Photo by Ariel Waldman
James Temple, writer of “Dot-Commentary” in the pages of The San Francisco Chronicle, is concerned about the negative image tech workers have in the city.
A growing number of San Franciscans are fed up, not just with startups, but with techies in general. With their apps and buses, their gourmet coffee and skinny jeans, their venture capital wishes and IPO dreams. They’re tired of watching rents soar, friends forced to relocate and beloved neighborhoods drained of diversity.
I understand the frustration, but wonder: Are we embracing a soft xenophobia applied to a sector rather than a race, to some cohesive elite tech class that doesn’t exist outside of our own minds?
Temple understands the frustration because every resident of San Francisco (minus the super rich) knows how tough it can be to make this month’s outrageous rent or mortgage payment, and next month’s and so on. San Francisco is a real jewel, and the city’s cost of living is a reflection of this fact.
The truth is that a lot of this debate isn’t actually about rent, gentrification or economics, or anything rooted in a real class struggle. Some of it is just hipster-on-hipster hatred. Middle-class humanities majors grumbling about middle-class computer science majors.
“It’s amusing at some level,” Waldman said. “People are complaining that their nice cafe views are being ruined by Google Buses.”
Personally, I like to say, “Make digital disruption your friend.” It’s an acknowledgement of what is, and a call to action.
Change comes quick today. I started writing and sending email as a daily routine in 1997. I was 32. Sixteen years on, things have changed more than I could have ever imagined. Today, we are hooked on our devices, reliant on them, as if they are actual appendages.
I lived in the Bay Area before email. In 1990, I moved from a shared rental in Noe Valley to my own one-bedroom apartment in the Berkeley Hills. I had a view of the Bay and Mt. Tam from one side, and a balcony and view of the hills out the other. Concerts at The Greek Theater and The Warfield cost $25. If I remember correctly, I was making $26K and it was enough. I can only imagine what it would take to live in the same apartment today. Whatever the price, it’s not technology’s fault for the radical increase, just like it’s not tech’s fault that concerts cost $60 to $100 today, or that a college education costs $200 Large.
Arguably, it is technology’s fault that a modest ranch home in Silicon Valley goes for more than a mil. So, to the the graffiti artist’s point, “Fuck your startup.” On many other points though, I have to give it to the inventors and dreamers.
Temple argues that, “San Francisco changes because the world changes. It was formed in a gold rush and reshaped by every one that followed.” Yes! And when any one sector (entertainment in L.A. or media in NYC) makes a massive impact on their city and region, it’s a rising tide floats many, but not all, boats situation.
I do believe we might challenge tech startups on non-economic grounds and get them to ask tougher questions of themselves. Like, is this new widget or App actually needed? It might be interesting for a moment, but will it endure? Digital matter is awfully fleeting. For instance, you can see the web as an archive, and use it that way, but whatever’s on top when you open the chest, that’s what’s current and what gets noticed, shared and remembered. There may be a great volume of material under that top layer, but it’s invisible to some degree, buried by the weight of what’s current.
Many tech advances are real advances, but many more are not. Understanding the difference is more than the difference between success and failure, it’s a compass that developers and entrepreneurs can use to guide their decision making. It all boils down to serving humanity, in tech, in communications and in business. When we build tools to help people do bigger and better things, with greater ease and lowered costs, we’re on to something. So yes, “Fuck your startup” if it’s not adding value. That’s a message I can get behind.