Last July, Google threw an office party. But this being Google — the third largest company in the world as of January — it wasn’t really a standard ice-cream-cake-and-canned-beer office party. The event was luau-themed, so the company hired staff to dig big holes in its Mountain View campus’ lawn and fit spits inside for the purposes of roasting pigs, according to people who were there. There were tables full of food and drinks scattered around. Also on offer: a sophisticated wave machine so employees could try their hands at surfing — miles away from the ocean.
In the tech world, nearly everyone has these stories of inordinate wealth. They’re repeated — in a tone somewhere between sheepish, astounded, and proud, depending on who’s doing the telling — so much they get passed around and fossilized into legend. In the course of several months and more than two-dozen interviews for this story, I heard plenty of them: the time Airbnb flew Ashton Kutcher in for a meeting. That one company party with the ice luge, or the one with a surprise appearance by Jane’s Addiction. The guy who lost his iPhone several times over the course of one hedonistic weekend, buying a brand-new one each time (“you know, because he can,” the storyteller added, wide-eyed), or the one who just bought a $5,000 bicycle, or the one who flew halfway around the world on a moment’s notice, just to get away for the weekend. At a party for a midsize San Francisco startup whose employees happened to have an office in-joke about Smirnoff Ice at the time, an entire room was filled with buckets of it.
“The money here is obscene,” Nick Bilton wrote in a now-infamous July 2012 post for The New York Times‘ tech blog, Bits. “The newly minted rich are obsessed with outperforming their rivals. One industry party I attended had a jungle theme. This included a real, 600-pound tiger in a cage and a monkey that would pose for Instagram photos. A prominent Googler’s Christmas party in Palo Alto had mounds of snow in the yard to round out the festive spirit. It was 70 degrees outside. Sean Parker, a founder of Airtime, threw a lavish, $1 million party that included models he hired to roam the room and a performance by Snoop Dogg.” Bilton’s examples are arresting, but his point is that none of this is all that uncommon in a region that’s seen a massive influx of money in a very short time.
You don’t need to look hard to see the effects of tech money everywhere in the Bay Area. The housing market is the most obvious and immediate: As Rebecca Solnit succinctly put it in a February essay for the London Review of Books, “young people routinely make six-figure salaries, not necessarily beginning with a 1, and they have enormous clout in the housing market.” According to a March 11 report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, four of the ten most expensive housing markets in the country — San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Marin counties — were located in the greater Bay Area. Even Oakland, long considered a cheaper alternative to the city, saw an 11 percent spike in average rent between fiscal year 2011-12 and the previous year; all told, San Francisco and Oakland were the two American cities with the greatest increases in rent. Parts of San Francisco that were previously desolate, dangerous, or both are now home to gleaming office towers, new condos, and well-scrubbed people.
More young people have more money in a more concentrated place than perhaps ever before. Old money is being replaced by new, but it’s a new kind of new, one that has different values, different habits, and different interests than the previous generation. The very rich have always, to a greater or lesser degree, been guilty of excess, but what’s changed is that the Bay Area’s new wealth doesn’t necessarily have the perspective, the experience, or the commitments of the group it’s replacing.
And that brings with it a whole host of disparate side effects: The arts economy, already unstable, has been forced to contend with the twin challenges of changing tastes and new funding models. Entire industries that didn’t exist ten years ago are either thriving on venture capital, or thriving on companies that are thriving on it. It is now possible to find a $6 bottle of Miller High Life, a $48 plate of fried chicken, or a $20 BLT in parts of the city that used to be known for their dive bars and taco stands. If, after all, money has always been a means of effecting the world we want to bring about, when a region is flooded with uncommonly rich and uncommonly young people, that world begins to look very different. And we’re all living in it, whether we like it or not.
When the massive Bay Lights went live a few weeks ago, it certainly felt and looked like a harbinger of something, or at least a big deal: 25,000 LED lights running along the Bay Bridge’s western span, rigged up to a computer system to make an ever-changing light show and one of the biggest public-arts projects in history. The national media wrote breathless profiles of the project and its artist, Leo Villareal; thousands of people watched its inaugural show from the San Francisco marina.
It was spectacular for many reasons, not least of which is what it says about the current state of arts patronage. Long before the project began, its URL was passed around on social media; the artist himself has ties to the tech world, having worked at a Microsoft think tank in the Nineties. The project is a monument to the power of technology on both an artistic and a literal level (also perhaps tellingly, it’s viewable only from San Francisco, not the East Bay): As the Wall Street Journal recently pointed out, the $8 million project was made possible in part by donations from Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, and Mark Pincus, founder of Zynga. But for all the chatter about these so-called “Microsoft Medicis” and their ability to save the art world, they’re dramatically changing what kinds of projects get funded, and how.
Mayer and Pincus aside, the tech world in general is notoriously uncharitable: According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, only four of 2011’s fifty most generous US donors worked in tech, despite the fact that thirteen of Forbes‘ Fifty Richest Americans in 2012 had made some or all of their fortunes in tech. Even so, Silicon Valley has spawned a few high-profile art patrons, in addition to Pincus and Mayer: Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen collects Van Gogh and Rothko; the venture capitalist Jim Breyer serves on the board of SFMOMA.
But those people represent the older and richer end of the spectrum, and they appear to be an exception, rather than a rule. “There’s kind of an old guard here in San Francisco that has been very generous over the years,” said Amory Sharpe, senior director of development and capital campaigns at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater. He was probably talking about San Francisco’s old-school moneyed class, but he might as well have been talking about age: Historically, most arts funding has, of course, come from older people, for the simple reason that they tend to be wealthier. But San Francisco’s moneyed generation is now significantly younger than ever before. And the swath of twenties- and thirties-aged guys — they are almost entirely guys — that represents the fattest part of San Francisco’s financial bell curve is, by and large, simply not interested.
“If you’re talking the symphony or other classical old-man shit, I would say [interest] is very low,” an employee at a smallish San Francisco startup recently told me. “The amount of people I know that give a shit about the symphony as opposed to the amount of people I know who would look at a cool stencil on the street … is really small.”
Which isn’t to say that legacy art and culture institutions aren’t trying to attract the stencil crowd — in fact, many of them are going out of their way to draw in young, tech-savvy patrons. ACT recently acquired a new building near Twitter’s headquarters, the explicitly stated goal of which was, at least in part, was to attract San Francisco’s new elite by essentially coming to their doorstep. And earlier this month, NPR launched a new initiative, dubbed “Generation Listen,” which is aimed at reaching a swath of listeners who historically haven’t been a huge part of public radio’s donor base; perhaps unsurprisingly, it was launched not at some black-tie gala in DC or Manhattan, but at a bar during South by Southwest Interactive, the tech- and gadget-focused arm of the popular arts festival that is attended by thousands of tech entrepreneurs.
“Everybody’s looking to that young multimillionaire, billionaire who is looking to make their first gift,” said Susan Medak, managing director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre. But, according to her, “it’s not happening in the arts a lot,” or at least as much as it needs to be to sustain these institutions into the future. Young money, after all, typically has young tastes. Maybe it’s not insignificant that the very same week the symphony-versus-stencils conversation happened, the San Francisco Symphony announced in a press release that it had been running at a deficit for the past four years; at press time, its musicians were striking over what they allege to be unjustly low wages.
And according to Medak and other members of the art world, it’s not just the donors themselves who are changing; it’s the entire ethos — and that may mark a change in a system that’s been more or less the same since the Renaissance. “A lot of those philanthropic dollars are now going to programs with measurable outcomes,” Medak said. “This shift toward a more transactional relationship in philanthropy, where you give something and expect to get something concrete back, has continued to escalate. The entrepreneurial infatuation we have now — and I don’t mean that in a loaded way — comes with a notion that the things we’re investing in should have a potential to [make] returns. It’s antithetical to the kind of philanthropy that has built institutions in this country.” Medak didn’t mention the logical, eventual corollary to this — that an end to institution-building philanthropy can also mean an end to the institutions themselves — but it doesn’t feel entirely far off.
According to Sharpe, the arts community is now looking at courting a generation of “very generous people in their thirties and forties who are giving in a different way than their parents might have. Their giving is more results-oriented. They want a deeper understanding of how their philanthropic dollars are going to be used.”
Sharpe didn’t specifically mention Kickstarter, but the company — and its reach — runs just below the surface of nearly every conversation about the Bay Area arts economy these days. The self-described “world’s largest funding platform for creative projects” has, in its three-year existence, raised more than half a billion dollars for more than 90,000 projects and is getting more popular by the day; at this point, it metes out roughly twice as much money as the National Endowment for the Arts. And though hard statistics are difficult to come by, it’s clear that this is a funding model that’s taken particular hold in the tech world, even over traditional mechanisms of philanthropy. “Arts patronage is definitely very low,” one tech employee said. “But it’s like, Kicktstarters? Oh, off the map.” Which makes sense — Kickstarter is entirely in and of the web, and possibly for that reason, it tends to attract people who are interested in starting and funding projects that are oriented toward DIY and nerd culture. But it represents a tectonic shift in the way we — and more specifically, the local elite, the people with means — relate to art.
“A lot of this is about the difference between consuming culture and supporting culture,” a startup-world refugee told me a few weeks ago: If Old Money is investing in season tickets to the symphony and writing checks to the Legion of Honor, New Money is buying ultra-limited-edition indie-rock LPs and contributing to art projects on IndieGoGo in exchange for early prints. And if the old conception of art and philanthropy was about, essentially, building a civilization — about funding institutions without expecting anything in return, simply because they present an inherent, sometimes ineffable, sometimes free market-defying value to society, present and future, because they help us understand ourselves and our world in a way that can occasionally transcend popular opinion— the new one is, for better or for worse, about voting with your dollars.
Kickstarter is, after all, an essentially consumerist-oriented form of charity, one that rewards entrepreneurship and free-market values: Don’t donate, invest. Don’t give someone a fish, don’t even teach him how to fish — take a look at his fishery’s business plan, decide if you’d like to support it based on a video and some short copy, and then make a one-time payment of whatever amount you’d like, most likely in exchange for some kind of concrete reward. It’s not even, really, philanthropy at all, but it’s increasingly being considered as such. Kickstarter and sites like it have been praised for democratizing entrepreneurship — which they have, in large part, and which is a good thing — but they’re not necessarily a direct analogue to the old-school-style charity they appear, in part, to be replacing.
“Kickstarter is fun,” said Medak. “Kickstarter has proven to be a fun way to get people involved in small projects. It can capture a small bit of philanthropy. What it hasn’t necessarily proven it can do yet is build steady supporters for projects that are more sustained in nature, and even small arts organizations need that. It’s not the long-term solution to philanthropy. It’s very much driven by whatever tickles my fancy at the moment.”
Medak calls this phenomenon “impulse philanthropy,” a sort of charity equivalent of the aisle in the grocery store closest to checkout, the one with the candy and glossy magazines. And if you look at the projects being funded and the products being bought right now, they are, more than ever before, tech-oriented, flashy, and novel. Perhaps the most successful Kickstarter campaign in history was Pebble, a “smart watch” that connects to a smartphone via Bluetooth; it was talked up heavily in the gadget press and ultimately raised more than $10 million in a matter of weeks. Earlier this month, a campaign to create a “ten-year hoodie” — that is, a hooded sweatshirt made with cutting-edge textiles and technique and meant to last at least a decade — launched; at press time, it had raised nearly half a million dollars, or almost ten times its goal, with more than a month of fundraising to spare.
Both of those projects appeal so squarely to tech money that it’s almost laughable, but this isn’t just confined to Kickstarter, or to the arts. In a free market, people with money drive demand, which then drives supply. A few of California’s forty-niners got rich panning for gold, but many more made their money by starting auxiliary businesses that served this new (and newly rich) population. As Solnit noted in her essay, “supplying the miners and giving them places to spend their money became as lucrative as mining and much more secure. Quite a lot of the early fortunes were made by shopkeepers: Levi Strauss got his start that way, and so did Leland Stanford, who founded the University that founded Silicon Valley.”
And in this case, when the bulk of a city’s wealth lies in the hands of a similarly specific group of people, something similar happens. Just as East Coast bankers have established their own signals and codes about which brands signify status and which don’t, so, too, has the tech world, which is often ruled by what one tech employee described to me as “this postmodern desire to define ourselves by our possessions.” The Levis Strausses of California’s contemporary gold rush are companies like the luxury denim brand Earnest Sewn, which is well-known for being a favorite of Twitter and Square founder Jack Dorsey. Another is Betabrand, a Mission District-based online clothing retailer that sells products like “dress pants sweatpants” (a sort of San Francisco analogue to pajama jeans) and “bike to work pants” (which boast “cuffs that roll up to reveal super-bright reflective material”) for upwards of $100 each. A third is Cubify, one of many companies that manufactures that tech-world toy of the moment, the 3D printer, and whose products retail for more (and sometimes much, much more) than $1,000 apiece, materials cost not included.
The restaurant world, too, has been indelibly changed by the influx of young men with money into the urban Bay Area. “In terms of what I see, the esoteric knowledge of craftstmanship is really happening on the food side,” said Dwight Crow, product manager at Facebook (and erstwhile cast-member of Hollywood’s attempt to cash in on the fascination with tech culture, Bravo TV’s now-canceled “Startups: Silicon Valley”). Dorsey famously invested in Sightglass, the SoMa purveyor of third-wave coffee that’s swiftly become the kind of place where conversations about angel investment and iteration abound. Overlay a map of San Francisco’s hottest dining corridors over one of the tech shuttle stops and you’ll see a huge amount of correlation.
And it’s not even just about where the restaurants are, it’s about what they serve and how. Kristen Capella, general manager at AQ, which is located a few blocks from Twitter’s new headquarters in the burgeoning tech district now dubbed Mid-Market, said the interest in limited-edition spirits and high-end meat is being driven, in part, by tech: “I’m seeing a much higher demand for private whiskey tastings and stuff like that. They know about the limited availability and are willing to pay for it. I get some really good customers from Twitter who dine out three times a day, and they’re very savvy.” A tech employee was a bit more blunt: “I mean, there’s a reason all the expensive restaurants in SF are doing fried chicken and sandwiches right now.”
At this point, entire cottage industries have developed in order to serve this community and its tastes. “You’re going to see a number of startups [that cater to] people that have more money than time,” Crow said. There’s Uber, an app-based car service that allows anyone in one of about a dozen cities to summon a Lincoln Town Car or a Mercedes S Class with a couple swipes, for a price that’s roughly 50 percent more than an average car service. The San Francisco-based food startup Kitchit allows even the laziest cooks to host a dinner parties by hiring name-brand chefs like Daniel Patterson and Elizabeth Falkner to shop for, prepare, serve, and clean up after in-home meals that range from the $35-per-person, three-course “casual night in” to “the fine-dining experience,” which includes up to six courses and runs $85 a head. (Last year, the company briefly raised the interest — and ire — of the internet when it announced a Valentine’s Day package that included a one-night stay in a private Big Sur home, a dinner cooked by the two-Michelin-starred chef Joshua Skenes, and a next-day brunch prepared by Lori Banker, proprietress of the perpetually packed Pacific Heights restaurant Baker and Banker. The 24-hour experience was priced at $25,000.)
And then there are companies like TaskRabbit and Exec, both of which serve as sort of informal, paid marketplaces for personal assistant-style tasks like laundry, grocery shopping, and household chores. (Workers who use TaskRabbit bid on projects in a race-to-the-bottom model, while Execs are paid a uniform $20 per hour, regardless of the work.) According to Molly Rabinowitz, a San Franciscan in her early twenties who briefly made a living doing this kind of work — though she declined to reveal which service she used — many tech companies give their employees a set amount of credit for these tasks a month or year, and that’s in addition to the people using the services privately. “There’s no way this would exist without tech,” she said. “No way.”
At one point, Rabinowitz was hired for several hours by a pair of young Googlers to launder and iron their clothes while they worked from home. (“It was ridiculous. They didn’t want to iron anything, but they wanted everything, including their T-shirts, to be ironed.”) Another user had her buy 3,000 cans of Diet Coke and stack them in a pyramid in the lobby of a startup “because they thought it would be fun and quirky.” Including labor, gas, and the cost of the actual soda, Rabinowitz estimated the entire project must have cost at least several hundred dollars. “It’s like … you don’t care,” she said. “It doesn’t mean anything because it’s not your money. Or there’s just so much money that it doesn’t matter what you spend it on.”
According to the US Census, the median income for a man between the ages of 25 and 34 was $32,581 in 2011, the most recent year for which statistics are available. But according to the hiring site Dice, the average salary for tech talent in Silicon Valley in 2011 was just under $100,000 a year. The minority of my interviewees who would reveal their salaries all made more than that, when bonuses, stock options, and various other benefits were included. Even so, though, one of the most striking things about all of my research was that none of the people I asked consider themselves rich, or at least not without a mouthful of qualifiers.
“I don’t know. I don’t identify with the term ‘rich.’ But I think I make a shit-ton of money,” a 24-year-old Google employee making low six figures told me. Another told me he considered himself upper-middle-class, but “definitely not rich.” Part of that’s inevitable: The vast majority of Americans, at all coordinates of the economic spectrum, consider themselves middle class; this is a deeply ingrained, distinctly American cognitive dissonance. And when industry is so intimately tied to place, as it is in the Bay Area, you get something of an echo chamber: Many young developers move straight to San Francisco when they finish college and necessarily become friends with other young developers, aided in part by the happy hours, office parties, and other events that have become an integral part of both the tech world’s social fabric and every company’s list of perks. “If you don’t have other friends, you’re surrounded by people telling you, ‘This is normal, this is normal,'” an employee of a large company told me. And at startups, especially, where the culture is one of long hours and marathon coding sessions, there’s an idea that, as one person said, “you deserve it, because you work hard.”
Indeed, said another, “It’s very easy to think, ‘I am special. I am better than other people at certain things. My skills are more valuable than others.’ It’s easy to fall into that trap and think you’re getting paid more than other people because you’re better.”
And on top of that, San Francisco is and always has been an extraordinarily casual culture — and in tech, that ethos is occasionally taken to absurd extremes. “The people with money are the guys wearing skinny jeans for the first time instead of the bankers,” said Crow. “I know very few billionaires that wear suits. The ones that I’ve met are wearing hoodies and jeans. It’s been fascinating to see the way this has driven affluent culture to the casual.” But if the old status symbol was a $4,000 suit and the new one is a pair of selvedge jeans and a $300 flannel shirt, that’s more than just a trend — it’s a completely new way of thinking about consumption and status. As the Wall Street Journal put it in a recent story, “An image that evokes stately power — say, a Park Avenue co-op complete with a baroque library — isn’t a shared aspiration in tech.” The piece’s authors, Richard Morgan and Aaron Rutkoff, then went on to quote Ricky Van Veen, the boy-millionaire founder of CollegeHumor.com: “Why not get a Kindle, and then turn that room into something awesome?”
That same article relayed an anecdote about a table of female models who were eating at an expensive steakhouse in Manhattan. At some point in the meal, a group of men sitting nearby passed them a napkin with a scrawled email address: [email protected]. At the moment, the Journal seemed to encapsulate something specific and trenchant about tech money and, more broadly, circa-2013 class rage. But as it turns out, the napkin-passer is simply named Rich, and he told me he picked the vanity email address because his surname, Pleeth, is difficult to pronounce over the phone. Whether you believe Pleeth’s account of events or not (I do), it’s an illustrative example: The thing that’s so vexing — and so interesting — about all of this is that it defies much of what we think we know about money and status and flash. If you simply try to map the behavior of the old-guard upper class onto the new generation, you get the story wrong.
“It’s not the same. People [in tech] aren’t very flashy,” Pleeth told me from his office in London, over, naturally, Google Hangout. “It’s not like bankers, who go to the club and get ten bottles of Dom Pérignon with, like, fireworks in it.”
But the thing about this particular brand of low-key wealth is that it can lead to a false sense of self, on both a micro and a macro level. Consumption is still consumption even if it’s less conspicuous. Class may be harder to see here, but that doesn’t make it any less real. Mark Zuckerberg’s still a billionaire, even if he’s wearing a hoodie and jeans. And if you don’t feel or look rich, you don’t necessarily feel the same sense of obligation that a traditional rich person does or should: Noblesse oblige is, after all, dependent on a classical idea of who is and is not the nobility. As that starts to fall away, obligation — to culture, to the future, to each other — begins to disappear, too.
In the past several years, social science has produced a large cache of information about the psychological and sociological effects of sudden wealth. The statistics are astounding: Recent research has suggested that nine out of every ten lottery winners goes through his or her winnings in less than five years; according to Sports Illustrated, nearly 80 percent of NFL players file for bankruptcy within two years of retiring.
Twitter engineers are, for the most part, not making nearly as much money as professional football players or lottery winners, but the idea’s the same: To be 25 and suddenly making more money than your parents, more money than your friends — more money, really, than you know how to spend — is disorienting, especially in a society that’s uncommonly reticent to talk about wealth publicly, and in an industry that’s flying high.
“There are a few ways to look at this,” said Carl Richards, a Park City, Utah-based financial planner who has worked with many members of the tech world. “The easy one is that we’ve never been taught: You know, money, sex, politics, and religion. We’re not prepared to talk about it.” And because the tech world is uncommonly young and uncommonly insular, many of its members have no point of reference for their financial behavior. “My anchor for a backpack is way too high,” one Google employee said. “Because I’ve bought one backpack in my life.” (It was more than $200.) Another employee at a small San Francisco startup relayed a story of talking to a (slightly) younger co-worker, fresh out of college and new to the housing market. He was paying nearly $3,000 a month for a studio, simply because he didn’t know better. And that naiveté, combined with the new-money ethos of tech, makes for some strange financial decisions: It’d be cheaper to hire a part-time personal assistant than to go through the rigmarole of finding and training a new Exec every time you want your laundry done, and it would be more sustainable to donate to the arts via regular donations rather than one-off impulse philanthropy, but that’s not how things work in an economy that’s increasingly driven by instant gratification and a culture that’s rejecting — either consciously or not — the classical tropes of the upper class.
There’s an argument to be made — and it has, many, many times — that there’s nothing inherently wrong with spending money you can afford on things you want. But the central challenge of financial planning is balancing the short- and long-terms, and the trouble with getting used to a $200 backpack or a $3,000 apartment is that it doesn’t leave much up to chance.
“In the Bay Area particularly, there’s no understanding of risk,” Richards said. “I’ve had conversations with people who work at very well-known companies in the Bay Area, and we’ll be talking about risk, and they’ll say, ‘what, you mean the risk that the stock will got from $300 to $250?’ No, I mean, that the stock will go from $300 to $0.”
That’s the thing about peaks: They’re hard to see over until you’re on the way down. And in tech, which has a tendency toward social insularity and a financial interest in talking up its own growth, the concept of risk, on both an individual and company-wide level, can seem particularly abstract. A surprising number of people I spoke to for this article were living paycheck-to-paycheck, or close to it — regardless of how large that paycheck is. Not a single one expressed any real fear over job security. Some of this is, of course, attributable simply to age, but even in a nation whose unemployment rate currently hovers at around 7 percent, the young guns of Silicon Valley are under the not-incorrect impression that the market values their work, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. “I could quit my job tomorrow, or get fired,” a programmer at a high-profile company said. “And I know I could get a new job in a week, because my skills are in demand and I have [this company] on my résumé.” That’s compounded with the tendency of smaller startups to pay their employees partly in stock: Even if you quit your job, you’ll be set for the future — provided, at least, that Richards’ worst-case $300-to-$0 scenario doesn’t play out. “You’re sort of banking on options,” an employee at a small startup said. “You sort know you’ll be okay, which is this upper-middle-class privilege, but it’s kind of true.”
There’s a common financial-planning exercise that asks participants to try to imagine themselves and their lives in twenty, thirty, forty years — where do you want to be living? What do you want your job to be like? According to Richards, some tech employees have particular trouble with it: “There’s this problem with not understanding risk because you sort of think it will always be this easy — you’re young, you’re on top of the world. And that leads into this issue of not being able to imagine your future self.” It’s human nature and psychological imperative to imagine the future in relation to past experiences — that is, to expect that the relationship between action and effect will be relatively constant no matter what. But that’s not necessarily true, especially in an industry where fortunes can fall and rise with the click of a mouse. “You’re projecting the recent past into the future indefinitely,” Richards said. “And if your recent past has been that everything you touch turns to gold, well ….” If you think about it, it’s a near-perfect metaphor for the culture writ large: They literally can’t imagine the future. And if the people creating the future — by voting with their (many) dollars, by funding the arts (or not), and by driving local demand, not to mention by creating and managing the products and companies we’ve all come to rely on so much — can’t imagine the future, we’re all in trouble.
It’s become cliché at this point to describe the tech world as a bubble, but that word has an important double meaning: It’s not just that it could pop at any moment, it’s that it is in, but not quite of, the rest of the world — even as it’s changing it. The work is often abstract and piecemeal; the setting is a continent away from old financial centers. The culture is insular, specific, and self-affirming. As Catherine Bracy, director of international programs at Code for America, wrote in a December Tumblr post, tech’s power-players are “making widgets or iterating on things that already exist. Their goal is to … get bought out for a few hundred million dollars and then devote the rest of their lives to a) building Burning Man installations, b) investing in other people’s widgets, or c) both. They really don’t care that much about making the world a better place, mostly because they feel like they don’t have to live in it.”
But sooner or later, everyone has to live in the world they’ve created. Tech has made a world where certain skills are highly valued, and that has implications. “It used to be, the cleverest people in the world are being called to work at NASA,” Pleeth of [email protected] notoriety said toward the end of our interview. “But now I can make a billion dollars building a cool photo app or targeting ads to people more effectively. And that is a problem: More and more people in tech are making huge amounts of money, and people aren’t curing cancer because it’s not an attractive thing to do.” Pleeth was being intentionally hyperbolic — and to some degree, what the economy values and what society values have never been entirely in line with each other — but he raised a good point: Maybe this isn’t just unsustainable on the level that funding art via Kickstarter is untenable, or that taking Ubers instead of hiring a driver is shortsighted, or that living hand-to-mouth on a $2,000-a-week paycheck is imprudent. Instant gratification isn’t necessarily just something individuals indulge in — maybe societies can, too.
There’s a strong, specifically technocratic conflation between efficiency and good in Silicon Valley — that is, the idea that information is king, and that giving people more or better access to it is akin to being a socially responsible company. There’s also a large focus on libertarian thinking, on both an individual and corporate level: The venture capitalist Peter Theil is famous for his political views; Uber founder Travis Kalanick has as his Twitter avatar a detail from the cover of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Especially along the richer end of Silicon Valley’s spectrum, free markets are vaunted, regulation is deplored, and higher obligation — to art, to equity, to each other — is markedly absent.
The idea, essentially, is that the market will settle itself, and the consumer, aided with the right information (preferably with a clean design and user-friendly interface), will be able to make the right choice. The idea is that the good projects will rise to the top, that the Execs with the best star-rating will get hired for more jobs, that the Kickstarters with the most compelling sells will meet their goals, that the people with money will spend it on the right things. But you don’t need to see a tiger at a party or attend an electronics show to know that consumers don’t always spend their money rationally, and you don’t need to be a far-left liberal to understand that regulation exists in order to protect the most vulnerable members of society. (A couple weeks ago, the AP reported that Silicon Valley’s poverty rate is on the rise, even as its companies continue to rake in millions. “Simply put,” the article said, “while the ultra-rich are getting richer, record numbers of Silicon Valley residents are slipping into poverty.”)
Companies like Google and Facebook have grown so big that they’ve effectively become utilities, and they, we, and the people who work for them are all invested in the idea that the world is a better place because of them. This may be true on balance, and it certainly is in some ways, but the danger in thinking that way is we ask fewer questions. When Yahoo! conspired with the Chinese government to hack into activists’ email accounts, it was acting in its business interest, even though those actions have geopolitical consequences that extend far beyond Yahoo, and far beyond China. When a 24-year-old rents a $3,000 studio or funds a watch on Kickstarter or hires another 24-year-old to iron his T-shirts at minimum wage, these actions drive up rent and drive down wages, help some businesses while hurting others, essentially carry with them economic and political and social consequences that extend far beyond the transactions themselves.
I recently asked a friend of mine, a former tech employee who recently fled to pursue a Ph.D at UC Berkeley, about all this. “We can dream and this is the world we made?” he said. “We have all these capabilities and what are we going to do? We’re gonna figure out how to monetize some poor folks in the center of the country who we’ve convinced need to buy some shit that they don’t actually.” He’s not, and no one else is, really, either, arguing for the bubble to burst. After all, as anyone who was in the Bay Area for the last dot-com bust can attest, it truly eviscerated parts of San Francisco. Gentrification isn’t a neatly reversible process, and something that’s burst can’t easily be put together again. But as the bubble keeps growing, more and more of these questions will come up, and as tech’s young money continues to spend the way it has, its reach on the rest of us will continue to grow. The parties will continue happening, and lawns will continue to get dug up to make them happen.