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

Advertisements

San Francisco then and now – in California the future comes crashing towards us

November 10, 2013

San Francisco in the late 1970s was not a happy place.

I know.  I lived there then, although I did not realise it at the time.

Events that took place during this time included the Patricia Hearst kidnapping (February 1974) and bank robbery (April 1974); the Jonestown massacre (November 1978); assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk by fellow supervisor Dan White (also November 1978, a devastating spiritual and psychic “two punch”), events captured in both the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk and the feature Milk; and the trial result of White, with riots in the streets (May 1979). There was a whole lot more.

I had only lived in one big city before then (Boston), so I think I assumed that this was normal for cities.  But it wasn’t.  It was weird and bizarre.

I don’t think that anyone has truly figured out the connections between these terrible events – and the pall of doom that they cast over that beautiful city’s spirit.  I have looked for explanations, and uncovered few.

Kevin Starr, possibly the best contemporary chronicler of California history and the California State Librarian Emeritus, has written a multi-volume series of historical books about the state, under the title “Americans and the California Dream”.  His books cover the periods 1850-1915, the 1920s, the Depression in the 1930s, the 1940s, 1950-1963 and 1990-2002.  Not the 1970s or 1980s.  Starr has not – at least not yet – grappled with this troubled time.

I was delighted to find two very different books that have.  In his 2012 book, The Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love (not the 2011 American fantasy film starring Nicolas Cage), David Talbot (founder of Salon), deals directly with this period – the best attempt of analysis I have read.  Season of the Witch book coverAnd Ellen Ullman, in her novel By Blood (also 2012), also deals with the time (set in 1974) through a fictional gothic style story of a therapist.  Ironically, Ullman reviewed Talbot’s book in The New York Times, thereby stimulating a response from Talbot, in which he pointed out that his “San Francisco was not hers”.

That’s part of the point.  Everybody’s San Francisco is different.  It’s what makes a great city great; each of us has a different experience that somehow adds up to a whole.

In so many ways, California represents the future – and it has done so for a very long time.  As Starr writes in his book California: A History, by the year 2000, 32.4 percent of the state’s population was Latino and almost 11 percent of Asian origin.  San Francisco was “on the verge of becoming the first prominent American city with an Asian American majority.”

And then it happened:  as of 1 July 2013, officially California no longer had a “white” majority, joining Hawaii, New Mexico, Texas and the District of Columbia as “majority minority” states.  This foreshadows the future of America, predicted to be a “non-white” majority country by 2043, the “first major post-industrial society in the world where minorities will be the majority,” says immigration expert Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, Dean of UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.

The geography of California, of course, is also exciting – as anyone who has ever visited knows.  As Starr writes:

“Just sixty miles from Mount Whitney, the highest point in the state, is Death Valley, the lowest point on the continent at 282 feet below sea level. Here temperatures can reach as high as 134 degrees Fahrenheit, as they did on July 10, 1913. In midsummer the Central Valley can be as hot as the Equator.

Did the demography or the geography of California contribute to what was, in effect, that unhappy moment in San Francisco’s history in the mid to late 1970s?  I doubt it.  California has always represented some sense of freedom to Americans.  The early Hollywood Jewish moguls left the east coast for Los Angeles seeking fewer strictures on their work (and better weather).  Later generations – me included – moved there for economic opportunities, the weather and the lifestyle.  Perhaps it was that sense of freedom that encouraged such bizarre and out of the norm behaviour.

Northern California has now moved to a different moment – one that is equally bizarre in its own way.  An early November 2013 widely reported speech by Silicon Valley technology entrepreneur Balaji S. Srinivasan has canvassed the possibility that Silicon Valley should become its own country, because the USA appears now to be “the Microsoft of nations” (apparently a bad thing).  The speech has caused a great deal of exclamations over arrogance and “naïve libertarianism” (Nicholas Carr).  Anand Giridharadas in The New York Times called the speech, “an unusually honest articulation of ideas that are common among members of a digital overclass whose decisions shape ever more of our lives” (italics are mine).

The tech industry apparently now threatens Boston as the centre for higher education (MOOCs – massive open online courses), New York for finance and media (Twitter and blogs) and Los Angeles for entertainment (Netflix and iTunes), reported The Australian newspaper.  All true.

So this is the future of America, one that is increasingly likely NOT to look like its past.

(Post script:  Looking for one of the best recent movies to portray the San Francisco area?Fruitvale Station film poster  Fruitvale Station, written and directed by Ryan Coogler, opened in the USA a couple of months ago and opens here in Australia later this month.  It replays the accidental shooting of a 22 year old black man at the BART – Bay Area Rapid Transit – Fruitvale station.  Highly recommended.)


The Internship – A movie parable on work in the digital age

July 13, 2013

Inside the film “The Internship” is a potentially very funny, satiric and deeply insightful commentary struggling to emerge about the nature of work in the new digital age.  The story is simple and yet appealing to “middle America” (or middle Australia for that matter):  two guys in their early 40s, Nick Campbell (Owen Wilson) and Billy McMahon (Vince Vaughn, who co-wrote the screenplay), have been laid off from their watch distribution company in Georgia (okay, think, the southern suburbs of Adelaide, then).  They struggle to find meaningful work in the new digital economy.  (Anyone recognise this situation?  I sure do.)   Nick even swallows his pride and goes to work for his brother-in-law, a sleazy mattress store owner (Will Ferrell).

But here’s where fantasy comes in:  Nick and Billy apply – as a pair – for an internship at Google in California, have a Skype video interview from a public library (no less), and successfully bullshit their way in, despite knowing almost nothing and saying even less (see footnote below).   Apply as a pair?  To Google?  Set aside the unreality here, there is something very satisfying for those of us who are not truly exceptional to think that perhaps we could make it into a Google internship, and from Atlanta, no less.

All power to “The Internship” for engaging with what I call “the present moment” of the rapidly changing workplace.  The film also contains some wonderful pop culture, social and literacy references that I do not recall having made it into mainstream films before.  My favourite is the scene that quotes Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, which is about why highly successful people achieve their success despite extraordinary competition.

“The Internship” also is, in its own sweet way (and it is sweet), a film about northern California.  I have written separately about how northern California and the Silicon Valley IT industry promote the concept of “abundance”; “The Internship” inhabits this world perfectly.  But it goes further, providing us with delightful shots of scenic San Francisco, a sort of Edenic paradise where the sun always shines and the food is free (at least at Google).  In one scene, a team of Google interns are sitting and lying on a headland in Marin County overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge and looking back to San Francisco.  If you know the geography of this location, you have to wonder, “how did they get there?”  It’s an awfully long walk (hours, really) from the nightclubs that they had been visiting in the city in the previous scene.  Okay, “it’s only a movie” (quoting Alfred Hitchcock, who reportedly said that to actor Ingrid Bergman).

Ultimately “The Internship” has some great ideas wrapped up in a script that too often takes the easy way out.  We have a long Harry Potter-ish “Quidditch” match, a very long nightclub scene, and a bunch of good guys/bad guys set ups.  (Max Minghella plays the nasty “bad” cheating intern.) The good ideas? The film nicely illustrates the value of salesmanship, relationship management and customer engagement, as well as the importance of wisdom, experience and strategy over short-term tactics, arrogance and youthful naiveté.

In one true-to-life way, “The Internship” does capture the structural re-adjustment of work in our time:  in the film there appear to be about 100 interns vying for only five places at Google.  The ephemeral nature – what Ross Perlin describes in his book Intern Nation as “the ugly new culture” of internships – is on full show here.  I wonder if Google, which apparently approved the script and helped the production, truly understood the nature of what they were endorsing, by showing publicly the cut-throat and frequently unpleasant nature of internship practice.

Despite all that, “The Internship” ends on a triumphant note.  Yes (Spoiler here!  Don’t read any further if you don’t want to know the ending!), our heroes are part of the winning team and get the jobs.  But the rest of them, the other 95, they all “lost”, right?  They don’t get the jobs.  It’s not “win-win”.  In fact, it’s very win-lose, and most of them lose.  This is a trend with many current films, where we are meant to celebrate triumph, but it’s actually disaster.  In “Man of Steel”, the bad guys lose – but New York City (and who knows where else?) has been devastated, with the loss of tens of thousands of lives.  In “World War Z”, the zombies are defeated – well, almost – but the world is a shadow of its former self.

The disaster in “The Internship” is not the other 95 interns.  They are bright young things with great educations from Harvard, Stanford, Dartmouth, Duke and the rest.  They will probably all get good jobs, just not at Google.  No, the disaster is the changed nature of work, and the mattress salesman from Georgia or southern Adelaide.  He is not likely to find meaningful work in this age, if he can find any work at all as he ages.  And no amount of movie fantasy can change that.

The Internship image1

Footnote:

Nick and Billy’s successful application for the Google internship reminds me of a possibly fictional story about the writer Gertrude Stein.  Stein studied with philosopher and psychologist William James at Radcliffe College (part of Harvard University) from 1893 to 1897.  As the story goes, on her final philosophy examination paper one fine spring day, Stein handed the paper back in with only these words written:  “I don’t want to take this exam.  It’s too nice out.”  To that, James supposedly replied, “Miss Stein, you truly understand the meaning of philosophy”, and gave her an “A”.  I understand that generations of students have attempted to imitate Stein’s “stunt”, probably all of them without success.  But “The Internship” hews to the line that a few words of bullshit can cut through anything and get us in to Google or the “A” at Harvard.  The problem is:  very few of us are Gertrude Stein, and extremely few of us are dealing with William James.

Gertrude Stein portrait by Picasso(Portrait of Gertrude Stein by Picasso)