Seeing cars with no human inside move through San Francisco’s streets is eerie enough as a pedestrian, but when I’m on my bicycle I often find myself riding alongside them, and from that vantage point you catch the ghostly spectacle of a steering wheel turning without a hand. Since August, driverless cars have been available as taxis hailed through apps but I more often see empty cars than ones with backseat passengers. These robots in the shape of cars don’t move like those with human drivers. While I waited next to one at a busy intersection, the vehicle first halted at the yellow light, then rolled into the intersection, where it stopped when the light turned red, confounding the traffic around it.
Still, I’ve become somewhat used to driverless cars in the years they’ve been training on the city’s streets, first with back-up human drivers, and then without. They are here despite opposition from city officials, including the fire chief, and San Francisco recently sued the California state bureau that gave companies licence to use the streets as their laboratory. Firefighters have reported driverless cars attempting to park on firehoses; last June one such car prevented emergency vehicles from reaching victims of a shooting; the vehicles are apparently unequipped to assess these situations and respond by stopping. Direct communication isn’t an option: the only way to get a driverless car to do anything is to contact the company in charge of it.
In early October, a driverless car owned by Cruise, a subsidiary of General Motors, hit a woman who’d just been struck by another car, and in the course of performing what was described as a rote ‘pullover manoeuvre’ dragged her twenty feet, mangling her badly and leaving her trapped under its wheels. The device was unable to detect that it was on top of a human and would not respond to rescuers, who had to lift the car off her. Cruise withdrew its 950 driverless vehicles, but Waymo, a company launched by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, continues to send its cars onto the streets.
Driverless cars are often called autonomous vehicles – but driving isn’t an autonomous activity. It’s a co-operative social activity, in which part of the job of whoever’s behind the wheel is to communicate with others on the road. Whether on foot, on my bike or in a car, I engage in a lot of hand gestures – mostly meaning ‘wait!’ or ‘go ahead!’ – when I’m out and about, and look for others’ signals. San Francisco Airport has signs telling people to make eye contact before they cross the street outside the terminals. There’s no one in a driverless car to make eye contact with, to see you wave or hear you shout or signal back. The cars do use their turn signals – but they don’t always turn when they signal.
The rationales for the introduction of driverless cars include eliminating human error and allowing people with disabilities to get about without having to rely on other human beings. A more convincing rationale is that the corporations which own them can keep income that would otherwise have gone on drivers’ wages. Automation has, of course, been a way to increase owners’ profits since the Luddites protested against mechanical looms. Airports have self check-ins; supermarkets have self check-outs; roads and bridges have, in place of toll-takers, technology that reads your licence plate. Customer service phone numbers connect you to digital operatives and a host of other automated systems.
This takes a toll. Americans face a social pandemic of loneliness and isolation. The US surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, has declared it a crisis. His reports identify causes including the internet, smartphones and social media. None of these was created with this agenda, but all of them have advanced it. Some of the ‘examples of harm’ listed by Murthy include ‘technology that displaces in-person engagement, monopolises our attention, reduces the quality of our interactions and even diminishes our self-esteem’.
The Covid-19 pandemic worsened isolation, but tech had already made redundant many of the ways we used to congregate and mingle, while often portraying those ventures into the world as dangerous, unpleasant, inefficient and inconvenient. There is an underlying assumption that each of us aspires to be as productive as possible, and that stripping away everything seen to interfere with productivity is a good thing. This was the pitch made by many new companies in the 1990s, when online shopping and other digital financial transactions first became a big deal. The shift has reshaped cityscapes as well as psyches. The American Booksellers Association reported that in 2021 alone, ‘the movement of dollars to Amazon and away from retailers displaced 136,000 shops occupying 1.1 billion square feet of traditional commercial space.’ That’s a lot of local jobs and relationships both to places and people.
The small independent businesses that we’re losing sold goods, but they also gave away for free all sorts of things that are less tangible. There might be cheaper ways to buy shampoo or a better selection of envelopes online, but at an in-person store you can have a social interaction, even build a relationship with the proprietor and chat with other customers, or run into a friend or neighbour. That may happen in big chains such as Starbucks – but the employees aren’t likely to be around for long, the profit doesn’t go back into the community and the design of the place is generic, not reflecting its environment.
The San Francisco of my youth was full of small shops whose friendly eccentricity felt like part of the place. Some of them still exist but they’re rarer now. Many had old photographs of the business or the neighbourhood, some had artefacts of the past or pieces of the owner’s art. The little liquor and grocery store in my old neighbourhood had a wall of pictures of locals attending its annual barbecue and a ledger in which the proprietor recorded transactions with elderly locals who bought their groceries on credit and paid up at the end of the month. The exchanges between people who knew one another were non-commodities these small businesses offered along with whatever was for sale.
In her urbanist manifesto The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), Jane Jacobs wrote about ‘eyes on the street’: about the way that pedestrian traffic, people moving around – or sitting around – in public, kept a place safe and more than safe: convivial, gregarious. I think of what has come to my city as ‘the great withdrawal’. People on the street often seem to have their eyes elsewhere, usually on their phones: they might video a crime, but they might also not notice it’s happening. Many seem to flinch at direct contact with strangers or pretend the apparent intrusion didn’t happen, so I’ve come to avoid the tiny interactions that seem much more welcome in New Orleans, even in New York City.
After a childhood nearby, I moved to San Francisco in 1980 when street life and bar life were vibrant, but cafés were rare outside North Beach’s Italian neighbourhood. They proliferated in the 1980s and 1990s as places to hang out, maybe read, maybe chat to whomever was around or just people-watch. In this millennium, in cafés frequented by young white people, every customer seems to be silently staring at an Apple product, so that the places look and feel like offices. Even this phase may be on the way out. The next phase – of trying to keep customers from sticking around – has arrived. A food industry magazine published a story in April last year with the headline ‘In 2023, San Francisco Coffee Shops Want You to Get the Hell Out. The Vibe Is to Leave. Like Right Now,’ explaining that cafés were removing tables and chairs and focusing exclusively on take-away products, in part because cafés were being used as free office space. Cultural, social and religious institutions have been displaced or run aground, film festivals and art centres have left the city, historic businesses, including the oldest Black-owned bookstore in the US, have been evicted, all while wealth continues to concentrate at the fastest rate ever seen.
San Francisco has been a contradictory place since its rebirth in the late 1840s, when the US seized Mexico’s northern half, including California, and renamed the port town of Yerba Buena after the Italian saint. It has always been populated by dreamers, eccentrics and bohemians as well as opportunists and profiteers; until recently there was room for all of them. The Big Four railroad barons were Sacramento merchants who made small fortunes equipping goldminers, then relocated to San Francisco and made outrageous fortunes building the western half of the transcontinental railroad, fleecing the government and monopolising long-distance transportation in the west. With this wealth, Leland Stanford founded Stanford University in 1885 on the site of his horse ranch 35 miles south of the city, and it was from Stanford’s loins that Silicon Valley sprang.
In 1959, the Buddhist priest Shunryu Suzuki was dispatched to San Francisco’s Japantown to serve the local Japanese American community. Young white people who had read or heard about Zen came to be taught by him, and their enthusiasm so exceeded that of his original congregation that he set up the San Francisco Zen Centre, which has ever since been an incubator for Zen practitioners and priests, who’ve founded daughter temples and zendos all over the western world. Zen, like the poetry performances in San Francisco’s little co-op galleries and bars, was about being present, being together, being in the moment, about learning how, as the psychedelic guru Ram Dass put it, to ‘be here now.’
The same year that Suzuki arrived, Ronald Davis founded the San Francisco Mime Troupe, which still stages free outdoor performances of raucously political theatre. The Sierra Club was expanding from its roots as a California-based mountaineering club with some achievements in conservation into a national force for environmental protection. Down the peninsula, the first semiconductor firms were growing, but tech remained a small part of the region’s economy, at least for the next few decades. Not far from the primordial tech companies, the CIA was testing LSD on paid test subjects; it would wend its way out of hospital settings and into the counterculture that flourished here in the 1960s.
The Daughters of Bilitis launched in San Francisco in 1955 to defend lesbian rights and build a lesbian community; its founders, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, were the first couple to get married when City Hall opened to same-sex weddings in 2004; and while the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City are justly famous, drag queens in San Francisco had demonstrated against police oppression three years earlier in the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, and a number of cabaret drag shows and lesbian and leather bars flourished in the 1950s and 1960s.
Though much of the late 1990s dotcom boom – and crash – happened in San Francisco, until about a dozen years ago Silicon Valley was generally thought of as San Jose, the city anchoring the south end of the Bay Area, and the suburban sprawl up the San Francisco peninsula. The luxury shuttle buses that Facebook, Google and Apple launched for their employees around 2012, by easing the congested commute, encouraged large numbers of them to move to San Francisco, which has now been fully annexed by the Valley. The desire of tech workers to live in this dense, diverse place while their products create its opposite is an ongoing conundrum. Many tech workers think of themselves as edgy, as outsiders, as countercultural, even as they’re part of immense corporations that dominate culture, politics and the economy. The much-told story of Apple’s founding, in a garage near San Jose, doesn’t change the fact that, with a market cap of $3 trillion, it’s now the world’s most valuable company.
Though the city has survived a series of local and national recessions in recent decades, San Francisco is said to be in a ‘doom loop’ because so much office space and so many shops have been abandoned since the pandemic. Tech layoffs drove some of the shutdown, but the industry also enabled a mass white-collar withdrawal from the workplace – employees working from home, sometimes leaving the region to work remotely. More than the shrinkage of the population and the emptying out of downtown, the new mood of the city seems to be influenced by a kind of shrinking from human contact. The city remains the densely urban place it always was, but the way people inhabit it is increasingly suburban, looking to avoid strangers and surprises.
Over the past twenty years, ranks of glass towers have risen up just south of the city’s old downtown. The second tallest building west of the Mississippi River is San Francisco’s Salesforce Tower, whose resemblance, thanks to its curved sides and blunt edges, to a dildo or penis is often noted. It’s certainly a monument to hubris. It’s so tall that its isolated tip can be seen from many vantage points in the Bay Area – an Instagram account called @JustTheTipSF documents its intrusions. Completed in 2018, the tower has been half-empty since Salesforce, with the volatility typical of the tech industry, laid off many of its employees early last year (before hiring another few thousand in the autumn). Tech companies routinely push out other businesses only to flop or morph or migrate, leaving only emptiness in their wake. Salesforce – the city’s largest private employer – has also vacated Salesforce East, which stands next to yet another new high-rise, the mostly residential 58-storey Millennium Tower, which opened in 2009. The marketing brochure for Millennium Tower called it the first ‘ultra-luxury high-rise … a sophisticated oasis in the heart of SoMa’s tech capital’, though by 2015 its faulty construction had led to tilting and sinking. Following lawsuits from residents, $100 million was spent in an attempt to shore it up.
San Francisco is often described as a cauldron of crime and depravity, and held up as proof that progressive policies don’t work. I spent some time in New Mexico last summer and found that when people heard where I was from they were aghast: they wanted to know how I was surviving the mayhem. In recent years right-wing media have propagated stories about crime, homelessness and the city’s real (but hardly unique) fentanyl crisis. On a TV debate in November between former mayor Gavin Newsom (now governor of California) and Ron DeSantis (far-right governor of Florida and failed candidate for the Republican nomination), DeSantis brandished a (made-up) map of human excrement in San Francisco that was supposed to clinch his arguments. It’s a narrative that conservatives, including many tech barons, use to justify their demands for the kind of war on crime – more cops, harsher punishments, fewer civil liberties – that their predecessors pushed in the 1980s and 1990s.
Levels of violent crime are actually lower in San Francisco than in many American cities. Theft is a bigger problem, but like homelessness it has been exacerbated by the tech boom, which brought an influx of well-paid workers and a steep rise in housing prices over the past three decades, as well as by nationwide economic shifts and cuts in social services since the 1980s. Still, a video of an impoverished-looking Black guy in a San Francisco drugstore stuffing a trash bag full of goods and wheeling it away on his bicycle became an online sensation in 2021. The closures of several downtown chain stores were blamed by their parent corporations on theft, but when journalists looked into the stories, they found that in most cases outlets were closed because of low revenue and other more mundane problems.
Nevertheless, the idea that San Francisco is in the grip of lawlessness has become something everyone thinks they know. When the well-known tech executive Bob Lee (Google, Square, MobileCoin) was found fatally stabbed on the street in the early hours of 4 April 2023, many claimed that his murder was part of a crime wave by an out-of-control underclass. Elon Musk tweeted that ‘violent crime in SF is horrific and even if attackers are caught, they are often released immediately,’ implying that the culprit was a habitual criminal benefiting from lenient policies. The tech venture capitalist Matt Ocko raged: ‘Chesa Boudin [the former San Francisco district attorney] & the criminal-loving city council that enabled him and a lawless SF for years have Bob’s literal blood on their hands.’
But it turned out that the man charged with Lee’s murder, Nima Momeni, was a fellow tech entrepreneur who had been with Lee that evening. Lee died with cocaine and ketamine in his system; local news reported that the victim, the alleged murderer and the murderer’s sister had all been doing drugs that day. At least some of the drugs seem to have c0me from Jeremy Boivin, a friend of Lee’s, also previously in tech, who was arrested in 2021 with a kilo of cocaine and a kilo of methamphetamine, and again in 2022 for possession of cocaine, heroin and meth. In 2020 he was charged with giving the date-rape drug GHB to his housekeeper and sexually assaulting her (according to Rolling Stone, Lee paid his bail). On the afternoon of 3 April, according to reports, Lee was at Boivin’s home with Momeni’s sister and another woman; both women ingested GHB and passed out.
The district attorney who prosecuted Boivin, Chesa Boudin, noted that there is a belief ‘among conservatives in this city that it’s only scary poor people who are doing drugs. The reality is that the tech industry is deep in … drugs.’ The city’s main online news site, Mission Local, quoted a friend of Momeni’s who said that he had a cocaine problem of ‘the regular Bay Area executive sort’ and that his phone number ‘appears on a website commonly used by sex workers to warn one another of dangerous or problematic clients’. Momeni’s attorneys suggested the murderer might be a homeless man who was found sleeping near where Lee died, even though Momeni’s DNA was found on the handle of the murder weapon, a kitchen knife that matches a set in his sister’s kitchen. A security camera captured Lee and Momeni leaving the Millennium Tower, where Momeni’s sister lived with her plastic surgeon husband. They got into Momeni’s white BMW; another security camera caught them getting out of the car a few blocks away. For a moment they are hidden; then Momeni can be seen getting back into the car and driving away. Lee, staggering into view of yet another security camera, managed to call 911 to report that he’d been stabbed. He was found bleeding and unconscious on the sidewalk, and pronounced dead at the hospital.
Lee collapsed in front of a luxury apartment building at 403 Main Street. The address seemed familiar so I looked it up: it’s a block from the 301 Main Street Infinity Tower, in whose $7 million penthouse the tech mogul Gurbaksh Chahal was, a decade earlier, recorded on his own bedroom surveillance camera clobbering a woman 117 times and repeatedly threatening to kill her. He was dumped as CEO of his ad-tech firm and eventually did prison time for violating his probation with another round of violence against another woman. Chahal currently heads a startup whose actual functions are wreathed in the flowery vagueness – ‘cutting-edge AI seamlessly merges with global commerce … shifting from basic transactions to insightful exchanges’ – endemic to industry prose.
Crime in the San Francisco Bay Area can be described in many ways. But there are no dramatic videos showing Palo Alto native son turned crypto mogul Sam Bankman-Fried misappropriating $8.6 billion of clients’ money or of the scam run by ex-Stanford student Elizabeth Holmes, who raised $700 million for Theranos, a company whose sole product was a medical technology that didn’t exist. Holmes, who used to live in a $15 million mansion and fly in a private Theranos jet, is doing time in federal prison for defrauding investors. Bankman-Fried awaits sentencing. Those thefts were crimes in the most traditional sense, but the sheer wealth generated by Silicon Valley has given its pack of billionaires the belief that they are above or beyond the law. Most of them made their fortunes in finance or technology; those fortunes and the accompanying hubris and seclusion convinced them they were magnificent at everything and anything, including remaking society according to their lights.
In 2022 the billionaires William Oberndorf and David Sacks, former COO of PayPal, pumped money into a successful recall campaign against Boudin, shortly after his election as district attorney. A total of $7 million was donated to the effort, 80 per cent of it in amounts of $50,000 or more, $600,000 from Oberndorf alone; he has also spent extravagantly to back charter schools and fight the teachers’ union. Sacks, a friend of Musk’s, is a major backer of right-wing candidates for national office and seemingly obsessed with urban crime.
Another tech/venture capital billionaire and opponent of Boudin, Ron Conway, has long used his wealth to push San Francisco to the right. In 2010 he was a driving force behind an ordinance banning sitting on the sidewalk intended to criminalise those with nowhere else to go. In 2016, Conway and Oberndorf funded a ballot proposition to outlaw tent encampments, the homes of last resort for the unhoused. The tech elite tends to regard the homeless not as people with unmet needs, but as an intrusion or even assault on the sensibilities of others (though Mark Benioff, the founder of Salesforce, has made more benign donations, including $30 million to study the problem). If you equate your wealth with virtue, you tend to equate poverty with vice, and the enemies of the homeless routinely portray them as criminals. The assumption that Bob Lee was murdered by the underclass rather than one of his own speaks to this, as well as to the sense among tech leaders that they are the good guys, the people with solutions, sometimes the victims but never the perpetrators of problems.
In my own 44 years here, travelling on foot far more than most, I have never been menaced by a homeless person. Though a highly visible minority are mentally ill or suffering from substance abuse, many unhoused people are employed, are parents, are seniors, are students (including 2370 of the children enrolled in San Francisco public schools in 2022) or otherwise quotidian citizens. Illness and addiction are often the consequences, rather than the causes, of the devastating precarity, shame and stress of being unhoused. Market-rate housing is out of reach for a great many people, working or not, which has made finding employees for lower-wage jobs in retail, restaurants and vital services difficult for local employers. Here, too, San Francisco has an extreme version of a problem widespread in wealthy urban areas.
Perhaps the existence of the unhoused, stranded in an outside with no inside to retreat to, along with tech’s offerings and ideology, has encouraged people to stay indoors, or to venture into public spaces only with reluctance or trepidation. The proliferation of delivery services has made eating restaurant food at home common. ‘The exploitation economy is just as unhealthy and dehumanising for the customers as it is for the workers,’ Andrew Callaway, a San Francisco gig-worker, wrote in 2016. ‘You never even have to see the person who is cleaning your house or your clothes. Plenty of people requested that I drop off their food at the door. Customers grow to love apps that make the worker anonymous.’ In this system, the invisible hand of the market can actually bring you a burrito.
By producing such extremes of wealth, tech is returning us to a kind of feudalism, with a few powerful figures accountable to no one. Here’s Elon Musk, the world’s richest person, who – after buying Twitter for an inflated $44 billion – invited in misinformation, disinformation and hate, providing a platform for extreme right-wingers, racists and conspiracy theorists, while also using his Starlink satellite technology first for and then against the Ukrainian military in their conflict with Russia. ‘There is little precedent for a civilian’s becoming the arbiter of a war between nations,’ Ronan Farrow wrote in the New Yorker, ‘or for the degree of dependency that the US now has on Musk in a variety of fields, from the future of energy and transportation to the exploration of space.’ Farrow also reported that people who know Musk say his ketamine use ‘has escalated in recent years, and that the drug, along with his isolation and his increasingly embattled relationship with the press, might contribute to his tendency to make chaotic and impulsive statements and decisions’.
Here’s Mark Zuckerberg, the fifth richest, who has turned a blind eye to Facebook’s role in election corruption around the world and in the genocide in Myanmar, and to Instagram’s role in the teenage mental health crisis. His company recently lost $46 billion on the Metaverse, the virtual-reality venture he has earnestly promoted. ‘Pretty soon,’ he said last September, ‘we’re going to be at a point where you’re going to be there physically with some of your friends, and others will be there digitally as avatars or holograms, and they’ll feel just as present as everyone else.’ Like technocrats before him, Zuckerberg insists that online connection is a perfect substitute for human contact.
Here’s Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal, who put $10 million into the lawsuit that in 2016 bankrupted Gawker, which had outed him as gay. This might make you think he cared about privacy, but he also founded Palantir, which surveils immigrants for the Department of Homeland Security, assisted in Cambridge Analytica’s weaponisation of Facebook user data on Trump’s behalf and, according to the Intercept, ‘has helped expand and accelerate the NSA’s global spy network, which is jointly administered with allied foreign agencies around the world’. Big tech is ferociously protective of its own privacy while abusing ours. Frank Wilhoit’s claim that ‘conservatism consists of one proposition: there must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect’ applies precisely to the industry and its captains.
While Musk dreams of space travel and colonies on other planets, Thiel dreams of immortality. Many tech billionaires do not believe they should be bound by the laws of nations or biology, and apparently want to continue consuming an outsize amount of the world’s resources indefinitely. ‘I stand against confiscatory taxes, totalitarian collectives and the ideology of the inevitability of the death of every individual,’ Thiel wrote in an online libertarian journal in 2009. ‘I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.’ He didn’t choose democracy.
For a while, Thiel backed the libertarian wet dream known as seasteading, building artificial islands beyond government control. Thiel’s attempt to build a post-apocalyptic bunker in a remote part of New Zealand’s South Island was rejected, but Bill Gates, now only the world’s eighth richest person, has his own island in Belize. Oracle’s Larry Ellison, the world’s fourth richest person, owns 98 per cent of the Hawaiian island of Lanai, resort hotels and all, which he’s made an inhospitable place for anyone who’s not enormously wealthy. According to Wired, Zuckerberg’s private compound covering 1400 acres of the Hawaiian island of Kauai includes multiple mansions and luxury treehouses, plus an underground bunker. (Tech billionaires often seem more interested in surviving the apocalypse than preventing it.) Non-disclosure agreements bind the construction workers who built it, and a long wall shuts off outsiders from any view of the sea while making access to the public beach extremely difficult.
You can’t really be in favour of both democracy and billionaires, because democracy requires equal opportunity in order to participate, and extreme wealth gives its holders unfathomable advantages with little accountability. I’ve long believed that democracy depends in part on co-existing with strangers and people unlike you, on feeling that you have something in common with them. The internet has helped people withdraw from diverse communities and shared experiences to huddle in like-minded groups, including groups focused on hating those they see as unlike them, while encouraging the disinhibition of anonymity.
Sometimes disconnection is itself the business model, as with the San Francisco-based Airbnb, which has undermined neighbourhoods around the world, from major cities to rural communities, by turning long-term housing, where people had roots and relationships, into short-term rentals, often jacking up the price of housing at the same time. A friend of mine who lives in Joshua Tree, the semi-rural community in the desert east of Los Angeles, has found herself surrounded entirely by short-term rentals, so she no longer has neighbours in the usual sense of the word.
The choices tech titans make in their personal lives – gated communities, private schools, private jets, mega-yachts, private islands – show that a segregated, shrouded life is their ideal. But they profit off technologies which, while encouraging our own social withdrawal, are focused on capturing as much information about us as possible. That is, we are both more isolated and less private than we’ve ever been. I have never to my knowledge seen any of these billionaires, but by necessity I use their platforms and software and move among their employees. I live in a city and to some extent in a world that has been radically reshaped by their urges and ideals, which are not my urges and ideals.
When I use cash to buy something in a shop, I sometimes joke to the cashier that this stuff is more secretive than crypto. If you’re paying Bay Area bridge tolls, using parking meters (which often require you to punch in your licence plate and use a credit card), getting coffee or anything else with a credit or debit card, you’re creating a record of your activities. In the shops that use Square for card purchases, the devices already know your email address. (Bob Lee was chief technology officer for Square for a few years.) If you don’t adjust its settings, your smartphone is tracking your journeys for Google or Apple. Google and Meta are collecting and monetising all the data they can, and while you can opt out of some of their surveillance, and that of most of the websites you visit, the default setting of the commercial internet is the capture and commodification of your life.
Facial recognition software and DNA collection are undermining other kinds of privacy. China has demonstrated that the new technologies can create a surveillance state far beyond anything previously imagined. At the same time, cryptocurrency is being promoted as a means of escaping whatever control nation-states have over their residents’ financial transactions, a libertarian privacy currency with almost no safeguards. Some have grown rich on it; others have lost their life savings. Scams and lawsuits abound.
In an essay for the New Republic in 2022 about Sacks and his isolationist, new-right peers, Jacob Silverman wrote:
The symbolic epicentre of this movement is San Francisco, but really it’s the entire curdled utopian dream of California. In the eyes of rich techies who have seen their beloved metropolis fall into decay, vast inequality and social misery, the state is dead. Their disappointment and alienation has melded with traditional Republican disgust toward liberal cities (and their non-white residents) to paint a picture of irredeemable urban squalor. These frightened urbanites are echoing the Trumpist drumbeat that cities – particularly in California – are dangerous, dark places that must be tamed.
But they never really loved San Francisco, at least not as a place of diversity and free circulation, and they’ve never acknowledged their role in its dramatic economic divides, housing crises and desperate homeless population.
Agroup of these disgruntled tycoons has, however, decided to build a new city on the north-eastern outskirts of the Bay Area. Flannery Associates – a billionaires’ consortium whose members include Laurene Powell Jobs (Steve Jobs’s widow), Reid Hoffman (co-founder of LinkedIn) and the venture capitalists Marc Andreessen and Michael Moritz – quietly bought up 50,000 acres of farmland in Solano County at a cost of around $800 million. (By way of comparison, San Francisco covers about 30,000 acres.) The area’s representative in Congress, John Garamendi, told the Los Angeles Times that ‘Flannery Associates is using secrecy, bullying and mobster tactics to force generational farm families to sell.’ Last August the group revealed its hand, sending out a survey announcing its intention to build ‘a new city with tens of thousands of new homes, a large solar energy farm, orchards with over a million new trees, and over ten thousand acres of new parks and open space’. Its website doesn’t give real answers to questions about the environmental impact of such a massive development, about the governance of a new city founded and (presumably) owned by an elite, about the public services needed for this private enterprise. Instead, Flannery Associates has released sedate pastel-toned pictures of blank-faced children playing on tree-lined streets of quaint row houses and blank-faced adults with brown and black as well as white skin riding bikes and sitting in a plaza.
It seems unlikely that any of the associates want to live in those row houses themselves or send their children out to play on the street or sit on the train with the Black lady in the picture. In 2022, Andreessen and his wife inveighed against building multi-family housing in their swanky Peninsula hometown of Atherton – average annual income $539,000, median home price $7.9 million – with an email to city government that read: ‘Please IMMEDIATELY REMOVE all multi-family overlay zoning projects from the Housing Element which will be submitted to the state in July. They will MASSIVELY decrease our home values, the quality of life of ourselves and our neighbours and IMMENSELY increase the noise pollution and traffic.’ People who live in apartments, never mind tents, were scum they didn’t want around, housing crisis be damned.
In a way, rich people don’t live anywhere: they are nomads who circulate between multiple dwellings. Andreessen owns a $177 million compound in Malibu, and Jobs has three mansions there, along with palatial homes in San Francisco and Palo Alto, a rural retreat in Los Altos Hills near San Jose, an equestrian estate in Florida, a 15,000-square-foot home in Woodside (the rural district of choice for Silicon Valley’s richest) and part of Kona Village, a Hawaiian resort.
Local opposition to the Flannery Associates project has been ferocious, and the county government responded by declaring that it wouldn’t rezone farmland for urban development. I don’t know whether these billionaires know what a city is, but I do know that they have laid their hands on the city that’s been my home since 1980 and used their wealth to undermine its diversity and affordability, demonise its poor, turn its politicians into puppets and push its politics to the right. They have produced many kinds of dystopia without ever deviating from the line that they are bringing us all to a glorious utopia for which they deserve our admiration.
I used to be proud of being from the San Francisco Bay Area. I thought of this place in terms of liberation and protection; we were where the environmental movement was born; we were the land of experimental poetry and anti-war marches, of Harvey Milk and gay rights, of the occupation of Alcatraz Island that galvanised a nationwide Indigenous rights movement as well as Cesar Chavez’s farmworkers’ movement in San Jose and the Black Panthers in Oakland. We were the left edge of America, a refuge from some of its brutalities and conformities, a sanctuary for dissidents and misfits and a laboratory for new ideas. We’re still that lab, but we’re no longer an edge; we’re a global power centre, and what issues from here – including a new super-elite – shapes the world in increasingly disturbing ways.
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