An Open Letter to the Tech Community
Editor’s note: this editorial is part of The Bold Italic’s ongoing mission to publish opinions that help move the current tech and culture debate in San Francisco forward. If you have strong opinions on the topic, email your pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Tech Community,
I wanted to write you to try to clear up some fundamental misunderstandings about the recent criticisms directed your way as of late. In addition, I felt it would be valuable to hear directly from somebody who is a part of the young creative community, a community that has helped to provide this city its globally heralded reputation as a forerunner in nearly every social movement of import, but that now is a bona fide endangered species in San Francisco. It is my sincere hope that 2014 will be a transformational year here, a year in which all San Franciscans remember who we are as well as our responsibility to the world and to each other. That hope cannot be realized without the tech industry, so know that I am writing this letter with an eye toward our future wholeness, not our current fissures.
To start off, it’s important that we forget about the buses. They aren’t the problem, and putting the focus on them simply obscures the real issue. The truth is nobody would really be upset if the members of the tech community (I know you don’t care for the term “techies”) who have descended upon San Francisco, paying top dollar for any available apartment, actually understood the meaning of San Francisco and made good on the responsibility of meeting that ideal, which comes with living here.
Much has been made of your attraction to the cultural appeal of San Francisco as opposed to the suburban wasteland that is Silicon Valley, but it should now be plainly obvious that the appeal of our city suffers as people who contribute to that culture are replaced by people who want to be in proximity to it. To put it in terms you would understand, San Francisco is experiencing a real-life Reddit hug of death.
While you all are hard at work bringing the world Farmville or polishing that elevator pitch, those of us who understand that San Francisco is a global beacon of social transformation are either desperately trying to live up to that responsibility through mounting challenges to our work or have already decamped to Oakland.
Look, we know you’re busy. If you stop putting in 60 hours a week, you’re likely to be fired and will be forced to join those of us in what one of you has called the “lower part of society.” Your company will bring in a younger, less-culturally-aware replacement, and we’ll all be back where we started.
I’m not asking anybody to quit their job, but it’d be great if you could carve out a few hours a week to get involved with projects that make San Francisco an attractive place to be – projects like Sunday Streets, Project Homeless Connect, or the Neighborhood Postcard Project.
Even if you don’t have the time to support the cultural lifeblood of this city, there is one thing that some of you very famously do have, something that could be of tremendous help to those of us who are struggling to keep the flame of San Francisco lit – money. For those of us in the creative community who have for years been eking out an existence, it is very much “water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”
I can speak from personal experience. I’ve worked for years to bring San Francisco closer to its ideal by cofounding and running projects like the Wigg Party, which makes the area around the Wiggle bike route more sustainable and more resilient, and the Urban Eating League, an underground dinner competition featuring local food, costumes, and community building.
Not only am I forced to spearhead these projects with minimal aid because everyone who would be a cocreator can no longer afford to live here, but also our entire playbook consists of tactics that require no money because we’ve never received a dime of support in nearly five years of work. I don’t want the money for me – I want to be able to pay other people to work with me so we can grow the organizations and grow our impact (we’ve got, among other projects, a local currency, Wiggle etiquette videos, and the spread of the Urban Eating League to other cities waiting in the wings).
Another project I cofounded this summer is called [freespace]. We convinced the owner of a 14,000-square-foot building at Mission and 7th Streets to let us temporarily use the space for free for two months. We promptly turned the building over to the community to fill it up with events, art, and civic innovation, and our only rule was that everything had to be free and open to everyone. The [freespace] project sent tremors of excitement through the Bay Area creative community, culminating in a front-page article in the Chronicle at the end of July.
Despite formal invitations from [freespace] to many of the big tech companies – including Twitter, whose new headquarters is literally three blocks away from [freespace] and who happens to be contractually obligated to provide benefits to the local community – the big tech names couldn’t be bothered to set foot in our building, let alone lend any sort of support, financial or otherwise. As a sidenote, the Mid-Market tech companies’ official community benefits agreement proposals, recently submitted to the city, are, with the exception of Zendesk’s proposal, wholly underwhelming. The proposals have been rejected by the Citizen’s Advisory Committee but are expected be approved by city officials anyway.
The creative community wouldn’t be up in arms if they felt like they were being pushed out by residents who also understood what it means to be a San Franciscan – people who make time to connect with their neighbors, who don’t treat our great city like a playground for the rich, and who understand that the rest of America and the world look to us to find a way forward on problems like climate change and cultural harmony. If you can’t commit your time or skills to participate in this work, then you have an obligation to commit what you do have – a silly amount of money, to support those who have prioritized this work over financial gain.
Now I already know what you’re thinking: “It’s not our fault that the rent prices are so high; it’s the lack of development in San Francisco during the last 30 years!” And I must admit that the city's development policy has certainly contributed to the housing challenge at the moment. There are surely even more reasons why we currently have the highest rent in the country, thereby making it nearly impossible for anybody who isn’t engaged in the full-time pursuit of a bank account infusion to live here. But I ask you, what’s more likely to happen – the creation of a time machine to go back 30 years to build more housing, or a culture shift within the tech community?
And how might a culture shift happen? Luckily, there already exists a subset within the tech community who have succeeded at both working in that economy and caring about things besides making money. I count some of them as my friends. They participate in the Wigg Party and the UEL and were an important part of the success of [freespace], providing both financial and human support. It’s unfair to them that they must suffer abuse for the failure of the larger tech community.
However, I’ve detected within that tech subset a troubling position – that of the tech apologist. To be sure, the overall criticisms against the tech industry could be more nuanced. Not everyone in that community is fundamentally failing San Francisco, and I can understand feeling defensive when under attack. But I call on you, my enlightened tech brothers and sisters, to live up to an additional responsibility – that of changing the tech culture from the inside.
You must teach your friends and coworkers that tech money can be spent on more than just flannel shirts, fancy restaurants, and traveling to Burning Man to be civically involved one week out of the year. You must explain to them that using new technology and data for social good is eminently more rewarding than the selfish pursuit of financial gain. You must show them what you already understand – that San Francisco is a place where magic is ready to burst forth, where strange and beautiful things happen and reverberate the world over, but only, only if you meet her halfway. I cannot perform this feat for the tech community; it must be done from the inside.
But I have hope. I did not write this letter to chastise or vent. I wrote to you because I honestly believe you play an important part in keeping this city alive. I believe that some of you have gotten swept up in success and the next bountiful paycheck, but that perhaps you started out wanting to use these new technological tools to make the world a better place. The talents and skills you possess are absolutely vital to the solutions to some of our gravest challenges, both in San Francisco and in cities around the world.
I honestly believe that the incomprehensibly wealthy companies many of you work for will come to see San Francisco as more than a source of tax breaks and employee dorm rooms, which will lead to actual investment in our city. A good place to start would be funding the region’s fledgling bike-share program, which remains impotent because it can’t seem to find a corporate sponsor. This tech kerfuffle, this “class war,” must surely be mere birth pains, momentary challenges that yield a greater wholeness, a greater San Francisco.
I honestly believe that 2014 will be the year of awakening in the tech community.
San Francisco and its citizens are famously tolerant. But one thing that won’t be tolerated is the extinguishing of the very spirit that made us want to be a part of it in the first place. In order to become a part of it, you must contribute to it. That’s the only way it works.
I think I speak for all San Franciscans in leaving you with this: let it not be said that as the planet was literally crying out for transformation, San Francisco, the city that had always shown the way forward, was too busy counting its money to give a shit. You are better than that. We are better than that.