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Nithin Coca headshot

Ping-Pong, Bubbles and the State of the Tech Industry

By Nithin Coca

The tech boom has transformed many regions, including the San Francisco Bay Area, with a flood of money leading to high rents, overcrowding and increased gentrification, all of which seem unsustainable. Despite this, it remains a powerful force, one that many predict could collapse at any time. But could something as simple as ping-pong point to the forthcoming implosion of the tech bubble?

That's right. As the Wall Street Journal reported last week, declining sales of ping-pong tables – which are ubiquitous in the open workspaces common in Silicon Valley and other tech hubs – may be a sign that the good times are coming to an end.

"Is the tech bubble popping?" asks WSJ reporter Zusha Elinson. "Ping-pong offers an answer, and the tables are turning. In the first quarter of 2016 ... table sales [from one retailer] to companies fell 50 percent from the prior quarter. In that period, U.S. startup funding dropped 25 percent, says Dow Jones VentureSource."

There might be some truth to the matter this time, as the past year has seen a small wave of shut-downs in the tech industry, from gig house-cleaning service Homejoy last year, to Spoonrocket, a food delivery service, earlier this year. Other companies, including Twitter and Zenefits, have laid off staff. Moreover, in San Francisco, the luxury housing market – the one most closely connected to 'new money' tech millionaires – is slowing down fast. Is this just the latest in a long series of signs that the tech bubble is finally getting ready to pop?

But perhaps this represents something deeper. Ping-pong tables are, in fact, just one of the many perks considered normal in the tech industry, where work goes hand-in-hand with free food, alcohol, and even in-house massages, haircuts and laundry service. What this creates is not only a financial bubble, but a literal one too, where tech staff are living in a world separate from the rest of us, all their needs taken care of, with no reason to mix or integrate with the local community.

I saw this myself on a recent tour of Twitter's San Francisco headquarters, located in a beautiful building full of amenities: numerous in-house cafes, bars, a plethora of free food options and, yes, ping-pong tables. Yet, just down the street is one of San Francisco's poorest neighborhoods, the Tenderloin, with dozens of homeless people living within sight of the Twitter building. No ping-pong tables there, and the only free food can be found at the end of long, slow-moving soup kitchen lines. One more thing you won't find there – many interactions between those living in poverty and the tech staffers living in their bubble.

Perhaps the drop in ping-pong table sales is a sign that the tech boom is over. But perhaps it's also a sign that the industry has matured, and the era of cheap money and massive excess is over. And that could be a good thing. A sustainable, integrated tech community would be a better one. The only bubble that needs popping is the one in which perks like ping-pong tables are considered normal, while the impacts of the tech industry on local communities is ignored.

Image credit: Brett Hendon via Pixabay

Nithin Coca headshot

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

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