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Does Elizabeth Warren have a Silicon Valley problem?

May 27, 2015, 5:11 PM UTC
Books-Elizabeth Warren
FILE - This March 7, 2013 file photo shows Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., listening to a witness at Senate Banking Committee hearing on anti-money laundering on Capitol Hill in Washington. Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, has an agreement with Henry Holt and Company, the publisher announced Wednesday, May 22. The book, currently untitled, is scheduled for the spring of 2014. Warren will write about her childhood and early professional life, but the book will mostly be a “rousing call” for the middle class. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, file)
Photograph by Cliff Owen—AP

Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic senator from Massachusetts, had a lot to say to the technorati gathered at this week’s Code Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. But it’s not clear whether her message—that we need to invest more in infrastructure, education and basic research—resonated with the tech elite.

Warren, known for her uber-liberal economic views, might seem like a good fit for a roomful of largely progressive, Silicon Valley types. But even as she enthusiastically espoused the importance of innovation, a topic dear to techies, many in the room seemed more engrossed in their smartphones. Some just walked out.

The reaction was at least partly due to the wonkiness of the conversation (which was at one point even noted by interviewer Kara Swisher). But it’s possible there was another cause. The popular view among many techies these days is that they are going to fix everything from healthcare to schools to transportation systems. And while tech companies like Amazon and Google spend millions of dollars lobbying in Washington, D.C., the growing belief among many entrepreneurs is that politicians and regulators are a hindrance, not a help, to making the world more efficient — one algorithm at a time. (Yes, even non-libertarians increasingly adhere to this ideology.)

Over the course of the hour-long discussion, Warren was repeatedly asked what she thought of this growing sentiment among techies. “I think you actually do people an injustice by that description,” she replied to a question about whether she was bothered by the tech community’s apathetic view of government.

But if Warren’s push for government-funded innovation lacked believability, it was big on effusiveness. And her constant call to action was loud and clear. “I think we get change in this entire system if we get more people engaged in the political process,” she said. “I do want people engaged because it really does matter.”

And Warren and the audience definitely saw eye-to-eye on at least one big issue: The growing part-time labor force employed by Uber-like, on-demand services—and its inevitability. “Our only chance for survival is to innovate our way out of this,” she said. “We’re not going to stop tech so that lots of people will work. That’s like saying, ‘Let’s get rid of heavy equipment and let people dig with a spoon.’ That won’t work.”

Warren, who unequivocally repeated that she will not run for president (but wouldn’t say why, even when pushed), also elicited some laughs from the audience: “You’re driving a lot of Democrats crazy,” her interviewer, Swisher, noted. Warren’s cutting reply: “I’m doing my best.”