Feeling Cynical in San Francisco

I never thought I would say this, but I hate San Francisco. Having worked here full time for one month, I have found little to enjoy about it and much to despise. This, despite growing up very close by, having near monthly access to it, and conceiving of it for the first 23 years of my life as a damn good place to be.

But, I have come to a conclusion: San Francisco is emotionally, spiritually, and sexually dead. Not that people don’t have emotions, experiences of spirit, or sexual escapades here. Au contraire! Such things are legion. Rather, that there is behind much of what goes on… a great emptiness. There is no longer anything in this city for an individual of substance but decay and the new cult religions spawned by progressivism: what I’ve begun to call market optimism, the erroneous faith that the next great invention will cure all social ills and forever, eternally, place us in the light of the sun.

It’s all hogwash. If you spend 40 hours per week streamlining the method for buying a car, that may be useful, but it will never prove true the prognostications of our high priests. Giving rich tourists a better way of buying tours will never solve the gulf people feel between what they are doing, and who they want to be.

I’m weary of it here, but I swear if I see someone smile, I’ll take it all back. I’ve written more on my personal blog. Check it out.

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10 thoughts on “Feeling Cynical in San Francisco

  1. Yeah, I’m not a big fan of the San Francisco of today either. I’m from my LA, so my experience with the Bay Area is limited to weekend/vacation visits, but Oakland and other ‘periphery’ cities feel more like the successors of old SF.

    • The only kind and open people were a couple from LA I met while walking to the BART from work. They wondered what the big building near Civic Center station was, and I helpfully pointed out the series of buildings: City Hall, the Public Library, the Asian Art Museum, etc. San Franciscans today are just dark people, and it’s sad.

  2. I once got laid at City Hall, and took part in a couple of “anti-war” demonstrations (I put ‘anti-war’ in quotation marks because they were simply anti-GOP marches), so Frisco will always have a piece of my dark heart.

    I want to further elaborate on what you mean by “market optimism.” From what I can tell, I would argue that SF is culturally technocratic rather than market optimist. There is no laissez-faire sentiment in San Francisco. There is a common belief that, as you so eloquently point out, technology will save humanity from itself. But from my anecdotal experiences, this technocratic utopia will be driven in tandem with smart, intrusive government that will be too rational and efficient to need hardcore private property rights.

    That’s the Clintonian Left, I think. These guys are the intellectual opposition to Libertarians (capital-L) in the American polity; both factions are higher IQ and progress-oriented, and both factions are ardent free traders and therefore internationalist, and both factions acknowledge that humans are imperfect and legislation that attempts to mold us all into better specimens is morally wrong, but both factions have drastically* different definitions for what constitutes ‘coercion’.

    Basically, you’re looking into the mirror every time you go into San Francisco, but instead of seeing yourself as you are, you see what you could have been if you had decided not to read that first contrarian essay.

    * Drastically by American domestic politics standards. In much of the world, Libertarians (again, capital L) and technocrats are on the same team (known as ‘liberals’) because of strong conservative factions.

    • Yes, exactly. I came up with market optimism when I was trying to think of a good concept for what the technocrats of San Francisco believe about what they are doing, and where they are moving towards in the future. It seems to me a combination of:
      1. Excessive optimism characterized by an anti-conservative disdain for the past. Notice all their buzzwords are things like “disruptive,” “radical change,” “creative destruction,” and what not. I don’t disagree with these ideals per se, but in the haste to destroy the past to make way for the future, I think too much has been destroyed. Not the least our prevailing social order, which I happened to like.
      2. Complete faith in the power of technology to overcome problems. There is nothing that cannot be solved with a new app, a new gadget, a new something.
      3. A strange commingling of market and state idolatry. There seems to be a belief that the technocratic forces of Silicon Valley can join with government and, in doing so, overcome its excesses and mold it into a lean, powerful force for positive social, cultural, and political change. Much in the way that the next hot app can obliterate its competition or, better yet, make them better, the technocrats can reform government to make it better. Witness what has been called the “sharing economy,” a term that is often nebulous but what denotes a free sharing of resources between businesses and creative disrupters for the mutual benefit of all. Sort of a laissez-faire response to Communist utopia.

      Is market optimism the best phrase? Probably not, though there is a strong element of faith – though, as I have argued, a contradictory and strange one – in the laissez-faire economy to overcome all problems, including the problem of government. It’s a blind optimism characterized by adulation of technology. Technocratic optimism? It’s been a long day at the start up and my mind is fried, maybe you have a better one.

      • Out of curiosity where do you place people like Peter Thiel? If he part of the problem with the ‘market optimism’ of San Francisco or-?

      • I am only tangentially familiar with Thiel, but based on his resume, he seems to be a prophet of this sort of market/technocratic optimism, and his rousing success as a businessman gives him disproportionate influence in the process. I’d like to emphasize though that this is a broad-based paradigm shift, a change in group dynamics brought about by these individual inventions. It’s difficult to place blame on anyone’s shoulders, when many of them are as much a product of their times as they are creators of those times.

  3. Get some sleep Matthew! In the mean time, I’d like to lightly scratch at your argument:

    the “sharing economy [is s]ort of a laissez-faire response to Communist utopia […] there is a strong element of faith […] in the laissez-faire economy to overcome all problems, including the problem of government.

    I’m not sure that this is the technocrat’s argument. I don’t see anything laissez-faire about it. Wouldn’t a laissez-faire response include a call to eliminate all taxes on capital and labor (instead, tax the land!)? If I am not mistaken, technocrats want higher tax rates, especially on capital (part of the reason why this faction is internationalist). The technocratic Left wants a more heavily-regulated economy – to be performed by the state – but it reasons that government needs to be smarter about such regulation (and government can do this by becoming more like Silicon Valley). That, I think, is the argument of the technocratic Left. If this is the general argument of the technocratic Left, and I think it is, I am having trouble contemplating how it could be construed as laissez-faire (except maybe by those on the fringe, irrelevant Left).

    RE: Buzzwords: Your point is duly noted, though I’d argue that these guys have no idea what their own buzzwords mean. I would be okay, for example, with betting what little money I have on the fact that few, if any, of them have actually read somebody like Schumpeter (“creative destruction”).

    A more robust scratching is also in order. Can you tell me what you mean when you say that you liked the old social order? As far as I can tell, it sucked.

    • 1. I’m not sure it’s possible to characterize all the technocratic arguments with one stroke. You have noted that there is the leftist, more (better) government argument. I definitely see that. I have also seen a quasi-Communist, post-government utopian vision, where app developers and entrepreneurs will be completely free to create the brave new future: Technology Jesus will descend from the cloud and save us all.

      They’re not unrelated, and they’re frequently united. Which is precisely why I said that there is this weird mixture of one the one hand, adulation of the power of the state (which has harnessed the power of tech), and on the other, a laissez-faire sentiment regarding actual business. They want government to save the world, as long as government becomes Silicon Valley – or more likely, Silicon Valley becomes government. They don’t want interference in their own affairs, but they do want to interfere in the affairs of others.

      This has been my observation from about a month working at a start-up, talking to employees, sitting in meetings, and eavesdropping on conversations. Don’t take it as indicative of the whole, but of my experience.

      2. I agree. It’s appropriation of nice-sounding words to replace the overplayed lexicon of the past. You can’t say passion, you must say zeal! You can’t say dynamism, you must say creative destruction!

      3. You’ve gone back too far in time. I can’t be nostalgic for 1950s America because I did not exist at the time, and I’m too much of a weirdo to have ever had fun in that period. I’m thinking much more recently, before the tech era. When people would talk to each other, people were less jaded, and things were lighter. Maybe when I was a child before 9/11.

      • Ah gotcha. Thanks Matthew.

        a laissez-faire sentiment regarding actual business. They want government to save the world, as long as government becomes Silicon Valley – or more likely, Silicon Valley becomes government. They don’t want interference in their own affairs, but they do want to interfere in the affairs of others.

        Is this laissez-faire, though? Let me quote your passage again, this time with some added emphasis:

        a laissez-faire sentiment regarding actual business. They want government to save the world, as long as government becomes Silicon Valley – or more likely, Silicon Valley becomes government. They don’t want interference in their own affairs, but they do want to interfere in the affairs of others.

        My main concern with your critiques of Silicon Valley culture is that you are misdiagnosing the problem (to a small extent). I still don’t see anything laissez-faire about the Valley’s culture…

  4. There isn’t anything truly laissez-faire about it, but there is the impulse for a free market that is very uneasily juxtaposed with an impulse for a technocratic government. Some times the laissez-faire drops out and the technocracy wins, so you end up with some sort of benevolent, technological autocracy. Sometimes the technocracy loses and you get this laissez-faire sharing economy where apps can resolve the problems of government without becoming government or taking government over, thereby rendering it superfluous.

    Sometimes neither drops out, and you have a weird doublethink. I am confused myself at times when I observe what people think their apps can do. As the Coen Brothers say, “Embrace the mystery.”

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