Wednesday, May 29, 2013

There have been a few essays and articles posted in the last few months about the second coming of Bay Area tech that are, both separately and together, very interesting indeed.

First, in both timeline and foundation:

Rebecca Solnit's excellent essay on the burgeoning San Francisco dot com environment, for London Review of Books

All this is changing the character of what was once a great city of refuge for dissidents, queers, pacifists and experimentalists. Like so many cities that flourished in the post-industrial era, it has become increasingly unaffordable over the past quarter-century, but still has a host of writers, artists, activists, environmentalists, eccentrics and others who don’t work sixty-hour weeks for corporations– though we may be a relic population. Boomtowns also drive out people who perform essential services for relatively modest salaries, the teachers, firefighters, mechanics and carpenters, along with people who might have time for civic engagement. I look in wonder at the store clerks and dishwashers, wondering how they hang on or how long their commute is. 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.

Onward, to the intersection of this phenomenon with philanthropy and community:

The Bacon Wrapped Economy

More young people have more money in a more concentrated place than perhaps ever before. Old money is being replaced by new, but it's a new kind of new, one that has different values, different habits, and different interests than the previous generation. The very rich have always, to a greater or lesser degree, been guilty of excess, but what's changed is that the Bay Area's new wealth doesn't necessarily have the perspective, the experience, or the commitments of the group it's replacing.

And that brings with it a whole host of disparate side effects: The arts economy, already unstable, has been forced to contend with the twin challenges of changing tastes and new funding models. Entire industries that didn't exist ten years ago are either thriving on venture capital, or thriving on companies that are thriving on it. It is now possible to find a $6 bottle of Miller High Life, a $48 plate of fried chicken, or a $20 BLT in parts of the city that used to be known for their dive bars and taco stands. If, after all, money has always been a means of effecting the world we want to bring about, when a region is flooded with uncommonly rich and uncommonly young people, that world begins to look very different. And we're all living in it, whether we like it or not.

AKA, coffin nail number nine in my nonprofit career. I definitely saw this happening when I left my last nonprofit job -- the money is there, but the focus, priorities, and commitment of the donors are way less grounded in reality. I get that in the best of worlds this can also possibly make some nonprofits be a bit more accountable, and can possibly make the arts more dynamic, but what I'm actually seeing are the unsustainable side effects: fickle, less committed support in exchange for moving mountains, and shallow donors unaware of the issues that are important to vulnerable communities made up of folks who are definitely not bringing in a $2000+/week paycheck.

And lastly:

Oakland Ranks Number 11 on List of Best Cities for Tech Start-Ups

Here it comes.

Okay, so as much as I find start-up culture and tech drones and $25 cocktails somewhat sad, I continue to be torn by this type of stuff. On one hand, Oakland needs the tax base and has benefitted in many ways (still more so peripherally) from tech. And cities are living organisms -- always changing, growing, adjusting -- with the consequential growing pains, so why not? But is this stuff going to fix public schools? Save our community libraries? Lower crime rates? Or just get us more people in $100 hoodies gushing about how edgy Oakland is at their $40 brunch served by an ex-Oaklander who now commutes from El Sobrante? I fear we'll get folks who don't value or even SEE anyone else but folks like themselves.

But sooner or later, everyone has to live in the world they've created: " I can make a billion dollars building a cool photo app or targeting ads to people more effectively. And that is a problem: More and more people in tech are making huge amounts of money, and people aren't curing cancer because it's not an attractive thing to do."

We can dream, and this is the world we made?

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