San Francisco: Analog Observations from the Center of our Digital World

Friday, December 27, 2019 | San Francisco, CA, USA

California Street, San Francisco: Gilded city in the Golden State
Rare is the activity that the world's wealthiest humans still conduct in the physical world.

For many, it's now optional to cook, drive, bank, date, shop, read, and more the old way; these are mere trifling pastimes done for nostalgia's sake. True, all of us still eat, sleep, bathe, and exercise in the physical realm, but technology is chomping voraciously at the edges of even these essential functions, after having already swallowed so many others whole in the last several years. More than a few of us now live as much in the digital world as we do in the physical one.

But the last year or two saw important bubbles burst, yet more layers of our collective innocence lost. The creepiness of social media combined with its increasingly undeniable destructive influence on public debate across the world finally crested into a pushback of sorts that put Facebook, Twitter, and others on their heels. Awareness grew of just how exploitative "gig economy" giants like Uber and TaskRabbit are, and just how corrosive an effect Amazon's far-reaching tentacles are having on local and national markets. This critical eye, once finally focused upon Big Tech, revealed unsavory truths elsewhere too, from Google to Apple to Tesla and beyond.

As America and the world soured on Big Tech, so too did we sour on the industry's shining city on a hill, San Francisco and nearby Silicon Valley. It has become easier and easier to find critical reports on the city's booming inequality and horrid excesses.

In April, I was invited to an international education conference in San Francisco, giving me the chance both to finally visit California and to see the center of our digital world with my own eyes.

Angela and Gavin at Muir Woods
I began my visit by imposing upon two close friends living in the Bay Area: Angela (a longtime co-worker) and Gavin (a longtime classmate, and incidentally the second-most-published author here on my blog, thanks to his colorful dispatches from the 2014 World Cup in Brazil).

Since I had set them up a few years back, I figured that Angela and Gavin might oblige if I begged them to take me sightseeing. They picked me up at the airport and we headed straight through town and across the Golden Gate Bridge to the Muir Woods National Monument, home to the famed redwood trees. We hiked for several hours through the towering forest, drove over to Muir Beach for a view along the coast, then headed into town for dinner—burritos and craft beers in the Mission District.

Between the pair of them, Angela and Gavin have experience within two of the world's largest and most well-known tech firms, plus degrees from a few of California's leading business and public policy schools. So naturally, after we caught up on our respective news, I spent the day asking for their take on the Bay Area's dynamics and how they have shaped our world. Their responses colored all that I saw throughout the week I spent downtown, exploring the city whenever I wasn't busy with conference sessions.

Port of San Francisco ferry terminal
San Francisco is home to more billionaires per capita than anywhere on earth (1 in 11,600 residents, to be precise). But there's no Monopoly Men walking down the street making it rain, so in my first hours in town I noticed more banal things: the crazy steep hills, the sights and smells and gritty flavors of the Mission and Chinatown. Then I kept looking and noticed more:

First, the tiny houses. How could a city grow as fast as San Francisco has while building so few apartment buildings? The local zoning laws, my friends explained, made it all but impossible to build anything larger than a single-family house throughout much of the city. And thus, a metropolis of colorful tiny houses was born—and with it the US's worst housing crisis, with astronomical prices and soaring homelessness. According to one report, "There was not a single enclave in the Bay Area last year where a family with two parents working full-time making $15 an hour could afford the median rent." (An ambitious proposal to fix this problem in the Bay Area and across California, bill SB50, was shelved a few months after my visit.)

Second was the homelessness, which appeared to far surpass anything I had seen even when coming of age in Baltimore and Washington DC. Men and women, white and black and Asian, young and old alike were on the streets; some begged, some slept, some shouted, and some just stared into space. It seemingly would have been hard to find a block downtown without at least one homeless person. (Indeed, this year's official figures average out to an astonishing 170 homeless per square mile.) Perhaps they had flocked here in search of warmer climes or kinder public benefits? I inquired. But Angela set me straight, quoting plenty of stats from her policy classes: Despite what many imagine, the vast majority of San Francisco's homeless are from the city itself, and simply pushed out by the combination of stagnant wages (outside the tech startups, that is) and skyrocketing housing costs.

Even coming of age in Baltimore and DC, I hadn't seen levels of homelessness like San Francisco's.
Other problems weren't visible during my visit, but were concerning nonetheless. Gavin talked of the exodus of black residents from San Francisco (which was once known as the "Harlem of the West"), for example, and of the cloud of smoke that had blanketed the Bay Area during the massive forest fires just months earlier, temporarily making it impossible to walk, bike, or run outside.

Visually, the city was a street photographer's paradise, as one might expect of such a diverse, dynamic, and distressed place. In addition to snapping shots of people and places all around town, I ran through traffic late on several afternoons trying (unsuccessfully) to recreate Todd Walker's iconic 1964 "California Street" photo. ("You're going to get hit," my colleague Catie intoned over and over.)

The human elements that made the city so captivating for photography, however, appear to be the very same ones that the tech startups are working so hard to sanitize and erase. One day in my wandering I stopped and stared as an unmanned coffee kiosk dished out latt├ęs and frappamochachinos to tech bros all on its own, with just the whir of a robotic arm and a few squirts of milk and coffee. Later that day, a car plastered with motion sensors crept past in a traffic jam. Two engineers sat in the front seat, silently tapping notes into their tablets, presumably test driving one of the Big Tech firms' latest self-driving cars. Is this the impersonal, sterile future we really want? In one of America's most vibrant, dynamic urban spaces that is the envy of cities nationwide (not to mention worldwide) why are the engineers working so hard to scrub life of the very textures that make it so fascinating?

A trolley ride past Chinatown
Ask anyone who knows me well, and they'll almost certainly seat me in the "early adopter" category rather than the "luddite" camp; I'm a technology enthusiast. But after a week in the heart of our digital world, I can't help but concur with this recent assessment: "In a time of scarce consensus, everyone agrees that something has rotted in San Francisco."

The city has been a cultural and economic pillar of the US for decades. And the technologies developed there have made real and important contributions to our everyday lives. But these days, the consequences of two decades of unbridled "disruption" are coming home to roost: If anything, after seeing the place with my own eyes, the stories of San Francisco's massive inequality seemed to be understated, not overblown.

The Gold Rush of 1849 first put San Francisco on the map. As the city undergoes a new frenzy of growth, there is no guarantee that this latest collision of political, economic, social, environmental, and cultural forces will be a creative one, not a destructive one. As we ponder that possibility, perhaps what worries us most is that if the epicenter of our digital world implodes, the rest of our world might follow its course.

If you look around San Francisco and conclude that the city's human textures are what needs fixing, then maybe you're the problem.
My Rolleiflex photos from San Francisco are available here: 2019 Rollei - San Francisco.

Suggested further reading:

No comments:

Post a Comment