What's the Matter with San Francisco: How Silicon Valley's Ideology Has Ruined a Great City

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What's the Matter with San Francisco: How Silicon Valley's Ideology Has Ruined a Great City

The problem with the Bay is the problem with America generally and progressivism specifically. It went forward on high ideals, and forgot about high rent. We’ve come so far on social issues, but gone backwards on the financial problems; we have progressive cultural values and conservative economic ones.

San Francisco is the best example of this: an enlightened city where married gay people can live in peace, as long as they’re rich. In recent years the employees of tech messiahs Google and Apple got their buses vomited on. Who knows what other precious bodily fluids will make an appearance in the years to come?

“I have a relative who has been a lawyer at several major internet companies,” a friend of mine said. “Her husband does the same kind of work. She’s a very active feminist and a huge Hillary supporter. I’ll never forget the time I went to a San Francisco Giants game with them and sat in the Oracle skybox. It had free food and wine. And a compost bin. She was loaded for bear when Obama started calling for a tax hike on those with incomes over $250,000. She said that was ‘middle class,’ and that the cutoff should be $1 million instead.”

In 2014, San Francisco had the priciest housing in the nation. The median single family home price went up to $928,000 back in January 2014. Zelda Bronstein, writing for The Nation, noted that “43.5 percent of the homes listed for sale in the city were priced at $1 million or more, by far the highest such percentage in the United States. Residential rents are soaring: as of last October, the median monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment was $3,250—also the highest in the country.” According to the Brookings Institute, in 2014, SF had one of the largest wealth inequalities in America. It came in second behind Atlanta. Atlanta. The. City. of. Atlanta. In San Francisco, the people up top saw their wealth grow by 18 percent, which worked out to about a $66,000 bump. Fortune magazine, never famous as a venue of insight or a hotbed of revolutionary thought, noted back in March that SF wasn’t even the worst offender of the Bay: “The area’s housing headache has broad consequences, as high prices and precious land complicate life for both people and companies in the crucial economic corridor.”

The majority of citizenry feel, correctly, that their city is being snatched away from them. A caveat: I’m not from the Bay, so I don’t particularly care whose app stepped in whose drum circle, or who ruined the chakra scene. The techies who are sinking the Bay are a sequel to the hippies, who could only afford city life because the factories had closed, driving rent to rock-bottom prices. Every generation of imports treads on the broken molars of the previous wave of beautiful people. I don’t care who called dibs first.

What I do care about is the American city, and my beloved left, and why a stronghold of supposed progressivism can’t get its act together.

The first time I went to San Francisco was in the late Nineties. I was a teenager, same age as a lot of the travelers in the Summer of Love. I went to Haight-Ashbury, and there was a GAP just sitting there, as if it was Poe’s raven. At the time, it boggled me. Had Jim Morrison gone down to his famously bloated death for just this? In retrospect, I now understand the City was showing me a secret, something far more important than sensible khakis for the middle-market. Like discovering a sexy antagonist in a children’s book, there was the sense that a detail of the world had gone wrong.

The Bay is where my artist friends are being driven out to create the kind of neutered, trademarked Jane Jacobs-zoned theme park for creatives, except, you know, without the creatives. I have a lady friend who dances at counterculture gatherings and paints amazing canvases. We went to high school together back in West Texas. She’s wonderful, and exactly the kind of person who should be part of the city, who renews the city. She and her husband got priced out this year. Had to relocate East. When a first-rate hardworking free spirit can’t make her home in a town that she should be, by all rights, the crowned monarch of, there is something very wrong with that city and its ideals.

How can this be the case in America, that liberalism of one kind is doing well and the other side is failing? If progressivism is strong enough to elect presidents, question white supremacy, legalize weed and gay marriage, why can’t it get a fair wage in the cities, limit rent, provide better public transport and housing? What sort of revolution is this?

WHAT’S WRONG WITH IT?

Would that I could blame the conservatives for this, and all human malfeasance. But I can’t. Where conservatism predominates, progressive ideology can be checked. But as the Washington Post says, “The most expensive housing markets in the U.S. are also the most liberal.” What, then, is blocking the way?

The answer is simple: the current mainstream ideology of progressivism is compromised, and has been for some time. We live in a system that tells us that Rahm Emanuel is a progressive. He’s not. It tells us Obama is a leftist. He isn’t.

The progressivism of the Democratic establishment is, as the writer Thomas Frank suggests, a rich people’s progressivism. It holds hands with the neoliberal order. “Neoliberal” here is the high-hat academic way of saying “the current Washington Consensus of free trade and NAFTA.” And this is nowhere better illustrated than the Bay, where liberalism in its modern form is so very strong, and where it has left so much undone.

But liberalism is just as unopposed in other major American cities. What is the cause of the Bay’s pathology?

And why pick on them?

Because the key here is real estate prices, which are the result of policy that didn’t have to be made. Because it is a beautiful, wonderful place, where Mark Twain lived and Hitchcock shot Vertigo, and it is going to be swallowed up by forces which are not Unstoppable Works of Nature, but asinine conditions we can turn around, if we understand what is happening.

And because Silicon Valley is spiking the rents. Because for all that is twee and insufferable and preening about it, the Bay is supposed to be a home to the Enlightened and Good and Progressive, and so when it becomes a massive hive of obvious and flagrant hypocrisy, it makes the rest of us look bad.

And most of all because Silicon Valley, and a specific subset of California Boomers – the two forces who made the Bay Area their own — are the most perfect example of the idea set which got us into this mess. The Bay matters, for symbolic reasons, and for economic reasons. Nobody is shocked when New York venerates Mammon or suffers Martin Shkreli to live above ground, because supervillains and pagan monstrousness are part of Gotham’s charm. San Francisco is supposed to be different. This is the metropole where a public intellectual called Candidate Obama a lightworker a month before he voted for the reprehensible FISA bill. Where armies of raccoons are tolerated, bagel lines happen, all in the realm of Robot Dance Party.

But how could this be? The Bay, and especially Silicon Valley, are ostensibly dedicated to enlightened ideals. You’ve seen Apple ads. You’ve seen Google: “Don’t be evil.” You’ve seen TED Talks. Right?

For example — have you heard? A year ago, Elon Musk decided to name his spaceships after vehicles in Iain M. Banks’ The Culture series. A decent-sized swathe of nerdtown went reflexively agog at the fact. The two names, “Just Read The Instructions” and “Of Course I Still Love You,” are the names of sapient ships in Banks’ post-scarcity communist utopia, where property doesn’t exist, and, notably, there are no big wheel magnates like Musk pimping out the geek press, because there’s no ownership, no rich, no poor, no scrubs, none who apply the scrub label.

He even tweeted about The Culture. To say this is ironic is understating the matter: it’s a bit like Andrew Carnegie naming his summer estate “Proudhon Park” or “Castle Marx.”

Why is this okay? Why does Musk get the go-ahead?

Take a glossy Randroid Ravenclaw like House Speaker Paul Ryan, who thinks the poor of America are high-and-mighty because their brunch plans consist of Fancy Feast. A couple of years ago, Ryan dropped the totally fresh news that he liked professional diss-mongers Rage Against the Machine. He backtracked later, muttering darkly that he really meant Zeppelin, but the damage had been done. Collective humanity rightly jeered him, because we all understand Wisconsin’s Favorite Reptile is oblivious to what ROTM is all about, and is, in fact, to quote Tom Morello, the very machine against which they have been raging. There will never be enough mockery, in this life or the next, for the Janesville Slasher and his wizard economies. Any day now, I expect him to crank out an earnest monograph detailing how pauper graves are entitlements.

But why don’t we extend the same discourtesy to Elon Musk? Isn’t he one of God’s own plutocrats, too? Why do we laugh at Budget-Cuts McGee and give Elon “Silicon Valley is Burning Man a pass is Silicon Valley” a pass? Because he’s got one talon into outer space? So do the Chinese and Jehovah, but you don’t see their popularity on the rise; they don’t get fetishized by Reddit. “Because The Culture isn’t as popular as Rage Against the Machine,” you say.

True for the populace. Not true for geeks. And yet it was geeks that were, for the most part, silent about it.

The same factors that made the modern Bay possible explain why very few people object to Musk. I don’t doubt that the companies which send buses into SF are run by ideologues who believe in the sanctity of their own baked goods. This sincerity is part of the problem.

THEIR IDEOLOGY

How’d we get to the conservative economic stance? Oh, there is a long history behind this, as the British lord said to the tourist.

Old progressivism understood the war. Liberalism is the political belief in human freedom. Back in the day, that meant kickboxing the king, church, and oppressive forces. But it turns out tossing out the crown doesn’t make people free. You don’t become liberated just because somebody stops hitting you in the face, magical as that experience can be. Autonomy doesn’t mean anything if you’re starving. The historian Rick Perlstein quotes the Texas Congressman Maury Maverick, who said liberalism was “freedom plus groceries.” For most of the 20th century, Perlstein wrote, that meant “various kinds of government arrangements democratically devised to share the social burden.” That fight went hand-in-hand with social progress, too.

Starting in the Sixties, the managerial class in America decided they didn’t need the blue-collar worker anymore. They could ship those jobs overseas, where there were usually no unions, regulations, or democratic governments to oppose them. Places like Flint, Michigan were made habitations for kites, direwolves, and documentary filmmakers. And so the long deindustrialization process began. Getting rid of the worker meant building a political party on some other ground.

Now you have two political organizations that cater to professionals, according to the historian Steve Fraser. The Republicans favor family capitalism from the mom-and-pop store to Waltons, Kochs, and, naturally, the Trumps. The Democrats, by contrast, are the party representing the modern manager set, all of us educated strivers springing from the halls of university and government. Guess who represents the worker? If you said “neither,” congrats, you won an outsourcing!

Beverly Gage describes the parties as “two different ways of relating to the world — one cosmopolitan and interconnected, the other patriarchal and hierarchical. Neither one, however, offers much to working-class voters,” adding, in case you didn’t get it, “These affluent city dwellers and suburbanites believe firmly in meritocracy and individual opportunity, but shun the kind of social policies that once gave a real leg up to the working class.”

Frank wrote of another tech sector that “the kind of liberalism that has dominated Massachusetts for the last few decades isn’t the stuff of Franklin Roosevelt or the United Auto Workers; it’s the Route 128/suburban-professionals variety.” Inequality doesn’t stagger these liberals, because it means just rewards for just winners, and they see themselves as winners.

What the groovy modern progressive of the sleek silicon cultures in California and Massachusetts wants is “a more perfect meritocracy—a system where the essential thing is to ensure that the truly talented get into the right schools and then get to rise through the ranks of society. … there is no solidarity in a meritocracy. The ideology of educational achievement conveniently negates any esteem we might feel for the poorly graduated.”

In other words, don’t mention them, don’t look at them, pretend they never existed. But in a truly shocking turn of events, a lot of people objected to being treated as if they were Star Wars prequels.

Well, we know what happened to our late friends, the Republicans. The election is not complicated. The base woke up to the escalating stainless-steel horror of the postindustrial economy. Now that the Good Times of the Nineties are over and neoliberalism is tottering, Trump came along and said Things Which No Republican Was Supposed to Say.

Meanwhile, the party of Larry Summers is fighting off an appeal from Bernie Sanders, who, far from being a sassy socialist, is suggesting policies of which Eisenhower would have approved. There’s nothing that’s happened here in the last thirty years that the Lowell Mill Girls didn’t know about.

ISN’T SILICON VALLEY DIFFERENT?

The Democrats lost a big election in ’72, and got scared. They drew the wrong conclusions, and tacked right. But surely Silicon Valley is different! Liberated from the old, limited way of fear and reaction. Free to blast off into the dreamtime with all its mighty unicorn powers. After all, this place was made by people living in garages, eating in garages … Do these companies believe in their own ideals? Aren’t these companies founded on these beliefs?

Silicon Valley is different. Silicon Valley is founded on beliefs. What are they?

Remember, tech was supposed to be an Important Answer To Human Problems, according to Steve Jobs, the human blast crater at the heart of Apple, the ultimate Boomer Tech company. Tech wasn’t just the answer, it was the hip answer. Anybody who has watched Jobs and felt the contradiction between the turtlenecked psychotic and the presentation maestro who turned sealed, off-white consumption into a national obsession has to wonder. But I won’t blame Jobs alone.

The Problem with Apple is difficult to articulate. But it’s an issue that gnaws at the heart-cockles of people who are only dimly aware of the tech specs of Apple, but know there is something off-putting about their culture, and by extension, Bay culture as a whole.

In “In the Beginning was the Command Line,” his long essay about operating systems, the novelist Neal Stephenson wrote that compared to the clunky Soviet boxes of Taiwanese factories, “Apple could make their hardware as pretty as they wanted to and simply pass the higher prices on to their besotted consumers, like me.” Apple had, always has had, a hardware monopoly, except for the mid-Nineties exception. This made their computers expensive. “In fact the first Mac was specifically designed to be difficult to open—you needed a kit of exotic tools…” Why?

After floating the usual explanations of coherent design and Apple-is-best-hardware-company, Stephenson alights on the culture explanation, specifically, “Apple’s corporate culture, which is rooted in Bay Area Baby Boomdom.” Stephenson qualifies this by admitting he is a Saturnine Seattleite, who scoffs at “the Dionysian Bay Area” and chronologically, a post-Baby Boomer.

To any of my Boomer readers, I should point out that I don’t blame the Boomers alone for what followed, any more than I blame the Depression generation for whatever the hell kind of mammal Lawrence Welk was. But everything has its time and place, and Silicon Valley came from the same set of weather conditions that birthed jam bands.

Neal cracks a few jokes about their music-fetishism, and then moves on to the crux of the matter: “it was possible to glean certain patterns” from that generational cohort and one of these mysterious iterations was the urban legend about how “someone would move into a commune populated by … flower children, and eventually discover that, underneath this facade, the guys who ran it were actually control freaks; and that, as living in a commune, where much lip service was paid to ideals of peace, love and harmony, had deprived them of normal, socially approved outlets for their control-freakdom, it tended to come out in other, invariably more sinister, ways. Applying this to the case of Apple Computer will be left as an exercise for the reader, and not a very difficult exercise.”

A bit unsettling, Neal writes, to think of Apple that way: they were the people with really happening ads, weren’t they? Did the pictures of the Dalai Lama mean nothing to them? Were those winsome pictures of Charlie Chaplin to no effect?

Let me be clear that I don’t believe these are poses: I genuinely think the Bay moguls have imbibed all of the counterculture business down to their skateboard shoes. They believe themselves, as the New York Yankees doubtless do, to be on the side of the angels.

I suggest there are two problems with Silicon Valley’s worldview: it combines the worst aspects of the engineer and the hippie. We need both of these people in the world. But there is a downside. Adam Curtis tied this together in his 2011 BBC Documentary series, “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace.”

Curtis traces the root of Silicon Valley to ecosystems theory, which came from the early twentieth century, and suggested a balanced state of nature. The counterculture of the 1960s believed in network society, because they saw top-down power as harmful. Eco-theory hinted the natural order was a self-regulating system. Which meant politics was useless ornamentation; the social order would work without our tinkering. We can do without structures, the hippies decided. They formed communes.

This was not anarchism. Classical anarchism called for involvement, education. Anarchism suggests society without leaders, not without politics. The communes, Curtis writes, became oppressive, because there was no way of disagreeing, of changing. They saw politics as a distraction.

As Curtis notes, later ecologists discovered that the balanced, stable-state story of nature was a myth. Nature is dynamic, changing, altering, as variant as the lineup of Menudo. But the idea of self-balancing spread. It caught on.

The commune idea found computers, which gave the Boomers the idea of technological solutions, the network society where there would be no institutions, just self-adapting systems, seamless as the T-1000. It was a short trip from there, Curtis says, to the world the Bay made, where history ended and all that the system ever needs is tweaking, managerial finesse. Nothing changes, because the system is king.

Most of us don’t live in Silicon Valley. Changing things, really changing things, takes coalitions, team buildings, debate, and assumption-questioning, perhaps wrestling, if the mood is right. It is disruptive, aggravating, hairsplitting, and messy. Politics and philosophy, in other words. But if you’re a certain kind of engineer working in a certain kind of company, values are known, why debate about it? For some engineers, politics is lying, deceit, arguing about that which is already understood. And philosophy is worse: an abstraction, below contempt. Anybody who’s read an xkcd or gotten this or this Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal cartoon will know exactly what I mean. And for a certain kind of hippie, politics is agglomeration of needless effort. Why would you bother with something that so obviously reeks of the establishment?

But politics is group decision-making. That’s all it is. As long as there are groups of humans, there will be politics. Politics can be cooperative or coercive, democratic or authoritarian, but it will be there always, like sex limericks and tax exemptions. We cannot do away with it, and ignoring it in favor of an organic whole that does not exist does us no favors.

Curtis wasn’t the first person to articulate this, either. In 1995, two scholars, Barbook and Cameron, wrote that Silicon Valley’s beliefs and dotcom-era neoliberalism were linked. The California Ideology, they called it. The two argued the digerati were pushing together a witches’ brew of New Left and New Right beliefs, a wham-bam-slam of counterculture politics, anti-state fervor, and techno-utopianism. These were Actual Not-Kidding New York Times Columnist David Brooks’ so-called bourgeois bohemians: part hippie, part yuppie, all trouble.

And the bobos succeeded, for a time. But even the stars in their courses don’t run forever, and neither did the Nineties. Whatever remained on the neoliberal desert menu, it began to yellow and curdle by 2008, like so much Hoobastank memorabilia. That our politics have yet to adapt shows how hollow our practices are, or how incompetent our practitioners are. Take your pick.

“We are living in a very strange moment,” Curtis explains, in his dry-ice clinical way, fifty-seven minutes into “Love and Power,” the first flick in his creepy machine trilogy. The effect is like hearing an educated pitcher of lime juice pour itself over video game effects, combined with scenes from a stock exchange floor. We all agree the neoliberal market has failed, says Curtis, but who can imagine the alternative? “The original promise of the Californian ideology was that the computers would liberate us of all the old forms of political control, and we would become Randian heroes in control of our own destiny.”

Instead of any real reckoning, we have Mike Judge poking holes in the obvious complacency of a flawed and fallen Galt’s Gulch. And Silicon Valley and the Bay illustrate the problem in the largest possible detail. The injustices of the Bay aren’t there despite the power and wealth of the Valley. They’re there because of it. To use the appropriate argot, my dancer friend getting priced out is not a bug, but a feature of the system.

“Happy it is,” wrote Hamilton in Federalist 36, “when the interest which the government has in the preservation of its own power, coincides with a proper distribution of the public burdens, and tends to guard the least wealthy part of the community from oppression!” Except that is precisely what is lacking here, in our great cities, and we are making Venices of them: the shells of commercial republics, hollowed out for the very rich and very powerful, and the middle class left to fiddle itself away, sitting alone in a marketplace.

We’re waiting for these people to save us, which is like hoping Batman will swing in the window and whisper the One True Name of God in our ear. He won’t be coming by, no matter how many secret stories I, Jason Rhode, have written about it.

We, as a country, dropped the ball. Now, unless we change our ways, America will look more and more like the Bay: a lovely place with the right cultural values where nobody can afford a home. Do you want to know what the future looks like? Imagine a Google Bus running its wheels over your face, forever.

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