The Next Silicon Valley

The Silicon Valley-ization of San Francisco

The press portrays a ruthless band of techno-libertarians taking over the city. The reality is much different.

Peter Thiel
Peter Thiel does not speak for the silent majority.

Photo by Fred Prouser/Reuters

Silicon Valley has been reaching its tentacles into San Francisco for some time now, just as the suburban tech companies of Puget Sound—Microsoft, Amazon, and now Google and Facebook too—infiltrated Seattle. But the scale of the San Francisco infestation is far greater. For years, increasing numbers of techies have been commuting from San Francisco to the Valley, but with startups increasingly populating San Francisco itself, the foreign host seems to have taken up native residence. The indigenous populations are concerned that they are being invaded by pod people seeking to turn San Francisco into the Next Silicon Valley. These pod people raise the rents, they have their own buses, and many of them don’t know who Cesar Chavez was.  (N.B. I am a New York pod person who used to work for Google.)

The archetype of the Silicon Valley techno-libertarian is inimical to everything that artist-friendly, countercultural, way-left-of-American-center San Francisco has historically stood for. Ex-PayPal billionaire Peter Thiel is the de facto spokesman for these types, whether he’s complaining about how it’s not politically correct “to articulate certain truths about the inequality of abilities,” or funding Ron Paul, or wanting to abolish the Food and Drug Administration, or bemoaning how giving women the right to vote hurt the libertarian cause. Yes, he gives back, but in the form of utopian moonshots at the technological singularity.

Back on planet Earth, you’ve also got the founder of seed accelerator Y Combinator, Paul Graham, another smart fellow with a bit of a John Galt complex. He says that most people think that it’s unfair that 5 percent of people have half the total worth, but “an experienced programmer would be more likely to think is that all?” Or there’s Greg Gopman, until recently the CEO of San Francisco–based AngelHack, who thinks that “there should be an area of town for degenerates and an area of town for the working class,” as he posted on Facebook earlier this month. “The difference is in other cosmopolitan cities,” Gopman added, “the lower part of society keep to themselves.” (During a protest against Google’s buses, a union organizer exploited this Monty Burns persona by posing as a Google employee and shouting at protesters, “This is a city for the right people who can afford it.”)

Gopman is a caricature of the quintessential Silicon Valley go-getter as often portrayed in the tech press: a young white male, innovative, wet behind the ears, indifferent to social convention, and soon very rich thanks to a hot new idea that attracts a wave of venture capitalist cash his way. It’s a testament to the capitalist dream at work, the power of innovation when the government just stays out of the picture and lets the Galts of the world take over. Their ideal vision of San Francisco would indeed be a scary place, where the rich could call the shots on the grounds that they are “giving back” in the form of productivity and jobs, even if a huge chunk of the population is excluded from those benefits.

But theirs is not the San Francisco that the majority of techies would like to see. It is just the vision of the most loudmouthed techies. The VC/startup crowd presented in the press is only one facet of a larger culture, and hardly the most flattering one.

As a software engineer, here are some rough statistical generalizations I can make based on the thousands of engineers—not businesspeople or execs, though some later moved into those roles—whom I’ve met in the field. They are male by a significant margin. They are otherwise the most diverse group of people I have ever been around, with a sizable percentage of immigrants from Asia, Europe, and South America. Particularly after George W. Bush’s election, there appeared to be very few Republicans among them. More of them go to Burning Man than to church. They are reflexively social libertarians. (The tech scene contains a strong polyamorous community, for example.) They are openly horrified by the irrationalism of much American political discourse of the right and center-right, by which I mean everyone from James Inhofe to Max Baucus—i.e., well over half of the Senate. Like economists Joseph Stiglitz and Nouriel Roubini as well as Warren Buffett, they see that inequality does not make for a stable political system, and they are broadly supportive of public policy measures that would help rebalance the scales. They don’t complain about taxes much. They don’t reflexively loathe Big Government—a programmer friend of mine marveled at what a mess was next to the elegant and efficient government-run health website of Sweden—but they don’t think of it as the cure for all ills. Remember, a lot of these people are from the former Soviet Union and China, and are fully aware that calling Obamacare “Communist” is tantamount to spitting on the memories of millions dead. If they happen to live in a district with great public schools, they’d send their kids there both for cost and civic reasons; if they don’t, they won’t martyr their family to a dysfunctional educational system. Hence, expensive private schools.

For these more rank-and-file techies, the Next Silicon Valley should not go to über-capitalist, libertarian extremes. Instead, it should be a pragmatic assemblage of what has worked best around the world—a functioning, integrated society, not one in which the haves and the have-nots barely speak the same language. (Note that Silicon Valley’s decadelong congressional representative, Mike Honda, is a hardcore liberal, winning his past two elections with more than 70 percent of the vote.)

The lay techies are not flashy, tend not to seek attention, and tend to associate with like-minded individuals. Like-minded individuals largely do not include tech journalists, who tend to lack basic technical knowledge. (Hey, I just report what I hear.) So the tech journalists instead go to the flashy entrepreneurs who will talk to them: people like Greg Gopman and Yahoo’s old-boy network. And those tech journalists who are most contemptuous of Silicon Valley archetypes, like Valleywag’s Sam Biddle, spend more time writing click bait about those wannabe Howard Roarks than about the far more influential techies who founded, say, MoveOn and ActBlue. Founded in 2004 by theoretical physicist Ben Rahn and MIT computer science grad Matt DeBergalis, ActBlue has attempted to continue the Howard Dean campaign’s decentralized-network model for grassroots political activism, even as the Democratic Party hasn’t embraced it. DeBergalis has a new startup, Meteor, an open-source Web app development platform more interesting than Coin, Bitcoin, and Uber put together. But as I said, programmers don’t read tech journalism.

Neither ActBlue nor its compatriots like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee—which was co-founded by the late cyberactivist Aaron Swartz and initiated the successful Draft Elizabeth Warren campaign—are enough to undo the income inequality that has ballooned in America over the past 30 years, and that has hit the middle and working classes of San Francisco particularly hard. Progressive organizations like these have a vision for the future of San Francisco—and for every place that could become a Next Silicon Valley—that represents the majority of tech workers’ beliefs. They are better bellwethers for the tech laity than the seething froth that populates the front pages of TechCrunch and Pando. These kinds of sites follow money rather than technology, they interview the wrong people about the wrong things, and they contribute to the image of Silicon Valley as a bunch of entitled white boys. Silicon Valley has its fair share of those sorts, but they drown out the voices we should really be listening to.