As a college student over a decade ago, I wandered the Mission District, marveling at the seemingly endless blocks of Mexican grocery stores and alleyways with murals depicting the struggles and celebrations of the community. Since then, parts of the Mission, notably the Valencia Corridor, have streamlined into a Jane Jacobs case study in which the desires of its most affluent residents take precedence over those of others in the neighborhood: $240 bike-to-work pants, gourmet tacos drizzled with truffle oil, beard trims from barbershops festooned with antlers. During the week, the intersection of Valencia and 24th stages a chaotic choreography of buses servicing employees from major tech companies in the region—Google, Facebook, Apple, Yahoo, LinkedIn, eBay, Genentech, Cisco. A few years ago, the tech bus became the most visible symbol of San Francisco’s transformation and one of the main targets for protests against gentrification in the city. In widely publicized photos of these protests—most of which took place from late 2013 to the summer of 2014—groups of people blockade the buses, bearing placards that reflect the city’s divisions:
Warning: Rents and Evictions Near Private Shuttle Stop
Warning: Two-Tier System
Stop Displacement Now
Housing is a Human Right
Get Off the Bus and Join Us
Die Techie Scum. No One Wants You Here
Like many of my colleagues, I was blindsided by the explosion of outrage. Once, a taxi driver asked if I was “one of those intelligent San Francisco techies.” It was neither a benign question nor a compliment. “Techie” had become a dirty word, a way to flatten the identity of one’s presumed foe. While I was standing in the tech-bus queue at 8th and Market one Monday morning, a wiry man with wisps of gray hair stopped a few paces away and hollered, “Good morning, kids! How is Satan, your owner, today?”
My Silicon Valley story begins in my hometown of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where, as a child of the early Nineties, I became enamored with computers. On weekend family excursions to the mall, I lurked in the aisle of educational computers at Toys “R” Us, fiddling with kid-friendly simulacrums of adult laptops. More often than not, I hovered around the Sega or Nintendo kiosk to play Street Fighter. I waited for a turn at the joystick, quietly observing the power combinations that the boys deftly executed so that my own attempt as the lone girl wouldn’t be reduced to thirty undignified seconds of maniacally mashing buttons before my struggling Dhalsim got the wind knocked out of him in slow motion.
Many in my generation were introduced to computer programming through the language Logo, in which a programmer navigates a turtle-like cursor through monochromatic two-dimensional space with a series of commands. I eventually graduated to programming in BASIC, a language whose constructs more closely resemble what is used in practical computing today. My earliest BASIC programs—rudimentary exercises in input, output and sequential logic, written at a shared Mac during computer club hour at the national primary school I attended—usually took the form of a stilted conversation between human and machine, with an element of choose-your-own-adventure:
10 PRINT “What’s your first name?”
20 INPUT FIRSTNAME$
30 PRINT “What is your surname?”
40 INPUT SURNAME$
50 FULLNAME$ = FIRSTNAME$ + “ “+SURNAME$
60 PRINT “Hello, “ ; FULLNAME$
70 PRINT “I’m your waiter for today. What would you like to eat?”
80 PRINT “A) Curry chicken”
90 PRINT “B) Fried rice”
100 PRINT “C) Rojak”
110 INPUT “Please enter a letter (A, B, or C): “; FOOD$
120 IF FOOD$=”A” THEN GOTO 160
130 IF FOOD$=”B” THEN GOTO 180
140 IF FOOD$=”C” THEN GOTO 200
150 PRINT “Sorry, we have a small menu. Please choose one of the
155 GOTO 80
160 PRINT “A spicy curry!”
170 GOTO 210
180 PRINT “An excellent choice, “ ; FIRSTNAME$
190 GOTO 210
200 PRINT “A local favourite!”
My nine-year-old self was captivated. I loved how I could rationalize the world into crystalline logic—decisions into crisp if-then conditionals, repetitive tasks into a terse, elegantly formulated for loop. Above all, I loved the immediate gratification—the rush—of seeing a program I had written actually do something. When a program failed to work, frustration gave way to single-minded focus, reserved for the nuanced work of diagnosis and debugging.
My mother, a school teacher with a love for music and literature, cultivated a polymathic household—sending me and my sister to attend weekend classes and do extracurricular activities, so that we could have the well-rounded education that she didn’t. Early on, I got a sense for what it meant to engage with beauty and craft not only through programming, but also through the arts. I spent hours at the piano, exploring the canon of Western classical music. In books, I found joy in a turn of phrase or a good story. When my classmates and I were asked in the yearly school ritual to declare our cita-cita (our “ambitions,” announced as one might one’s major in college), writer, musician, astronaut, actuarial scientist—the last, at my mother’s suggestion, and I suspect, a practical hedge against my more fanciful interests—made enthusiastic cameos on my list. But none had quite the enduring allure of the computer engineer. The Malaysian standardized national education system was designed to produce more doctors, scientists and engineers—all sensible, stable careers that fit the government’s vision for how the country might catapult beyond the legions of negara membangun (developing countries) into the ranks of negara maju (developed countries). By the time I made my first major life decision in my third year at the public all-girls secondary school that I attended—to take the science track or study the humanities—it wasn’t much of a contest. The humanities were burdened with the baggage of unspoken second-class citizenship. How does one make a living playing Beethoven, deconstructing Yeats or writing a novel? Unless one is bestowed an inheritance or a prodigy’s gifts, aren’t those endeavors best suited as hobbies, or “enrichment activities,” as my parents called them?
After secondary school, I received an academic scholarship to study engineering and landed at Stanford University, in the heart of Silicon Valley. So at eighteen I came to the United States for the first time, disembarking at San Francisco International Airport after 25 hours of traveling and two connections, with unbrushed teeth and residual sleep lingering in my eyes. A fellow Stanford-bound Malaysian and I were driven to campus by a Malaysian grad student who picked us up from the airport in her minivan. Traffic was light as we trundled down the freeway. It was late August in 2002, and the 101 was not yet bustling with double-decker tech buses and Tesla electric roadsters in the carpool lane. The iPhone hadn’t been invented yet. Facebook was still a year and a half away from being conceived in a Harvard dorm room. Sometime in my junior year at Stanford, one of my engineering classmates raved about a new Flash-based website that made it easy for him to upload and share recordings of his band’s gigs—it was called YouTube.
When the first bus protests erupted in late 2013, my peers and I reacted with bewilderment, certain that we had been unjustly cast as scapegoats for the city’s problems. “Why are they angry at us?” a friend remarked one night over dinner. “We haven’t done anything wrong, we’re just trying to get to work!” That morning, a man had driven by our tech shuttle stop in his beat-up Honda Accord and given all of us the middle finger while leaning on his horn. As my friend and I recounted other instances of aggression we had witnessed or heard about, other guests—close friends who didn’t work in the industry—listened. “But you guys get why this is happening, right?” asked one after we had finished our meal. After everyone had gone home, I turned her question over in my mind. In the calculus of culpability, I had believed that as well-meaning technologists and productive members of society, we were irreproachable. How could we be wrong?
Around that time, Rebecca Solnit, a writer, cultural historian and activist whose work I admired and whose presence looms large in the San Francisco literary community, authored one of the first widely circulated polemics against the proverbial Google Bus. Her essay, published in the London Review of Books, focuses on the tech boom’s effects on San Francisco’s incumbent middle-class communities and minimum-wage workers—the teachers, firefighters, store clerks, dishwashers and social workers whom Solnit advocates for in her work. The San Francisco Solnit describes in her pieces for the LRB is heartbreaking and painfully absurd—a recent candidate for the city’s poet laureate faces eviction after 35 years in his apartment; an open house Solnit attends is the site of a bidding war, where “dozens of people who looked like students would show up with checkbooks and sheaves of resumés and other documents and pack the house, literally: it was like a cross between being at a rock concert without a band and the Hotel Rwanda.”
For Solnit, the tech buses exemplify Silicon Valley’s “frontierism,” with “all the frontier’s attitude and operational style,” which reinforces what she has referred to elsewhere as a “neoliberal tendency to create elite private solutions and let the public sphere go to hell.” Commuting can be one of modern life’s equalizers, thrusting thousands of strangers into some semblance of solidarity with one another, if only briefly. Consider Manhattan’s packed subway cars, where lawyers, bankers, construction workers, civil servants, nurses, waiters, teachers, students, artists and babies all inhabit the same intersection of time and space for a brief portion of their day. In contrast, the omnipresent buses that serve the tech community seem to represent insularity and indifference; even as they keep hundreds of cars off the congested freeway, they eliminate a common touchpoint with others.
From the moment I leave my apartment in the morning to take the bus, I’m exclusively among my own kind. I disembark in suburban Mountain View an hour and a half later at a standalone building, formerly Northern California’s first air-conditioned enclosed shopping mall in the Sixties and Seventies, now restyled into an office with an industrial-chic aesthetic. Here I work as a product manager alongside a team of engineers and designers, eat lunch for free, socialize and discuss current events with my co-workers, and leave the premises late in the evenings. The work is immersive and all-consuming; every feature and bug is carefully triaged, every assumption and decision rigorously debated. This setup hearkens to the platonic ideal of the corporation—the idea that the corporation is, as the writer George Saunders once recounted, a “beautiful contemporary construct … where if you just produce, you would be protected.” In the model propagated by progressive tech companies, labor is reframed as talent that warrants nurturing, against the backdrop of a support structure that includes free meals, on-site health care, education stipends, generous vacation and parental-leave policies, and yes, the double-decker bus that transports you to and from your office. There is nothing left to do but one’s life’s work.
The flip side of tech’s protective cocoon is the insularity that allows tech workers like me to bypass the quotidian experiences that would otherwise connect us with the physical communities surrounding our homes and workplaces. After a decade living and working in San Francisco, my friend, a gifted and unassuming software engineer, packed his things and moved to an affluent mountain town in the middle of America where, in his words, “there is nothing left to gentrify.” He was tired of Silicon Valley’s relentless treadmill, and unsettled by his role in its unabating economic inequality. When he announced his move, I instinctively deemed his logic wrongheaded—wasn’t he just washing his hands of his guilt, or substituting one form of parochialism with another?
In the weeks that followed, I thought more about his decision. There’s a cognitive dissonance to life in Silicon Valley: in our professional lives, many of us believe we create things that are genuinely good and useful for millions of people around the world, but to our neighbors we are gentrifiers who snatch up one-bedroom apartments for $4,000 a month, while the schoolteachers and working moms next door are handed their eviction notices. By choosing to leave the place he had painstakingly made his home, my friend had, at least, defied the automatism that commonly seeps into the lives of the comfortable. The challenge for those of us who remain becomes abundantly clear—if we are to stay, we must choose to do so deliberately.
Shortly after the second wave of bus protests, and in search of answers, I attended a panel on social discontent in America. “With so much cultural disharmony today,” read the event description, “it’s hard to know whence the trouble spawns. From the education system? From our increasing obsession with digital living? From our wrong-minded historians? Four brilliant minds will explore causes and effects.” Solnit was one of the panelists. I was excited to hear her speak in person—after all, her essays had inspired me to reflect on how I was implicated in San Francisco’s social crisis in the first place. She spoke extemporaneously about the privatization of public goods (education and transportation are examples that come to mind), arising from a “philosophy of separation” by the wealthy who choose to buy their way out of society and out of a shared future with the common people. She traced this financial and mental divestment to a lack of empathy and a failure to imagine the other.
And yet, Solnit announced during the panel that she and one of her co-panelists were “competing to see who hates Google more”—Google as shorthand for the tech industry at large. In her worldview, Silicon Valley had invaded and destroyed San Francisco, and you were either a “real” San Franciscan or a tech bro. I was familiar with Solnit’s us-versus-them rhetoric from her print polemics, such as this passage from her 2013 essay for the LRB:
There are hundreds of luxury buses serving mega-corporations down the peninsula, but we refer to them in the singular, as the Google Bus, and we—by which I mean people I know, people who’ve lived here a while, and mostly people who don’t work in the industry—talk about them a lot. Parisians probably talked about the Prussian army a lot too, in the day.
Solnit also compared techies to alien overlords and out-of-place German tourists—a collective Other that she can scarcely countenance without derision. (One techie reader noted in a letter to the publication that if “applied to any other group, these attempts to dehumanize would have invited howls of indignation.”) When she asked during the panel if there were “any Google employees in the room I’ve just hideously insulted,” I considered raising my hand. Not because I felt affronted, but because I thought that revealing my professional affiliation could complicate the discourse in productive ways. But that afternoon, among a crowd of strangers, I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
“Sometimes the tech workers on their buses seem like bees who belong to a great hive, but the hive isn’t civil society or a city; it’s a corporation,” observes Solnit in her LRB essay. Yet her observation denies the pluralism that exists within that corporate hive, even within a single individual. The bus-riding corporate drones whom Solnit criticizes are also people who manage to galvanize colleagues and company resources to organize, and participate in, civil society. A glance through my work inbox reveals many grassroots efforts initiated from within the corporate ecosystem: a call for volunteers to staff school tours at the Computer History Museum, a request for help running a robot expo for a local chapter of Black Girls Code, a new speaker series on race and racial justice issues, a blanket and donation drive for protestors at the North Dakota Pipeline, practical advice-sharing among employees living with family members with disabilities, thank you notes to veterans in the company who have served their country. If, as Solnit contends, tech companies are famous for “sucking in the young for decades of sixty or seventy-hour weeks,” they are also often distinguished by their explicit attempts to encourage their employees to bring their full selves—including their political and social convictions—to the workplace.
After the panel, I found Solnit in an adjacent room, taking one-on-one questions from audience members. I envisaged having a candid and nuanced conversation, though she had spent the better part of the panel charting the internet’s devolution into a “hell of patriarchy,” and castigating Silicon Valley as a monoculture run by “mostly white, very much mostly dude … libertarian guys”—characterizations that point to real issues in the industry, notably sexual harassment and gender inequality, but reflect neither the range of experiences of women in tech nor the efforts undertaken to address these problems. Still, if the industry were becoming inimical to the advancement of the public good as she had cautioned, I hoped that she would have some advice on how I could conscionably stay both in it and in San Francisco. But when my turn came to speak, I muddled through my thoughts. Our conversation took an alarming detour when I made an offhand reference to drinking the Silicon Valley Kool-Aid; Solnit homed in on my use of the phrase outside its original context of Jonestown and wondered aloud if she should write a piece comparing the two contexts. (To my relief, I have not seen one published—yet.) I tried, somewhat ineffectually, to describe my double bind: that I found meaning and purpose in my work—having worked on technologies for emerging countries, an open-source browser, affordable cloud computing laptops, and self-driving cars—but I didn’t know how to abide the knowledge of my disproportionate impact on the city’s communities. We never quite got around to addressing my intended questions, at least not directly—but at the end of our exchange, she left me with parting imperatives that I should remember as a talisman against moral indolence: Keep asking questions. Keep agitating from within.
The tech bus protests have ceased for now, but lines of division are permanently etched into San Francisco’s social landscape. (A few weeks ago in the Mission District, I walked by a series of sidewalk graffiti proclaiming “Queers Hate Techies”—another patently false dichotomy, given that many of us are both.) The enormity of the problem at hand is paralyzing: What can a single tech worker adequately do to begin solving the massive disparities in the San Francisco Bay Area at large, where more than eight hundred thousand people, or 11.3 percent of residents, live at or below the poverty line? When the sixth largest homeless population in the United States resides in your backyard, volunteering once a week at the food bank or giving to local nonprofits hardly seems enough. Another kind of commute takes place on the VTA 22, a public bus line that meanders between San Jose and Palo Alto. Every night, as Elizabeth Lo captured in her short documentary for the New York Times about the route, homeless men, women and children embark at Eastridge Transit Center and bed down for two hours of fretful sleep. They are stirred awake at the end of the line in Palo Alto, where they wait for the next VTA 22 bus, onto which they embark and bed down again for the return ride. This bus line is known as Hotel 22.
A few years ago aboard an Icelandic icebreaker docked at San Francisco’s Pier 50, I came across a thick, encyclopedic tome with a satellite image of Earth eclipsed in shadow on its cover. First published in the fall of 1968 in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Whole Earth Catalog’s statement of purpose declares:
We are as gods and might as well get good at it. So far remotely done power and glory—as via government, big business, formal education, church—has succeeded to the point where the gross defects obscure actual gain. In response to this dilemma and to these gains a realm of intimate, personal power is developing—power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested. Tools that aid this process are sought and promoted by the Whole Earth Catalog.
Amid the many contemporary portraits of capitalist dystopia one can forget that Silicon Valley was born of the early geeks and DIY makers of the Sixties and Seventies counterculture whose dreams of self-sufficient, acid-tripping communal living were driven by a desire to create a radically different world from the one produced by twentieth-century bureaucracies. Reading the manifesto, I felt an instant shock of recognition: its admixture of idealism and hubris, expressed nearly fifty years ago, lives on in many a Silicon Valley mission statement today. (Apple’s founder Steve Jobs once praised the magazine as one of his generation’s bibles, “overflowing with neat tools and great notions.”) I chanced upon the catalog—452 pages of product reviews and how-tos, laid out on a coffee table and turned to a page filled with illustrations of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes—while wandering the icebreaker’s communal living room. The ship, which had been converted into a self-proclaimed work space “for a unique community of scientists, entrepreneurs, artists, activists and hackers,” seemed a fitting location for the artifact—a utopia in the original sense of the word, removed from the realities of those on land.
Recently, I shared my anxiety about gentrification and the state of tech with a friend, a composer who moved abroad after thirty years in San Francisco and had come back to visit. I accompanied her to a cafe around the corner from my apartment, where a slice of artisanal toast slathered with butter and jam costs six dollars. She overheard a conversation the next table over about machine learning and neural nets, then marveled at the sight of a man on a hoverboard whizzing past a stream of pedestrians outside. We talked about her music projects and my work with self-driving cars. “I know it doesn’t feel like it when you’re in the thick of it, but you’re really living in a Golden Age here in San Francisco and Silicon Valley,” she mused. “It’s almost like being a musician or a painter during the Renaissance period. I hope you’re somehow able to enjoy some of it.”
I think she was both right and wrong. San Francisco is still where dreamers and upstarts come to from far-flung places, armed with drafts of business plans and bootstrapped apps, seduced by Silicon Valley’s techno-utopian belief that it is possible, through technological innovation, to simultaneously make money and make a difference in the world. At the same time, it is also the place where, this past winter, more than a thousand people were on the waitlist for a ninety-day shelter bed while many more endured the elements in sprawling encampments on the city’s sidewalks. It is not clear that enjoyment is the proper response—nor is disavowal the answer. The tech world’s insular optimism and its critics’ reductionist rebukes feel equally hollow; the conscious way forward may be somewhere in between.
I’ve recently started taking public transit to get home. Sometimes, watching the changing landscape from the Caltrain, I’m reminded of one of my last bus rides home from the office. My bus driver greeted each of his passengers every evening with a fist bump and made a sport out of dispensing salutations borrowed from movie lines. “Welcome, I’ve been expecting you,” was his go-to phrase. (My favorite was “Come with me if you want to go home,” delivered in an Arnold Schwarzenegger accent.) On that particular ride, sitting in the front seat of a late shuttle that was relatively empty, I chatted with him about his favorite television shows and love of comic book adaptations. It was his last shift for the day, and at nine at night, the 101 was no longer a tumultuous gridlock. Exiting the freeway, we wended our way back to the city—down the overpass a few blocks away from Division Street’s homeless encampments, along 9th Street, past spartan warehouses being converted into co-working spaces, the El Dorado shelter, and, just a block away, a new seventeen-story luxury highrise with an art installation of thirteen glass pianos hanging off its side, caught in suspended free fall. As we pulled back in to the southeast corner of Alamo Square, the driver deployed his usual exit speech: “Catch my act tomorrow at the same bat time and same bat place, and we’ll do this all again.”
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This article appears in Issue 14 of The Point.
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