valley has come to mean becoming the flavor of the month app that seduces a fat-cat VC into scratching a check. Guns, global warming, women’s rights, food and water for sub-Saharan Africa aren’t nearly as fun as waffle cones and parties at SXSW.

Challenging the greatest minds of our time to take on real problems will be messy and bad for business, traditional thinking goes. We have to do it, to be good neighbors, but as a sideline, as the .org part of our site, as tax write-offs, at black-tie galas.

These things are too much for social media, the thinking seems to go. It’s unfair to saddle this baggage to young techie transplants, to tech companies. They are of different worlds. So the have’s and have-not’s of Silicon Valley grow further apart. And the realities that challenge them are as different as the manicured gardens of Marie Antoinette are from the despair-smeared streets of Les Miserables.

“Let them eat cupcakes,” Silicon Valley seems to say. “Because cupcakes are fun.” : )

Silicon Valley is adding jobs faster than it has in more than a decade, the AP reported over the weekend, yet food stamp participation in the South Bay just hit a 10-year high.

The problem with messy, divisive, painful social issues is that they are messy, divisive and painful. The last thing a young entrepreneur wants to take on. Maybe someday, when he or she is Bill Gates, and can be a hero in addressing water issues in Africa. But the wild-eyed zealots of social change do not make for good business, or good innovation.

Don’t tell that to Credo Mobile, the booming progressive phone company. Or Ideo, which launched innovation and social good decades ago. Or Code For America, which is harnessing intelligence and giving it room to work on big ideas. Or the session at SXSW in Austin addressing black activism on Twitter. Or Howard Rheingold, the “grandfather of social media” and longtime social activist. Or Reddit for rallying to oppose SOPA/PIPA. Or, for that matter, WikiLeaks and Anonymous, depending on your political views.

They prove it can be done. Yet their work is in a minuscule minority. The vast body of work coming out of Silicon Valley today is a vain and gigantic sculpture of ourselves, consumer America, imbibing in another distraction, another Facebook post on a brand-new tablet. What is that Facebook post about? Often something fun, and lightweight.

It is worse than frivolous to ignore homicide and poverty in your own back yard, Silicon Valley. It is worse than amoral. It is worse than selling out. It cancels out your own code, and renders your best ideas irrelevant.

We could be using social media to address the 2,605 people killed by guns in America since Newtown. (To see an updated figure, go here.) Or building music apps to reach Alzheimer’s patients. Or addressing homophobia with Google Hangouts. Or hacking global warming.

But hold on: Engineers don’t take on stuff like that. Social media people like me can’t lead campaigns for social good.

And college students don’t raise the minimum wage, either.