Thursday, March 21, 2013

Invasion of the Google Bus! And Less Hysterical Reflections on the Technology Industry in San Francisco

It is not news to anyone in San Francisco that the technology sector is economically growing and that more of a tech presence is flowing into the city as a result.  The literati have taken notice of this migration of people, businesses, traffic and money and have written about it with various degrees of trepidation.  Three recent articles addressing the trend are David Talbot’s How Much Tech Can One City Take? in San Francisco Magazine, Rebecca Solnit’s Diary: Google Invades in the London Review of Books and Ellen Cushing’s The Bacon-Wrapped Economy in the East Bay Express.  All three bemoan various changes that tech brings to the Bay Area, but only Talbot provides anywhere near a suggestion about how to positively address these problems.  I will conclude with some criticism of the three pieces.

Talbot, the founder of, makes clear that he sympathizes with the “quirky and deeply individualistic geek culture” and the engineers who he considers his “comrades-in-arms in the revolution against top-down, corporate communications.”  However, he can’t help but notice the class inequalities that the new workforce is exacerbating: “Dot-com decadence is once again creeping into the city of St. Francis, and the tensions between those who own a piece of its future and those who don’t are growing by the day.”  Talbot takes note of the rising costs of living that are driving lower income workers out of the city, the physical separation of tech workers from the rest of the city’s populace and tech workers’ seeming lack of interest in cultural institutions and asks, “In short, do we wish to be a city of enlightenment, or a city of apps?”  Talbot ends with a vague call for the lower classes of the city to resist as a pathway to remedy the widening economic and social divide: “As a young man, [SF Mayor] Lee called it ‘class struggle.’ San Francisco could use some more of it these days.”

Solnit’s article revolves around the corporate busses that ferry San Francisco residents to their Silicon Valley workplaces.  Her tone is much more hostile towards tech workers, comparing them to an invading army: “Parisians probably talked about the Prussian army a lot too, in the day” and notes that they are seen as, “Uncool, a little out of place, blinking in the light as they emerged from their pod.”  Solnit, too, laments the recent, rapid changes to the city, comparing it to the Gold Rush: “But there are ways in which technology is just another boom and the Bay Area is once again a boomtown, with transient populations, escalating housing costs, mass displacements and the casual erasure of what was here before.”  Unlike Talbot, however, she does not propose any solution to the social maladies she describes.

Cushing’s piece covers more diverse territory than the other two, focusing on the lifestyles of the tech crowd.  She chronicles the upscale parties, high-class dining tastes and novel philanthropic attitudes of the tech nouveau riche.  The picture that emerges is one of a highly insulated subculture that cares little for the world outside; she quotes one wary observer as saying, “They really don't care that much about making the world a better place, mostly because they feel like they don't have to live in it.”  Cushing ends with a cautionary note about trusting in the benevolence of our corporate masters: “[The actions of the tech economy] drive up rent and drive down wages, help some businesses while hurting others, essentially carry with them economic and political and social consequences that extend far beyond the transactions themselves.”

One gripe I have with, especially, the Cushing article is to ignore distinctions between various people employed in the technology industry.  There are the rank and file engineers and then there are the executives and investors that can afford to throw parties with, say, imported snow and a surfing machine (she details one such party) or attend upscale soirees of the Ken Fulk variety.  Exaggerated descriptions of the income that tech workers make only serve to confuse this distinction: “To be 25 and suddenly making more money than your parents, more money than your friends — more money, really, than you know how to spend — is disorienting.”  Much less disorienting when one has to pay the high San Francisco rent that all the authors spend so much space dissecting.  Not every tech worker has a portfolio comparable to Mark Zuckerberg; that’s a tiny minority.  (It is also worth noting that engineers are often minorities in all but the smallest tech companies -- most of the employees are in public relations, sales, marketing, human resources, legal, etc.)

As I alluded to before, none of the authors really provide any concrete proposals to avert San Francisco from the path of widening economic inequality and social stratification.  What’s the solution?  Higher taxes?  Restrictive zoning?  More social services?  Mandatory reduction in work hours?  Revolution?  Some suggestions would have been welcome.

I enjoyed the Cushing article’s exploration of the Uber / TaskRabbit / Melt enclosed sub-society in which tech workers often dwell.  I would have enjoyed it if Cushing, or anyone, observed that this is not a specifically tech issue -- privileged people being out of touch with and evading (consciously and unconsciously) the society of the commoners is hardly a phenomenon unique to modern San Francisco workers.  I am reminded of Mike Davis’ Planet of Slums where he details the highways that the ascendent global middle class is using to circumvent and cut through the dense centers of urban poverty.  That is, the trends of increasing inequality and social polarization are consistent with where capitalism is pushing the rest of global humanity as well.

I am suspicious of the narrative, detailed in the Talbot and Cushing pieces, of the capitalists of yore nurturing the city to philanthropic health while the current tech titans leave the culture to decay.  Cushing suggests another possible explanation in that maybe the tech execs are too young to be in the bracket that traditionally funds philanthropy.  More investigation of this topic would be informative, rather than harkening back to the perhaps apocryphal golden days of relative tycoon generosity.  But if the recent penny pinching is a phenomenon, it would be interesting to know why it is happening.

There were a few other things about the Solnit article that rubbed me the wrong way.  A London Review of Books reader rightly, in my view, takes Solnit to task for her antagonistic tone towards the Google bus riders that ail her: “Solnit doesn’t like the way I dress: it makes me look like a German. I understand the power of tribal identification – as an engineer, I have to fight not to be irritated by business people in business dress – but it’s an emotion more than an argument, and (obviously) illiberal.”  Furthermore, her piece contains anecdotes of dubious veracity (“You hear tech workers complaining about not having time to spend their money” -- really?) and sometimes relies on hearsay to make a point (“I overheard someone note recently...  There were rumours that...”).  She also doesn’t take the time to ask anyone that rides the Google bus for a quote or perspective, which might partially account for the us-vs-them attitude.

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