Giving Voice to Big Tech’s Haves and Have Nots

The ostrich effect is a phenomenon psychologists refer to when describing the natural human aversion to bad news. We might put off a medical test because we fear the results. We turn off the news when the headlines upset us, even if the information could affect us.

BOOK REVIEW — “Silicon City: San Francisco in the Long Shadow of the Valley” by Cary McClelland (W. W. Norton & Company, 272 pages).

For many of us who live in San Francisco, the ostrich effect entails turning a collective head not just at the latest dire predictions about earthquakes. We also tend to avoid bad news brought by the tech boom. On our way to our cubicles at Airbnb or Twitter, or to our fancy tennis club south of Market Street, many of us look straight through the city’s many homeless encampments with willed blindness.

So it was with some reluctance that I began to read Cary McClelland’s “Silicon City: San Francisco in the Long Shadow of the Valley.” Had I not been asked to review it, chances are slim that I’d have had the wherewithal to look up from my iPhone long enough to take in the title, much less the revealing stories therein.

McClelland, a filmmaker, writer, and lawyer, spent several years interviewing people in the San Francisco Bay Area. The 45 interviews that appear in the book — with venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, advocates for the homeless, even a pawnbroker and a tattoo artist — examine a number of questions, chief among them: Can a city lose its soul?

Indeed, the infusion of tech money throughout the Bay Area has transformed the city in dramatic and unsettling ways. San Francisco was once the embodiment of tolerance and free love, but its vibe now tilts toward churned-to-order ice cream and high-end bubble tea. The latest tech boom has displaced people and small businesses everywhere. In my own neighborhood, Noe Valley, where one-bedroom condos sell for $1 million, shopkeepers unable to keep up with rising rents are shutting down at an alarming rate. Service employees are moving to Nevada, Idaho, or anywhere even faintly more affordable.

The book is modelled after Studs Terkel’s 1974 “Working,” a landmark oral history in which people talked about their work and what made it meaningful, mundane, stressful, enervating, energizing. So indelible an impression did that book make when I first read it nearly 45 years ago that to this day I can recall the words of some of its most memorable interviewees.

My smug assessment before I had read McClelland’s first page: This doesn’t stand a chance of measuring up to the revelatory genius of letting people simply talk about their jobs and nothing else.

And in fact, one of the first interviews of the book, with Regis McKenna, the Godfather of Silicon Valley public relations, seemed to bear out my skepticism. McClelland’s decision to give McKenna such prominent placement seemed a head scratcher, to put it mildly.

Perhaps the ultimate ostrich, McKenna counted the famously un-philanthropic Steve Jobs among his clients. (The last time I spoke with Jobs, whom I covered for Newsweek in the 1990s, he told me traffic was getting so bad he was thinking of buying a helicopter to commute from Apple headquarters in Cupertino to Point Richmond, where his Pixar Animation Studios then had its headquarters, thus eliminating the possibility of chance encounters with the Bay Area’s have-nots.)

Following McKenna’s pointless trip down memory lane, more tone deafness follows: a Google employee singing the praise of meritocracies; a cable salesman revealing that work in sales can be cutthroat; a dispute-resolution specialist informing us that rapid wealth can be “profoundly disorienting” for young people. Oy.

Even many of the voices from the other side of the cultural and economic divide seem incapable of any useful articulation of what is happening in San Francisco. A “cultural sexologist” says of the hipsters pushing expensive baby strollers in Hayes Valley (one of the trendiest corners of the city at the moment): “They are kind of libertarian dicks.” As her mother perhaps should have pointed out to her, such assessments are not helpful.

But as I rolled my eyes at what these people were saying, I had a thought: Perhaps McClelland intends to let them spear themselves with their own words. Maybe he’s actually building up to something.

Sure enough, by page 84 the book hits full Terkel stride. I can only liken my feeling when reaching this part of the book (which kicks off the section titled “The Balkanization of the Bay”) to living in a huge, rambling boardinghouse and having something terrible happen in a remote room. Wherever you happen to be, you feel its impact.

The voices are still mixed, but those struggling to navigate the fog of excess that now defines San Francisco finally begin to make themselves heard. It is on page 84 that we are introduced to Richard Walker, an economic geographer, who reports that a third of the workers in the Bay Area are not paid a living wage. “It is hard to regenerate your workforce… if young people cannot afford to put down roots,” he says. “We are destroying the basis of our prosperity. We are eating our children.”

“Many of us look straight through the city’s many homeless encampments with willed blindness.” Visual: Shannon Badiee/Wikimedia Commons

Whether you want to or not, once you hit the Walker interview you will sense the reverberations of a city in true existential crisis. And the boneheaded comments from earlier in the book make the latter part all the more powerful.

“Silicon City’’ should be San Francisco’s next big city-wide read. Short of that, it should be required reading for every employee of Twitter and Google and Facebook employees should climb aboard their comfy buses bound for Silicon Valley one fine sunny morning and find a copy on their seats. At the very least, McClelland should send a copy to each of the 11 members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

This reader, for one, will not soon forget the words of Leon Fikiri, an Uber driver from the Democratic Republic of Congo: “Before we know it, we’re gonna be Congo here. Where no one has influence, no one seeks justice. I left that mentality and mindset only to find it here.”

Unwittingly, no doubt, Regis McKenna makes one of the book’s most profound observations. He is discussing technological tipping points, but could just as easily be talking about the social woes now tipping so much of the Bay Area into despair: “The only problem with the tipping point is you can only see it in the rearview mirror.”

Let this book be our mirror.

Katie Hafner is a journalist who writes about health care. She is the author of six works of nonfiction, most recently a memoir, “Mother Daughter Me” (Random House), and is at work on a novel. She can be reached on Twitter at @KatieHafner.