Tag: Technology


Uncovering the Early History of “Big Data” and the “Smart City” in Los Angeles

A critical appreciation.

by Mark Vallianatos

“To describe this diverse region in such a way as to make comprehensible the many dimensions of the city’s population and the identification of its problems has required years of analysis, millions of pieces of data, hours of computer time, and sometimes heroic assumptions; however, this has all been necessary to enable an evaluation of a city of this scope.”

Los Angeles Community Analysis Bureau, “The State of the City: A Cluster Analysis of Los Angeles,” 1974.

In December 2013, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti issued an executive order instructing each city department to gather all the data it collects and share it on a publicly accessible website by early the following year.[1] In February 2014, he appointed LA’s first Chief Innovation Technology Officer,[2] and a few months later he launched DataLA, the city’s online data portal.[3] The launch, aimed at a generation who had grown up with smart phones, the Internet, and GIS mapping,[4] was promoted with a hackathon hosted at City Hall.

Whether you call the approach “smart cities,” “intelligent cities” or “digital cities,” DataLA puts Garcetti on a growing list of mayors who believe that better use of information technology and data can help them govern cities more effectively, connect residents to city government and resources, and spur high-tech employment. Smart cities have been criticized for prioritizing whiz-bang tech over residents’ basic needs and for their potential to widen the economic gap between the technology haves and have-nots.[5] While those are real concerns, the concept of improved urban governance through better use of information is a promising one.

Like many smart, new ideas, however, it’s not new. It’s not even new to Los Angeles, which has been pursuing computer-assisted data and policy analysis for decades. Beginning in the late 1960s and through most of the 1970s, the little-known Community Analysis Bureau used computer databases, cluster analysis, and infrared aerial photography to gather data, produce reports on neighborhood demographics and housing quality, and help direct resources to ward off blight and tackle poverty.

Vallianatos2I have been reading about the history of planning in Los Angeles for years, but the first time I had seen anything by or about the Community Analysis Bureau was when I ran across its insightful-but-weird 1974 report “The State of the City: A Cluster Analysis of Los Angeles”[6] at a library. A data-rich snapshot of LA from forty years ago, the report didn’t categorize Los Angeles into the usual neighborhoods or community plan areas, but into scattered clusters with names like “the singles of Los Angeles,” “the suburbs from the fifties,” “richest of the poor,” “gracious living,” and more.[7] The nomenclature was seemingly drawn more from market research than traditional city planning reports.

I mentally filed it away as just another 1970s urban experiment, an attempt to sort and categorize places across LA’s expanse. As I read more about the methodology, however, I became intrigued by the Community Analysis Bureau’s ambition to create an “Urban Information System” that could be applied to tackle the problems of the day. I wondered whether this urban intelligence had influenced city policy or programs. How had the bureau fared as the politics of planning, poverty alleviation, and land use in the city changed? Was there a trove of lost data moldering somewhere in boxes of punch cards? I looked up documents on the history of the bureau in the city archives and located several former staff members still living in the Los Angeles area. They were gracious enough to share their memories of the bureau’s work.


Cybernetic Urbanism in the Know-How City

In a 1976 essay, British travel writer Jan Morris summed up Los Angeles as “The Know-How City:”

“Remember ‘know-how’? It was one of the vogue words of the forties and fifties… It reflected a whole climate and tone of American thought in the years of supreme American optimism. It stood for… the certainty that America’s particular genius, the genius for applied logic, for systems, for devices, was inexorably the herald of progress. There has never been another town, and now there never will be, quite like… Los Angeles… where the lost American faith in machines and materialism built its own astonishing monument.”[8]

In the years after World War II, that know-how and faith in machines translated, in part, to an interest in computer-assisted social analysis, thanks to the availability of both mainframe computers and large federal grants during the Cold War. Social scientists in particular were interested in exploring the possibilities that data and computers could bring to public policy, as were city planners and architects. In A Second Modernism: MIT, Architecture and the ‘Techno-Social’ Moment, Arindam Dutta writes that for them, “the emphasis on assembling, collating, and processing larger and larger amounts of data” was “paramount in the postwar framing of expertise.”[9]
Data was the key to know-how, and Los Angeles was key to the techno-optimism of the era. Although the region’s lingering reputation may be for unchecked sprawl and popular entertainment, twentieth-century LA was highly planned—and proud of the systems on which it depended: its networks of streetcars and freeways, its flood control and water infrastructure, and its intentionally fragmented municipal and quasi-public governance. Southern California had a huge high-tech cluster in the aerospace industry.[10] Even the Hollywood studios had their “system.” LA was a temple of progress, “the international symbol of the City of the Future,” as Mayor Sam Yorty put it in his introduction to a 1970 Community Analysis Bureau report.[11] By then, the city had been tapping into the technological know-how of the region for more than a decade.

During the 1950s, the city of Los Angeles departments of planning, and building and safety had mocked up computer punch cards for a system they hoped could help track and analyze every piece of property in the city. In 1962, the city submitted a proposal to the Ford Foundation seeking funding for “A Metropolitan Area Fact Bank for the Greater Los Angeles Area.” In proposing the “fact bank,” the mayor’s office noted that Los Angeles “was one of the first non-federal government agencies to use electromechanical and electronic data processing systems in accomplishment of its day-to-day service rendering tasks… the City now staffs and operates thee solid state computers and four electromechanical data processing installations.”[12]

The Ford Foundation rejected the proposal, but LA’s leaders were undeterred. In 1964, the city hired Calvin Hamilton as director of the city planning department, in part due to his success in bringing computer modeling to Pittsburgh.[13] Two years later, Los Angeles applied for federal funding to launch a community analysis program that would perform “a comprehensive analysis of the entire city” in order to “prevent further inroads of a physical, economic, and social nature which contribute to… obsolescence.”[14] The city had better luck this time. The grant was approved, and the following year, in January 1967, Mayor Yorty approved an ordinance creating “a department of City Government known as the Community Analysis Bureau.”[15]


Bytes vs. Blight


Like many American cities, LA had been studying and trying to prevent, cure, or clear “slums” for decades. At the end of World War II, the city’s housing authority issued an annual report entitled “A Decent Home…An American Right,” which proclaimed, “No city can thrive when 176,000 of its citizens are living under unsafe and insanitary conditions. The substandard houses in Los Angeles with their filth, squalor, and foul environmental influences are a costly menace and disgrace to our city.”[16] Planners and policy makers believed that badly maintained housing threatened the prosperity, health, and morals, not just of low-income populations living in substandard homes, but of the broader metropolitan area. This was the era of urban redevelopment: Los Angeles’s planning, health, housing, and building departments had created alarming maps showing concentrations of tuberculosis cases, housing without plumbing, juvenile delinquency, and other indicators of poverty.

In forming the Community Analysis Bureau, Los Angeles sought new tools to address the old challenges of deteriorating housing by providing detailed local data to identify neighborhoods showing early signs of obsolescence. The city had razed “blighted” housing in Chavez Ravine in the early 1950s[17] and, when the CAB launched in the late 1960s, was using federal funding to redevelop the Bunker Hill area.[18] The bureau’s data would help identify blighted areas across the city for renewal efforts like these and inform measures aimed at alleviating the poverty that led to blight in the first place.


Data Hunting and Gathering

The US Census Bureau had gathered and reported statistics on housing quality between 1940 and 1960. The agency stopped directly rating housing quality after finding that only one-third of the units they labeled as dilapidated would be considered so by trained housing inspectors.[19] After 1960, the Census Bureau recommended looking at other characteristics such as building age, lack of plumbing, and overcrowding to infer housing quality.

The Community Analysis Bureau adapted and developed a range of technologies and analytic approaches to assess housing (and related social) conditions to fill this void left by the Census Bureau, and provide detailed local data to identify neighborhoods showing early signs of obsolescence. Computerized data storage and retrieval were centerpieces of the bureau’s planned work with the ultimate goal of helping policy makers plan and budget city responses.


First, however, the bureau had to digitize and centralize relevant information from the US Census, the Los Angeles Police Department, the LA County Assessor, and other private and public sources using the city’s existing IBM-360 mainframe computers. As a partial step toward a comprehensive Los Angeles Urban Information System, the bureau created a database using 220 staff-identified data categories as the nucleus of its database. This eventually expanded to 550 categories available to analyze individual census tracts.[20]

In 1974, the CAB recommended a strategy of cluster analysis to allow “the data to suggest its own ‘natural’ grouping.” Clustering could identify parts of the city that might be geographically far apart but shared important social and physical characteristics. Bureau staff chose sixty-six key items from the database, including population, ethnicity, education, housing, and crime data, and an environmental quality rating.

Using a combination of hierarchical and reallocative clustering procedures, Thomas A. Smuczynski developed the cluster analysis techniques used by the Community Analysis Bureau, and his colleagues programmed the city’s existing mainframe computers in City Hall using Fortran and COBOL. Smuczynski told me that the city was able to hire talented computer programmers in the early 1970s due to layoffs in the aerospace industry.[21] City data was processed with the computer programs SPSS (Statistical Package for the Social Sciences) and BioMed, a data analysis program created at UCLA.

Vallianatos7Using Smuczynski’s techniques, LA’s 750 census tracts were sorted into thirty clusters. Cluster 2, for example, was “The Singles of Los Angeles.” It contained “a very young population with an average age of thirty-three, living in high-density new apartment buildings.” Seven of the nineteen census tracts in this cluster were located adjacent to one another in West Los Angeles and Brentwood. Other tracts with similar young, single, apartment dwellers were found in Palms, Baldwin Hills, Del Ray Palisades, Hollywood, and Bunker Hill.[22]

Cluster analysis also revealed correlations between data and social outcomes. Bureau staff noticed that it didn’t’t take sixty-six data types to pinpoint which parts of the city had the worst blight and poverty. Three sets of data considered together—birth weight of infants, sixth-grade reading scores, and age of housing—emerged as an accurate indicator for housing decline and socioeconomic disadvantage.[23]


Aerial Photography

Even with a vast array of data at their fingertips, evaluating the physical state of more than a million housing units spread out over Los Angeles’s nearly 500 square miles was an enormous challenge for the bureau—so bureau staff took to the air. A 1970 report from the bureau noted that “the use of color infrared (CIR) aerial photography offers immediate aid as a relatively inexpensive means of locating those areas most affected by conditions of blight and obsolescence.”[24]

The city’s aerial analysis was led by Robert Mullens II. As a graduate student at UCLA, Mullens wrote his master’s thesis on ways to analyze housing quality from aerial photography, and he was hired by the Community Analysis Bureau to refine these techniques for application in Los Angeles. He recommended that the city use color infrared aerial photography due to its ability to penetrate haze and to show vegetation quality and small objects.[25]

Aerial photography had evolved by this period into a widely used tool for everything from surveying land and analyzing forest health to fighting the war in Vietnam. In her 2004 book From Warfare to Welfare: Defense Intellectuals and Urban Problems in Cold War America, Jennifer Light underscores the intertwined military and civilian origins of aerial photography.[26] She explores how some of the procedures used for urban planning in the 1960s and 1970s—not just aerial photography but also computer analysis and the very metaphor of the cybernetic city—derived partly from Cold War military research. I mentioned this thesis to Gary Booher, who helped Mullens analyze aerial photos of Los Angeles at the Community Analysis Bureau. Booher replied that whatever the military-civilian cross-fertilization on urban policy, the bureau never had access to higher resolution defense department cameras and photographs.[27]

After trial runs over Watts and parts of Northeast LA, the city contracted with aerial survey agencies to conduct overflights of the entire city in 1971 and 1978. Cameras mounted in light planes took color infrared photos at a 1:6000 scale. Mullens and his colleagues developed a point system to rate the environmental quality of census tracts based on these aerial photos. The purpose was to measure housing quality “by photo interpretation of selected surrogate characteristics of the neighborhood residential environment.” Each photo sheet was looked at and rated by three city staffers to derive an average score of between 1 and 10 (a lower number meant fewer problems and better environmental quality). Some of the characteristics considered were vacant land, land uses, street conditions, trash, the presence and quality of vegetation, house and lot size, and the presence of “convenience structures” like patios and swimming pools.[28]

City staff drove through a sample of neighborhoods to verify the accuracy of their aerial ratings. These “windshield” observation of dwellings for visual signs of dereliction, plus data from city building inspections and Los Angeles County assessors, helped tweak the environmental quality ratings. The ratings showed that the “City’s center has the worst environmental quality, with the next poorest quality classes forming concentric rings around the downtown area.”[29] The map from the 1978 flyover shows dark areas (bad environmental and housing quality) clustered downtown and to the south and east of downtown. Estimates from this analysis showed that nearly 150,000 dwellings—13 percent of LA’s housing stock—could be considered substandard. Most of these needed only minor repair, but 4,807 units—0.4 percent of the city total—were considered truly dilapidated and beyond rehabilitation.[30]

While Mullens and Booher still think that aerial photography and the bureau’s rating system were a fairly accurate way to locate housing in need of repair, they acknowledge, in Booher’s words, that “economic bias crept in.”[31] Rating criteria favored homes with residents who could afford to maintain landscaping, extend decks, and build pools. The focus on lush plantings in those 1970s assessments also seems dated; xeriscaping in today’s drought-conscious California would not rate well using their methodology.


From Analysis to Action


The bureau’s data and analyses were intended to spur interventions in the city. An early report on the bureau’s methodology used the analogy of a “thermostat that samples changes in data… and, based on these measurements, or studies, makes recommendations to operating and staff agencies of the City as to the differences in the desired City climate and the actual.”[32] The city’s data-driven climate control would help to regulate everything from crime rates to unemployment to traffic. That broad range of recommendations reflects the ambitions of the late sixties and early seventies, when urban planners claimed a broader mandate than we are used to today. As the bureau’s first “State of the City” report explained, “It has become obvious that the traditional approach to urban renewal, the treatment only of physical problems, is not adequate… to deal with the social, economic, and physical nature of urban decay.”[33] Recommendations from that report included raising family incomes above poverty level, placing all needy three-to-four-year-olds into preschool, and spurring the construction of 7,000 to 9,000 low-to-moderate income housing units per year, in addition to those already planned.[34]

As a kind of think tank inside city hall, the Community Analysis Bureau lacked authority to launch its ideas into action, but the timing was right to explore ways to address inequality. In 1973, Los Angeles elected Tom Bradley, who was known to be more committed to assisting disadvantaged neighborhoods and to addressing racial disparities than his conservative predecessor Mayor Sam Yorty, as its first African American mayor.[35] The next year, the federal government created the community development block grant program to fund redevelopment, social services, and infrastructure in high-poverty neighborhoods. According to Romerol Malveaux, whose first job was conducting research and administering grants for the Community Analysis Bureau and who remains a community activist forty-five years later, the data that the bureau generated helped Los Angeles become the first city to receive community development block grants.[36] LA used these funds to expand social services, maintain streets, and build libraries and parks in low-income areas. Detailed data at the census tract level even allowed the city to identify high-poverty pockets eligible for block grants in wealthier council districts.

But in the end, the bureau was a victim of its own success. The data it collected proved so useful in securing federal grant money that the city focused the bureau’s activities on grant development and administration, with continued data analysis to justify these funds. Instead of using research to guide the city’s actions, the bureau wound up reacting to the city’s predetermined goals as set out in funding applications. The bureau was folded into a new Community Development Department in the mayor’s office in 1977,[37] where the Community Analysis and Planning Division of the department continued to issue reports until 1980, after which the “community analysis » name was retired.


Legacy and Lessons

Today, most people working on planning, housing, and economic development in Los Angeles have never heard of the Community Analysis Bureau. Having spoken to former bureau staff members and having read through some of its reports, I think that the history of the bureau—its mission, strategies, accomplishments, and shortcomings—are worth sharing. This early effort to apply computer analysis to the social and physical challenges of a big city might hold some lessons for our contemporary era of big data, smart cities, and digital urbanism.

The bureau never achieved the full ambitions of its founders to create a control panel for what we call a “smart city” today. Gary Booher, who joined the project when it shifted into the Community Development Department, described the 1970s technology as just too “embryonic” to allow real-time data to flow to decision makers who could adjust policies and practices on the fly.[38]

Despite this limitation, staff members who helped develop the bureau’s methods believe that they were worth exploring. Thomas Smuczynski, Robert Mullens II, and Romerol Malveaux all told me that it was exciting to be working on new techniques for understanding Los Angeles.[39] They also found it rewarding to know that their work had helped identify places and problems where grants could help improve people’s lives.

But the ultimate failure of the Community Analysis Bureau suggests that data analysis needs to be better linked to planning, policy, and even advocacy. The bureau wasn’t closely allied with social movements that might have pushed for changes related to the agency’s findings, nor was it sufficiently integrated into the structure of decision making and budgeting in the city. With no core constituency in the heart of city government, the bureau’s findings were easy to dismiss as interesting but inessential factoids. Bureau employees predicted this problem in 1970 in a report that noted, “Political realities must be very carefully amalgamated with the tools of technology. This amalgamation will be difficult at best since, by design, the conclusions of technology tend to be objective, while those of politics tend to be subjective and emotional.”[40] The bureau might not have won any friends in City Hall with self-important statements like these, but there’s some truth there, too.

The bureau may not have brought about the technocratic decision making its early proponents hoped for, but Romerol Malveaux told me that the Community Analysis Bureau did advance equality in a Los Angeles stratified from decades of segregation by providing information on what needs existed in the city’s many neighborhoods.[41] There are some hopeful signs that LA’s current smart city efforts have those same inclusive goals. The winners of the hackathon launching LA’s open data portal were a team of high school student’s whose app is intended to help deliver supplies to homeless shelters.[42] One of the city’s first funded efforts to apply an innovation approach to governance will be an effort to understand whether LA can have revitalization without displacement.[43]

We should judge the data generated by and for smart cities by its social relevance as well as by the volume of it made available publicly and the processing power and analysis harnessed by the city, the private sector, and academia. Could digital urbanism help narrow the growing gap between society’s 1s and 0s? Will smarter cities help us steer below a 2-degree Celsius rise in global temperature? If intelligent cities and open data can advance knowledge, efficiency, equity, and sustainability, a new generation of community analysis might fulfill the techno-optimism that took root in 1960s and 1970s Los Angeles and is back with us today.


Mark Vallianatos is policy director of the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute and teaches at Occidental College. He would like to thank Thomas Smuczynski, Robert Mullens II, Romerol Malveaux, and Gary Booher for their insights, and LA City Archivist Michael Holland and UEPI research assistant Amelia Buchanan for helping locate files on the bureau.


An earlier version of this article misspelled Robert Mullens II’s name.

[1] Los Angeles Mayor’s Office, “Garcetti Directs City Departments to Collect Data for Open Data Initiative,” Press Release, 18 December 2013, data http://www.lamayor.org/garcetti_directs_city_departments_to_collect_data_for_open_data_initiative.

[2] Los Angeles Mayor’s Office, “Mayor Garcetti Appoints Peter Marx as Chief Innovation Technology Officer,” Press Release, 4 February 2014, http://www.lamayor.org/mayor_garcetti_appoints_peter_marx_as_chief_innovation_technology_officer

[3] https://data.lacity.org/.

[4] Soumya Karlamangla, “LA Hackathon Winners Create Homeless Services App,” Los Angeles Times, 1 June 2014, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-la-hackathon-20140601-story.html.

[6] Los Angeles Community Analysis Bureau, “State of the City II: A Cluster Analysis of Los Angeles,” City of Los Angeles, 1974.

[7] Ibid., vii–viii.

[8] Jan Morris, “The Know-How City,” Among the Cities, (New York City: Viking Penguin. 1985), 241–242.

[9] Arindam Dutta, ed., A Second Modernism: MIT, Architecture, and the ‘Techno-SocialMoment (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014), 3, http://mitpress.mit.edu/books/second-modernism.

[10] Peter J. Westwick, Blue Sky Metropolis: The Aerospace Century in Southern California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012).

[11] Community Analysis Bureau, “State of the City: Conditions of Blight and Obsolescence,” City of Los Angeles, 1970.

[12] Ibid., 13.

[13] Jennifer S. Light, From Warfare to Welfare: Defense Intellectuals and Urban Problems in Cold War America (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2004), 75–76.

[14] City of Los Angeles, “Application for Community Analysis Program,” January 1966, CR 121-1.

[15] “An Ordinance Establishing a Community Analysis Bureau and a Community Analysis Program Board for the administration of the Bureau,” Ordinance No. 133,790, approved 6 January 1967.

[16] Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles, “A Decent Home: an American Right,” 5th, 6th and 7th Consolidated Report, July 1944, 13.

[17] Nathan Masters, “Chavez Ravine: Community to Controversial Real Estate,” KCET SoCal Focus, 13 September 2012, http://www.kcet.org/updaily/socal_focus/history/la-as-subject/history-of-chavez-ravine.html.

[18] Jeremy Rosenberg, “Laws that Shaped LA: How Bunker Hill Lost Its Victorians,” KCET, 23 January 2012, http://www.kcet.org/socal/departures/columns/laws-that-shaped-la/laws-that-shaped-la-how-bunker-hill-lost-its-victorians.html.

[20] Los Angeles Community Analysis Bureau, “State of the City II: A Cluster Analysis of Los Angeles,” City of Los Angeles, 1974, 181; Los Angeles Community Analysis Bureau, “Priorities of Need,” City of Los Angeles, July 1974, 1.

[21] Interview with Thomas Smuczynski, 12 August 2014.

[22] Los Angeles Community Analysis Bureau, “State of the City II: A Cluster Analysis of Los Angeles,” 14–17.

[23] Interview with Thomas Smuczynski, 12 August 2014; Interview with Romerol Malveaux, 12 August 2014.

[24] Charles W. Johnson and Robert H. Mullens II, “A Practical Method for the Collection and Analysis of Housing and Urban Environment Data: An Application of Color Infrared Photography,” Community Analysis Bureau, City of Los Angeles, April 1970, 2.

[25] Interview with Robert Mullens II, 24 September 2014.

[26] Jennifer S. Light, From Warfare to Welfare, 95–123.

[27] Interview with Gary Booher, 20 November 2014.

[28] Johnson and Mullens, “A Practical Method for the Collection and Analysis of Housing and Urban Environment Data,” 11; Interview with Robert Mullens II, 24 September 2014.

[29] Community Development Department, Community Analysis & Planning Division, “Housing Quality in the City of Los Angeles,” 1980, City of Los Angeles, 14.

[30] Ibid., 27.

[31] Interview with Gary Booher, 20 November 2014.

[32] Community Analysis Bureau, “The Los Angeles Urban Information System Experience,” City of Los Angeles, May 1970, 37.

[33] Community Analysis Bureau, “State of the City: Conditions of Blight and Obsolescence,” City of Los Angeles, 1970, 2.

[34] Ibid., 28.

[35] Robert Gottlieb, Mark Vallianatos, Regina M. Freer and Peter Dreier, The Next Los Angeles: the Struggle for a Livable City (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 139–143.

[36] Interview with Romerol Malveaux, 12 August 2014.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Interview with Gary Booher, 20 November 2014.

[39] Interview with Thomas Smuczynski, 12 September 2014; Interview with Romerol Malveaux, 12 September 2014; Interview with Robert Mullens II, 24 September 2014.

[40] Community Analysis Bureau, “The Los Angeles Urban Information System Experience,” City of Los Angeles, May 1970, 42.

[41] Interview with Romerol Malveaux, 12 September 2014.

[42] Soumya Karlamangla, “LA Hackathon Winners Create Homeless Services App,” Los Angeles Times, 1 June 2014, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-la-hackathon-20140601-story.html.

[43] “Cole: LA Mayor’s ‘I-Team’ Seeks to Minimize Displacement During Urban Revitalization,” The Planning Report, 13 February 2015, http://www.planningreport.com/2015/02/13/cole-la-mayors-i-team-seeks-minimize-displacement-during-urban-revitalization.


What Comes Next

by Annalee Newitz

Imagining California’s future in the Pacific world

From Boom Spring 2015, Vol 5, No 1

San Francisco Archipelego by Burrito Justice.

California is going to mutate dramatically over the next hundred years. Climate changes and cultural transformations will alter its landscapes and populations—perhaps beyond recognition to people living here today. A century ago, the state lured immigrants from around the world, who knew it only as a sunny image stamped on orange crates or, as a seaside paradise in Hollywood movies. Of course those pretty pictures covered up the state’s ugly history of xenophobia and atrocious labor practices in the fields and on the railroads. And that history is still with us, feeding into today’s conflicts over gentrification, racism in the criminal justice system, rampant sexism in the tech industry, and underpaid work for the underemployed in the service sector.

The question facing us now is where Californians will take our state in the future. We are shaping the state with the decisions we make today, whether in our everyday lives, in boardrooms, or in urban policies. In this gallery you see many visions of what direction the state might take, from a dystopian hellhole of scarcity and labor exploitation to a sustainable civilization of green urban designs. There are dreamy visions of Aztec-influenced cyborgs and anarchist collectives. There are ambivalent portraits of cities gone mad with consumer culture and class division. And, of course, there is a map of San Francisco’s new archipelago, created by the inevitable rising waters of a warmer world.

The future is emerging all around us. It’s up to you which direction we will go.

Still from Sleep Dealer (2008), about Mexicans hired to do day labor via telepresence rigs that plug into their nervous systems.

Bleak Gas Station by Jorem. © Jorem www.joremdesign.com.

Los Angeles as depicted in Judge Dredd: Mega-City Two by by Ulises Farinas.


Domador de robots by Raul Cruz.

Cover of Popular Science by Stephan Martiniere.


What Use Is the Future?

by Alex Steffen

The Boom interview

From Boom Spring 2015, Vol 5, No 1

Editor’s Note: Alex Steffen is a futurist and a self-described optimist. A native Californian, Steffen is keen on the future of the Golden State. So much so that he moved back to the San Francisco Bay Area from Seattle after taking futurism by storm with his influential blog and book Worldchanging, an eye-opening encyclopedia of the people, technologies, trends, and forces of the future at work in the world today to create a bright, green tomorrow. Steffen wanted to be closer to the future, in the state that has made the future a core part of its identity—the California dream.

But Steffen is now deeply worried about the inertia he has found in his home state. The power of the past—which, it turns out, has much to do with the California dream, too—weighs on the present, preventing the changes needed to ensure the California dream continues to evolve. The irony is that how we think about the future is a big part of the problem. Steffen sat down with Boom to explore the conundrum we’re in.

© Justus Stewart.

Boom: How do you imagine California in relation to the Pacific world in 2115?

Alex Steffen: A lot depends on much broader global questions. What will the world will be like in 2115? That’s an open question. We know that the range of possibility is pretty dramatic, including some pretty catastrophic outcomes, potentially. And when we look at California, in the context of the Pacific Rim, in the context of the planet as a whole, I think we really have to ask ourselves this question: Will there be another California?

Because it has been so successful for so long, some people want to believe that California is a category of place, a formula that can be replicated elsewhere, that the next Silicon Valley, for example, is just a matter of arranging inputs. And I think that really mistakes what California is.

California is a set of circumstances that I don’t think can happen again: this weird thing, a place, sort of without history—and “without history” in air quotes here, because our history was erased; it was ripped out by the roots—a place without history, made vastly wealthy then suddenly landed right in the middle of the global cultural discussion and the global economic future, and it has been there for eighty years, arguably more. That, I don’t think, is a thing that can happen again, because there’s nowhere left without history. There’s nowhere left where there’s a fresh start, with “fresh start,” again, in air quotes.

California is, by its very nature, the end of one kind of possibility. We got to the coast and we ran out of frontier. That means that California has stayed the frontier for a very, very, very long time. In fact, the frontier is a thing of our past, everywhere on Earth. You won’t find it in the Arctic or Antarctica or the deepest Amazon or the Sahara. They’re not landscapes of human possibility. They’re simply the most remote places left.

Boom: If this California will no longer exist here or anywhere else, what are the processes and events that are changing that possibility?

Steffen: There are two parts to that question. One part is what’s happening on the planet. By the middle of this next century, we’ll be living on a planet with very little in common with the twentieth century. To begin with, we are in this moment of ecological inflection, where we are coming to grips with planetary boundaries in a way that we simply haven’t ever before. Limits are a major pressing concern for the very future of civilization itself, whether we’re talking about climate change or species loss or the death of the oceans or soil and water depletion. All of these things are tied together in a way that is now an active determinant of what humans can do, and will become more and more so. So we have that global problem of wrestling with the reality of earthly constraints and our obligations to future generations. The implications of needing to live for a very long time on a planet of tight limits are so huge that our minds are unprepared to meet them. But meet them we will over the next few decades.

We are also midway through the process of raising all of humanity out of poverty. The follow-on consequences of globalization and development are similarly huge, not the least of which is a demand for planetary equity. People all over the world are saying, “We deserve our share.” It’s simple geopolitical realism that whatever we in the developed world wind up doing, we’ll have to accommodate international fairness.

After the last American century, I think we’ll find a planet of distributed prosperity disorienting. By the middle of this century, we will be looking at as many as nine billion people on this planet, with perhaps five billion people having risen out of poverty, and perhaps as many as one billion living lives as prosperous as those of the American middle class. And essentially everyone will be living in or around globally connected cities. We’ll all be tied together.

That is going to change absolutely everything about what it means to be “developed,” quote-unquote, and what it means to be a person who is an active part of the global economy. There are things running through our society now that we can already see, like the de-skilling of professions, the automation of things that we used to take for granted could not be automated, off-shoring of manufacturing—all of these things are just reality, and they’re nowhere near close to finished. So any future that we have is going to be a future that takes place in that context. I don’t think it’s necessarily grim at all, but it’s very different.

And then there’s this ongoing, deeper process of technological and cultural change. And I say those two things together because I think we really underestimate the degree to which technological change is primarily cultural change. Especially here in California, we’re surrounded by lots of people who have made a lot of money off of “technology,” quote-unquote, so we think technology itself is the driver. But without a doubt, it is people’s willingness to engage on a cultural level with technologies and do new things that is actually creating the value there. I’m of the opinion that our cultures shape the technologies they need and desire, more than the other way around.

All three of those forces demand that we have a different vision of what we do, as a species, but I think even more so, a different vision of what we do here in California.

Because California is a stance toward the future, and the future is not what we thought it would be, the most important question here is: Can California become its next iteration of itself, or is it stuck somehow? I get a sense out there across the state that a lot of people feel we’re stuck, like we’ve sunk into stasis at a really inopportune time.

Boom: But we like the California we had.

Steffen: But which California did we like? California is this really strange place, and we are constantly being overrun and reinvented, often against our will, but also often with our active participation. Losing the version of California we like is perhaps the most common cultural experience of being a Californian. I have some ancestors who were here before it was California, and I guess they liked that one pretty well. I grew up on nostalgic stories of that California, when people worked on ranches and grizzly bears could still be found somewhere other than on the state flag. There are other people here who like the New Deal suburbs California, others who like the sixties California, and there are other people who like the nineties California.

Boom: And some of us even like the early twenty-first century California.

Steffen: Exactly. There are some people who really like what’s happening right now and don’t want it to change. And there is this constant sort of eating of itself that California does. At the very same time, that’s the source of this kind of constant tension, where California never quite knows if it’s having a boom or a revolution or both at any given moment. I think one of the things that’s really deeply unstable about this moment right now is that people believe that we’re having a boom when we may, in fact, be having another revolution.

Boom: You have said, “I’m particularly keen on the future of California.” What do you mean by “keen,” that you feel good about it or that you’re keenly interested in it?

Steffen: Well, you know, I’m a native. I love this place. But more what I meant then was that I think there’s probably nowhere more interesting right now to be thinking about the future than California. In fact, I moved back to California in part because this seems to me to be the place in America where the really difficult questions about our future are being worked out.

In much of the world, the solutions are actually pretty easy to find. They’re just damned hard to implement. If you have a city of ten million people, three million of whom do not have water, there’s a lot of hard work to do there, but we know that it can be done. It’s not a matter of can this place find its future. There are all sorts of questions about equity and how it can happen, the practicalities of it, but that’s not where the future is being worked out. That’s where the nineteenth century is being worked out.

California, on the other hand, has an extreme version of the problem that so much of the world has, which is that it has this landscape of wealth, which has ceased to be a form of wealth and has become a liability. Sunk costs. That is the primary problem for the developed world. We essentially have a Ponzi scheme on our hands. We have a form of wealth that was incredibly expensive to create—ecologically, but also financially—for which we are massively indebted, for which we run giant deficits, at all levels of government, and for which individuals have borrowed enormous amounts of money. And the way of life we bought with that money has a very uncertain future, if it has a future at all. What I mean by that is not just that a lot of our wealth is unsustainable, but, also, that a lot of our wealth has ceased to actually be productive. It’s based on hiding the costs and extracting economic rents from the people who are living here. And that is not a future. Unsustainability and lack of productivity are not what a future is made of.

But the idea that we change, the idea that we open up the future of the places we built and the economy we built to new possibilities is terrifying to a lot of people, especially a lot of older people. And I think that it’s not much of a stretch to divide a lot of California politics into that issue—the issue of are we going to reinvent ourselves so that we have a more prosperous future or do those who are currently benefitting have the right to keep it playing out for a little while longer, no matter what? I actually think that conflict—between those who see their interest in preservation of the status quo, and those who see their only hope in change—may well define our politics for the next decade or two.

Boom: How can we imagine a way out of that? Can you imagine that either we fail to reinvent ourselves? Or we succeed in doing that? What do those alternatives look like?

Steffen: Unfortunately, the failure scenario is really easy. The failure scenario is we do exactly what we’re doing. We believe that some magic force—whether it’s venture-funded technology, or the next boom, or the inherent vitality of multiculturalism, or whatever—that these forces will just show up and everything will be fine. People joke about business plans that claim, “I do this, and then I do that. Then the magic happens, and we make a lot of money.” California’s default plan is, essentially, “then the magic happens.”

The predictable outcome there is that we bankrupt ourselves. And we bankrupt ourselves at precisely the time when the bill is coming due in other ways, for what we’ve done—ecological, social, and fiscal. We sink into the mire precisely when we most need to move quickly.

But failure is not our only future. We might, instead, choose to reinvent ourselves again, to become the people who can reconcile prosperity, sustainability, and dynamism. We could raise our vision to take in the whole state and imagine for it and ourselves new ways of life that fit its realities and our own. Because failing exurbs and potholed freeways, government bankruptcies and climate chaos, eroding clear-cuts, dwindling salmon runs and drought-ravaged crops, a permanent underclass and a massive housing crisis—these aren’t the only way to live. We know enough to know that remaking all of that is at least possible. We could rebuild our cities with lots of new green housing and new transit and infrastructure, run our state on clean energy, remake forestry and farming, and look at water in a more sane way. We might even find a future for the suburbs, because if the twenty-first century has a frontier, it will be, as Bruce Sterling says, in the ruins of the unsustainable. All of these things would make us richer, and done properly they would actually become an export industry, because the whole wealthy world needs to figure out all this stuff, too. So those who figure it out can sell it, and should. We need the scale and speed of change that comes with a boom, and the self-transformation you see unleashed in democratic revolutions.

The practicalities of how we build a bright green state are tough, but even tougher is the cultural question: Who are “we” when we talk about ourselves as a group? The questions of who we are together are thorny and deep-rooted here in California, and we need a new and better answer.

Boom: How do you define success a century out, which is, essentially, success for those who are not yet born?

Steffen: Well, actually, some of the people who will be here in a century have been born.

Boom: Yeah, that’s true. But they’re very, very young, at this point.

Steffen: Our landscape of the future has foreshortened as the baby boomers have gotten older. People treat 2050 as this distant, unknowable world.

Boom: But many people who are forty today will be alive then.

Steffen: Absolutely. In fact, 1970 is farther away than 2050, and 1970 is like right around the corner for a lot of people in California.

Boom: I remember it well.

Steffen: I don’t. I think I was teething.

I believe that we are in the process of reclaiming our kinship to the future. I mean that in the most literal sense. The people who are going to be alive in the near future and in the distant future are us. They’re our descendants. They’re the people we love and their descendants. The future isn’t some make-believe land where weird things happen. That is a very strange conception of how time actually works and has far more to do with marketing things than it does with actual human experience. In 2115, a whole lot of people, who are the children of people now alive, will still be alive. So we’re not talking about a distant them. And I think that’s really important to recognize, because there’s a tendency to believe that because the future is some distant, crazy place, we can leave the future to the future. In fact, there’s a very explicit ideology about not trying to fix our problems now, but wait until nanotechnology, or intelligent robots, or visitors from Mars, or whatever the hell comes along and fixes it for us.

There’s this idea that transcendence is right around the corner, so don’t get bogged down. That is, of course, now a rusty, ancient ideology, despite the fact that we keep putting new coats of paint on it. The idea that we’re going to become immortal in machines was invented by the Bolsheviks, when they were trying to find a communist replacement for heaven. Maxim Gorky led a commission that literally invented the idea of uploading brains and having an online culture of digital beings. Basically, it was a way of being like, “Yeah, you don’t have to worry about dying!” The idea of individual transcendence, that we’re going to biologically engineer ourselves into super beings? That’s eugenics. That’s the nightmare that came out of reaction to Darwin when people were like, “But if nobody put us here, then where are we supposed to be going? We must command our own genetic destiny!”

Space, which is deeply tied into the Californian identity, is a dead end. We’re not going anywhere, for a very long time. I mean, we might go to Mars, but that’s a stunt. That’s not an expression of human destiny. All of these things are part of this idea that the future is a place where we’ll transcend the suffering and fear of the human condition and of living on a single Earth and that it’s just around the curve.

And part of what planetary futurism—a description I made up for the work I do—is about is trying to acknowledge that almost all of the conditions that will be present in the future are things we can sniff out now. The outlines of the future can already be made out in the fog, precisely because we won’t be transcending anything. Demographics are slow and inexorable, human nature changes gradually if at all, technology can do amazing things but is very unlikely to rewrite the laws of physics.

Our confusion on what is and is not within our powers is astonishing. Take, for instance, the very telling muddle around the word “Anthropocene.” In its scientific usage, it describes simply an era when humanity’s impacts on the planet will be recognizable in the geological record. But in popular use, it has come to mean the time when we took control of the planet. That, unfortunately, is absurd. We’re nowhere near fully understanding our world, much less running the show. All of our powers are those of disruption: we know how to fill the sky with pollution and heat the planet, for instance, but that very definitely does not mean we have some sort of global thermostat at our disposal. We know how to destroy ecosystems, but not how to re-create them. We know how to increase entropy, but very little about how to restore dynamic stability. We’re like monkeys breaking china cups and thinking that means we’re master potters. The best way we know to have more cups in the future is to stop breaking them and fix the ones we’ve smashed, if we can.

So we know that in 2115, the problems we’re creating now will be playing out in their full form. And I think that when we look at that, the real obligation that comes down to us—if we want to be good ancestors in that situation—is to leave open options.

And the options that we should most leave open are the options that are the most impossible to replace. So, right now, we don’t have any idea how to resurrect a dead species, despite press to the contrary. The best we can do is kind of play with a species that’s like it, that will produce results that are somewhat akin to what we had. That’s like making a model of an extinct species. That’s not making the species. We are, at the moment, around the world, driving into extinction species we don’t even know exist. So there’s definitely no coming back for those.

Extinction is the permanent closing of an option for the future, and that’s part of why it’s such a terrible idea. Similarly, because of the physics of climate change and ocean acidification and ecosystem loss, it is far, far more expensive, in money and energy terms, to try to alter the impacts than to try to prevent them. Once we put a ton of CO2 up in the air, it’s going to cost us much, much, much more money to deal with the consequences of that, and try to change it, than it costs us to not put a ton of CO2 in the air. Every ton of CO2 we release, then, forecloses options for the future and commits people in the future to more disasters and disaster management.

Where it gets interesting is, what are the things that are hard for us to see as options that people in the future might really want? One of these, for example, might be oil. We might want to leave a lot of oil in the ground for future generations to do things with, because it turns out those hydrocarbons can do a lot of interesting things and probably can do things that we can’t yet quite figure out. So it might be that leaving a bunch of oil in the ground for them is something that they will wish we did. There’s a similar ethos in archaeology now, where there’s a policy of leaving parts of many sites undug, recognizing that our grandchildren and their grandchildren may have techniques and understandings that reveal different things that we can’t even see now and might destroy using existing techniques. Leaving the option open for the future, to explore part of Troy or whatever in a new way, is a very sensible example of this idea.

But there are even weirder things that we don’t really know about, like our own microbiomes, our own bodies, and what we’re doing to our bodies, and what we’re doing to our descendants’ bodies in the process, and what things they might wish we had done or not done. I’m pretty sure, for that reason, that trying to engineer humans, in terms of the genome, is probably a bad idea, precisely because it’s so hard to figure out what the ongoing effects are going to be, beyond very specific genes that we understand very well. We’re starting to understand our genes aren’t computer code, that they are part of the far squishier system of our bodies.

I think that being a good ancestor is largely about leaving the playing field as open as possible for the people who come after us, giving them as many moves as you can.

Boom: So there’s a lot we can know about 2115. Does it matter if there are things that we can’t know about 2115?

Steffen: It does matter. Futurism is a deeply confused industry. It’s confused about its own job. In part, this comes from the conflict that we have in English of having the future mean a whole bunch of different things. The future means any time after now—so the time where you will do something. It also means a mythical place in which we put things that aren’t now, ranging from science fiction stories to predictions of market share. And it also, in American society, means the idea of things changing. The future is an ideology as well as a time in America. And all of these things make it really hard to talk about the future.

I once read an explanation of the Norns, who are the three sisters who weave the cloth of fate in Norse mythology. And it really rang true to me. I fear that it may not actually be true, but it’s one of those things that’s too good to fact-check. Anyway, the names of the three Norns supposedly mean that which was, that which is becoming, and that which may be. And that is actually a really interesting way to think about things, because, first of all, we are so enmeshed in history as humans. The past didn’t go anywhere, as Utah Phillips said. We’re living in the past, still. And that’s a part of the human condition—to live surrounded by the past.

And, a lot of what we talk about as the future is, in fact, what’s already unfolding around us. Much of what we’re trying to do when we’re doing futurism is just to see what’s already here with fresh eyes. Because we’re so surrounded by the past, it’s sometimes hard to see something that has shifted, that’s really important, that’s already true. I think the best futurists almost all see the core of the work as predicting the present.

But there’s also what may be. And I think that’s where it gets really hard to say useful things, because clearly there are events and processes that change us and that change the range of possibility. We’re really obsessed about gadgets and fleeting technologies, but that doesn’t mean that our discoveries aren’t widening the range of things that could happen, in ways that are very hard to anticipate. For instance, things are happening with cognitive science, with brain interfaces, with data extrapolation and modeling, and so forth that could change our experience of thinking. What we’re often blind to, though, is something much more radical, which is social innovation and social evolution.

The fundamental fact about people is not that we are individually smart. It’s that we do crazy things together. We take for granted, especially in the Anglophone world, that the institutions and mores that we got from the nineteenth century are reflections of human nature. So we take for granted that capitalism, in a certain form, is the end of history. We take for granted that the aspiration of people is to be consumers in a middle class way. We take for granted the idea that politics is notionally democratic, but in practice is about competing elites. There’s a whole series of assumptions that we make that go right back into Victorian England. And I think that those assumptions are far more open to disruption than the way our brains interface with technology.

One of the things that is really potent about California is that this is a place that has had social, cultural upheavals, regularly, one after another, for decades on end. There is this idea now that that might be over. If that’s true, I think California has the bleakest future imaginable. But I don’t think it’s true. I think California might well be a place where we see civic and institutional innovation on a popular scale in the near future. The fact that institutional innovation sounds like an oxymoron just demonstrates how much there is to change though.

Boom: Has thinking about the future changed from 1915 to now? And how do you think it will change between now and 2115?

Steffen: To an extent that makes some people very uncomfortable to acknowledge, we are still living in a 1915 sense of the future. Almost all of the tropes of futurism, of science fiction, et cetera, are things that come out of the late 1800s and the very early years of the 1900s. And our reactions to a combination of the displacement of God by evolution, and the ability to tell the age of the planet, and the inability to find a physical soul, all of these things, and this overwhelming force that was raw industrialization, seemed to suggest that everything was malleable…”All that is solid melts into air,” as Marx said. In fact, any trope I have been able to find about the future, you can find somebody saying it in 1915 or, if not 1915, at least by 1925.

We don’t like to acknowledge that. We like to think that advocates of space travel, like Elon Musk, or the Singularity, like Ray Kurzweil, are the cutting edge. But Musk is just following in the tracks of the Russian Cosmists, as Kurzweil follows Gorky and his Immortalization Commission. We like to think that the transhumanists are blazing a new frontier, but they’re really like H.G. Wells, who was talking about a lot of that stuff, just in a much more racist context. Our movies are packed with the fiery futuristic visions of people who were mostly dead before anyone we know was born.

None of those ideas about the future are real anymore. And I think one of the things that’s really emotionally difficult for a lot of people is recognizing that not only did that future not come true, it was never going to. We were never going to get flying cars, and even if we did, they wouldn’t mean what we thought they’d mean. People cling to the idea that, “Oh, look, the classic sci fi future is coming true!” But that future is almost a definition of what’s not happening, it’s where we aren’t.

So, when we look at how people looked at the world in 1915, there are some things that are different—at least I hope they are, social Darwinism, for example, and imperialism—but we have never had a reckoning with that outdated idea of the future. One of the trends that I find hopeful is that this new generation of futurists is fully aware of that situation, and is simply uninterested in the rusty technological sublime.

But right now we still tend to talk about the future—especially older futurists—in terms of what is Apple going to make? So, for example, as we’re talking, the iWatch just came out.

Boom: Yeah, and we’ve been waiting for it for sixty years.

Steffen: Right. Exactly. When your big move is something that cartoons from the prewar era featured, that’s a problem. That’s not an achievement. That’s a problem. And there’s still this sense that the future is being made in Cupertino and Mountain View. And I think the future of technology is being made in much weirder ways and is much more about things like questioning models of intellectual property, reclaiming and restoring privacy, creating widely sharable innovations. These are things that you wouldn’t get a sense are happening in the mainstream tech world.

That said, I’m starting to see this quote everywhere: “If you don’t know what the product is, the product is you.” The idea being that if you’re signed up to a free service that tracks your actions and harvests your data, then you’re actually being exploited, not helped. Or those little anti-Google Glass stickers, which I’ve started to see more and more places: “Don’t wear Google Glass into this business.” There’s a not-so-subtle backlash to that idea of technology, which is really interesting, because in the technology press, it’s portrayed as Luddism. But all the people I know who are most feisty about those things are far more technologically sophisticated than most of the people who write the business press. They’re more immersed in it. It’s a very youthful, techie thing to be skeptical about technology and the way it’s marketed to us.

I suspect that I’m probably too old already to figure this one out as a futurist, but one of the things I feel is this undercurrent that the next technological shift has nothing to do with Silicon Valley’s definitions of what innovation looks like. It might be huge and world changing, without being something that we can recognizably call a technological industry.

Boom: You’ve said that you are particularly interested in our cultural understandings of our built and natural systems, and that the connection is blurring between them. Do you think that the notion of a difference or divide between these two things, the built and the natural environment, will go away?

Steffen: Well, at its most fundamental level, that notion of a divide is false. We are wholly within the natural world. We live within the planet, not on it. And every single thing around us is a piece of nature. We haven’t actually left the natural world, because even when we shoot people into space, we take Earth minerals, make them into a shell, fill them with Earth gases, Earth water, and Earth food. We detach that for a little while from Earth and then bring it back. So this idea that there’s some artificial world that exists outside of the context of the natural is just not true.

There was once a useful distinction between the systems that we have dominated and built into designs of our own making, or unintentionally created, and systems that have evolved on their own. But we have an influence on everything now. There’s no place that’s not warming because of our fossil fuel use, for example. This demands thinking in new ways. Aldo Leopold said, “To be an ecologist is to live alone in a world of wounds.” Culturally, we do not have a path to understanding the interaction of the systems we have heavily engineered with those that we are not in control of, other than this sense of loss. Environmentalism gave us this amazing gift of understanding, actually, that we live entirely within the planet. But it also created a narrative of decline. Even now, some of the most eminent elder environmental thinkers spend their time musing over whether it’s too late for civilization or whether we can still retreat back into the past. How far back into the past is a matter of disagreement. Wendell Berry believes we just need to retreat to horse-drawn plows. And you have others who are like, “No, no, no. We need to undo industrial civilization as a whole.” These are all back-to-the-garden fantasies, and again quite old ones, dating back to the very dawn of the industrial era. They have nothing to do with our actual set of options. These dreams of retreat to a simpler time, I believe, are attempts to retain psychological integrity in the face of an overwhelming reality, which is everything is not quite as we’ve been trained to see it.

But I also think that there’s something happening where we are beginning—and California is actually very much in the epicenter of this—to understand that the systems we influence and the systems we have changed, we have built, don’t have to be disastrous breaks with nature, that there can be a harmony across the landscape, which is not natural and not human, because there is no separation of those things, so we seek the health of both. It is us trying to live within the patterns of the planet we’re on while meeting our needs. And there’s a way to do that which is very different than what we have, but better.

Right now, we’re sitting here in Berkeley, and I can see out the window, past you. There’s a busy street with asphalt, and cars zooming down it. I can see air conditioning units and power poles. And it’s very difficult to come to grips with the reality that none of that is sustainable, even over a very short period of time. If ecologists and environmentalist have largely retreated into the past, a lot of people who work on the built world dwell with a comforting illusion that we’re going to somehow make our unsustainable cities work without reimagining them from the ground up.

The most potent question of all, I think, is how might a bright green—both prosperous and sustainable—future outcompete the present? Because this is America. Futures don’t get built because they’re better. They get built because they outcompete. That, I think, is a really interesting question.

Boom: I’m looking over your shoulder and there’s a backyard orchard and garden and trees. Some of that probably is sustainable.

Steffen: It might be. Yet one of the big changes that has happened in the last ten years is people understanding that you have to think in systems. You have to think about consumption footprints and supply chains. One of the really big problems with 1970s environmentalism was this whole idea that you could do things on a local scale and become sustainable. But even looking back across the yard, at the house there, even that vision of urban sustainability is dependent on oil and huge industrial systems, on things that are manufactured in China—it’s likely that even that food there in the garden is being grown in topsoil mined elsewhere and dumped into urban yards, et cetera, et cetera. We are all of us enmeshed in these global systems, and there is no escape from it. One of the really big problems we have is this sense that urban sustainability means making cities like rural areas. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Urban sustainability has to be about making cities so much like cities that their footprints shrink to that which can be met sustainably. And that way of thinking is like a whole new thing. And it’s another source of big conflict in California.

Boom: I was going to ask what might California’s vision of itself be in 2115. But it sounds like California’s vision of itself as some place distinct goes away. Or does it?

Steffen: Well, who knows? See, I think there’s a challenge there, because there is this mindset that if you aren’t local, you must be just globalized in some way that destroys everything. But that mindset, I think, is, frankly, not very different from the mindset that fueled harsh xenophobia and racism—that we’re going to become mongrelized or something if we interact with people who are not like us. I think that what we will do is come to more fully understand our places, more fully inhabit them, because the story that we tell about them being distinct was never true, or it was never the whole truth, at the very least. And I suspect that just as you go to Europe now, and seventy years ago Europeans were killing each other by the tens of millions, but you go to Europe now, and you go to a place like Berlin, and there are people from all over Europe, hanging out together, marrying each other, starting businesses together, living in a shared future. But they’re still people from different places. They still speak different languages. They still have different cultures. They have different dialects within their languages, et cetera. That doesn’t go away.

So I don’t think the sense of California will disappear just because we think in planetary terms. If anything, it may sharpen, in a weird way. We may understand that there is something very special and unique about the West Coast and about California, and we may come to see those things as sources of real pride rather than just tourist attractions.


Market Street Railway mural and photographs by Mona Caron.

Boom editor Jon Christensen spoke with Alex Steffen at length in person. The transcript of their conversation was then edited and revised by both Steffen and Christensen.


Saving the Quantified Self

by Yeesheen Yang

How we come to know ourselves now

From Boom Winter 2014, Vol 4, No 4

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of Yeesheen Yang’s “Saving the Quantified Self” from our Winter 2014 issue. 

My grandmother recently had a pacemaker implanted. Major surgery and its aftermath are frightening at any age, but for a ninety-three-year-old and her family it is a particularly scary tightrope to walk. Had her recovery been filmed for a montage in a family drama, there would have been reassuring doctors and smiling nurses with encouraging words as the liveliness returned to her eyes and activity to her arms and legs—but this wasn’t a movie. This was the information age. As we gathered around her hospital bed in the days after the procedure, I could tell that my grandmother was worried, and I was worried, too.

Then my mother slipped a small portable pulse oximeter over my grandmother’s finger to measure her blood pressure, resting heart rate, and blood oxygen saturation. We all tried it. The quick readout and the ensuing conversation about my grandmother’s thrice-daily ritual of checking her numbers were comforting. As her recovery progressed, a pedometer measured her daily walks, and this information was even more fortifying: 650 steps one day, 800 steps the next. It is satisfying to imagine her circling her tiny backyard, amid the small fruit trees and high stone walls, tracking her own progress. And it brings a smile to my face knowing that this fragile nonagenarian is so in sync with the zeitgeist.

In modern times, self-tracking like my grandmother is doing is how we’ve come to satisfy the exhortation to “know thyself.” In this conception of the self, we are not beings made in the image of our god, animals with intellect, or finely calibrated machines; we are fields of data. To know ourselves is to mine, map, and analyze that data and make adjustments where necessary. We quantify ourselves using pedometers, oximeters, stopwatches, obsessive journaling, and increasingly sophisticated technology to track every knowable piece of data that our bodies and our selves can spit out. These numbers can bring comfort, and they can bring real understanding, not just of REM cycles and caloric intake, but of what it means to be, precisely, us.

This concept—which we might call the algorithmic body, a body built from data—is gaining traction in Silicon Valley, where big names are attaching themselves to ideas, products, and services that aim to exploit all the data we are generating about our bodies for a range of goals. Some, like the wearable fitness tracker Fitbit or the genomic testing company 23andMe seek to arm users with the data they need to improve their health, vitality, and, possibly, longevity. Others, like Google cofounder Larry Page and his California Life Company (Calico), have something grander in mind: immortality. All of these ideas are rooted in the idea of a body that can be understood and even preserved through data—the Quantified Self.

Quantified Self—which is actually a company and a movement—was founded in 2007 by Kevin Kelly and Gary Wolf, two editors at Wired magazine. It promotes the idea that gathering quantifiable data about oneself and one’s life through practices of self-tracking allows us to know, rather than guess, how well we are living our lives. Am I really keeping under the caloric limits I need to meet in order to lose weight? How much time do I actually spend on Facebook in one day? How much time do I spend writing? Well-framed questions, together with the increasingly powerful self-monitoring tools, can transform the nebulous experience of life into hard data, allowing us to engage in informed and effective interventions. Self-trackers believe in “self-knowledge through numbers”—a phrase proclaimed in big type on the Quantified Self website.¹ Practitioners now meet in over one hundred cities around the globe, from New York to Milan, Mexico City, Chennai, and Helsinki, to share and reflect on the ways they are using numbers to understand and improve themselves.

Self-trackers are a well-educated, engaged, relatively affluent, and technically inclined demographic. They are deeply serious about this form of self-reflection.² Many are hobbyists, who use existing apps to capture self-data. Others are practitioners who build their own tools to share with or sell to the larger community. One presenter at a recent Quantified Self meetup in San Francisco talked about learning to reduce the duration of incidents when he felt upset during the day by logging alerts from his heart-rate monitor. The data allowed him to pinpoint his emotional triggers and assess the effectiveness of various coping strategies. He reported that he reduced the amount of time he spent upset by 23 percent over the course of his self-study.³

For over a year, Laurie Frick tracked her activities in a daily journal. To turn data into art, she looks for patterns that are at once organic and ordered. Courtesy Laurie Frick.

Commercially available wearable monitors are some of the simplest tools in the kit of the modern self-tracker, and they epitomize the emerging relationship between data, self-monitoring, and our sense of self. The rich data of tracking, real-time feedback, and the minute experiences of one’s body can blend together to generate a new, data-informed sense of one’s own body. Anthropologist Dawn Nafus suggests, in her work on self-tracking, that “one learns how to feel one’s body through the data.” Sociologists including Deborah Lupton suggest that the quantified data of self-tracking can lead to an enriched qualitative practice of self-reflection. Data becomes part of a process of telling oneself stories about one’s progress in life. Lupton argues that self-tracking is narrative and performative, a practice that produces and reflects upon who we are becoming: “I walk fourteen thousand steps each day; ergo, I am a walker.”4

I see something more here: an algorithmic body emerging from this ongoing project of building oneself up through data. The algorithmic body is established as the object of surveillance and monitoring for the purpose of intervention and it is the object of intervention as much as our physical bodies, and perhaps even more so someday. It is instructive that relating to, reflecting upon, and producing oneself today is performed through data. Data is the idiom of the biotechnological age and, increasingly, now the language of the self.

Throughout history, scientific trends have had a profound effect on perceptions of the self and body. In the second half of the nineteenth century, for instance, a mechanistic rather than an algorithmic view of the body was on the rise. This understanding of the body flourished alongside the rapid proliferation of mechanical technologies in the form of industrial machinery, transportation, and medical knowledge. Notions of the body began to focus on issues of efficiency, fatigue, and the cycles of a closed system. Historian Anson Rabinbach traces the idea of the human motor—the body as machine—in relation to the articulation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which specifies the rule of conservation of energy.

The second-to-last in a 52-week series of collages tracking the artist’s weekly walking. Courtesy Laurie Frick.

The algorithmic perspective has been influenced by increasing interest in big data and data mining, and it has been fueled by the rapid development in personal surveillance technology, which has over time built up big data about human bodies and human lives in the aggregate and individually. But at least one branch of the roots of the algorithmic body has a longer history, dating back to mid-century speculative work on longevity, transhumanism, the idea of transcending the human condition, and cryonics.


Image at top:  Each colored block represents a GPS location visited by the artist over a ninety-day period in Making Tracks. Greater color saturation represents more frequent visits to that location. Courtesy Laurie Frick.

1 The Quantified Self website can be found here: http://quantifiedself.com.

2 Self trackers have their own history and legacy. Many note that before smartphones, there were pens and paper, which Benjamin Franklin used in his obsessive daily self-chronicling.

3 Paul LaFontaine’s writing on his self-study can be found here: http://quantselflafont.com/2014/07/13/improvement-results-in-upset-recovery/.

4 Deborah Lupton, “Beyond the Quantified Self: the Reflexive Self-Monitoring Self,” This Sociological Life, http://simplysociology.wordpress.com/2014/07/28/beyond-the-quantified-self-the-reflexive-monitoring-self/.


Boom and Bust and What Comes Next

by Celia and Peter Wiley

The view from our window.

From Boom Summer 2014, Vol 4, No 2

“Boom and bust is our lot and we must follow the ancient advice. . .that Joseph gave to the Pharaoh: Put away your surplus during the years of great plenty so you will be ready for the lean years which are sure to follow.”

—Governor Jerry Brown, State of the State speech, January 2014

The red circles look like bomb splats in an illustrated history of World War II. They begin on the eastern edge of the city near the Ferry Building and spread westward along Market Street. The graphic is a map of “Tech Hot Spots” printed in the San Francisco Business Times (21-27 February 2014). Each circle represents one of the fifty largest technology companies in the city, the size of each circle determined by the number of the company’s employees. The largest tech employer, according to SFBT, is Salesforce.com with 4,000 employees as of January 2014 (an increase of a thousand from one year earlier). Currently located in the historic Southern Pacific building at One Market Street, Salesforce has plans to occupy a twenty-seven-floor tower at 350 Mission across from the new Transbay Terminal in 2015.

A large cluster of red spots resembling a measles outbreak runs along either side of Montgomery Street in the Financial District. The cluster extends southward into SoMa, the South of Market district. A third cluster sits near Showplace Square where Zynga has its headquarters on Eighth Street between Townsend and Brannan, and Adobe has its headquarters around the corner on Townsend. Until recently Showplace Square’s post-quake red-brick warehouses were home to furniture and interior design showrooms, but soon, if the real estate developers have their way and the tech economy continues to expand, they will be converted to offices filled with even more “techies.” (As the Bay Area’s tech sector has evolved, so have the terms used to identify—and vilify—its workforce. The “dot-commers” of the nineties have become the “techies” of the twenty-teens, but apparently the label doesn’t sit well with everyone. Last December when one techie interviewed by an SFGate reporter equated the word with a racial slur, a popular industry blog suggested it be replaced with the term “Software American.”)

“Do you know,” exclaimed an elderly venture capitalist over lunch in the Garden Court at the Palace Hotel on New Montgomery Street, “within a ten-block radius of where we are sitting is the cloud computing center of the world?” He would know; he’s been backing tech start-ups since 1984, incubating at least one hen house full of millionaires. . .and probably a few empty ones.

A smaller grouping of red circles on the SFBT map near AT&T Park on Third and King streets covers Multimedia Gulch, the major hub for start-ups during the first dot-com boom of the 1990s. Back then, in the relatively innocent days of the digital Neolithic, San Francisco was a boutique outpost hovering beyond the northern border of the Silicon Valley heartland. Today “The City” itself is becoming a major digital epicenter or an annex of Silicon Valley, depending on your perspective—some maps of the Valley, defying geography, extend all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge.

The headline above the bomb-splat map reads: “TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING?”A subhead notes that “as tech firms and tech wealth become subjects of controversy in San Francisco, those who remember the dot-com bubble worry about the city’s breakneck pursuit of tech jobs.” So what of the tech sector and its bubbles? By all accounts, the first one burst in 2000 when the NASDAQ crash brought the first dot-com era to a close. While the global financial crash of 2008 and the resulting Great Recession initially slowed job growth in Silicon Valley, the meteoric rise of smart phones and social media helped the tech industry as a whole to power ahead despite the near collapse of the global economy. It is unclear (and probably irrelevant) at this point whether the events of the last several years place us in the middle or at the end of a technological era, but the irrational exuberance that appears to be driving contemporary investment in technology companies is inspiring more and more questions about whether the tech sector can sustain current levels of expansion or if we are headed for another bust.

Consulting Google, the oracle of the Internet, indicates that there is little in the way of consensus regarding the possibility of a tech boom/bust scenario playing out in the near term. The first page results of a search for “tech 2.0 bubble” include articles and tweets from the Wall Street Journal, Business Insider, Forbes, and CNET. A Wired article entitled “Will 2014 Be the Year the Tech Bubble Bursts?” is mostly sanguine, claiming that the market’s standards for viability have increased since the 2000 bust and citing Twitter (revenue but no profit) as the model for the new public tech company. A brief entry further down the page from the open source, pseudonymous online journal Zero Hedge (tagline: “On a long enough timeline the survival rate for everyone drops to zero”) points out that of the tech companies that went public in often wildly lucrative IPOs in 2013, 73 percent have never turned a profit, compared to 27 percent in 1999.

First Street and Market Street by Leo vanMunching.

Beale Street and Market Street by Leo vanMunching.

A more urgent question may be: what might happen to San Francisco if current trends continue? The new tech workers settling in San Francisco (and adjacent communities such as Oakland, slated to become the Brooklyn of the West Coast) are mostly young, predominantly male, and if 2010 Census records for the Silicon Valley workforce hold true, almost evenly split between white and Asian, with Asians (both American born and immigrant) a slight majority. They are well educated, well paid, well connected, and often regarded by locals as the vanguard of an invading army (“local” being a relative term when only 37 percent of San Francisco residents were even born in California, according to the 2010 census).

If you read the Bay Area press or local blogs, techies are the people fueling the astronomical leap in San Francisco’s housing prices, inspiring property owners to evict long-time tenants in order to flip rental buildings or convert them to condos, and making the city the most expensive in the country with rents rising 10.6 percent over the past year, three times the national average. Techies are clogging city bus stops as they line up to wait for enormous private buses with blacked out windows to wheel them off to their destinations in Silicon Valley—Google, or perhaps Netflix, indicated only by discretely placed signs the size of large index cards—where their employers provide luxurious perks such as free gourmet meals (organic, natch), haircuts, massages, and on-site medical care.

In addition to the programmers, developers, and other highly skilled workers dependent on the current boom in San Francisco, the rise of tech has helped create a class of service workers who make their often meager livelihoods catering to the techeoisie’s preference for fine living. Most visible in the city’s abundant cafes and restaurants, members of the new service class—whether tattooed and pierced artistic types or newly arrived immigrants—provide the amenities, from serving lattes and waiting tables to cleaning houses and caring for children and pets.

Second Street and Mission Street by Leo vanMunching.

Being a classic Western booster journal with little interest in critical examination, the SFBT’s answer to the chatter about a new tech bubble is don’t worry; come west, young men—or east from Asia as the case may be—and let the money roll in. This is The City’s siren song, born in the days of the Gold Rush. Others are less confident in the staying power of this latest in a long series of booms that have marked the history of the California economy. In his January 2014 State of the State speech, once and future governor (and former seminarian) Jerry Brown harked back to the Book of Genesis to warn Californians against taking good times for granted. Brown has been credited with bringing the state’s budget—laid low by the Great Recession of 2008 and the decline in tax revenues caused by the exercise of tech company options, among other things—under control. As the scion of a California political dynasty that dates back to the invention of the microchip, however, Brown has been around long enough to know that in these parts change—often rapid change—is the rule rather than the exception.

Back on the Right Coast, New York Times Bits blogger Nick Bilton (24 November 2013) points to the NASDAQ composite index, which has soared above its highest point since the first tech boom ended, and notes that Twitter is losing money: “A price-to-earnings ratio? There is no E in the P/E. But its stock is trading at twenty-odd times the company’s annual sales.” Is Twitter really the new model for a viable tech giant or will it become the canary in the digital coalmine? The company is currently the darling of The City’s political establishment, headed by former mayor Willie Brown and current mayor Ed Lee. Encouraged by a payroll tax break worth an estimated $56 million, Twitter recently moved into the empty Merchandise Mart on Market between Ninth and Tenth Streets, leading some to question whether San Francisco politicians are in the business of feeding the bubble, funding gentrification, or building the local workforce by reducing taxes on wages and options for the 1,500 jobs that Twitter brings. How will Twitter’s presence impact low-income residents of the Mid-Market area and the Tenderloin, which some wags are already calling the Twitterloin? While the city’s tax break deal included provisions that encourage “good faith efforts” to hire locals, there is no binding agreement compelling Twitter to do so and, not surprisingly, the company appears reluctant to engage in the kind of substantial outreach that would prepare Mid-Market residents for entry-level positions in its workforce.

Is Wall Street going sour on tech? According to Bits blogger Bilton, when Bloomberg surveyed Wall Street investors, “roughly half said that the bubble was here or soon to be.” In Silicon Valley, they say there is no bubble, just gas pains at the birth of a brave new world. We don’t claim to be economic prognosticators, but as we gaze upon the hoodie-clad masses strolling by clutching their sushirritos and their burrotis from our perch here in the “cloud” at Third and Market streets, it’s tempting to think about history and wonder what might trigger California’s next bust.

The Big One?

Anyone who grows in a city with schools that require regular earthquake drills knows that The Big One could happen at any time. The Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 registered a mere 6.9 on the Richter scale, but it severed the Bay Bridge, flattened a section of freeway in Oakland, and killed sixty-three people. What would an event on the scale of the earthquake and tsunami that destroyed the Fukushima nuclear plant (9.0) or the 1960 Chilean earthquake (approximately 9.5) do to the local economy? Scientists currently estimate that there is a 67 percent chance that a quake the size of the Loma Prieta temblor or greater will occur in the San Francisco Bay Area in the next twenty-five years,1 raising the specter of Twitter tweeting its own demise in real time from its headquarters on Market.

A Variation on the First Dot-Bomb?

During the first dot-bomb, the tech-heavy NASDAQ lost 78 percent of its value. The 2000 collapse followed a period of manic investing when entrepreneurs with off-the-wall ideas and ridiculous or nonexistent business plans sought and received funding from ill-informed investors blinded by the magical aura of the Internet or just simple greed. When the video began to run backward and start-ups in the city shut down like massage parlors during a vice raid, the San Francisco Chronicle ran lists of restaurant closings, and the nightly bacchanal along newly gentrified Valencia Street in the Mission District evaporated like a morning-after dream. Office furniture flooded the secondhand market, with office rentals sometimes featuring a full suite of furniture and even the occasional foosball table. There are longtime residents of the city who think back with nostalgia to the time when advance reservations were required to rent the trucks that ferried the first wave of geek geniuses and their possessions out of The City and back to where they came from.

A Variation on the Global Economic Crash of 2008?

The economic crash of 2008 was triggered by a rapid decline in real estate values and the collapse of numerous financial institutions associated with subprime mortgage scams. California alone lost a million jobs. Between 2008 and 2011, according to the US Census Bureau, 1,026,572 California homes were foreclosed upon, equal to one in thirteen homes and the residences of 1 million children. Home prices in San Francisco dropped 30 percent.

Grant Street and Market Street by Leo vanMunching.

The Great Recession had a very different impact on the tech sector in San Francisco. The number of tech jobs dropped at roughly the same rate as the 2000 crash but for a much shorter time and then began to grow at a faster rate, continuing to the present. Why? A quick look at the SFBT list of the fifty largest tech employers shows that nine out of ten were already well established before 2008. Four of them—Dolby Laboratories (1965), Lucasfilm (now owned by Disney, 1971), Adobe Systems (1982), and Autodesk (1982)—were founded before the first tech boom started around 1993. Another group, launched just before or after 2000, were stable enough to succeed while newer companies like Salesforce (1999), Google (1998), Twitter (2006), and Yelp (2004) have taken off like jackrabbits.

In an WSJ.D interview (3 January 2014), venture capital guru Marc Andreesen, who insists that there is no tech bubble, points out why companies like these survive and grow while others don’t. His argument doesn’t bode well for start-ups in the dog-eat-dog world of today’s high tech economy or for its workforce. He uses the smartphone as an example of what he suggests is the inexorable drive toward faster economic growth and consolidation. Today, says Andreesen, there are two billion smartphones. Within three years, there will be five billion, and it will be a “world where everyone has a supercomputer in their pocket and everybody’s connected.” When asked by the WSJ if there will be enough demand to fund “two or three or more players in these categories,” Andreesen says, “Generally in tech, the markets are winner take all.” And the losers? Bye-bye!

Yesterday’s Grand Vision and the Dustbin of History

Remember when politicians like former mayors Joe Alioto and Dianne Feinstein, and businessmen like the Bechtels, and the CEOs of the Bank of America, Wells Fargo, the Crocker Bank, Utah Mining and Construction, Castle and Cook (Dole), Standard Oil of California, and other old-guard corporations based in San Francisco used to gas on about The City as the capital of a Pacific Basin economy? You may not, because almost all of those heavyweight corporations are either gone or no longer headquartered in San Francisco.

One can trace America’s dreams of Pacific dominion back to the Gold Rush when the Mare Island Naval Base near Vallejo (now decommissioned) was established in 1854 as “the fulcrum of the lever of that power” by which the United States would “maintain its maritime rights and peace upon the vast expanse of the Pacific and Indian Oceans.” Ultimately, maintaining the peace included the annexation of Hawaii (1893), the seizure of the Philippines (1898), and the defeat of Japan in World War II, resulting in the United State’s ascendancy to the position of the imperial power in the Pacific (now challenged by China).

In the post-World War II period, San Francisco banks such as Bank of America, local shipping, mining, insurance, and construction companies, and the agribusiness giants that held sway in the Central Valley and dominated the sugar and pineapple crops in Hawaii backed the formulation of a Pacific Rim strategy with the assistance of the Stanford Research Institute. Those same companies redesigned San Francisco’s skyline, lining Market and California streets with bland office towers, building the Moscone Convention Center and creating a Bay Area Regional Transit system to connect their new skyscrapers to bedroom communities in the suburbs.

The old generation of big thinkers, most of whom are deceased, played a major role in shaping both the global and Pacific Basin economies until the reality of globalization put an end to their dreams of The City as the pivot of the Pacific Basin. Take the Bank of America, once the largest bank in the world, whose signature office tower on California Street was briefly the tallest west of the Mississippi. In the 1980s, the bank sold its tower to the late Walter Shorenstein, one of the city’s largest property owners and a mega-backer of the Democratic Party. Not long after, it reduced the size of its local workforce and eventually sold out to an obscure bank from North Carolina. Crocker is gone, as are San Francisco-based shipping companies. Utah Mining and Construction are long gone. Dole now lists its headquarters as New Jersey—and rumor has it that Chevron, having relocated its headquarters in phases from a tower on Market Street to the East Bay community of San Ramon, is headed for Texas.

Folsom Street and Beale Street by Leo vanMunching.

Market Street and Kearny Street by Leo vanMunching.

What was once the corporate headquarters of the Pacific Basin is now the future tech city, but perhaps we should consider a very real possibility suggested by the demise of the Pacific Basin headquarters fantasy: as the cost of living in San Francisco becomes more and more outrageous, Andreesen’s winning tech capitalists, faced with significant competition from future tech giants like China, will need to cut costs. Will they relocate staff to Stockton, or maybe Las Vegas—or simply send the work overseas? Housing is cheap in the Central Valley, but the cost of living is even cheaper in India and Vietnam. What of the techno-proletariat, the pampered Google bus riders, and the people we see from our office window in the “cloud” at Third and Market? What happens to them if this really is a boom about to go bust, or if industry concentration follows the Andreesen model, or if big tech simply decides that instead of importing Indian engineers, it’s more expedient to move to India? If recent history is any guide, the winners of this latest round of economic sweepstakes will remain, along with those members of the service class who can scrape together enough money to afford a bed in a room in an apartment with a multitude of other inhabitants. The techie proles will “go back where they came from” or, like tens of thousands of working and middle-class San Franciscans over the last three decades, leave for greener pastures in that other valley to the east, or even further south and east to the Sunbelt cities—wherever the rent is cheap and the weather is easy.


These photographs were originally featured in the exhibition Now That You’re Gone. . .San Francisco Neighborhoods Without Us at SF City Hall, February 25 – May 23, 2014. COURTESY OF THE SAN FRANCISCO ARTS COMMISSION GALLERIES AND LEO VANMUNCHING.




Mapping What Is

by Stamen Design

From Boom Summer 2014, Vol 4, No 2

Editor’s Note: Stamen Design, a studio specializing in live data visualizations and interactive mapping, overlooks the busy corner of Mission and Sixteenth Streets in San Francisco. Its mission: “Take ambiguous, obscure, complex data. Turn it into beautiful, engaging and accessible projects that delight and inform the public. Repeat.” Eric Rodenbeck, the studio’s founder, likes to say: “We build objects to think with.” Crimespotting—an interactive map of crimes in San Francisco and Oakland—was designed to lead by example and inspire local governments to make civic data public. And it has led to citizens printing out maps and taking them to police departments to ask for changes in neighborhood policing because the data shows what works and what does not. Parks.stamen.com visualizes the stories and images that pour out of parks, open spaces, and natural areas in the city and state. Surging Seas—a collaboration with Climate Central and New America Media—highlights what will be lost as rising sea levels take back land, put property underwater, and disproportionately displace different communities around the Bay Area, California, and worldwide. Creative Commons-license map tilesets—including the whimsical “Watercolor”—let people create their own map styles and imagine different ways of seeing the city.


Surging Seas




Mapping Our Disconnect

by Kristin Miller

From Boom Summer 2014, Vol 4, No 2

On the transit system we have, not the one we might have had, or wish we had

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of Kristin Miller’s essay “Mapping our Disconnect” from our Summer 2014 issue. 

Maps have power. They can make the illegible legible and the invisible visible. They can make the obvious even more obvious and the impossible seem possible.

When Stamen Design mapped the routes of the private buses that ferry techies between their homes in San Francisco and their jobs in Silicon Valley for the 2012 Zero1 Biennial, the aesthetic choice to render the map as a transit-system schematic made an open secret within San Francisco obvious to the world. The city is becoming a suburb of the Silicon Valley suburbs.

The “Google buses” had had the aura of urban myth since they began running in 2006. There was a vague sense of their increasing presence, but little knowledge about how many of the large, unmarked motorcoaches blended in with the tourist traffic on city streets. San Francisco’s transit authorities requested Stamen’s data because they were unsure how many tech buses were using city bus stops to pick up and drop off workers. The “Google bus” was mentioned in jealous wonder by those without a free, comfy commute, and more angrily when the arrival of the buses began to be implicated in ever-higher rents in city neighborhoods or when their outsize bulk bottomed out on San Francisco’s precipitous hills.

In a piece in The London Review of Books shortly after the appearance of Stamen’s map, Rebecca Solnit appropriated a geek-world in-joke from “The Simpsons,” dubbing the buses the “the spaceships on which our alien overlords have landed to rule over us.” But she and many others were not ready to welcome them. The buses had become a synecdoche—a part that symbolized the whole, like the crown signifies the monarch—for all the ways that the most recent tech boom was altering San Francisco.

In 2012 Stamen Design mapped the routes of the private buses that ferry techies between San Francisco and Silicon Valley.


With a plan in hand that showed not only where the buses stopped but how often, San Franciscans suddenly had a sense of the impact of the tech shuttles. By adding width to the lines to convey the volume of riders, the map also showed the scale of the problem, using a venerable graphic technique famously used by Charles Joseph Minard to chart Napoleon’s campaign against Russia and eventual retreat with a much diminished army. By compressing the routes of Google, Apple, Facebook, Yahoo!, and eBay into a single visualization, Stamen’s design made it possible to argue that these routes in fact constituted a de facto transit system using city bus stops to move tens of thousands of people each day. In fact, Marty Lev, Google’s vice president of safety, security, and transportation, had said back in 2007, when the Google buses carried only 1,200 employees daily: “We are basically running a small municipal transit agency.”

A debate now rages over whether the buses should be permitted and taxed by the city. Tech bus stops in San Francisco and Oakland have been hit by direct action protests. A decision to charge the bus operators a $1-per-stop fee for using 200 approved city bus stops temporarily quieted the protests, but not the ill feelings.

The argument over the buses and the change they represent often breaks down into pro- and anti-tech camps, with personal attacks against the culture of tech workers or protestors, as embodied in a recent piece of street theater where a protestor playing a techie belligerently told those blocking a Google bus to “get a better job,” or the all-too-real comments made by former AngelHack CEO Greg Gopman that San Francisco is “grotesque” and “overrun by. . .drug dealers, dropouts, and trash.”

What’s really at stake—and what is foregrounded by visualizing the presence of the buses as Stamen did—is a failure of belief in the city as a commons, a city that supports existing residents and new arrivals by integrating them into the collective spaces and systems perhaps best represented by public transportation. That there are entire networks of free transit options available to only some of the city’s wealthiest residents cannot help but create tension, especially against a background of skyrocketing housing costs and a wave of no-fault evictions.


The Death of the City?

by Rachel Brahinsky

From Boom Summer 2014, Vol 4, No 2

Reports of San Francisco’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Editor’s Note:This is an excerpt of Rachel Brahinsky’s essay “The Death of the City?” from our Summer 2014 issue. 

You may have heard that the wave of gentrification that’s crashing through San Francisco these days has brought “the end of San Francisco.” You may have heard that the cool city of fog and freaks is over and done with, run over by Google buses filled with techies who have no sense of community or history. At the risk of being very unpopular, I’m going to tell you this isn’t quite true. The “Google bus,” which is what people in the Bay Area call the mass of private, tech commuter buses that fill the rush-hour streets, is not essentially the problem. In fact, it may be the seed of the solution.¹

The San Francisco Bay Area is undergoing a period of rapid transformation. In many ways, we’ve seen this boom before. Yet the unsettled atmosphere of the current moment—in which the middle class fears eviction alongside the most vulnerable—has refueled another familiar Bay Area process in the fight against displacement. The San Francisco you love exists because, as capitalism’s “creative destruction” tears through the urban landscape, community advocates fighting for what I call an “ethical city” try to reshape that destruction²—and sometimes they win.

This latest wave of advocacy has been centered around tech wealth and motivated by the great, white shuttle buses. Defended as a way to keep the tech industry “green,” even as it blocks public transit and weighs heavily on city streets, the Google bus has become a metaphor for life in an age of seemingly warp-speed urban change. Neither gentrification nor real estate flipping—in which investors buy and resell property for quick profit—were invented in San Francisco, and neither of them are new. See New York’s SoHo and Lower East Side in the 1980s and 1990s, and see cities around the globe, which have produced enough variants on the theme that academics have created an advanced taxonomy of gentrification.³ Even so, the rumble of urban change has been deeply jarring on many levels, threatening to transform what’s left of San Francisco’s beloved quirks into what Rebecca Solnit has aptly termed an urban “monoculture.”4

It’s true that, amid rising inequality, the regional culture has become more predictable, more formula retail. Even its offbeat places have aligned with similar districts in other cities, the chain-store hipsterisms of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg and many others. The monoculture matters not just for the loss of the unexpected or the creative, but because it rises alongside the forced displacement of people.

Bound with the homogenization of culture, tech wealth has flushed through the real estate market, with harsh impacts on small businesses and longtime renters. Though the relative numbers of evictees are small in terms of the greater population, the steep rise in residential evictions has caused thousands of personal tragedies, and storefronts have seemed to flip at an ever-faster pace. San Francisco’s no-fault evictions, in which tenants have not broken rules or laws, are rising, with Ellis Act evictions rising 175 percent in the last year, according to the city’s rent board.5 (The state Ellis Act allows evictions in cases where owners take properties off the rental market.6) Meanwhile, the fallout from the foreclosure crisis continues in the East Bay, drawing capital investments that spill over the edges of the San Francisco market.7


The effects are so widespread that, in a city where 65 percent are renters and where landlords are aggressively using all measures to flip houses to take advantage of the flow of tech wealth before the bubble bursts, it’s safe to say that more than half the city feels insecure in its tenancy.8 In many ways it feels like a moment of “one-percent” power; Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko might be very happy in today’s San Francisco. Each week, it seems, we hear about the impending closure of yet another fixture on the urban landscape that will soon lose its place in the city, another hard-fought mural that will soon be losing its face. Meanwhile, the reports flow about realtors knocking on doors in places like the Mission and Bayview Hunter’s Point, offering cash buyouts for homes that are not for sale.

Even so, another quintessentially San Franciscan story is emerging in the activist challenge to the Gekko-inspired “greed is good” mentality that is gripping The Valley.9 In early December 2013, the first tech-shuttle protests burst into the news. At the time, critics challenged whether protesters had chosen the right target by blocking buses of workers who were simply trying to get to work. Yet by the end of February, the issues that the protesters wanted to push into the mainstream had traveled the globe through dozens of high profile media reports. Locally, the concerns from the streets morphed into a clear set of policy prescriptions, from the resurrection of slain supervisor Harvey Milk’s proposed antispeculation tax and other disincentives to slow displacement, to the proposed creation of a new city office that would be charged with aggressively protecting tenants.

Suddenly, the once-sacrosanct Ellis Act, which is often used to flip properties for profit, was on the table for reform in Sacramento. Silicon Valley’s prominent financiers and the politicians who are close to them are publicly supporting this shift.10 Suddenly, after negotiating a “handshake agreement” to use public bus stops for its private shuttle program, Google Inc. was offering $6.8 million to support a free public bus program for kids.11
Of course, for Google this is a cheap externality. Still, by the time you read this, there may be more stories like this, as the appeal against Google’s use of public stops moves forward.

It has been hard to see that real positive change is afoot amidst the hyperventilation in the media and the cacophony in blogs and comment sections about this war for San Francisco. Real lives are at stake as the private pain of evictees has revealed the timidity of public policy when it comes to addressing the needs of vulnerable communities. Rents and home prices have peaked and then peaked again, each rise bringing news of displacements. First, it was seniors on fixed incomes and people dying of HIV/AIDS, and then it was middle-class families, then teachers, and then came reports of shuttered art galleries, evicted musicians, and so on.12

Sometimes it feels as if the tech-capital influence is a force of nature barreling through the region in ways we couldn’t have imagined. It can be easy to forget that we didn’t have to imagine it. Many of us lived through this story in the late 1990s and stories like it in the 1980s, and in the years before.13 As chroniclers of the Bay Area’s ebb and flow often point out, this is a region born of booms, so we have lots of experience. If we were paying attention, we also saw the counterpoint in, for example, the housing activists who convinced Dianne Feinstein to install emergency rent control in 1978. Then, as now, a key ingredient helped fuel significant policy changes: the middle and upper classes now feel housing stress too.14

Although there is much to be mourned in the loss of places and people that this boom has wrought, we cannot miss that the response to it that has come over the recent winter is also shaping the cultural-political-geographic landscape of the region. The rise of multipronged organizing, where we’re seeing street protests bolstered by deep data gathering and policy advocacy, has shifted the debate at a moment when many people who love San Francisco for its quirks and queerness—particularly those who cherish its remaining anticorporate zeitgeist—thought it might be time to give up.

One sign of this shift comes at the wonkish policy level, among organizations like SPUR (formerly the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association), which has classically insisted that simply opening the gates to all development will solve our housing dilemmas. Most recently SPUR began advocating for affordable housing policies that sound increasingly like the proposals coming from street-level tenant advocacy groups. It’s hard to imagine this new vision emerging without the activist pressures that have arisen in the recent crisis; it’s also hard to imagine that vision becoming long-term policy without continued pressure from below.15

Ellis Act evictions (when a landlord can legally evict all tenants in a building to get out of the rental business) first took off during the dot-com boom of the late nineties. Between 1997 and the burst bubble in 2000 there were more than 900 such evictions.

Through the years of the housing bubble, large numbers of Ellis Act evictions continued. By the end of 2007, there had been 2,905 of these evictions in San Francisco— more than 300 in 2007 alone.

Evictions slowed down during the housing crisis, and in 2010 only 89 families lost their homes due to the Ellis Act. By the end of that year total number of evictions going back to 1997 was 3,336.

But the Ellis Act doesn’t tell the whole story. From 1997 to October 2013, there were 11,766 no-fault evictions in San Francisco; 3,693 due to the Ellis Act, 6,952 due to owner move-in, and 1,121 due to demolition.

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All photographs courtesy of Rachel Brahinsky and maps courtesy of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project.

1 My deep thanks goes to those who read and commented on this essay, including Bruce Rinehart, Joshua Brahinsky, Corey Cook, participants in the “Planning, Revitalization, and Displacement” session of the 2014 Urban Affairs Association meetings, and the generous editors and anonymous reviewers at Boom.

2 “Creative destruction”originates with Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (New York: Harper, 1975). Others have explored its role in the urban context. See Max Page, The Creative Destruction of Manhattan, 1900-1940 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999); Richard A. Walker, “An Appetite for the City,” Reclaiming San Francisco: History, Politics, Culture, James Brook, Nancy J. Peters, and Chris Carlsson, eds. (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1998).

3 Loretta Lees, Tom Slater, and Elvin K Wyly, Gentrification (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, 2008); Neil Smith, The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City (London: Routledge, 1996). The blog Vanishing New York published this excellent analysis that fleshes out “hyper-gentrification” in more detail than I’ve seen elsewhere. Moss is a pseudonym: Jeremiah Moss, “On Spike Lee & Hyper-Gentrification, the Monster That Ate New York,” Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, 3 March 2014.

4 Rebecca Solnit, “Resisting Monoculture,” Guernica / A Magazine of Art & Politics, 12 March 2014. Solnit has become the prime chronicler of the disappearance of old San Francisco, documenting the clash of cultures in fine detail in a series of essays including this one.

5 See Delene Wolf, Rent Board Annual Report on Eviction Notices (Residential Rent Stabilization and Arbitration Board, 2014).

6 The city doesn’t track the number of people evicted in each incidence, but the activist Anti-Eviction Mapping Project estimates that the number of evictees could be between 716 and 3,580, assuming one to five evictees per eviction. See antievictionmappingproject.net. This advocacy-project’s data sleuthing has been bolstered by city reports like the one noted in note 5 (Wolf, 2014).

7 On the economic fallout in the East Bay, see Darwin Bond-Graham, “The Rise of the New Land Lords,” East Bay Express, 12 February 2014.

8 Housing stability has been a key concern in a series of surveys, including this one: Cook, Corey, and David Latterman, University of San Francisco Affordability and Tech Poll, December 2013. This is notable across incomes in San Francisco, where the most recent census showed about 65 percent of residents are renters, about twice the national average.

9 This push back by civil society against pressures of market economics is what Polanyi described as a “double movement.” Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2001).

10 Tim Redmond, “Everyone in Town (except a Few Landlords) Is Supporting Leno’s Ellis Act Bill,” 48 Hills, 24 February 2014; Norimitsu Onishi, “Ron Conway, Tech Investor, Turns Focus to Hometown,” The New York Times, 18 April 2013.

11 Cote, John, and Marisa Lagos, “Google Says $6.8 Million for Youth Muni Passes Just a Start,” San Francisco Chronicle, 27 February 2014.

12 One of too many to include here: Baker, Kenneth, “Art Galleries Swallowed Up by S.F. Real Estate Boom,” San Francisco Chronicle, 26 February 2014.

13 On the rise of street-level urban planning during Dot-com I, see Rachel Brahinsky, Miriam Chion, and Lisa Feldstein, “Reflections on Community Planning in San Francisco,” Spatial Justice/Justice Spatiale 5 (2013). Then head back to the 1980s—no techies, lots of yuppies: Dan Morain, “Gentrification’s Price: S.F. Moves: Yuppies In, the Poor Out,” Los Angeles Times, 3 April 1985.

14 Last fall, after a member of the politically connected Alioto clan found himself facing eviction from his well-appointed Art Deco Nob Hill apartment, tensions rose further with the realization that almost anyone could be evicted, even a politically connected person paying high rent. See Carolyn Said, “Park Lane Tenants Protest Conversion Plans,” San Francisco Chronicle, 28 September 2013.

15 See Gabriel Metcalf, “The San Francisco Exodus,” The Atlantic Cities, 14 October 2013, compared with SPUR report, SPUR’s Agenda for Change, 12 March 2014.


Die [Fill in the Blank] Scum

by Annie Powers

From Boom Summer 2014, Vol 4, No 2

A short history.

DIE TECHIE SCUM—it’s been tagged on sidewalks in Oakland, printed on posters in the Mission, and chanted during protests at Google bus stops. For some, the violence of the phrase is disturbing; for others, it acts as a rallying point, crystallizing the frustration of those displaced by tech-boom gentrification. It’s not the only slogan being used by activists—it’s not even the only one wishing unkind things on new gentrifiers. But it’s memorable and significant because it taps into a long tradition of activism across the country, and indeed around the world.

As the techie is to today’s gentrification battles in San Francisco, the yuppie was to gentrification battles in New York in the 1980s. Inequality in that city was on the rise, and middle and lower-middle class residents were being displaced by a rising tide of young urban professionals. By the late eighties, frustration was beginning to boil over, and in August 1988, during a riot in New York’s East Village, protesters yelled “die yuppie scum” at newcomers to the neighborhood—and a catch phrase was born. Since then, the “die [fill in the blank] scum” construction has been used time and again, most often when class tensions are in play. So it’s no surprise to hear it on the streets of San Francisco in 2014—and really, what’s a techie if not, most often, a young urban professional?

August 1988 in the East Village might not have been the first time the phrase was used, but the protest launched “yuppie scum” into popular culture. “Die yuppie scum” proliferated in places where gentrification was on the rise—it was used in radical newspapers, on T-shirts, in graffiti murals, in comic books, and on bumper stickers. It was even spray-painted on the wall by yuppie-serial killer Patrick Bateman in the early nineties film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. It has been used to create unity among the dispossessed, its mutations ranging from an expression of anger at another famed symbol of gentrification (“die hipster scum”) to a rallying cry for transgender individuals (“die cis scum”).



Who You Calling a Techie?

by Leah Reich

From Boom Summer 2014, Vol 4, No 2

Fear and loathing in boomtown

Janet Delaney, Roof Terrace One Hawthorne 645 Howard Street, 2013.

When I tell pretty much anyone outside the tech industry I work at a start-up, there’s usually a pause. I can watch her compose her face, waiting to hear the worst. If I’m lucky, I’ll field questions about foie gras burgers, daily massages, or what it’s like to work with a bunch of clueless bros. I laugh, but I’m careful to say it’s not always like that. Sure, some places are beautifully designed and full of crazy start-up perks, but there are companies that aren’t. Like the one run by people I know, people who spent a year crammed in a tiny two-room office, busy around the clock, emails and messages flying at all hours. In fact, they’ve been going nonstop for a few years now, working on a product they hope will help people be smarter, safer drivers—and maybe even get people to use less gas.

I know those people because they’re my coworkers. I was employee number fifteen. We’ve grown to nearly forty people, and once again we’re working in a space we’ve outgrown. We are a tech start-up, funded by incubators and venture capitalists you’ve probably heard of. We make a lovely piece of hardware. We also make a very cool app—and we hope what we make will fundamentally better people’s everyday lives.

I like to think I am in the tech industry but not of it. One foot in and one definitely out. I have a wonderful job, one that challenges me, with people I think are smart and hardworking and lovely. I work on a product I think is legitimately interesting. I have health insurance through Kaiser and can afford part of a mortgage. I am glad to have these things, especially after the soul-sucking experience of unemployment. Yes, getting a job can be hard here in the Bay Area, if you’re not a developer.

The first time I worked for a start-up was in 1996. I was fresh out of UC Berkeley with a degree in comparative literature and a crippling fear that I had no discernible job skills. I took the first job that came my way, doing marketing at a start-up, and got laid off a year later. I made my way to another job, then was poached by a third, and by the time I got laid off again I was weeks away from what would be a decade in graduate school.

By the time I emerged with two master’s degrees and a Ph.D., it was all happening again. But it was different this time around.

As much as I can, I keep “the industry” at a distance. Life outside the bubble gives me a good perspective on my work, and it’s where I feel most at home. My friends are writers, editors, small business owners, freelancers, engineers, designers, and lawyers. They don’t see me as a “tech person” or a “techie.” I don’t see myself that way either.

But no matter what my friends may think of me, the polarizing forces of pro-tech and anti-tech in San Francisco are very real. People post fliers and wear T-shirts that say “DIE TECHIE SCUM,” and photos of these frequently make the rounds on Twitter and Facebook. When I see these and hear the “Die Techie Scum” anger, sometimes I laugh along with everyone. But sometimes it can be weird. Not because I think it’s directed at me personally, but because it’s a landscape I have to navigate thoughtfully. Is everyone in tech scum? Are all scumbags tech people? No, obviously not. So where, what, who needs to change?

San Francisco has always been a boom and bust town, a place for fortune seekers and entrepreneurs, for those who wish to reinvent themselves. A city defined both by industry and by the wild, wooly power of its people. This isn’t the first wave of change to hit the city, but that doesn’t make it any easier. The current industry that holds San Francisco in its sway is one that regularly mints millionaires and billionaires. It breeds a class of people who feel entitled to high salaries and incredible perks, which feeds into rising inequality across the Bay Area.

Like previous industries and their associated boom times, there is no doubt that the tech industry is complicit in the wrenching changes taking place in San Francisco and around the Bay Area. But what about those of us who work in the industry? What is our responsibility?

Is it enough to educate from within? One night I got into a fight at happy hour with a tall guy, a serial entrepreneur who eagerly discussed the goings on at his newest start-up. He was the embodiment of Silicon Valley stereotypes, who everyone probably imagines when they think “Die Techie Scum.” He told me there was no sexism and racism in tech, and if there were, it wasn’t his fault that 150 years ago people who looked like him behaved badly. I wanted to walk away, enjoy my drink, and not make a scene. But I couldn’t, because if I didn’t say something, who would?

Or like another night, when a girlfriend and I were out relaxing in a mostly empty bar. A swarm of very loud young twenty-somethings from a nearby start-up arrived, jostling people and haughtily directing the bartender. I turned and told them: “You’re entitled to happiness and a good time, but you’re not entitled to happiness and a good time at the expense of everyone else’s comfort.”

Entitlement, I think, is the heart of the matter. But I can shout it at every new bar in town and I know it’s not going to be enough.

I like to think I’m not trying to have it both ways, to benefit from the industry while not being “one of them.” But am I? If I am, is it wrong? I think about what it would be like if I had a similar job in another industry, earning a good living and doing interesting work. Would I feel conflicted? Is it the fact that I work at a start-up? I am uneasy about being complicit in everything that seems to be dividing San Francisco and the Bay Area, putting everyone I know into warring camps.

Janet Delaney, Sales Force Convention, Moscone Center, Howard Street, 2013.

Then I think about how my work is part of my community too. I work with people I care about and value. Work is part of where I live, too, part of where my friends are, part of what home means to me. How can doing thoughtful, meaningful work in a city I love be a bad thing?

Not everyone in this new tech wave is like the guy at happy hour or that group at the bar. But not everyone is like my coworkers and friends either. I hear the tone-deafness among those in the tech industry—the refusal to consider other perspectives and to learn from them, to consider maybe we’re changing the world in negative ways while we change it in positive too.

I’ve heard incredible thoughtlessness from people in the tech industry in nearly every possible setting. But I’ve also heard and seen incredible thoughtfulness, as well as significant involvement in civic issues from people in tech. The conversation about what’s happening in San Francisco and the Bay Area has spiraled into a maelstrom of anger and frustration. It’s hard to talk about the good, the bad, and everything in between without emotions rising. There is denial in the industry, and plenty of it, but there’s also a desire to do better. Sometimes it’s hard to hear the quieter voices. Sometimes it’s hard to be quiet. Sometimes it’s important not to be.

Janet Delaney, Planting Bouganvilla, Yerba Buena Gardens, 2013.

Because look, we all want similar things: affordable property, safety, a chance to be a part of a community in a neighborhood we love. But what do these expectations mean? What about when they become entitlements? What does it mean to “discover” or “improve” a neighborhood, and for whom? Where do the evicted and displaced go? Where can they go? The fact is, buying a house in the Bay Area without a financial windfall or the generosity of parents who have saved over a lifetime is nearly impossible now. Renting is becoming unaffordable for many. In this market, with these policies, the saying goes: that’s just the way it is. Does it have to be? It hit me hard when a friend was evicted from her home.

Other industries have changed the fabric of other cities, while creating unfathomable wealth for some and nothing but disruption for others. I know too that tone-deafness, obliviousness, and other forms of willful ignorance come in many forms and from many corners. Everywhere you go, in the tech industry and beyond, there are people who don’t, or can’t, see what’s right in front of them. These things are true, but I’m not trying to talk myself out of my own conflictedness.

Maybe we should all take it personally when 116 families are evicted from their homes in San Francisco in a single year, when disabled seniors are suddenly turned out of apartments they’ve lived in for decades. Tech people like to say, “We’re changing the world!” How uneasy do we need to get before we think about how?

Janet Delaney, Rincon Greens from 5th Street between Harrison and Bryant, 2014.

But I don’t say this as a member of the tech community. I say this as a member of an actual community: the community I want to live in.


All photographs from Janet Delaney’s “SoMa Now” series, featured in the exhibition Now That You’re Gone. . .San Francisco Neighborhoods Without Us at SF City Hall, February 25 – May 23, 2014. COURTESY OF THE SAN FRANCISCO ARTS COMMISSION GALLERIES AND JANET DELANEY.