I Refuse to Choose Between Artists and Techies

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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 info@thebolditalic.com.

By Emma McGowan

I am an artist: I’m a writer, a painter, a seamstress, and a scribbler. I’m also a techie, both as part of a startup and as a writer for a tech blog. Until last fall, I didn’t realize that loving both of those worlds put me smack-dab in the center of a major culture war.

Does being part of the “tech community” mean I have to hand in my lifelong artist card? In this war between us and them, am I an “us” or a “them?” Does loving startups mean that the community of artists I’ve always been a part of can no longer love me back?

These are questions that keep me up at night.

I know that sounds dramatic – melodramatic, even – but anyone living in San Francisco right now knows that the hysteria surrounding tech culture’s impact on artist culture is rising fast and it is dramatic. This kind of rapid social change is less like a tide gently coming in and more like a 1906-style earthquake, knocking us all off our feet. It’s disruptive and violent and, frankly, scary.

I hate the name-calling; I hate the yelling; I hate the bricks being thrown. I also hate seeing people pushed out of their homes and I really fucking hate the fact that my boyfriend and I have to pay close to $2,000 (my portion equaling more than half of my monthly income) for a room in a shared apartment.

But after spending months talking and listening and thinking about it, I’ve decided that I don’t have to choose sides. I’m an artist and I’m a techie and I’m proud of both of those things. I don’t see anything inherently contradictory in being both and I’m really starting to believe that this split, this massive rift, exists mainly to keep bloggers and activists in business because it’s so much easier when it’s “us” versus “them.”

My integration into the startup community was painless largely because what I’ve found here is extremely similar to the artistic and activist communities I’ve been a part of for my entire life: my mom’s a potter, my dad does video, and I refused to go to school during my freshman year of high school until my guidance counselor cut gym and gave me an art class instead.

My startup founder friends are driven by many of the same things my artist and activist friends and family are driven by. They have a deep commitment to creating something incredible out of nothing, to changing the world on a grand scale, to beauty.

I know a company that is promoting short stories by unknown writers in a world where traditional publishing is dying and most of us are happy to be published anywhere, for free. I know a designer who has teamed up with a community activist to put artists back to work creating beautiful images of our national parks, a re-creation of a WPA program from the New Deal. I know scores of woodworkers, painters, writers, actors, and musicians who are part of startups that either integrate their art or help them pay their rent so they can keep creating.

Anyone who thinks that working in the tech world is the antithesis of art probably hasn’t spent any time inside a coworking space or an accelerator. Founders spend their days (and, most of the time, nights and weekends) thinking about how they can solve tricky problems that people are facing, how they can “disrupt” industries that have become complacent. So many of them aren’t in it for the money but for the impact. The idealism, sometimes, is truly astounding.

And yes, okay, there are money-grubbing jerks out there. There are assholes who are in it solely for the buyout, who couldn’t give two fucks about making society better.

But you know what? I can point you to some real class acts in the artistic community as well; misogynistic dickheads who call themselves musicians or narcissistic “painters” who talk more than they produce. Their existence doesn’t negate the tens of thousands of artists who are out there to change the world through their expression, who do what they do because they can’t imagine doing anything else, just as the existence of a few class A assholes in the tech community doesn’t negate the existence of the thousands of entrepreneurs who are in it for the exact same reasons. 

So when Mikko, the founder of a startup that provides journalists with metrics to measure their real-world impact, tells me about the windowless room off of a barbershop that he has rented for $900 a month, a deal in this crazy housing market because the owner cuts hair in it all day on Saturday – I nod my head in recognition and think ...

Fuck it. I’m an us and a them.

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Published on January 30, 2014

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