By Michael Bernick.
How did San Francisco, which welcomed newcomers for so long, decide that the tech workers flocking to it were no longer welcome? And why should those of us outside of tech care about this?
Over the past few years, tech workers have been blamed not only for the city’s worsening traffic congestion and sky-high housing, but also for undermining the city’s bohemian culture and leftist politics through their focus on commerce and money. The chief accusers have been members of San Francisco’s literary establishment, led by Salon founder David Talbot and journalist Rebecca Solnit. A part of this dispute reflects San Francisco’s provincial narcissism. But a part reflects broader themes important beyond San Francisco: the refusal of aging baby boomers to cede even part of the stage to younger creatives, and the related inability of the boomer intellectuals to recognize the creativity in tech’s new worlds of internet commerce and social media.
We might start with David Talbot, journalist and founder in 1995 of Salon, which despite its financial and editorial turmoil of recent years, was one of the pioneers of web journalism. One might think that with this background Talbot would recognize the creativity and value of the current young tech entrepreneurs migrating to San Francisco. Instead, he has made it his mission in recent years to cast them as aliens and threats to the city.
Mr. Talbot, now a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, regularly declares that the city doesn’t feel like home to him anymore, with the new tech millennials and their money. In a recent column, he explains that he can at least still find comfort in his Bernal Heights working class neighborhood. He contrasts his warm, supportive diverse neighborhood with the cold, homogenous tech workers who are buying up $3 million houses in the area. “Yes the new tech money is invading our oasis,” Talbot declares, “but the street still feels anchored around the committed San Franciscans who grew up here or came here following a dream that did not simply involve getting rich.”
First, as anyone who lives in San Francisco knows, this picture involves multiple misrepresentations. The neighbors he describes live secure, comfortable lives as non-profit administrators, government officials, and public interest lawyers; none is remotely working class. Further, they are not a diverse group; most hold the same politics and world views. Talbot fails to mention that he and his neighbors were the people who gentrified the neighborhood in the 1990s, and drove out the construction workers, teachers and retail clerks who previously had lived there.
Beyond these misrepresentations, though, is the bigger shortcoming: a failure to see the ways that the tech workforce is far beyond “simply getting rich” in Talbot’s phrase. Even if making money was the main goal of most tech ventures, it’s difficult to see what is wrong with this. But it’s not the main goal, in San Francisco or elsewhere. We can turn to the economic development field, in which firms are developing new approaches to business funding in inner city and rural areas, and job placement of the unemployed.
Kiva and other crowdfunding sources are developing new funding sources for entrepreneurs. Providing alternatives to traditional funding sources, these crowdsourcing platforms enable individuals to lend financial support to entrepreneurs in floundering rural economies or new businesses in inner city areas.
In the job placement fields, sites such as workpop.com, mentored.com and CareerArc are targeting low-income and vulnerable populations for job placement. Workpop.com is focusing on low-wage workers in the hospitality sector, seeking to provide a mobile platform for more effectively connecting job seekers to entry level jobs. Mentored.com and CareerArc have pilot programs to target unemployed women on the public benefit rolls and unemployed, out-of-school youth.
Other new tech ventures in San Francisco are trying to develop newer lower cost and more effective ways of providing basic healthcare or services to the homeless or urban farming opportunities. Most of these ventures, like most tech ventures in general, will be out of business in a few years, but some make genuine contributions to their fields. All have certain social goals in mind.
The San Francisco tech industry also is filled with creative enterprises in gaming and media and new forms of communications, which is what makes other attacks on tech as being a culture of isolation read as written by grumpy men and women.
Prolific journalist Ms. Solnit has been a frequent critic of tech for its alleged undermining of San Francisco’s culture and politics. In 2016, she wrote a lengthy article for The Guardian on a police shooting and death in Bernal Heights, one of several neighborhoods she sees as threatened by tech.
Though Ms. Solnit is a talented writer, she quickly turns her account of the shooting into an attack on young tech workers coming to San Francisco. The villains in the article, she is careful to emphasize, are three young white men in tech — two gay and one straight — who set in motion a chain of events leading to the shooting. She makes broad claims about police discrimination, invading white newcomers, and concludes without any explanation that “the tech culture seemed in small and large ways to be a culture of disconnection and withdrawal.”
The shooting was deeply disturbing, and the dead man and the events leading to his death call for detailed reporting, but why turn a shooting into a polemic about tech workers? Why reduce an important journalistic story to agitprop?
Further, what does it mean to speak of the tech culture as a “culture of disconnection and withdrawal”? If anything, a good deal of what is going on in tech’s social media space is trying to build new communities — new ways that people can connect based on interests, not only geography.
Talbot and Solnit and their perspective has been given the most media space, but it’s worth noting that there are longtime members of the local literary community who do not regard tech as the enemy of social activism or culture. We might close with a recent event.
A few weeks ago, a celebration was held in Mill Valley for the 70th birthday of writer and illustrator Phyllis Florin. It was an upbeat affair. Ms. Florin declared that at 70 she was entering the best stage of her life. She intended to complete her novel on her Norwegian ancestors and continue exploring new techniques in Photoshop and design.
As the attendees were local writers mainly over fifty years of age, there was the usual complaining about the traffic congestion and the out-of-control housing costs. But even though all hailed from the political left, nobody was angry or bitter about the tech industry. Just the opposite, they welcomed its emerging forms of creativity and culture.
One writer has a son in the video gaming field. Zynga, Kixeye and other gaming startups in San Francisco are providing platforms for new forms of storytelling. Another has a relative involved in a health-care startup for improved patient communication. Still another was drawing on Goodreads and other Internet book sites to publicize her new novel.
One need not be a cheerleader for the tech industry to see the creativity and social missions among young tech entrepreneurs and workers, and seek to encourage them. Even aging boomer intellectuals should be able to see this—if they can get beyond their out-of-date poses and ideologies.