Nowhere else does fun quite like the Bay Area. But not the way you think. Maybe the venture capitalist who knows life only in fifth gear runs himself ragged summiting K2 or paragliding in the Persian Gulf. But for most of the rest of us, having fun means living well — in every sense of the word. And no one has made a more rigorous study of lifestyle than we have. No one has fetishized middlebrow fine living — browsing the aisles at Restoration Hardware, choosing from among a hundred types of microbrew, knowing which plantation grew your chocolate bar, for God’s sake — more than the Bobos and foodies of the Bay Area. No one hikes, eats, drinks, reads, or decorates better than us. We were country — wine country, that is — back when country wasn’t cool.
But now that we have so finely calibrated the science of quality living, it’s hard to enjoy it anymore. As more and more people realized that the Bay Area had figured out how to live, more and more people began moving here. Suddenly, fun cost money — lots of it, mostly in the form of a mortgage just to be able to live in the center of the Bobo universe. We have to work hard to play hard, until now we’re working so hard for so long that sometimes we can’t play at all.
Oddly enough, our obsession with Bobo staples such as gourmet coffee and slow food grew out of a ’70s antimaterialist impulse, a desire to drop out of the rat race and enjoy simpler pleasures such as organic gardening or backpacking in Mongolia. Then a funny thing happened. So many people developed a taste for these off-the-grid pastimes that consumer capitalism made a fortune commodifying them and turning them into vast industries. That took some of the fun out of fun. Lonely Planet started off as two Australian mods following the Hippie Trail through Central Asia, and now it’s a major player in the cutthroat world of travel publishing. Even now, a Starbucks is about to open in your guest bedroom. And have you tried shopping at the Berkeley Bowl lately? Nothing will spike your blood pressure faster, but there once was a time there when you didn’t have to shiv someone grabbing for your heirloom tomato.
Then something else happened: sticker shock. Partly because we succeeded so fabulously at living well, the Bay Area became a global destination and housing prices shot through the roof. Suddenly, the Bobos had to work extra hard. From lawyers to sales associates to coders, the Bay Area middle class works its ass off. Especially in Silicon Valley, especially if they want that Maybeck home in the hills. The bohemian generation that so valued leisure and creativity, for whom Rolling Stone was the house organ of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, became the generation that created the balls-to-the-wall, sleep-is-for-the-weak work ethic celebrated in Wired every month. They’re spending so much time coding and commuting to afford their Bobo lifestyles that they’ve lost the time with which to enjoy it. “There have always been people that worked deathmarch hours,” says Pauline Borsook, who was present at the beginning of the foodie craze, wrote for Wired in the ’90s and is the author of Cyberselfish, a critique of the Silicon Valley ethos. “It didn’t become the model of how life ought to be until the ’90s, when there was a celebration of all that. … Wired tapped into some of that thinking, but they heroized it in a way no one had ever done before.”
No one better exemplifies this development than ex-Merry Prankster, Whole Earth Catalogue publisher, and tech entrepreneur Stewart Brand. After hanging out with Native Americans in Oregon and dropping acid with Ken Kesey, Brand remade himself into the tech ur-guru, organizing the seminal 1984 Hacker’s Conference, cofounding The Well, and consulting for industry about how to embrace the future. According to Brand, the endless hours Silicon Valley employees put in these days are actually a blessing in disguise. “I think it’s probably a sign that work has become more interesting since the ’70s,” he says. “Writing software, coding is absolutely gripping. You get into a flow state. … Starting businesses is absolutely exhausting and totally creative, whereas you get to be creative maybe once a month working for somebody else.”
Ah, yes. One of the prevailing myths of Silicon Valley is that people work endless hours because they want to, because they’re doing something truly special. Apparently, the programmers at the Redwood City video game manufacturer Electronic Arts no longer buy into it. Electronic Arts is one of the biggest players in the biggest new American industry devoted entirely to fun, but a rising number of its employees complain they’ve been forced to work inhuman hours. Last summer, employee Jamie Kirschenbaum filed a class-action lawsuit, alleging that he was not compensated for working overtime.
In November, a writer self-identified solely as “EA Spouse” posted an essay on the Web complaining of the hours Spouse’s partner had to work. “The current mandatory hours are 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. — seven days a week — with the occasional Saturday evening off for good behavior (at 6:30 p.m.),” EA Spouse wrote. “This averages out to an eighty-five-hour work week. … The stress is starting to take its toll. After a certain number of hours spent working, the eyes start to lose focus; after a certain number of weeks with only one day off, fatigue starts to accrue and accumulate exponentially.” The essay prompted an outpouring of similar complaints at online forums, and EA Spouse has become something of a folk hero in the computer game industry.
EA Spouse claims that after the furor, the company instituted a new management reform to reduce crunch time, but the workload has yet to ease substantially. But on that mythical day when EA Spouse’s spouse actually doesn’t have to go into the office, he or she will have all the seared foie gras he or she can eat.
I wish I had the solution for this problem, but I’m too busy redoing my kitchen.