San Francisco and the changing future of tech

December 26, 2013

The day after I graduated high school in New Jersey, I flew to San Francisco.  It was my first trip to that city, and I was visiting my girlfriend, who lived in Tiburon.

The next ten days became one of life’s memorable “moments”, and San Francisco has played a role in my dreams ever since.

And I am not alone.

More than probably any other city in the USA – and possibly the world – San Francisco is setting the trends, pace and norms of social interaction for the twenty-first century.

The latest person to chronicle this evolution is Nathan Heller, whose article “Bay Watched: How San Francisco’s new entrepreneurial culture is changing the country”, appeared in the October 14, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.  (The full article is freely available on The New Yorker website.)

Heller is an interesting character.  He grew up in San Francisco and graduated from Harvard University in 2006, a classmate of Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook.  In fact, Zuckerberg lived only a few rooms away from him during their freshman (first) year.  In his devastating critique of how the film “The Social Network” got Harvard wrong, Heller writes of his classmates: “The kids entering Harvard in 2002 came largely from pressure-cooker public schools, dorm-room entrepreneurships, the cutthroat upper echelon of prep institutions, or, in my case, the all-weather-fleece-wearing wilds of San Francisco.”

Zuckerberg, as we all know, came from a combination of “upper echelon of prep” schools (he attended Phillips Exeter Academy) and “dorm room entrepreneurship”.

All of this is relevant to Heller’s insights into the new technological elite.  He grew up where it is happening, and he went to college with those (Zuckerberg et al) who are making it happen.  By his own admission, Heller never learned how to drive, and currently lives in New York City.

Heller’s description of San Francisco is both literary and colourful:

San Francisco has traditionally been a Dungeness crab of a city, shedding its carapace from time to time and burrowing down until a new shell sets….  San Francisco has never been dominated by anything, but it’s always ended up pre-eminent in something. Gold, for instance. Free love. Microchips….  Those irked by change rarely stay long.

Lately, the pattern has begun to break. San Francisco is an industry town. This industry is usually called “tech,” but the term no longer signifies what it used to. Tech today means anything about computers, the Internet, digital media, social media, smartphones, electronic data, crowd-funding, or new business design.

At some point, in other words, tech stopped being an industry and turned into the substrate of most things changing in urban culture.

Heller continues that, “Everyone had a sense that Northern California was the source” of these major cultural changes, yet few people actually understand why.  San Francisco has come to personify the new capitalist technological elite, one that is increasingly populated by the young.  Its “growing startup culture has a dreamy, arty, idealistic bent: this is the whimsy of youth carried to a place where youth and whimsy have not often thrived.”  This is a throw-back to the 1960s, but with a major difference:  unlike the hippie “communitarian” focus, this “rising metropolitan generation … is creative, thoughtful, culturally charismatic, swollen with youthful generosity and dreams—and fundamentally invested in the sovereignty of private enterprise.”

This is not limited to the San Francisco Bay area.  You find it in parts of New York City, in Austin, in Seattle and in the back streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Here in Sydney, there is a thriving young tech entrepreneurial culture nesting in inner Sydney suburbs, from Pyrmont and Ultimo through the central business district to Darlinghurst and Surry Hills and reaching to the lower north shore.  The same exists in Melbourne, and – I am sure – many other major cultural capitals.

This is not a particularly new phenomenon.  I sensed this in my own flirtation of working as a business development manager in a (soon to fail) tech start-up during 2000 and 2001.  We wore collared t-shirts with the company name emblazoned on them, and – even then – took all of our cultural cues and most of our professional language from Silicon Valley.  I was the second oldest employee.

So while not new, as 2013 comes to a close, San Francisco has increased its dominance of our tech dreams.  Facebook did not exist back in 2000 (Zuckerberg and Heller were still juniors in high school), Google was still in its infancy and Apple was struggling.

I cannot predict where this world will be in another ten years, but I do know this:  San Francisco will continue to personify the hopes, dreams and business models of that world, one that will arrive sooner than we think.

San Francisco from water

Why is American assimilation different from European?

November 26, 2013

Ever wonder why assimilation of migrants in the USA is so different?  Well, it is.  Certainly not like here in Australia.  And especially not like in Europe.

In a fascinating article in the November 2013 issue of The Atlantic, entitled “Assimilation Nation”, Jason DeParle provides good insights:

Compared with Europe, the U.S. attracts more immigrants who share the dominant faith. (Imagine if Mexicans built mosques.) An economy that, until recently, had lots of entry-level jobs has made it easier for immigrants to find work. American schools generally provide students second chances, while Europeans are more likely to leave stragglers on vocational tracks. The U.S. also had Martin Luther King Jr.—the civil-rights movement, cresting just before the current mass migration started, bequeathed a robust apparatus for promoting opportunity. And American culture sells, in all its tawdriness and splendor. In Europe, the children of immigrants sometimes cling to the Old Country more than their parents do: sons import brides. In the U.S., the bigger danger is assimilating too fast: children get fat eating french fries and watching TV.

These are the reasons that so many of the worst fears of protectionists in the USA have not come to pass.  The migrants are, by and large, Christian.  And their young people, by and large, are given lots more chances to “join” the country.  And there’s a history:  ironically, the African-Americans helped to pave the way.

What makes Americans Americans, and why I love them

February 17, 2013

David Denby, one of The New Yorker‘s film critics, does what a good critic should:  he writes reviews that transcend their subjects.

In the January 28, 2013 edition of The New Yorker (p. 81), he reviewed Michael Apted’s 56 Up, and commented thus about the British subjects of Apted’s astonishing historical “follow them through life” documentary series”:

In all, these men and women don’t seem to have the seething ambitions and the restlessness of so many Americans.  They don’t expect to get rich, somehow, next year.  They may be happier than we are but they’re also less colorful.

Three sentences.  A very good summary of the American character, particularly from the viewpoint of this American expatriate living in Sydney, Australia.  Well, most of the Americans I know definitely do NOT seem very happy (at least compared to Australians), but they sure are more colourful.  (Different spelling of “colourful” this time purposeful.)

The Brooklyn Rail

December 23, 2011

Here’s a publication worth noting:  The Brooklyn Rail, a Brooklyn (New York) based non-profit organisation that distributes its journal free of charge, with all staff, editors, and contributors working on a voluntary basis – and relying exclusively on the philanthropy of foundations and individual donors to meet production, operation and program expenses.  Originally founded by playwright Emily DeVoti in the (northern) autumn of 1998, the original “intent was to create a broadsheet containing a short series of slanted opinions designed to be read on the L train back and forth to Manhattan.”  It distributes 20,000 free printed copies around New York City and is available on the web – no subscription, no charge.

It unashamedly leans left-ward and boasts a stellar group of supporters including writer Paul Auster.  Fascinating model of a non-profit media organisation.  Worth checking out.

Books that changed the world

September 15, 2009

Some years ago Melvyn Bragg wrote a book about books that changed the world.  Now Bryan Appleyard has done an article in the UK Sunday Times (July 19, 2009) entitled 12 Books That Helped Change the World.  (reprinted in the Weekend Australian on September 5, 2009).

It’s worth a look, if only to check if you have read them.  For the record, the books are:

The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale (1952) – I admit to having read this one in my youth, recommended by my father

The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard (1957) – not read

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962) – I still carry my 32 year old copy around on my bookshelf.  Environmental classic.

The Use of Lateral Thinking by Edward de Bono (1967).  He invented the idea, for goodness sake.

The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer (1970) – I missed this one (wrong demographic), but read The Women’s Room (by Marilyn French) instead.

In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. (1982) – the first and possibly most popular of the management literature.  If you had written it, you would be a multi-millionaire now.

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (1988) – admit to not reading this one.  Appleyard describes it as “usually bought but unread”.  Have you read it?

The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fkuyama (1992) – an interesting and debatable choice.

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell (2000).  I am a fan.  Read my review of this book.  Also read my review of Gladwell’s Outliers (2008).

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (2006) – only an atheist would include this one.  Not my choice.

The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2007) – an interesting choice.  Has it changed the world?  No, not yet.  Read it anyway.  I have only read parts but go to it frequently.

These are all, in Appleyard’s words, “big ideas” books.  I suppose he wanted only non-fiction, but fiction can also be big ideas.  Think about it – do any novels belong there, having “changed the world”?  More on this, along with a few of my “best” lists, soon.

Woodstock 40 Years On

August 10, 2009

In just under one week, we will come to the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock festival, which took place from August 15 to 18, 1969 in the small upstate New York Catskills Mountains town of Bethel, New York. 

In anticipation of the event, there has been a great deal of reference to it in the media, including Ang Lee’s film Taking Woodstock, based on the book by Elliott Tiber, entitled Taking Woodstock:  A True Story of a Riot, A Concert, and A Life (reprinted 2009) – see my review of this film (published August 27, 2009) in the Australian Jewish News.

A nice article by Gail Collins entitled “Three Days in August” discusses two other books about Woodstock has just appeared in the New York Times Book Review on August 6, 2009.  Collins did in fact attend the event with her brother.

She writes (in part):

The Woodstock festival (“Three Days of Peace and Music”) has been celebrated for 40 years as a great moment in American cultural history, although we’ve never quite agreed about why.  Sometimes the argument seems to be that it was important because nothing terrible happened.

“It was unique in that there were a half-million people not stabbing each other to death at a concert, and that hadn’t been done before,” said Grace Slick, who sang there with Jefferson Airplane.

“Nobody killed anybody, nobody raped anybody, nobody shot anybody.  In the history of humankind, I think it’s probably the only group of people that size that didn’t do any of that,” said David Crosby of Crosby, Stills and Nash.

We will pause for a moment to contemplate the dark opinion American musicians circa 1969 entertained about humankind in general and their fans in particular.

To really appreciate Woodstock, you have to understand that it was, in many ways, incredibly awful — the rock concert in the middle of nowhere that attracted so many young fans it became a nation unto itself, surrounded by a ring of stalled traffic.  The weather was terrible.  The lines at the concession stands were endless.  The smell from the Port-o-Sans was ferocious.  “It was the most horrific stench I have ever smelled in my life,” one woman said.  “And once I got done with what I had to do there, I literally had to walk around to clear my head a little bit because I thought I was going to fall down.”

Woodstock was unique not because 400,000 people — give or take a hundred thousand or so — refrained from murder, rape and robbery.  The point was that they treated one another very kindly under extreme circumstances.  They shared food — or drugs, which seemed to be in much more plentiful supply.  As they walked back to their campsites in the crowded dark, they refrained from pushing or shoving. And almost every adult they encountered said they were remarkably polite.

There was a lot of that revisionism going on.  The summer of 1969 was, of course, long before the age of the cellphone and laptop.  Except for a few extremely overworked pay phones, the kids at the concert were totally cut off from the outside world.  A nation of worried parents saw helicopters flying over miles of abandoned cars and listened to reports about doctors treating one drug-overdose case after another.  While the concert was under way, the rest of the country presumed the worst.  (My own mother, at 85, has wiped out practically every memory of anything unpleasant in our family history.  But she still has never forgiven me for taking my 19-year-old brother to Woodstock, while she spent the weekend waiting for a report of his grisly death.)  It was only after the music ended on Monday morning and the last of the youths made their trek home that a consensus began to form that the whole thing had been pretty neat after all.

On August 14th, Collins also wrote an Op-Ed for the New York Times entitled “To be old and in Woodstock”.  My favourite line from this piece:

The Woodstock-mania must drive young people crazy since it is yet another reminder that the baby-boom generation is never going to stop talking about the stuff it did, and that when they are old themselves there will probably still be some 108-year-old telling them how everybody slept in the mud but that it was worth it because Janis Joplin sounded so awesome and the people were all mellow.

Books on Woodstock:

Back to the Garden:  The Story of Woodstock by Pete Fornatale (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, US$24.99).  Book excerpt available at

The Road to Woodstock, by Michael Lang with Holly George-Warren (Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers, US$29.99).  Excerpt available at

Also see the Wikipedia entry on Woodstock.

Australians are watching films less like Americans … we think

May 10, 2009

In this weekend’s (May 9/10, 2009) Sydney Morning Herald, David Dale writes that for years Australians have been “predictable mini-mes of American moviegoers”.  But something seems to be changing.

For thirty years, he reports, film distributors:

Have operated on the assumption that any big budget international movie will make in Australian dollars roughly one tenth of what it made in American dollars.  Thus Titanic made $US601 million over there and $58m here, becoming the highest grossing film of all time in both countries. Jurassic Park made $US357m and $33m; The Sixth Sense made $US290m and $29m; Independence Day made $US306m and $29m; Forrest Gump made $330m and $31m; Shrek the Third made $US321m and $34m.

But, shock! horror! something has changed.  In order to follow this pattern, the Hugh Jackman film Wolverine – with a great local angle and a much beloved Australian star “should have sold $8.5 million worth of tickets on its first weekend (in Australia).  In fact, it sold $6.6 million worth.  That left a giant question mark hanging over our national identity.”

What’s happening?  Dale looks at the most popular films in the USA and Australia over the last 12 months and concludes the following:

“The one-tenth-of-America rule no longer applies….  The majority of moviegoers in the United States appear to be boys under the age of 14, or people who think like boys under the age of 14….  and Australians are more diverse in their tastes than our cousins across the Pacific.  In addition to action adventures and kiddy cartoons, we are open to historic melodramas, musical comedies, epic romances and teenage vampires.”

These conclusions are different than his of a year ago (May 19, 2008), when he wrote an article entitled “In film, it’s not independence day yet” and analysed the respective box office performance of the top 25 performing films in Australian box office through mid-May 2008, testing it against the “one tenth” formula.  Although he had expected a significant divergence from the formula, he found that one half of the films closely followed the “power of 10” formula, with Australians liking British films substantially more.

Quirky accident, or a changing cultural trend?  Within the margin of error, or a new mark for Australian culture?  We shall see.  Watch this space for more comparative Australian-American cultural analysis.