I went to the SF Bay area again in November 2014 and it’s basically the same as it was a few months ago. Just more.
In the interim I’d watched Stanley Kim Robinson’s Google Tech Talk from 2007. Start at 16:00 to skip the doom and gloom.
Robinson lays out a compelling vision for how Google could be a strong force for much-needed social transformation to heal society and the planet. He provides a reasonable proposal for a GoogleGraphics program to help us visualize our big problems like a GoogleClimate project. GoogleEconomics is another idea where the org would be involved in developing “improved economic models that include environmental costs, human values, etc.” It is a level-headed thought. Nearly all the proposals in the talk, of which there are many more, are in line with Google’s information technology focus and general pride in nerdy usefulness.*
Far from pursuing the ideas Robinson proposed or moving in that general direction, Google’s big projects have to launch campaigns to further invade our brains (Google Glass & virtual reality) and to develop artificial intelligence (self-driving cars, space & robotics). On top of those developments is an increasingly aggressive focus on making profits from whoever wants to pay most to advertize on their platforms.
I’ve been pretty harsh with Google employees in the past, laying into their employer and them in the same breaths. These people’s inner turmoil was something I missed in previous visits. I got easily frustrated seeing thousands of smart, driven people working on stuff that seems to me beside the point. They’re generally really warm positive friendly people who want to do good things, which makes the contrasts in the scene very hard to consolidate.
I realized more fully on this trip that lots of people working in tech don’t believe much in the work they get paid for. That is not an easy tension to acknowledge and live with. I saw it again and again, be it at the big players like facebook and Google or at start-ups. The companies are greedy and profit hungry. It’s corporate America after all. People do the work because the jobs are relatively good. It’s what they’ve been told to aspire to. It pays the bills and gives benefits. There are lots of people in similar socio-economic situations to do fun stuff with like do sports and go on trips with. It’s a community. It’s often and intense community, for better and worse. The “happy hours” at some of these orgs are basically mandatory, as are company dinners. Being so accepted into a group and embraced by it can be nice. It can also be clingy and not far from cultish. And in all the busy-ness of those communities what is rarely discussed is this unpleasant buried feeling that the work is lacking meaning and isn’t fulfilling.
In that context an outsider like me coming in and obnoxiously asking “REALLY? THIS IS WHAT YOU PEOPLE DOING WITH ALL THIS MONEY AND POWER?!” is not well received. Except by a few who are very hungry for those conversations.
Amid all this social tension, it remains importat to ask: how many of our fundamental problems persist because of lack of information or technology?
There was an environment class I took at McGill in 2007 (and again in 2008) where the professors argued that techonology isn’t going to get us out of the problems our society is in unless there is a fundamental shift in what we use technology for. This requires a re-evaluation of what the point is, the goal, the purpose, the intention. What is it for?
Computer technology has recently been for communicating instantly with people all over the world (social media, email, placing orders, youtube, games, etc.) and for quickly doing math (analytics). The focus in the bay hasn’t altered much recently. We are not yet using the immense amounts of information and of technological power to bring about much needed basic changes. Things like racism, environmental destruction, wealth inequality, sexism, war, disease prevention, etc. are barely in focus in tech projects. As a senior tech worker recently confided to me, those problems are much harder so we don’t focus on them. And so it’s actually hard to find pockets of activity where Robinson’s ideas from 2007 are being pursued in the bay. That’s a stunning collective failure.
But it’s not any one person’s failure. And it’s not fair to get mad at individuals.
I thought San Francisco’s tech scene was where the action was, where the disruptive drops were hitting the water causing ripples to go out across the earth which would shake up society for the better. Instead, it’s another piece of the dominant cultural and economic system and doesn’t offer much in the way of visionary change. It has its little peculiarities and more power than most communities, but it doesn’t diverge much from other scenes on the continent. That romantic fantasies rarely live up to expectations is not a reason to get mad at people.
And so, noticing that the bay’s mainstream isn’t going in a revolutionary direction of social transformation and that the people there feel just as hopeless and conflicted as the powerful people I met in LA, I don’t have much to contribute right now to the area. The only thing seems to be to communicate to people there who are inside the bubble what is going on in the rest of the world. It’s easy to be there and tune the world out. It’s necessary sometimes. The world can drag you down. But there are lots of things to put energy toward. Look at Mexico City’s Zocalo (main square) in these past weeks (pictured). Or farmland in Berkeley (video). Or Burnaby Mountain. Or Ferguson.
Overall, I’m lost on how the tech scene is going to break itself away from its strange obsessions and get in touch with the rest of the world. Hopefully it figures itself out. I’d love if it would.
*(Robinson’s talk is a more positive version of what I was trying to communicate to Peter Norvig (Director of Research) this spring but I ended up sending Norvig this critique of Google.)