this is one thousand eight hundred and forty two words about the tech industry

*I’ve been stewing over George Packer’s New Yorker piece on Silicon Valley and its politics since Friday. Like Packer, I grew up in the Bay Area, but whereas he lived in Palo Alto in the 70s (pre-Silicon Valley days), I grew up alongside a burgeoning Silicon Valley in the 90s and early aughts. My mother started her own company that sold computer hardware and microchips out of a small office in Sunnyvale (at one point it was robbed at gunpoint. Believe it or not, there were gangs that specialized in hardware robberies). My father was an engineer at Hewlett-Packard for ten years and worked on the inkjet printers there. Because of the pace that Silicon Valley has developed, their jobs seem antiquated now.

*My parents sent me to a private school in San Jose that capitalized on technology early on. Beginning in the fourth grade, we had to take computer classes. First, we learned rudimentary skills like typing, which we practiced on Skittle-colored iMac G3s. Later we graduated to basic graphic design. In sixth grade we used AlphaSmarts to type up essays in class, beamed them to printers, and turned in our tests, typed and printed. Computers were a compulsory part of our education; in fact, we were required to bring laptops to school everyday in high school. My classmates were hackers and nerds, who helped the less technologically-inclined of us break through school-sanctioned firewalls so that we could chat on AIM and access Facebook. These were the same kids who were rigging up their Nintendos in the hallway so that they could play video games during school hours. In order to graduate, I reluctantly took AP Computer Science, in which the complexities of the Java scripting language made me want to punch the teacher in the stomach (he looked like Luigi but had Mario’s belly). Though I had no concept of “startups,” I even wrote about Tesla and Pandora for my high school newspaper.

*I grew up in the Silicon Valley bubble, among kids whose parents were tech execs—the very first of the crop, like SanDisk and Marvell. These were kids whose families owned private jets and Lamborghinis, and who always had the latest Apple products before they were even released to the public. Now, after four years at school on the east coast, I’m back in Silicon Valley, working at a tech company.

*All that to say—George Packer’s article was an anthropological criticism of where I grew up and the world I am currently inhabiting. I’ve traveled quite extensively, and I lived in Cambridge, MA for four years, but I call Silicon Valley home. At some level, however, I’ve always felt like an outsider. I was the poetry-obsessed, literature-loving girl at a high school filled with math and science geeks; now, I am one of the few people at an engineer-heavy company who holds a non-technical position. Despite feeling like an outsider, I still felt incredibly convicted by his article. The libertarian leanings, the “inward looking places [that] keep tech workers from having even accidental contact with the surrounding community,” the delusion that technology is changing the world even as issues social justice and economic inequality go largely ignored, and the selfish gentrification of once-gritty San Francisco neighborhoods were not only familiar in sound—they concretely comprise my reality.

*There are so many strands here, but I’ll begin with politics. Steven Johnson addressed Packer’s observation about Silicon Valley’s libertarian leanings with an argument based in partisanship and equity distribution, to which Packer countered, “the Valley’s libertarianism is [...] not at all doctrinaire, or party-dependent [...]; it’s an instinctive aversion to government intruding on the work being done in its labs and startups [...]  It’s about a particular brand of utopianism that sees solutions for social and political problems in the industry’s products and attitudes.” I think these statements, though broad generalizations, are correct. That they are difficult to substantiate with statistics and concrete figures is besides the point. What Packer (and so many New Yorker writers) does successfully here is capture the ethos of an industry—of this tech world.

*It’s not that every single person is politically unaware or libertarian or passive; it’s that there is an underlying (or overarching) attitude about what tech can do for the world, and how these models of efficiency and efficacy are prized solutions to humanity’s problems ... if only our systems and institutions could adopt these models. The idea that everyone can benefit from technology is naive and delusional, especially because most of the people who do benefit from the newest technology are the ones creating it, the ones who already have both a lifestyle and infrastructure in place that can support technological enhancements. The trickle-down effect of technology is slow-going, and I am inspired by the companies that are using technology for healthcare, or medical advice, or charitable giving, like Hamish McKenzie mentions in his rebuttal to Packer, but if we look at the overwhelming focus of the tech industry—in other words, where money is being invested--it’s largely self-serving and self-gratifying.

*To support this point, I looked at the top 10 deals that VCs invested across all sectors in 2012 (a grand total of $5.86 billion). They were Genband ($343.5 million), Air Watch ($200 million), Pinterest ($200 million), LivingSocial ($110 million), NestLabs ($80 million), AppNexus ($75 million), Intrexon ($64.4 million), Domo ($60 million), PTC Therapeutics ($60 million), and SevOne ($60 million). Of these ten, only two make obvious positive contributions to our society (others you could possibly argue in a convoluted way). Half of these are software companies that serve business interests: GenBand provides “smart networking solutions for service providers and enterprises,” AirWatch provides Mobile Device, Application, and Content Management solutions; SevOne provides IT management and reporting platforms; AppNexus is an advertising technology platform; and Domo is a business intelligence dashboard for the cloud. Pinterest (which I use) indulges women who have the time and luxury of collecting online images. Nest is a $250 luxury object--a sleek thermostat which gives owners more control over their home thermostats, and LivingSocial is a daily deals website. Besides the energy-saving potential of Nest, it’s difficult to argue that any of these companies—the ones that VCs are investing the most money in—are doing even slight good—tangibly, concretely—for \ our society. It was relieving to find that two of these companies, at least—PTC Therapeutics and Intrexon—are biotech companies working in RNA and DNA biology to make some contribution to healthcare and cell therapy.

*But what was very clear to me in this survey of the top ten deals are the tech industry’s values (and these are the very keywords splashed on many of these companies’ homepages): efficiency, elegance, profitability, and scalability. I’ll add entertainment to that list, seeing how 42% of VC deals in mobile in Q1 of 2013 was in gaming. Aren’t these values all ultimately narcissistic and egotistical? George Packer’s criticism of the tech industry isn’t that it is morally obligated to improve society; he points out the subversive hypocrisy that results from the discrepancy between the claims the tech industry makes (about how it is changing the world for the better) and what it actually values. The mandate that I’ve taken from this is that the tech industry needs to look outside of its bubble and into the community that has fostered its existence instead of deluding itself into thinking that it can make positive changes without real engagement. And here’s the thing about issues like social justice, homelessness, and poverty: there are no elegant and efficient solutions.

*(I will concede though, that it’s possible for a tech company to have extremely positive and suprising benefits on society without those benefits being intended from the outset. Take Twitter, for example, and how life-saving (literally) it’s been in the wake of natural disasters, current events, and rapid-fire journalism.)

*For someone like me, who is a part of the tech industry but lacks buying power, authority, or much voice, what all of this comes down to is where my energy is invested on a day-to-day basis: the places, people, and communities I am a part of, what I give my thought and our attention to, the services that I buy into, and the causes I support. I am very guilty of selectively supporting local establishments (e.g. (read: Bi-Rite, Tartine, the bourgeois establishments of Valencia Street) and “sharing” economies (e.g. Lyft, Sidecar, Taskrabbit—which aren’t truly sharing economies, as they really only benefit the wealthy in a way that might be to the detriment of the poor) while shirking, or at least shying away from, civic responsibility. It’s not that I don’t care about the community around me; it’s that I am selective about both the community and social issues I actually invest my money, time and energy in, and that largely excludes many of the issues that Packer mentions.

*I’m don't blame my childhood in Silicon Valley for my attitude towards politics, but my own political beliefs, up until recently, are either a confirmation or a symptom of the problem that Packer describes. I’ve spent most of my life with an indifference to politics, claiming that the system is too corrupt a bureacracy, too helpless and imperfect to afford my participation—or my care. I haven’t taken the time to learn about governance, and I didn’t vote in the last election. Yet my recognition of institutional flaws, without any action on my part, is merely denigration and resignation. The man who has changed my own view on politics, as of late, has been (another New Yorker writer) Hendrick Hertzberg. In the introduction to his compendium of essays Politics, he writes about Dwight MacDonald, saying that in MacDonald’s conception of politics, like his own, “what counted were the ideas, the ethics, the values—even the aesthetics. He seldom lingered over such trivialities as Democrats, Republicans, and elections.” The way Hertzberg writes about politics is humanizing, and I no longer see myself as apart from the system but as a part of it. This means that my daily choices, no matter how small, become larger life principles over time. These principles reflect my own values as a person, and my values are shaping the ethos of this community.

*I don’t have any answers for the problems that George Packer points out, but I do think that this discussion about the state of the tech industry—what it values, where it places its money, and how it is or can be (more) involved in our political system—is an important one. After all, with the amount of buying power it has, it has the potential and the intellect to be a game-changer. Instead of going about our daily lives mindlessly devoted to our algorithms, luxury objects, and iPhone apps, maybe we can begin taking action, even if just small ones, to better understand what San Francisco needs and how we can, with our time, energy, and money, address those needs as our own.


this is the forty-niner spirit

Last night I attended a lecture called Sacred Roots in Secular Soil, given in conjunction by two pastors, Dave Lomas & John Tyson. What follows recounts some of the facts/connections/conjectures made in that lecture and also contains my own reactive thoughts and reflections.


*I never thought that being a Bay Area native would be a rarity in San Francisco. But it is. It’s not uncommon that I’ll receive an incredulous response when I tell someone that I grew up in the South Bay. “Wow, so you’re actually from around here!” they’ll say. “Yep, born and raised,” I respond. Once someone even said, “I think you’re the first person that I’ve met who’s ACTUALLY a Bay Area native.” I was shocked.

*Most cities, by nature of short-term apartment leases, constantly changing neighborhoods, and a large population of young inhabitants, foster a culture of transience, but San Francisco (and perhaps New York) does so more than other cities. San Francisco is notorious for its out-of-town transplants, people who’ve come here to strike it rich with the Silicon Valley boom. Sounds familiar right? And not without historical precedent either. The get-rich-quick phenomenon isn’t new—it dates back to the Gold Rush, in 1848, which led to the fastest growth in population that San Francisco had ever experienced. A city that began with 200 people in 1846 became a population of 36,000 by 1852.That’s a population that was getting 45 times bigger every year, or 180 times bigger over the course of four years.

*Though the earliest gold-seekers were mostly Californians, by 1849, news of the Gold Rush had spread, and that’s when thousands of what we now call “forty-niners”—East Coasters, Australians, New Zealanders, Latin Americans, Asians, and Europeans—made their way to California. In 1849, this group numbered about 90,000; by 1855, this group had grown to 300,000. One interesting demographic to note about these individuals is that they were mostly men—either single or men who had left their families.

*The mentality that gave birth to the riches that lay the groundwork for San Francisco is one of rootlessness. That the forty-niners came for the money meant that their attachment to this city was merely financial. There wasn’t much reason to stay if they didn’t find the gold they were looking for, and if they stayed, it was until they could strike it rich. Then they could send money back to their families, or find a way to live a good life here. “Eureka,” which literally means “I found it!” is our state motto. Like most urban migrants, we arrive in cities to find something. Sometimes we find it, and then we leave; some people never find what they’re looking for at all, and they leave, jaded and dissatisfied. It can be difficult to truly feel like you’re building a life with some semblance of permanence. San Francisco does a good job of fostering city pride through its sports teams and strange traditions, but we rarely lay down our roots in our neighborhoods (and by neighborhoods, I probably mean micro-neighborhoods). We’re never in one place too long. Our living situations are temporary, and so is our sense of being here.

*The Gold Rush-incited mass movement into California was the start of what we now call gentrification, a densensitized and somewhat euphemistic term we use to describe the process of kicking out old residents by increasing rent. I know this is a simplistic view of a much more complex system, one in which I am very much implicated, but this is essentially what happened at the time of the Gold Rush too. Native Americans were forcibly removed from their land, resulting in thousands of deaths. When we come into a neighborhood unaware of its history and unconcerned with its existing culture and population, we’re not only at a disadvantage, but we're doing harm through ignorance. To distance ourselves even more by not fully engaging with the immediate community means that we draw a line between “us”’ and “them,” “us” being the sojourners who will leave in awhile but take what we need in the mean time, and “them” being the people who have probably been here way longer than we have. Sometimes we make these people "them" because their lives are more harder to relate to because of cultural or linguistic or economic barriers, but none of these barriers preclude community engagement.

*I’ve been back in the Bay Area for nearly a year now. I live in a furnished apartment, which makes it all the more difficult to feel like this is my home. My one-year lease on this apartment is almost up, and I’ll have to decide soon if I want to move elsewhere. But I realized last night that planting roots and investing in community is not contingent on my living situation. Instead, it’s an attitude and a posture that requires that my time and energy and money be spent here. It requires getting to know the people on my street and opening my eyes to the day-to-day happenings of my neighborhood. This isn’t going to be easy, but I don’t want to be a forty-niner, trying to strike it rich: here today, gone tomorrow.

*In high school, I used to take the BART into the Mission. I knew even back then, when the Mission was a vastly different landscape, that I wanted to live in that neighborhood. I sensed a special vibrance in the place, one that felt communal, one that felt like it was building and renewing and creating. I was so smitten by the colorful murals and the Mexican bakeries with their sugary, colorful pastries. I even knew the cross streets of my desired residence, and somehow, that’s where I ended up.

*I work in the tech world, a world full of modern-day forty-niners, a world where the Internet makes it so much easier to excuse ourselves from our immediate community except at times when it serves our own selfish needs. I’m still struggling with how I can begin to invest in and give to my community, and in the process, cultivate the relationships that will root me in this very neighborhood. In twenty years, I hope I’m still here in the Mission, but first: I need to go meet my neighbors.


this is me doing me

*This morning I woke up, ate a breakfast that involved copious amounts of bread and peanut butter, and walked half a block to catch the 33 bus to the Panhandle. The bus was fairly empty, which wouldn’t have been surprising on any other Sunday morning, but it was on this day, the only Sunday of the year when the young denizens of San Francisco are awake before 10 am. Then again, the Bay to Breakers festivities had started at 7 am, which meant I was late to the party.

*You can tell a lot about the cultural pride of a place by the events that they value. Until Linsanity, most people I knew at Harvard had never attended a basketball game (and even then, he was probably held up more as an athletic token than as a reason to be interested in basketball). At Duke, students camp out to get tickets to March Madness (there are regularly scheduled tent checks to prove tent occupancy). In other words, basketball at Harvard? Very little pride. Basketball at Duke? A completely a different story. Despite the grandiosity of events like Oktoberfest (Berlin) or the Royal Coronation (UK), much can also be extracted about the everyday culture of those places. These extractions aren’t necessarily profound truths, like the fact that people in Berlin really enjoy beer and sausages, or that pomp and circumstance and the dignity of the queen are very important to Brits, but all of these things trickle down to the quotidian—the everyday conversations and interactions you’ll have in a place.

*If festivals and sporting events are apt representations of the cities they’re held in, then Bay to Breakers is fairly accurate. Today was the 102nd annual Bay to Breakers, which is one of the largest footraces in the world, running from the Embarcadero (the Bay) to Ocean Beach (the Breakers). It’s known largely for its crazy costumes, nudity, and debauchery, which typify San Francisco events (most events are riffs off of Halloween it seems; nowadays, nudity is unremarkable and costumes less than impressionable). Is it a race that is actually run? Perhaps, but mostly, it’s partied.

*As an inhabitant of San Francisco, I felt a twinge of obligation to participate in Bay to Breakers, which is a factor of both peer pressure and being twenty-two. And by participate, I don’t mean run. I mean, make an appearance, an expectation I imposed on myself which is the result of that silly thing called FOMO.

*Gentle prodding from a friend was all it took for me to agree to go, which is how I ended up on the 33 bus this morning. I met her at Haight and Stanyan, and we walked two blocks to the Panhandle, where throngs of inebriated revelers, clad in brightly-colored spandex, obtrusive costumes made from very cheap and surely uncomfortable fabric, and often nothing at all, were parading down Fell street. Coordinated group costumes, like the flour-covered bakers in chef hats and the secret service agents who were really nerdy dudes wearing plastic wayfarer imitations and iPod headphones and the people wearing cardboard boxes, were mildly entertaining, even endearing for a few minutes or so. For me, the entertainment value is inversely proportional to the number of septuagenarian penises I see hanging out, though arguably, those free-falling appendages are this city’s charms.

*Though sixty-four year olds are allowed to say that they don’t like large crowds, apparently at twenty-two, saying so makes me a misanthrope. After thirty minutes of merely spectating the Bay to Breakers parade, I felt over-stimulated, as I tend to be often these days. In my apartment, I prefer silence. Despite my self-diagnosed addiction to it, the Internet is too much noise for me. That I have such an extreme aversion to the environments that I’m told I should be loving as a twenty-two year old living in San Francisco (night clubs, bars, raucous parties) is either the consequence of or catalyst to living inside my head, which is a constant and noisy stream of mostly trivial thoughts. And because I’m mostly alcohol and drug-free, there are very few aids to help with the desensitization. Besides, I like my five senses.

*I left Bay to Breakers not too long after I arrived. For me, the most dreaded part of going to any social event is telling my friends why I want to leave. I don’t make excuses; the truth is that when I leave, I just really don’t want to be there. For people who don’t share my constitution, I am an enigma, and more likely, a killjoy. Though I often feel like a misfit for leaving a nightclub before midnight so that I can go home and listen to a podcast and thumb through magazines, I console myself for failing social expectations by telling myself, “different strokes for different folks.” Don’t get me wrong—I love living in a city and I love talking to people—I even enjoy the occasional chat with a stranger—but I’ve resigned myself to not knowing and not adhering to my idea of what a typical Saturday night for a twenty-two year old is. I refuse to subscribe to the idea that this resignation means I'm wasting my twenties away. I'm just choosing how I want to live it, and it's a choice without regret. 

*One of my best friends tells me, in a coy and slightly mocking tone, “Do you.” “Do you what you do,” is what he means. Do the things you love to do and do the things that make you who you are. Bay to Breakers is the San Francisco thing to do—and I will always love the free, unthinking, and fun-loving spirit of it all, but I’m here doing me: in my living room, typing away, with tea and cookies in reach.


this is tooley's in tucson





*In the morning we filled up on a long and leisurely breakfast consisting of non-delicate delicacies of the southwest: corn pancakes with jalapeno syrup, pulled pork, black beans, drippy eggs, and horchata lattes. These were breakfast staples made better by their use of regional ingredients, like coarsely ground cornmeal, which made the pancakes dense and cakey like flattened cornbread, and jalapeno syrup, which, like spicy hot chocolate or sweet chili sauce or Red Hots, playfully binds together the flinchingly hot and the soothingly sweet.

*Becca’s Saturday plan to eat at Tooley’s, a small cafe on a dusty strip of antique furniture warehouses, was the only definitive food plan for the entire weekend. She was insistent. There was nothing better than Tooley’s in Tucson. She said the food was great, but I knew she meant that the memories she built there made the food even greater. No food is better than the memory of having eaten it, of having shared it with another in a very particular physical, mental, and emotional space. Every repeated trip to a restaurant is a longing to re-conjure or prolong or change or rewrite the memories that we’ve stored there. Every craving for a food we enjoyed is a pretense for the desire of a certain feeling we want to experience again.

*We arrived by bike, having made our way through downtown Tucson, under a freeway overpass, through the rattlesnake tunnel, and out onto a street that aptly represented the Tucson aesthetic: colorful, dusty, rusted, and spacious. The walls inside Tooley’s were plastered with bright florals. Succulents with small orange buds gave life to the mostly empty tables. There were three teens in loose cut-off tanks eating inside, and a few people trickled in behind us. We ordered at the counter.

*Becca ordered the same breakfast that she orders every Saturday, “the perfect mixture of sweet and savory,” she told me. If breakfast was psychotherapy, hers would be Gestalt, a whole greater than the sum of its parts. She knew which sides she needed to achieve an optimal balance of gritty and smooth, of smoke and spice, of dirt and fat--the range of flavors in which subtle dischord becomes perfect harmony. Our food came compartmentalized into various plates and bowls, but Becca’s breakfast fantasy, like most of our fantasies do, demanded a specific combination of elements. First she dumped the syrup onto the pancakes, then the black beans, then the pulled pork; then she poked her eggs to break to the membrane of the quivering yolk. A yellow pool seeped into the spongy crevices of her pancakes, mixing like acrylic paints into the black of the beans and the ruddy brown of the pulled pork. It is difficult to look away from a breaking, oozing yolk, a not-trivial moment of either victory or dismay.

*To indulge in the langour of the morning is to rebel against the movement of the day. The leisurely breakfast is not for finicky or ascetic souls, but for the ones who’ve chosen to sit under the sun, with nowhere to be but here, with no agenda but to talk and eat and breathe and shoot the shit with a warm breeze rippling through the rays of heat. We’re here to sop up the yolk and grease and syrup of life during this time of day when the sun is moving from the east onto its overhead perch, and the sleepy souls who’ve yet to sober up are still tucked away in their beds. To get lost in thought, to sit comfortably in silence with another, to be grateful for life’s ephemera in this hot sticky stillness--this is breakfast at Tooley’s in Tucson.