How Silicon Valley Millionaires Stole Progressivism
Idealization of a different sort encumbers the call “to stand and fight to save our city” issued by another close observer of San Francisco politics and history, David Talbot, the founder and former editor in chief of Salon. Speaking at a business conference about Mid-Market (the area to which a controversial tax break engineered by Mayor Edwin Lee has lured tech firms like Twitter, Zendesk and others), Talbot—like Solnit—presented the city’s past as a series of often violent conflicts centered on “a simple but brutal question: Who gets to live here?”
Where Solnit focuses on vulnerability, Talbot highlights the left’s activism and signal victories. In his telling, what’s made the city progressive is not, as the Chronicle would have it, prosperity, but political vision and will. “So-called San Francisco values were not born with flowers in their hair—but howling, in blood and strife.” Thanks in large part to the coalition-building abilities of exceptional civic leaders—Talbot singles out Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, both assassinated at City Hall in 1978—San Francisco became a “beacon of enlightenment” that introduced “gay marriage, legalized marijuana, a livable minimum wage, city-wide green programs and bike systems, and guaranteed health care.”
For Talbot, contributing to the cause of “social diversity and the common good” is what distinguishes true—that is, progressive—San Franciscans. He uses that standard to vindicate the influx of gay people, who, he acknowledges, “were young white professionals with disposable income, while those they were squeezing out were poor and working-class and minorities.” But “they brought a fresh infusion of progressive energy into the city,” making it “more creative, enlightened and even prosperous.” By contrast, the current conflict “pits San Francisco’s bedrock progressive values—including a strong commitment to social diversity and the common good—against the defiantly individualistic, even solipsistic, world of digital capitalism.”
In Talbot’s view, that world also betrays technology’s liberatory promise. “I am no Luddite,” he declares, adding that he couldn’t have launched Salon in 1995 “without the miraculous digital infrastructure built by the architects of the web.” He’s “very proud that San Francisco is a beehive of this kind of buzzing innovation,” and he “know[s] that many of the rank and file people who work in the tech industry…share our progressive San Francisco values.”
Unfortunately, “the innovation bubbling up in the Bay Area has become much more market-oriented than socially driven.” Talbot blames tycoons like Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison and mayoral crony Ron Conway, as well as “the instant billionaires, three or four years out of college.” When these “selfish libertarians” aren’t “busy trying to run the world,” they’re “turning San Francisco into their private playground.” Enough already: “It’s time to take this city back from the arrogant tech moguls and timid city hall administrators.”
Talbot is much too kind. Far from fearing the tech industry, San Francisco’s administrators regard the “office-based ‘knowledge’ sector” as the salvation of the city’s economy; indeed, they’re planning to turn the area known as South of Market into a new, high-rise, tech-dominated downtown. And as Solnit showed in Hollow City, the first dot-com boom was plenty market-oriented. Since then, digitization has ravaged the newspaper industry, whose health is essential to the progressive urbanism Talbot cherishes. Moreover, the face-to-face solidarity that supports democratic urbanism is vitiated by the tech industry’s cloistered work culture. At the end of 2013, San Francisco had 53,319 tech jobs, more than triple the number in 2004. In the past, other groups new to the city have kept largely to themselves, but the tech rank and file take that insularity to an extreme, their alien persona reinforced by their hermetic mode of work, with its brutal hours, “hackathons” and comprehensive environments.
Even more estranging is tech’s vaunted iconoclasm (think: Steve Jobs). “Every programmer and engineer under the age of 40,” writes sociologist and journalist Darwin BondGraham, “is obsessed with being the next disruptive force.” Often accompanied by a fierce libertarianism, this fervent transgressiveness is hardly conducive to democratic civic engagement, which is rooted in mutual respect and a sense of shared obligation.
The civic disposition is also weakened by the geographic detachment that characterizes Internet “connectivity.” As the philosopher of technology Langdon Winner writes, “Perhaps the most enduring accomplishment of Silicon Valley” is the creation of “an ethereal reality” in which “decisions are made and actions taken in ways that eliminate the need for physical presence in any particular place.” True, the Google bus riders endure lengthy commutes in order to live in San Francisco. But so far, most of them have related to the city as consumers of its attractions, not as citizens committed to the locale.
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