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Less love for tech's impact on Silicon Valley

San Francisco Bay Area residents say the technology industry is hurting the middle class and the poor, while exacerbating the economic divide.

James Martin/CNET

Californians have a low opinion of the tech industry that fuels its economy.

Nearly half of respondents in the San Francisco Bay Area said the tech industry is hurting the middle class, according to a survey released Wednesday, and more than half said it is hurting the poor.

Jonathan Wibberley, who runs the West Coast division of research firm Edelman Berland, said the tech industry is still the most trusted in California, above other influential industries like agriculture, retail and energy. But survey respondents don't see the tech industry doing enough to share the wealth.

The result is that people are getting increasingly frustrated as they watch home prices rise and inequality widen.

"You have to have a broader impact on society," said Wibberley, whose firm conducts the annual survey.

The latest results are a reminder that while Silicon Valley executives frequently talk about tech's positive impact on the world, there are large numbers of people who are convinced otherwise. This goes beyond the question of whether we're in a tech industry bubble -- that's still being debated.

The real question seems to be whether the industry actually improves people's lives. It appears people are saying that a faster, slimmer gadget that makes it easier to post a photo to a social network isn't enough.

Throughout the survey, which reached 1,538 people in California last month including 503 in the Bay Area, Edelman found people are frustrated by economic inequality. For example, 76 percent of respondents believe technology has benefited the wealthy, while only 19 percent believe it has benefited the poor.

Who should fix the problem is up for debate.

You could say it's Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's co-founder, who was the most top-of-mind CEO among survey respondents. He was followed by Bill Gates (though Gates is no longer in charge at Microsoft) and Apple CEO Tim Cook. Of course, Zuckerberg and Gates are both known for their philanthropic efforts, so perhaps they have already gotten the message.

All told, Ravi Moorthy, managing director of corporate and public affairs for Edelman, said the responses indicate that people's faith in the tech industry could erode, even if it has been the most trusted industry for the survey's past 16 years.

"We're getting initial signs that this overall sheen and halo tech has may not be a guaranteed thing forever," he said.