(Editor’s note: This review comes from Ben Terrall, a writer based in San Francisco, California, whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Bay View, In These Times, CounterPunch, and Noir City. Terrall last wrote for January Magazine about How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, by Jason Stanley.)
In recent years a plethora of books have been published about the rise of Silicon Valley’s giant technology companies. Some are filled with breathless cheerleading for those titans of cyber-capitalism, others are more critical investigations by a new generation of muckrakers.
Cary McClelland’s Silicon City: San Francisco in the Long Shadow of the Valley (Norton) aims toward the middle of that spectrum. The book goes out of its way to be inclusive, but ultimately comes down on the side of a feel-good message that embraces a slightly reformist take on the current, endlessly expanding model of Big Tech. McClelland, whose book jacket blurb describes him as “a writer, filmmaker, lawyer, and rights advocate,” has put together a wide variety of voices of San Francisco Bay Area residents who speak for themselves, including a book publisher, a landscape architect, several advocates for underserved populations, and various tech workers.
One of the more radical voices in Silicon City is Richard Walker, a geography professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley and author of the excellent 2018 book Pictures of a Gone City: Tech and the Dark Side of Prosperity in the San Francisco Bay Area. Walker’s final comments to McClelland are worth quoting in their entirety: “The whole region is skating on very thin ice, despite its immense wealth. We are multiplying millionaires, billionaires, sure. But it is hard to regenerate your workforce under these conditions. If the working class can’t live within reach of their jobs. If young people cannot afford to put down roots. We are destroying the basis of our prosperity. We are eating our children.”
Well-known San Francisco “cultural sexologist” Carol Queen talks about recent conservative political shifts she has seen in the city, and says of the well-to-do “straight kids” in the upscale Hayes Valley neighborhood, “they are kind of libertarian dicks.” Discussing changes in California in recent decades, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Caille Millner says, “we defunded the schools, and we funded the prisons.” She comments, “California, it feels like we’ve given up on big policy changes. We’ve given up on trying to do big solutions and ceded that ground to the business of tech.” Millner’s vision of the future of tech-dominated Northern California is sardonic: “We natives, those of us who grew up here, the question of our lives is When is the bust coming?” Paul Gillespie, a culturally engaged 40-year veteran of the cab industry who now drives a hybrid taxi, notes the number of young people who are well aware of global warming, but who take Uber and Lyft despite the significant fossil-fuel consumption of their “ride share” luxury vehicles.
I would have liked to hear much more in these pages from Matt Gonzalez, former president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and a longtime public defender. Gonzalez addresses the difficulties of taxing tech companies, whose operations are effectively all over the Bay Area, and concludes, “The whole problem cries out for regional taxation,” but that “It’s going to take time to sort out the new rules. And that’s the thing about tech—they’ve benefited by the fact that government isn’t agile enough to keep up with their blurring of the lines.” The two-page commentary from Gonzalez is the only part of the book where the question of increasing taxes on tech companies is addressed.
Silicon City’s tech-industry respondents include some individuals who address glaring problems within their industry. The CEO of a tech-based dispute-resolution company, for instance, admits that for young people recruited into Silicon Valley, “really their whole life, their whole sense of identity becomes intertwined with the company.” The head of an experimental design team at Google reflects, “We’re saving the world mostly [by] making useless products that solve problems that real people don’t have—it’s problems that rich twenty-year-olds have.” The same designer comments on his fellow tech employees, “You have an entire population of people who really haven’t done a lot of humanistic learning … You can feel that in the callousness, in the oversimplification of political problems.”
But overall, the interviewees in Silicon City who have profited, or hope to profit, from the tech boom tend to be an upbeat, can-do lot who see their overall mission as one of positive change involving much more than just making bucketloads of high-denomination currency. These wealthy and would-be-wealthy participants in California’s modern-day gold rush are hard-core proponents of the power of positive thinking.* They generally view the disruption (a favorite industry buzzword in Northern California) that their companies engage in as a healthy phenomenon that shakes up moribund, antiquated sectors of the economy. There is a profound irony deficit among the tech types represented here, and not a lot of critical self-reflection. Their tone tends to be extremely earnest, as with the venture capitalist whose e-mail signature reads “Be Excellent to Each Other.”
Many of the new Silicon Valley elites see themselves as saviors of humanity (e.g., Mark Zuckerberg’s self-described mission to connect ever-increasing numbers of people around the globe), and Silicon City’s pre-eminent example of that tendency is “angel investor” Ron Conway. Conway, an early backer of Google and Facebook, presents himself as a philanthropist who cares deeply about San Francisco and stresses that he promotes volunteerism at tech-related events around the city. McClelland describes the fabulously wealthy investor as “[expressing] passionate support for various liberal causes—gun control, open immigration, gender parity in the tech industry.” But, he continues, “Conway wrestles with the dissonance that plagues many of the area’s most influential executives: Why does he face so much criticism from people to his political left?”
One example of Ron Conway’s political track record that sheds light on why he encounters criticism from activists he calls “haters” is his dumping $275,000 in 2012 to help pass Proposition E, which lowered tax rates on Twitter and other tech companies Conway had invested in. Another is the role that the inadequately regulated “sharing economy” stalwart Airbnb, another Conway investment, has played in taking rental units off the housing market. Conway’s approach to political debate doesn’t help, either: He tells McClelland, “the progressives of San Francisco have too much of a voice … they want a bunch of people to leave and make room for low-income people … so I actually think it’s really healthy if we shut them out.”
Author McClelland interjects his thoughts in brief passages between the various sections of this book and describes each of his interviewees with brief capsule biographies. He is obviously impressed by the ingenuity of tech-industry figures he speaks to, but acknowledges negative aspects of the tech boom; his book also includes the voices of activists and other tech skeptics who point out glaring problems in contemporary San Francisco associated with that boom, including skyrocketing numbers of evictions, unaffordable housing, jaw-dropping income disparities between the rich and the poor, and 20,000 homeless students in San Francisco Unified School District.
One of McClelland’s key themes, which he returns to repeatedly, is that all of the various sectors of San Francisco should work together to create a more positive future for everyone. He writes, “The challenge for the Bay Area is not whether it can choose one identity—libertarian tech supercity or state-sponsored liberal utopia—but whether it can find some harmony where the best of each can merge.” Although he vaguely alludes to some people in tech as “villains,” others are “dreaming of connecting the world, of optimism, opportunity, and a new global harmony.” But given that as the tech giants accumulate ever more wealth and power they show few signs of wanting to do anything other than accumulate more wealth and power, McClelland’s Kumbaya yearnings seem like little more than centrist pipe dreams shaped by too much slick corporate PR and an aversion to excessive boat rocking.
Investigative journalist Yasha Levine has no such skittishness, as evidenced by his hard-hitting 2018 book Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet. Levine digs into an area of Silicon Valley’s history ignored by McClelland’s book: the early, and ongoing, ties between the U.S. military-industrial complex and the tech sector. Levine lays out how the internet grew out of ARPANET, an early computer network funded by an arm of the U.S. Department of Defense called the Advanced Research Projects Agency. During the Vietnam War, ARPA developed an internet prototype to spy on people perceived as threats, both domestic and foreign. Today, Google, Facebook, and Amazon routinely spy on their customers for profit while at the same time maintaining profitable ties with the military. Levine argues that “the internet was developed as a weapon and remains a weapon today. American military interests continue to dominate all parts of the network, even those that supposedly stand in opposition.”
Reading Silicon City gave me a greater appreciation for tech critic Jason Silverman’s more skeptical take on Silicon Valley millionaires and billionaires. In his 2015 book, Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection, Silverman wrote, “Internet giants don’t deserve our deference. As with government, our relationships with them should be adversarial, full of skepticism and critique. They show little loyalty to us, collecting, mining, and selling ever more of our data, and they should receive little in return.” Silverman adds, “We should be savvy enough, in this state of late capitalism, to be skeptical of any corporate power that claims to be our friend or acting in our best interests.” Amen to that. ◊
* For further confirmation of this tendency, see freelance journalist Corey Pein’s hilarious investigation of Northern California start-up culture, Live Work Work Work Die: A Journey into the Savage Heart of Silicon Valley. Pein writes at one point that “the tone at the Startup Conference, at Ad:Tech, and at basically every public function I’d attended since setting foot in California, was so relentlessly upbeat [because] the system demands positivity. To speak of a chart that went down—to admit to so much as a glimmer of pessimism—was beyond comprehension. It was simply taken for granted that the tech industry itself was a kind of perpetual motion machine driving humanity to ever greater heights. And the unshakeable optimism extended to everyone who participated in the industry, even as a hanger on.”
READ MORE: “Who’s Really Buying Property in San Francisco?” by Alexis C. Madrigal (The Atlantic).