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.
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.
When I moved to San Francisco in 2003, I found a place to live in one weekend. A property manager had three or four apartments for rent within a five-minute walk of each other in Lower Nob Hill, a dense neighborhood uphill from the Tenderloin and Union Square that was still rough around the edges at the time. It was exactly the type of neighborhood I was looking for, as my budget didn’t stretch to dining at fancy restaurants and I wanted to be within walking distance of a BART station.
Ten years later I went back to look at apartments in the same neighborhood. So many people showed up to look at one miniscule $1,700-a-month studio that half of the crowd was asked to wait on the street because the grand old lobby of the post-quake apartment building wasn’t big enough to hold them. Now, a year later, prices on 350-square-foot apartments have topped $2,000 in some buildings. At another open house in 2013, in a relatively unhip western neighborhood, the realtor showing the unit asked the crowd in attendance to make offers higher than the price shown on Craigslist if they were serious about signing a lease.
The lack of housing availability and affordability during the late nineties dot-com boom is legendary. No-fault evictions soared as the population of San Francisco grew and higher-paid workers in new industries moved into formerly low-cost parts of the city. After the boom ended, many people left and rental prices dropped significantly. While San Francisco was still not affordable for a lot of people, it seemed possible to live here without dot-com money. Once I accounted for the savings of not owning a car, my cost of living wasn’t much different than it had been during the previous year I’d spent living in Ohio.
Janet Delaney, View of the Financial District from south of Market Street, 1983.
Yet in the second tech boom, things are even worse than they were in the late 1990s. San Francisco is now the most-expensive large city in the United States. Protests in front of tech company shuttle buses have made front-page news around the country, housing costs dominate casual conversations, and San Francisco’s already strong antidevelopment sentiment is growing angrier. Yet, common sense and a basic understanding of economics suggests that building more housing is probably the only way out of staggeringly high housing prices in the long term. In the short term, though, we’re stuck right where we are in an increasingly untenable position.
To fully understand what’s happening here, let’s zoom out and take in the wider picture. San Francisco is a relatively small part of a much larger nine-county metropolitan area of over seven million people. Within this area, governance is fragmented at the county and city levels and it is served by a slew of separate transportation agencies, including six separate but overlapping bus agencies and four regional rail or light rail agencies. There are three major airports, run by separate agencies, and while regional housing policy is supposed to mandate that all municipalities provide their respective shares of housing demand, based on employment patterns, this is often undermined at the local level. Public policy is often not coordinated in any meaningful way at the regional level. With many of the surrounding cities and counties abdicating their responsibilities to the region as a whole, San Francisco must, unfortunately, now decide on its own what role it wants to play in providing the Bay Area’s balance of housing and office space. It must also come to terms with its own troubled history with development.
The Bay Area has also led the country’s economic recovery over the past five years, making it a very attractive place for job seekers—especially those in high-paying industries such as technology and biotech. While many of those jobs are within San Francisco city limits, many more—including those with big name behemoths like Apple and Facebook—are in suburban Santa Clara County, that is, Silicon Valley. Although cities in the Valley, such as Google’s home of Mountain View, have been eager to approve the construction of new office space, they’ve refused to allow new housing construction to provide places for employees to live near their offices.
Google, for one, has proposed to build housing near its campus in Mountain View, but the city has rejected those plans. In fact, the city of Mountain View expressly forbade housing in its citywide general plan for the area around the company’s Bayshore campus.¹ Google’s plans would have put large numbers of its employees within walking distance of work, while also building a walkable neighborhood near a light rail station. The truth is that suburban municipalities don’t want to build more housing—there’s no undeveloped land to build on, and density is anathema to many residents in these communities. After all, single family homes with big yards are what suburban living is all about. A housing shortage also benefits homeowners, who see the value of their homes increase and have little to fear from rising property tax bills thanks to California’s Proposition 13. Even if Google, Apple, and Facebook employees all wanted to live closer to work, they could never find enough places to live.
Many communities also set limits for vehicular traffic that employers need to comply with as part of transportation management plans that must be submitted alongside planning applications. Aside from being a recruiting tool, company shuttles are a primary way of complying with these regulations. Why not subsidize existing mass transit? For most people public transportation to peninsula office park destinations is incredibly time-consuming or impossible, and Caltrain lacks the capacity to take that many additional riders because it is already standing room only on many rush hour trains. Caltrain will be upgrading in the coming years with high-speed rail funds, but that is still in the future.
At the same time, limits on development in downtown San Francisco stalled office construction in the city for years. San Francisco currently has the lowest office vacancy rate in the United States, and although some companies have moved into the downtown area, and some have satellite offices in the city, there currently wouldn’t be enough space for a huge company like Google or Apple to move its headquarters into the city even if it wanted to move there.²
It is this failure of regional planning and development that has brought about the “Google bus” crisis. Operated by most of the major Silicon Valley tech companies, these large motorcoaches run on set routes around the Bay Area picking up employees and taking them to their jobs at corporate campuses on the Peninsula. Seen by many as symbolic of the changes that have come to San Francisco since the recession, the buses were elevated to a major topic of discussion when writer Rebecca Solnit published a column criticizing them in the London Review of Books in February, 2013.³
Solnit lives in the Mission District and she sees the tech boom and the buses as “changing the character of what was once a great city of refuge for dissidents, queers, pacifists and experimentalists.” She portrays the Google bus riders as outsiders who are displacing the city’s residents. “My brother says that the first time he saw one unload its riders he thought they were German tourists,” she writes, “neatly dressed, uncool, a little out of place, blinking in the light as they emerged from their pod.” It’s not just Solnit who sees things this way. This is the tone of a now-dominant narrative among the city’s progressives—that workers in the technology industry do not belong here and are not the type of people who are supposed to be in San Francisco. It is a strangely unprogressive attitude for this open-hearted city.
Solnit’s article brought a lot of attention to the phenomenon of technology workers commuting from San Francisco neighborhoods to the peninsula to work, and it spurred larger discussions about class and displacement. The buses are a symbol of change, and this has made them an attractive target for protests as San Franciscans struggle to find a tangible outlet for their frustrations about how the city is changing. On several occasions, beginning in December of 2013, protesters blockaded the coaches in the street with banners decrying evictions and rising house prices that they blame on the tech industry. The buses aren’t really the problem, though. They are a symptom of a long term transition in San Francisco’s role in the region—from being an employment center to becoming one of the region’s and, indeed, one of the world’s most coveted urban residential areas.
Janet Delaney, Mercantile Building, Mission and 3rd Streets, 1980.
Across the country, young people are flocking to walkable neighborhoods and urban centers. Current twenty-somethings live in urban areas at a higher rate than Gen X’ers or Baby Boomers did at the same age and “88% of them want to live in an urban environment.”4 This represents a fundamental change in the way cities are viewed within the United States. San Francisco lost population for much of the second half of the twentieth century; its population peaked in the 1950 US Census and declined until 1980, similar to most other urban centers in the country. It didn’t reach its 1950 population again until 2000, and it has continued to increase since then. Cities are no longer places to be abandoned; urban properties near public transportation now hold their value better than homes in new outer-suburban areas.
It is easy for recent arrivals in San Francisco to assume it was always a desirable place to live, but San Francisco’s history is not dissimilar to much of the rest of North America: many white, middle-class San Franciscans fled the city for the suburbs, encouraged by new freeways and government-backed mortgages. This was coupled with new arrivals seeking an affordable place to live. Mexican, Central American, and Asian immigrant groups moved into areas that white residents moved out of in the decades following World War II and started businesses and community organizations.
Counterculture movements also flourished in San Francisco (and other American cities like New York) in the mid to late twentieth century. From the Beat poets in North Beach in the 1950s, to the hippies and the Summer of Love in the Haight, to the gay culture that developed in the Castro in the 1970s, to punks and artists living in the Mission alongside a large lesbian community in the 1980s and early 1990s, the city attracted outsiders. Perceived as dirty and dangerous (which in many cases they were), cities were not places mainstream, upper middle-class white America wanted to live. As a result rents were cheap and space was plentiful.
The 1980s brought changes to San Francisco as the city began to recover from a loss of blue collar jobs and attracted higher-paying white collar industries. Writers lamented that long-time residents were being forced out by yuppies who were flowing into the city from elsewhere to work downtown; it was dubbed by one “perhaps the most gentrified large city in the nation.” Dean Macris, the city planning director at the time, called it the “boutiquing of San Francisco,”5 though the gentrification mostly focused on downtown and nearby areas like North Beach.
The increasing economic power of downtown and the growth in construction of office towers in this era set off political battles over “Manhattanization.” The phrase conjures a nightmare vision of looming towers blocking the city’s sparkling light and beautiful views of the bay. It is red meat to San Franciscans, who hate to see their city compared to anywhere else, much less Manhattan.
This antidevelopment sentiment led to the strictest set of planning guidelines in the United States, rules that capped office construction to a set amount each year, required review of all designs, and economic justification for any new building’s construction. The cap on square footage was later halved to 475,000 square feet per year by a ballot referendum in 1986, smaller than the floor area of many individual skyscrapers (the Transamerica Pyramid, as a comparison, contains 530,000 square feet on forty-eight floors).6 This massive increase in bureaucracy successfully limited the construction of offices, so developers started building large hotels instead. Some absolutely awful buildings went up in this era, including the infamous Marriott Hotel, also known as “The Jukebox” owing to its vast expanses of poorly detailed mirrored glass arranged in decorative arches high above the corner of Mission and Fourth Streets. To this day it “remains as grating as the sound of fingernails on chalkboard,” in the infelicitous words of San Francisco Chronicle architecture critic John King.7 The guidelines also had other unintended consequences.
These restrictions on development helped to change San Francisco’s role in the regional economy during the late 1980s. San Francisco lost 27 percent of its employment share in the Bay Area between 1980 and 2005 while at the same time gaining residents. Office space was constructed in greater amounts in suburban areas, where developers faced fewer restrictions, and jobs left the city while the regional economy grew.8 San Francisco went from 572,100 jobs in 1989 to 508,650 in 2005 while the rest of the Bay Area grew substantially, from 2,824,400 to 3,227,650 jobs, in the same period.9 Despite recent cries that San Francisco is becoming a suburb to Silicon Valley, thanks to tech company shuttle buses, this process has been developing for more than thirty years. Preventing Manhattanization by preventing office construction did little to prevent people from wanting to live in San Francisco—indeed it may have contributed to making the city an even more attractive bedroom community, as many people are willing to commute to work outside the city’s limits in order to live in the city. The recession of the early 1990s helped to temper fears of gentrification, and neighborhoods like the Mission continued to attract artists seeking cheap rent. Writer Michelle Tea recounts her experience of moving to San Francisco in 1993: “It’s not that it was a particularly cool neighborhood, although I later found out that it was. This is just where the cheap rents were. I moved here in 1993, and when the bus let me off on Valencia, I remember the street felt deserted—like almost all of the storefronts were closed.”10
Janet Delaney, Saturday Afternoon on Howard between 3rd and 4th Streets, 1980.
Within a few years, everything changed. The dot-com boom of the late 1990s saw a vast increase in wealth in the Bay Area in a short amount of time, as young workers flocked to San Francisco to work at dot-com startups fueled by venture capital and soaring IPOs. Many of these companies had no profit model and defied basic financial logic, but the mentality of the time was to grow as quickly as possible and figure out how to cash in on it later. Between 1998 and 1999 housing prices increased a staggering 40 percent, bringing the price of the median condominium in the city to $410,000 and the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment to $2,000 a month.11 The hand-wringing over gentrification at that time sounded remarkably similar to what we are hearing today: the gap between rich and poor increased by 40 percent in the mid-1990s, the percentages of Latino and black residents in the city decreased, and as Paulina Borsook put it so eloquently in late 1990s slang, “the result is a city whose unique history and sensibility is being swamped by twerps with ‘tude.”12
The Mission bore the brunt of this series of changes in the late 1990s, along with the South of Market area where many live-work lofts were built and many of the technology startups were located. Still, areas like Twenty-Fourth Street retained their Latino identity, even as some members of the community moved out and wealthier residents moved in. The city soon got a reprieve from rising prices when the economy tanked shortly after the turn of the millennium and the NASDAQ composite dropped 78 percent between 2000 and 2002 as the dot-com bubble popped. Rental prices dropped 40 percent between late 2000 and early 2003, as people left the Bay Area when their jobs disappeared.13
The ad-hoc nature of development in the nineties left a bad aftertaste. Cheaply built “lofts” had sprung up all over, taking advantage of live-work laws that allowed construction of housing units in industrial areas. These units—often cheaper to build because they had more lenient open space and parking requirements and incurred lower development fees to the city—were intended to provide housing and studio space by artists and small-craft artisans. But in many cases, developers used live-work projects to make an end run around the city’s planning process and build luxury units in industrially zoned areas for the city’s newly rich technology workers that were priced far above the means of most of the city’s artists. In the process, the city also missed out on at least $8 million in fees.14
When a progressive majority took over the Board of Supervisors in 2001, in a backlash against pro-development mayor Willie Brown, legislation was passed to put a moratorium on live-work to stop the abuse of the program, and the city’s affordable housing program was revised. Hoping to clarify the development process in former industrial areas to make better use of underutilized land, the city planning department set up the “Eastern Neighborhoods Project” to create a long-range framework that would encourage and guide responsible development. A community planning process began in 2001, and the individual area plans within the Eastern Neighborhoods Project were approved by the Board of Supervisors in January 2009. This finalized the rezoning of 2,200 acres of San Francisco for reuse, nearly a quarter of the city, primarily as housing and mixed-use, but it also reserved space for light industrial uses.
This project did broad-based planning for a large area that included parts of, the Mission, and Potrero Hill, in an effort to balance the needs of current residents with the city’s desire to add new housing stock in a central area well served by public transit. Years of meetings and outreach were held, and planners studied the needs of the area extensively. Affordable housing requirements for new buildings were increased, a new type of zoning to protect small businesses was included, and design guidelines were issued to allow higher density while at the same time promoting a more pedestrian-friendly environment. Most importantly, area plans for each neighborhood in the plan were written and an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the area was created, making it unnecessary for individual projects to write their own reports if they complied with the new planning regulations.
Because San Francisco takes a particularly aggressive approach to interpreting the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which requires the environmental impact of potential projects to be measured against alternatives, having blanket EIRs for entire neighborhoods should speed up the planning process considerably. CEQA was created in the 1970s with the intention of ensuring large-scale development projects were studied for potential impact prior to approval. Originally applied only to government projects, a court ruling extended the legislation’s reach to private projects shortly after its implementation. In subsequent years, it has become a favorite tool of people looking to block projects they don’t like for a wide variety of reasons. Preparing a detailed Environmental Impact Report (EIR) to comply with CEQA generally adds at least a year and a half to a project timeline and is costly. A prominent anti-bicycle activist managed to stop the implementation of San Francisco’s bike plan for years by filing a lawsuit requiring the city to prepare an EIR before any improvements could be made, meaning the city was legally prevented from performing even simple functions such as installing sidewalk bicycle racks.
But CEQA is not the only obstacle to new development. A Byzantine system of regulations and zoning laws that permits only one or two family homes in the majority of the city contributes to a chronic shortfall in the production of housing units while the population has continued to increase in recent decades. By 2011 the city’s economy was roaring back from recession and added over 36,000 jobs. All those people needed places to live,15 yet less than 300 units were added to the market.16
The resulting shortage has done a number on housing prices. Small one-bedroom apartments near the Twitter headquarters at Civic Center, or mid-Market as it is now being called, are renting for $4,400 a month. Not that long ago, this was one of the last neighborhoods in San Francisco where one could find an apartment for under $1,000, and now high-rise residential towers are leased out before construction has even been finished for prices that were unthinkable five years ago. The median price on a two-bedroom home is hovering near $1 million, making San Francisco the most expensive city in the United States.
Janet Delaney, 10th St at Folsom, 1982.
It is often said that “the best thing about San Francisco is that everyone has a say, and the worst thing about San Francisco is that everyone has a say.” Making any sort of major decision involves scores of public meetings, mailings, and a vast amount of public input. Most cities allow planning staff to make over-the-counter approval of projects that comply with the existing regulations, meaning that development is fairly predictable. This is known as “as of right” development and is allowed even in some other Bay Area municipalities. In San Francisco, all permits are discretionary, which means that it’s nearly impossible to build anything without both a series of public notifications, meetings, and a design review by the planning department. Even after a building permit is granted, project opponents may file an appeal and have a construction project stopped within fifteen days.
At some levels, this is a vast improvement from earlier eras when decisions were made behind closed doors and imposed on the populace. On the other hand, even public projects get held up in years of expensive bureaucracy. A bus rapid transit project for Geary Boulevard has been in planning since the passage of a local ballot measure authorized funding in 2003, yet eleven years later construction hasn’t even begun as a handful of people in the neighborhood fought for years to preserve each and every parking space.
Neighborhood plans similar to the Eastern Neighborhoods Project have been successful in other San Francisco neighborhoods, such as Hayes Valley, but there are signs that opposition to development is growing and any plan to add much-needed housing in the Mission is likely to meet stiff resistance.
A perfect example can be found at 1050 Valencia Street, formerly home to a KFC restaurant and surface parking lot. A proposed twelve-unit condo project here fulfilled all of the city’s planning guidelines: no on-site car parking in a transit-rich neighborhood, bike parking, on-site affordable units, and ground floor retail. Development of the site was fiercely opposed by wealthy homeowners in the Liberty Hill Neighborhood Association. After narrowly surviving a CEQA appeal to the Board of Supervisors by one vote, the project was cut down to nine units (removing the affordable housing requirements) by the Board of Appeals, which called it “out of scale in the neighborhood,” despite its compliance with the neighborhood’s fifty-five-foot height limit and its proximity to a number of similarly sized public and private mixed-use buildings within a few blocks on the Valencia corridor. Only when the Board of Appeals was charged with violating California’s Housing Accountability Act, which forbids local agencies from reducing the density on a site to less than what is allowed by law, did they reverse their vote and allow a fifth floor to be added, restoring the previously dropped affordable housing units.
Janet Delaney, Flag Makers, Natoma at 3rd Street.
San Francisco has had a very strong tendency to try to stave off change through regulation and legislation. Limiting growth artificially usually has many unintended effects, however, as there is no way to prevent people from moving in, and we probably wouldn’t want to if we could. For individuals who want to live in walkable neighborhoods with reliable access to public transportation, there are not that many places in the Bay Area that are as attractive as San Francisco. The city is at or near the top of this list regionally, nationally, and even globally. The demand for such beautiful city living is not going away. It’s only going to increase.
Janet Delaney, One Rincon from Perry Street, by Janet Delaney, 2013.
Caution is warranted when considering construction projects in such a beautiful place. But the current state of permitting regulations for building and the glacial pace of infrastructure projects in San Francisco benefit very few people and risk turning it into a caricature of its former self for tourists and residents rich enough to live in a fantasy, not a living city. If there was ever a time when San Francisco needed to embrace a dynamic, expansive policy for building housing, offices and transportation, it is now.
Photographs from Janet Delaney’s “South of Market” and “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.
Reading our present dilemmas in science fiction’s past.
Science fiction is often charged with naïve technological optimism and historical amnesia. But for present-day Californians struggling with a wide range of environmental and social problems, science fiction might just provide the perspective we need to successfully pivot from the boom times of the twentieth century to the messy prospect of the century ahead. It won’t be the techno-futurist elements of science fiction—miraculously clean energy sources, flying cars, off-planet factories—that are going to save us, though. The classic works of science fiction have a different, more fatalistic side that speaks more usefully to our current condition, awash as we are in the environmental and social consequences of the Golden State’s postwar boom.
Even as they lived through and contributed to an era of unbridled technological optimism, the giants of postwar science fiction in California brooded not simply over the negative consequences of technology—a common anxiety in the Atomic Age—but also over deeper philosophical questions about what it means to be dependent on and even determined by the technologies that made life in postwar California possible. In the works of three postwar California writers in particular—Ray Bradbury (1940s and 1950s), Robert Heinlein (1950s and 1960s), and Philip K. Dick (1960s and 1970s)—we can watch the rapid development of dams, aqueducts, interstate highways systems, suburban sprawl, and their consequences as they are digested in the speculative cultural form of science fiction. Bradbury dramatizes the personal difficulty of adjusting to the radical novelty of West Coast civilizations carved out of the desert. Heinlein is less haunted by the loss of tradition and more interested in the new political and economic possibilities created by the very artificiality of the postwar environment. And Dick—perhaps the most useful guide to our present—gives full expression to the uncanny sense of being lashed to the decrepit infrastructure of the past. It is this complex exposition of how it feels to be a creature of civic infrastructure—and not teleporters, psionic readers, and hyperdrives—that turns out to be the most prescient vision of California science fiction.
Postwar science fiction is to a surprising degree a phenomenon of the western United States. With a few notable exceptions, the major figures in the development of the genre’s Golden Age and New Wave eras (together covering the late 1930s through the 1970s) all had significant biographical connections to the West—and this at a time when the western states accounted for a small fraction of the total US population (around 10 percent in 1930, rising to 17 percent in 1970). A.E. Van Vogt, Theodore Sturgeon, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Kim Stanley Robinson are but the most celebrated of the hundreds of significant science fiction writers to live and work in California and the far West during this period.
As the producers of Golden Age sci-fi were lured to the region by the new economic opportunities available to writers in the pulp, television, and film industries of Southern California, they were also drawn into an imaginative relationship with California’s physical novelty as a place sprung de novo from the plans of hydraulic engineers, road builders, and tract housing developers. Many of the major themes of science fiction in this period—the experience of living in an arid Martian colony, the palpable sense of depending in a very direct way on large technological systems, unease with the scope and direction of the military and aeronautics industries, the navigation of new social rules around gender and race—can be read as barely veiled references to everyday life in California. For sci-fi writers, teasing out the implications of an era in which entire new civilizations could be conjured almost from nothing through astonishing feats of engineering and capital was a form of realism. They were writing an eyewitness account of what was the most radical landscape-scale engineering project in the history of the world.
By the 1940s, Ray Bradbury’s set of collected stories, The Martian Chronicles, signaled definitively that science fiction had largely moved on from its prewar fixation on interplanetary romance and gee-whiz gizmo stories. While Bradbury drew on an extensive tradition of Mars fiction, the stories have almost nothing in common with Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom novels of the previous generation. They are better understood as explorations of postwar suburbia: John Cheever rocketed to the deep-space exurbs—or rather the dusty precincts of southern California. Instead of playing heroic roles in traditional planetary romances through the conquest or liberation of alien civilizations, Bradbury’s colonists get entangled in far more mundane passions. The first violence arises not from a clash of civilizations but from the jealousy of a Martian husband whose lonely wife dreams of being rescued from her constricted domestic sphere by a space-helmeted courtier from Earth in Bradbury’s “Ylla.” In “The Earth Men,” when human beings first arrive on the red planet in small numbers, they are greeted not by a phalanx of alien troops but rather by the Martian psychiatric bureaucracy, whose flummoxed doctors finally decide that the only way to deal with the peculiar, untreatable aliens who show up claiming to be visitors from another planet is to euthanize them. A subsequent wave of colonists succumbs to a fatal form of mass nostalgic delusion that causes them to mistake the precincts of an alien landscape for their own Midwestern American childhood homes in “The Third Expedition.”
The persistent evocation of arid suburbia is one of the first clues that Bradbury is writing about something more historically specific than a lost prewar America. Although his stories sometimes recapitulate the broad terms of North American colonization—the plague that decimates the native Martian population, the travails of pioneer women on an agricultural frontier, the wholesale emigration of African Americans relieved to be free of the racial hierarchies of the South—they all point toward the western culmination of that colonization along the shores of the Pacific. The stories with the greatest detail reflect the infrastructural and environmental dimensions of the postwar colonization of California. “The Green Morning,” a brief sketch about a Johnny Appleseed figure who successfully converts the arid landscape of Mars into a lush forest, is easily read as an allusion to the irrigation and conversion to agriculture of the desert Southwest, in particular the orange groves of Southern California. A later tale, “Locusts,” follows up this fable of the blooming desert by describing the rapid population of the newly verdant landscape by colonists who arrive, like new Californians stepping off of Santa Fe and Southern Pacific passenger trains, to reshape the landscape into a replica of their Midwestern hometowns. No writer of the period takes as many pains as Bradbury in detailing the material and psychological consequences of the explosion of residential construction in California after World War II.
The nascent environmental misgivings expressed throughout The Martian Chronicles are particularly salient. In the stories “—And the Moon Be Still as Bright” and “The Settlers,” which are sometimes combined into a single tale; the most sympathetic figure, Jeff Spender, bemoans the reckless destruction of the Martian environment, especially the pollution of its scarce water resources, and foresees further degradation by future waves of colonists. “We Earth men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things,” he says, before attempting to kill his fellow colonists to prevent the destruction. The most powerful evocations of environmental unease, however, come not in these flashes of direct preservationism, but in the persistently developed motif of unsettling artificiality in the Martian colonies.
“There Will Come Soft Rains” moves the setting back to Earth (specifically Allendale, California, situated along a significant irrigation canal) and to the modern marvel of the automated home that was the promise of the postwar suburb. The catch is that all of this automation is being carried out in the absence of the intended human inhabitants—a nuclear family—because they have been incinerated in a nuclear holocaust. This story calls attention to the degree to which the terraformed civilization of the postwar West is at once minutely tailored to the material needs of its human residents and at the same time utterly indifferent, if not inimical, to the broader terms of their existence. Modern Californian civilization is but shallowly rooted and easily erased even if its infrastructure persists. The mystifying title of the story—”There Will Come Soft Rains”—connects this existential critique to an environmental one. It is drawn from a World War I–era poem of the same title by Sara Teasdale, which imagines the indifference of nature to mankind’s self-induced extinction. “Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree, / If mankind perished utterly,” the poem reads.
Bradbury’s use of this sentiment complicates it, however. The indifferent cycles of nature that Teasdale invokes are refigured by Bradbury in the automated household, as if all of the technological achievements that were intended to insulate human beings from the environment have become just another implacable form of indifference to human well-being. In this story, long a staple in high school classrooms, Bradbury gives voice to a feeling, which appears again and again in postwar science fiction, that by massively transforming their physical environment, Californians traded exposure to the cycles of “first nature”—the natural world—for a more profound dependency on an equally demanding infrastructural “second nature” made by human beings.
Bradbury’s use of the interlinked story form points to another significant development in the history of science fiction: the shift away from magazine publication toward long-form fiction marketed as novels. Though this was driven by a variety of economic and cultural factors, it dovetailed well with the need for a broader fictional canvas to accommodate the infrastructural ambitions of writers in the 1950s and 1960s. Such longer forms allowed for more thorough evocations of place and deeper critical development of the consequences of speculative infrastructures in the western United States.
Robert Heinlein’s arguably best novel, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, published in 1966, uses the extra space of a long-form novel to craft a story ostensibly about the struggle waged for political self-determination by Loonies, the residents of the moon, which has been turned into a penal colony. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress can be read as a brief for a form of libertarianism (called “rational anarchism” by the chief ideologue in the book) tinctured with the frontier ideology of the nineteenth century American West. But Heinlein is equally alive to the ways in which individual initiative is supported and constrained by technology. The plot to free Luna, as the moon is called, from its earthbound overlords hinges on the sympathies of a self-aware supercomputer nicknamed Mike that can accomplish what the human plotters can only dream about. When the war of independence heats up, it is Mike’s manipulation of the freight catapults that ultimately wins the day. Independence from earthly political and moral authority—the loosening of marital strictures is one major social component of the lunar society—turns out to be deeply dependent on specific infrastructures of transport, communication, and computation. Where Bradbury concentrated on how humans might lag behind in an era of rapid change, Heinlein’s novels depict the slow processes by which cultural practices adapt in response to their transformed material technological conditions.
What is most remarkable about Heinlein’s fictional universes is that his novel technologies are allowed to have shifting histories and contingent futures. Instead of indulging in the engineer’s fantasy of a design that fulfills its specifications to perfection, Heinlein’s worlds are filled with technologies that always produce some form of deficiency or excess that can be turned to unforeseen further use by the processes of history. It was an accident of accounting and computer science that allowed the supercomputer Mike to develop a consciousness that enabled “him” (the gender is actually the subject of some debate in the novel) to evaluate the political status quo for fairness and thus become subject to political persuasion by the human revolutionaries Manny, Wyoh, and Professor de la Paz. And the existence of a mothballed and forgotten wheat-catapult provides the means for the lunar rebellion to escape military suppression. Even the triumphal moment of lunar independence is no stable event: its architects (Mike and Professor de la Paz) die or disappear immediately, and the erosive forces of history immediately start gnawing away at the new state. At the end of the novel, we are left wondering from what corner of the technical zone the next chapter in lunar history will evolve.
Heinlein’s novels on the whole reflect the basic optimism of his era about the potential to remake human civilization by creative reuse and development of technological infrastructure, reflecting a moment in western US history when large state investments were as likely to be seen as liberating new social forms as they were to induce fears of oppression. But they also betray unease about the degree to which the future is determined by technological factors that are nearly impossible to predict or even rationally assess.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress may well have been inspired by a lunar rebellion novel from another California science fiction novel, Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint, published in 1959. While Heinlein rarely allowed his doubts about the knowability of the future effects of technology to derail his certitudes about the politics of daily life, Dick carved out his distinctive niche among sci-fi authors precisely by bodysurfing the new waves of socio-technical innovation as they crashed into the politics of daily life in California. Dick’s short stories from the 1950s register in a direct way the prevailing geopolitical concerns of his time: the war of ideologically opposed factions; the threat of autonomously escalating military conflict, often culminating in complete nuclear annihilation of the Earth’s surface; time travel as a means of confirming, preventing, and sometimes triggering apocalypse; and Mars colonization. But after a great burst of short story production in the early 1950s, Dick returned to many of these materials in a cooler and more metaphysical mode. He focused not just on the threat of cataclysmic violence but on the way the disintegration of modern civilization’s fantasy about itself possesses its own form of productive power. The whiff of atomic panic and red scares that wafted through the stories of so many of his peers remains in Dick’s work, but he places new emphasis on the ideological and material infrastructure that invisibly determines the imaginative horizons of his characters—hence the stories of suburbia that emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s in his non-science-fiction work and the relentless attention to colonization in his major sci-fi novels of the 1960s.
A key harbinger of this turn is the brief but powerful early story, “Survey Team,” which features a crew driven by the nuclear annihilation of Earth to attempt a desperate colonization of Mars. As the story opens, the main character reflects on the despoliation of his home in terms that recall the wistful reminiscences of Californians coping with the rapid development of their state:
“It was a lot different from the way he remembered it when he was a kid in California. He could remember the valley country, grape orchards and walnuts and lemons. Smudge pots under the orange trees. Green mountains and sky the color of a woman’s eyes. And the fresh smell of the soil…. That was all gone now. Nothing remained but gray ash pulverized with the white stones of buildings. Once a city had been in this spot. He could see the yawning cavities of cellars, filled now with slag, dried rivers of rust that had once been buildings. Rubble strewn everywhere, aimlessly….”
As they explore the planet, the crew finds no useful resources for human life but plenty of evidence of an ancient Martian civilization that is surprisingly similar to the wreckage they left behind: “Ruin, heaps of rusting metal. Bales of wire and building material. Parts of uncompleted equipment. Half-buried construction sections sticking up from the sand.”
It slowly dawns on them that the Martians deliberately abandoned the planet after despoiling it 600,000 years before, evacuating all of the useful resources with them. An examination of the ruins reveals that their target planetary colony was Earth itself. Thus, the Martian-cum-human species was responsible for the destruction of two hospitable planets. “A closed circle,” one crewmember observes. “We’re back where we started. Back to reap the crop our ancestors sowed.”
This story marks the shift in Dick’s work from the fixation on the extrinsic nuclear threat to the internally generated infrastructural and environmental threat, and it begins the major phase of his career in which a doubled focus on space colonies as representations of western American developments gives Dick’s major novels the hallmark, uncanny Californian dimension that has made them favorites of Hollywood.
The twin culminations of this theme in Dick’s work come in his novels of 1964 and 1965, Martian Time-Slip and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. A dramatization of the self-enclosure of the American West, the novels explore the interrelation of imagination and materialism. Martian Time-Slip in particular is packed with references to the landscapes of the postwar boom in California and the Southwest. Grand plans for the building of a Martian canal system to enable food production and residential development echo Pat Brown’s California Aqueduct, begun in 1963, right down to an allusion to the aqueduct bikeway that follows the maintenance roads alongside the canal. The plotting for control of land where a huge retirement community will be built to house elderly colonists from Earth recalls the meteoric rise of Del Webb, whose Sun City development was built in 1960 atop a ghost town near Phoenix, Arizona. A subplot about the education of an autistic boy details a university system much like the one established in California under the Donohoe Act of 1960. (The school’s faculty of robotic historical figures eerily anticipates the educational-automation debates of the present.) From air conditioning to anti-immigration sentiment, the world of Martian Time-Slip is a thinly veiled portrait of 1960s California. To the extent that its byzantine plot can be boiled down to a single message, it is carried by the figure of Manfred Steiner, an autistic boy who finally carves out a place for himself in the way all Californians must: by going native—befriending the native Martian Bleekmen—and by adopting a set of life-giving technological supports to make existence possible.
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, a considerably bleaker novel from the same period, provides the deepest allegorical portrait of California’s predicament. The first of Dick’s theological novels, its eponymous main character is less a human figure than a force of nature that takes various historical shapes in order to survive and grow. One of Eldritch’s main gambits in forcing the colonization of deep space is the use of infrastructural fantasies called “Perky Pat layouts”—miniaturized civilizations, board games that denizens of the outer colonies can purchase, customize to their liking, and then psychically enter and enjoy through the use of a hallucinogen called “Can-D.” Part Barbie and Ken playset, part Pat Brown–era three-dimensional planning tool, part dystopian nightmare, the Perky Pat layouts offer an image of a California in which fantasy, civil engineering, and the real environmental conditions of existence in a dry colony have become a single story with an ending as yet unwritten. Philip K. Dick’s trademark interest in the ways that humans become trapped in the real consequences of their fantasy lives plays out not simply as a puzzle about virtual versus actual reality but as an analysis of the feedback loop between imagination, infrastructure, and daily life.
It may be worth pausing for a last moment here to consider that our present condition is, in fact, the result of the shared infrastructural hallucinations of previous generations, and that California’s future depends on accepting the constraints, intended and unintended, that resulted from those realized dreams. And we might consider trading in less effective forms of California dreaming in favor of speculatively rearranging the state’s material layout and getting on with the next phase of the shared delusion that will be twenty-first-century California. A little science fiction might just help.
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF THE J. PAUL GETTY MUSEUM, LOS ANGELES. ESTATE OF WILLIAM A. GARNETT. Grading, Lakewood, California, 1950; Trenching, Lakewood, California, 1950; Foundations and Slabs, Lakewood, California, 1950; Framing, Lakewood, California, 1950; Plaster and Roofing, Lakewood, California, 1950; Finished Housing, Lakewood, California, 1950.
In 2003, when tweeting was something only birds did, and websites were by and large built in tables (shudder), my friend and colleague Kelly Goto stood on the rooftop of her San Francisco Mission District loft and made the decision to redirect a significant slice of her company’s resources into mobile design—except it wasn’t called “mobile” at the time. “Wireless” was the buzzword. Colleagues thought she was crazy. Cell phones were for talking. And besides, who really needed or wanted to be connected everywhere they went?
History is laced with these kinds of foresight stories. Not obvious-from-the-get-go innovations like the light bulb, the birth control pill, or the printing press. Many brilliant ideas seemed ludicrous at the time. Like Fred Smith’s famous C+ from Harvard Business School for his Fedex business plan, because how many people would pay extra for overnight shipping? Or Richard Sears’ foolhardy belief that people would actually shop from a catalogue for things they couldn’t see and inspect first. Or the preposterous suggestion put forth by Jobs and Wozniak that every household would someday have a personal computer. I mean, really.
Pioneers. People who audaciously question accepted status quo thinking. Kelly Goto doesn’t necessarily think of herself as a pioneer. Always an evangelist for immersive research methods, she is looking at how today’s experiences with devices are moving quickly into touch, voice-activation, and other sensory levels of interaction that had not been designed for previously: the emotional side of the user experience. “Understanding the triggers of emotion is a vitally important aspect of controlling an online experience,” she points out. “And if companies can utilize this thinking, they can better prioritize and plan to meet these needs.” The implication is huge. This innovative approach to understanding audience may revolutionize the way we weigh demographics in favor of tapping how people feel. This may be new territory for online and mobile design, but it is not conventional wisdom … not yet. But neither was the on-demand video service project she helped design in 1990 (well before internet-streaming) featuring girls on roller skates delivering VHS tapes to a bank. And ten years ago, when Kelly saw the way people everywhere were becoming attached to their handheld devices, she knew she was at the forefront of something big.
“With the mobile thing,” Kelly explains, referring back to a time before data-plans, “I started to think in terms of combining what we did on the web with what we could be doing with device and web-to-device experiences.” She would hold her cell phone and stare at it, knowing we had not even scratched the surface of its possibilities. And then she did what any hotshot with an idea does these days: she began blogging about it. “I certainly didn’t articulate it as such then, but what I was exploring was the emotional way in which people craved connection.”
In her humbler moments, Kelly Goto is just a designer who pushes the envelope. Just another hardworking mom managing family life while maintaining a successful business in today’s incredibly challenging economic climate. But in her near-eponymous role of design ethnographer, she has been at the forefront of “user experience” (UX) since before it had a name, much less an acronym. And in 2003, while on sabbatical in New Zealand, Kelly started conceptualizing the Mobile User Experience, which at the time did not exist. “It was a world of coders focusing on handsets and BREW, completely run by Europe and Asia,” she remembers. “And in the US, no one was thinking or talking about the mobile user experience.”1
Kelly soon joined World Wireless Forum and connected with Rudy DeWaele, an entrepreneur out of Barcelona, and Jaakko Villa, then CEO at Idean Research in Finland. Together they began convincing clients, industry, anyone, that the “device experience”—how our devices shape our experiences—was relevant and deserved extensive research. It was 2003. We called our mobile devices cellphones, and all decisions were driven by cost and convenience; the actual experience of using the phone did not enter into corporate America’s marketing plan. The US was way behind with a cellphone penetration rate of 67%, while Japan and South Korea were at 99% and over 100%, respectively. Globally, people were doing a whole lot more than talking. Mobile users around the world were developing patterns and habits and emotional attachments. A collective experience was forming.
PHOTOGRAPH BY TOMO SAITO
As she talks, Kelly starts moving her hands as if sliding something open and closed. “I had a Helio phone back then that was shaped like a pod with smooth, rounded corners. I loved that phone, particularly the strangely satisfying little click it made when fully opened, or fully closed.” She is remembering the tactile part of the experience, and it’s not such a stretch to connect that with the left-to-right swipe required in opening an iPhone. Now, eight years later, we are hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t think of their smartphone as a personal cybernetic appendage.
A design ethnographer studies the creation of people-friendly experiences, inspired by first-hand observation of context, behavior, and needs. Kelly considers herself a practitioner who finds design solutions through direct observation and interaction with her subjects. She is a curious creative who takes the time to understand the true needs and behaviors of her audience. Her passion lies in the areas of research and design, in combining the two to inform design challenges into more than just a subjective solution. These days her company, gotomedia, LLC, has moved beyond the desktop and into connected user experiences across device and context. Its goal: to capture unmet needs and desires which can jumpstart a company’s approach and product migration. And over time, she has become one of the industry’s leading experts in the evolution of connections. “I’ve just completed a series of interviews with a few dozen students on local Bay Area campuses,” Kelly says. “It’s a pilot for a larger study, and I’m gathering as many insights as possible into the world these students live in. I am interested in how they envision their world and the future. And how technology fits into their lives and learning.”
As a researcher, Kelly is adamant that one cannot ask those questions directly and expect to learn what students’ actual needs and desires are. And what she learns is never precisely what she expects. One student in the study reported that the passion his teacher displayed for the subject matter was a bigger driving force in his learning experience than the teacher’s methodology in conveying it. Another said, “Sometimes I feel I learn more from my peers than I do in the classroom.” And whether that is truth or bunk, the fact is that all of these students have access to and are actively using the latest technology and online learning tools. “But what they want and feel comfort within,” Kelly explains, “is connection—connection to their teachers and to their peers.”
Connection. The online mimicking of human interaction, something we all crave. That was what was missing from the early web. Back in the mid-’90s almost all websites were, essentially, brochures. It was considered fantastic to be able to click not only from page one to page two, but to any page. Anything that actually loaded and worked in a streamlined way impressed people. To be able to update info without a full reprint was amazing. But sites did not engage the user; sites were there to provide information. And as far back as 1996, when Kelly was on the team that launched Warner Bros. Online, with its forums for all the shows and chats tied to what was quite possibly the first-ever online store (“Nobody will ever trust inputting their credit card number over the web” was the established market research at that time), Kelly started articulating what no one was actually saying: It’s all about audience.
Today, there’s nothing groundbreaking in that sentence; there is no aha! there. But in 1995 this was a seminal thought. The idea that the “user experience” would actually drive the success of a site (and by extension, effectiveness of the business model—just ask Borders Books)—was as alien to an early-web designer as an air-to-ground battle strategy was to Napoleon. In the late ’90s, designers were simply trying to make things work. We were all either Lewis-and-Clarking, or trying to follow the designers who were.
But then, at the end of the 1990s, the dotcom bubble made everything appear so easy that the online model simply had to have a concept to attract IPO interest. The UX requirement that Kelly had foreseen wasn’t yet driving the dotcoms. But after the bubble was no more, businesses tightened budgets, and corporate survival necessitated an entirely new approach to online design. Usability testing demonstrated that people’s online habits, understanding and capabilities were not necessarily what business owners or designers had assumed. Watching site users in real-time lab settings generated acutely important data that exposed everything from overly complicated logins, to cumbersome ordering, frustrating navigation, and more. Other pioneers like Jakob Neilsen and Jared Spool touted the heuristic value of watching what people actually do rather than listening to what they say they will do, or less reliably, what web site producers assume they will do—or much less reliably—what C-level executives think they will do.
PHOTOGRAPH BY TOMO SAITO
For the last ten-plus years, Kelly Goto has been convincing clients that major budget slices should go into rapid prototyping and shaping user experiences. Seiko Epson Japan was one of these clients. After gotomedia force-fed seven rounds of usability testing and prototyping printer interfaces into a two-month process, it was clear, contrary to Epson’s assumptions, what the test group’s moms and non-techie grandparents wanted: simplicity over features. Result: the product was changed from corporate projection to fit audience desires.
“We used to bury the cost of research inside the design process budget,” Kelly admits. “But now, with this challenging economy, companies are realizing the importance of shaping their customer experience across multiple devices and locations. Integrated services and interfaces that literally respond to your touch are now a reality. While we have not yet moved to voice-activated home systems, it’s not far away. As designers, we must continue to create experiences that connect people with the experiences they crave.”
Since Kelly started her journey as a designer, she has seen the role evolve. Gone is the day of the designer who had to have little beyond a good eye for layout, color, and typography. Today, they must hybridize and consider technical possibilities and limitations just as much as the color palette and font. The creativity that goes into the Photoshop layering of that stunning masthead must also consider the usability of the navigational presentation and the integration of login, forms, community, and any of a dozen other user-driven functionalities. Visual designers must be able to think in the dimension of information flow and, and, and … There is a lot of user experience research to be integrated into the visual now, where ten or twelve years ago there was none. What used to be the sole franchise of branding specialists now must be pondered by designers as well.
In 1993, Kelly led a six-figure promotional print project for Infiniti USA that incorporated stunning, wildly expensive photography and rich custom paper. The abstract piece had a Velcro closure and interesting folds. But in the showroom, it fell apart. No one opened it the way Kelly intended, and she watched as it clearly frustrated every person who held it. In horror, she realized that at no point during production had she let anyone actually open the brochure without showing them first. It was an incredibly painful lesson, but it has stuck with her.
She tells this story now in presentation after presentation—nearly 20 years later—to demonstrate the critical importance of learning as much as possible about user experience before producing anything. The spectacular failure of that piece was the first step in the evolution of a heady career that in hindsight has been 100% colored by the understanding of how experience, with all its myriad aspects including emotion, the senses, usability, convenience, cost, and yes, connection—must drive every aspect of design. And whatever the future holds, whatever today’s pioneers are dreaming up, designing experiences that map people’s real needs and desires will play a leading role.
California design is now a brand of inestimable value, but it did not descend from the sky like the perpetual sunshine, or roll in like the endless surf. “Designed in California” has its roots in the unique manufacturing culture of Silicon Valley, yet has survived the sea change that has led to most things being “assembled in China.”
In a special issue dedicated to “Design on the West Coast,” Industrial Design magazine unwisely predicted that “despite the pleasant environment and the proximity of centers of scientific investigation … [the San Francisco Bay region] may never challenge Los Angeles for industrial primacy on the West Coast.”1 These words were written in 1957, and the editors may be forgiven if they failed to notice the founding in the previous year of Shockley Semiconductor Laboratories in an industrial no-man’s land on the border of Palo Alto and Mountain View, or to discern, among the apricot orchards and walnut groves that dotted Santa Clara Valley, the shape of things to come. Within a decade the 30-mile strip of land bracketed by Highways 101 and 280 had begun its metamorphosis into what journalist Don Hoefler officially christened “Silicon Valley, USA.”2
Even then, however, the idea that the region was, or might ever become, an important center of design was implausible at best. In the public imagination, “California Design” in the early 1970s evoked the psychedelic posters of the Grateful Dead, the craft movement personified by Sam Maloof, or the lingering midcentury modernism of Charles and Ray Eames. By contrast, the products of Silicon Valley—audio oscillators, gas analyzers, industrial lasers, missile guidance systems—were remote from most people’s lived experience. A vast abyss separated the equation-driven world of technical engineering from the vagaries of consumer-oriented product design.
Only one Silicon Valley company, the game designer Atari, oriented itself toward the public, but Atari’s spectacular rise and precipitous decline served as a warning against what the Valley’s resident journalist, Michael S. Malone, called “the siren call of the consumer business.”3 Intel’s attempt to market a digital wristwatch—the famous Microma—was a $15 million write-off. Hewlett Packard fared no better with the HP-01 watch-calculator, a truly hideous marvel of miniaturization whose 28 tiny buttons had to be pressed with a stylus built into the strap. Even selling chips that went into consumer products (like televisions) was distasteful to companies that wanted to be at the forefront of technology. A handful of industrial designers worked in the corporate offices of HP, IBM, and Ampex, but they lived a marginal existence, working mainly on technical instruments created by and for engineers who regarded them with the utmost suspicion.
Inevitably, however, the fruits of Silicon Valley R&D began to filter outward to the consumer market, and the idea slowly took hold that designers might do something other than stuff electronics into sheet metal boxes. By the later seventies a loose-knit community had begun to form, fed by the design programs at Stanford and San Jose State and knitted together around the Palo Alto Center for Design, the annual Stanford Design Conference, and a mimeographed newsletter of the local IDSA (Industrial Design Society of America) chapter that gained surprisingly wide circulation. A few enterprising individuals, sniffing the opportunities posed by the emerging digital technology, began to migrate to the region from across the U.S. and even Europe, and by the end of the decade the outlines were discernible of a distinct regional culture.
Photograph by Barry Katz
Although now-defunct firms such as GVO, Innova, and Clement DesignLabs had laid the groundwork, the rise of the consultancies may be said to have begun in 1979 when Bill Moggridge ventured west from the U.K. to plant his first overseas colony, I.D. Two, in Palo Alto. As business grew—a revolutionary “laptop” computer for GRiD Systems, a desktop computer for Convergent Technologies—partner Mike Nuttall split off to form Matrix Design. They entered into ad hoc partnerships with more technically proficient groups such as David Kelley Design, a small, engineering-driven outfit formed by a handful of recent graduates from Stanford, and the three formally merged in 1991 to form IDEO. Lunar Design was formed in 1982, and Studio Red a couple of years later, sustained by the flight of impatient entrepreneurs from the labs at Xerox PARC and the shift of the computer industry from mainframes and minis to what visionary researcher Alan Kay had once imagined as “personal computers.”4
The pivotal event may have come in 1982, the year that the six-year-old Apple Computer decided that it had outgrown its roots in suburban Cupertino and began an international search for a designer to develop a unified design language and a global identity. Two years later the so-called “Snow White” competition had netted Hartmut Esslinger, who relocated from the Federal Republic of Germany and renamed his company frogdesign. By the end of the 1970s there were dozens of design firms in the Bay Area and the profession had begun to gain traction; by the end of the 1980s there were hundreds and it had hit critical mass.
The new firms competed, cooperated, merged, and split off from one another in dizzying succession: frogdesign spawned fuseproject, New Deal Design, Whipsaw, and Vent. Speck, NONOBJECT, and Daylight would spin off from IDEO. The ’90s saw the founding of Astro Studios, Jump Associates, and so many others that it seems almost arbitrary to name just a few. As they grew they learned to leverage complementary skills—European and American training; design and engineering; hardware and software. They cobbled together business plans, and improvised methodologies. As the technological insurgency of the region continued unabated—from semiconductors to PCs and from PCs to software—the perimeter around the boundaries of design itself expanded. By the mid-1980s it had become clear that the QWERTY keyboard was about the only thing that linked the typewriter to the computer, and the field of Interaction Design was born; the complexity of people’s relations with digital objects prompted a searching investigation into our engagement with even the most mundane artifacts, and by 1990 cultural anthropologists, developmental psychologists, and other “human factors” specialists had arrived en masse and begun, in the memorable words of W.H. Auden, to “commit social science.”
As their collective confidence grew, and companies in the increasingly commoditized technology sector sought with growing desperation to differentiate their products from those of their competitors, designers lobbied hard to be brought into projects at the outset (“Phase Zero”) rather than be handed an assortment of components and instructed to package them. They resisted the assumption of many clients (and all journalists) that designers are essentially stylists, and endeavored to climb higher and higher on the value chain and move further and further upstream (the astute reader will have detected the arrival of the MBAs). “Design services” evolved into “strategic services,” and many designers found—somewhat to their own chagrin—that they were no longer relegated to the back of the bus, and in a few cases had moved almost into the driver’s seat.
In contrast to the other great periods in the history of design—the Arts and Crafts Movement in 19th-century Britain, streamlining in Machine Age America—design in Silicon Valley was never defined by a style or a methodology. Its distinctiveness lay in the fact that in this charmed sliver of inflated real estate designers were challenged to give form to the digital revolution that was transforming the texture of everyday life. What should a “modem” look like? How do we prototype the experience of a passenger purchasing an airline ticket online? What is the future of the book? What kind of curriculum will teach students that the real foundation of professional practice is no longer the Bauhaus mantra of “art plus technology“ but rather “design research?”
The deflation of the dotcom bubble has given rise to most recent expression of the broadening base: the movement—celebrated by some and deplored by others—that has come to be known as “design thinking.”5 This latest addition to “California Design” holds that designers, over the course of their collective history, have evolved a set of intellectual skills that can be applied to a vastly greater range of problems than may have previously been supposed: not just the design of the latest injection-molded, flat-screened, microprocessed gizmo, but of a program to combat pediatric obesity in urban America; to build solar-powered health clinics in Rwanda; or to promote social entrepreneurship in Colombia. And if that were not a sufficient affront to the tradition of the inspired form-giver, this dramatic redirection implies that one does not have to be a designer to think like one.
The designers of Silicon Valley always rested upon a culture of technology, engineering and manufacture; in the early years, at least, this was the source of their clients, their tools, and their training. With the dawning of the new millennium, however, the manufacturing base had begun to migrate to the cheaper and less regulated Special Economic Zones of Asia, and many observers noted that California was devolving into a hollowed out, post-industrial shell. In other times and places the loss of the organic connection to manufacturing doomed the design field, but by this time “Designed in California” had acquired a meaning all its own.
Notes 1. Avrom Fleishman, “Design on the West Coast,” Industrial Design, 4 (1957), 49. 2. Don Hoefler, Electronics News, in the first of three articles beginning on January 11, 1971. 3. Michael S. Malone, The Big Score: The Billion Dollar Story of Silicon Valley (New York: Doubleday, 1985), 68. 4. Alan Kay, “Microelectronics and the Personal Computer,” Scientific American, 237 (1977), 230–244. 5. Tim Brown and Barry Katz, Change By Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation (New York: Harper Collins, 2009).
In June 2010, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev came to the United States with two big priorities in mind: meeting with President Obama and touring Silicon Valley. Earlier in the spring, Medvedev’s government unveiled plans to build its own version of California’s high-tech capital in a woodsy area outside Moscow. The announcement made a splash, with slick presentations of buildings designed by celebrity architects and an appearance by Hollywood actor and prolific Twitter user Ashton Kutcher. For a Russia whose economy remained heavily dependent on oil-and-gas extraction, and who had lost its brainiest engineers to the more entrepreneur-friendly tech regions of the US and Europe, coming to Silicon Valley to learn its secrets became a first, essential step towards economic transformation.
Fifty years before, another foreign leader made the same kind of Silicon Valley pilgrimage. Visiting the United States in 1960, French President Charles de Gaulle asked to tour the research parks emerging amid the farms and orchards south of San Francisco. As his motorcade rolled through the California sunshine, de Gaulle noted the area’s distinctive combination of science-based industry, university research activity, and quiet suburban neighborhoods that formed a self-contained innovation ecosystem. By the last year of de Gaulle’s presidency, France had established its own high-tech city, Sophia Antipolis, along the Côte d’Azur.
From de Gaulle to Medvedev, California’s Silicon Valley has been a place to which the world has looked for inspiration. The runaway economic success of a region that venture capitalist John Doerr once called “the largest legal creation of wealth in the history of the planet” has spawned countless imitators. Many have tried to reproduce the look and feel of the low-rise, lushly landscaped world of Silicon Valley in unlikely places. The globe has become dotted with nouveau Silicon Valleys, Forests, Hills, Orchards, Seaboards, and Fens. In the process, the Valley joined Hollywood as a powerfully alluring symbol of California, becoming global shorthand for innovation, entrepreneurship, and striking it rich.
Some of these overseas efforts to recreate a little piece of the Golden State became successful, although success came slowly. Many others did not. And despite a half century of attempts to build the next Silicon Valley, no other region has managed to dislodge the original Valley from its place atop the high-tech food chain.
Silicon Valley’s preeminence springs from its origins in a very particular time (the early Cold War) and place (northern California), where a combination of national military spending and suburban infrastructure investment brought huge new flows of money and people to what had been a sleepy landscape of orchards and commuter towns. Add into this mix the presence of powerful research institutions—most notably Stanford University—and an unusually risk-tolerant business culture that welcomed and nurtured iconoclasts and dreamers, and a high-tech capital was born.
Others, not fully recognizing the importance of these cultural and historical frameworks, have assumed at their starting point that all they had to do was “build a research park, and they will come.” Yet no government or individual consciously set out to build a science city in Silicon Valley; it was the result of national economic transformations, local capacities, and a few lucky accidents. It’s little wonder that its magic has been so difficult to replicate.
What the quixotic global quest to build the next Silicon Valley has managed to do, however, is to export a distinctive architectural aesthetic and business culture to other parts of the world. In doing so, the process has underscored the degree to which the Valley’s success was not only an American phenomenon, but a Californian one—rooted in this state’s history, its politics, and its culture.
Take all those research parks, for example. The reflexive first step in building any would-be high-tech capital has been to develop self-contained and verdant industrial real estate, preferably adjacent to or affiliated with a research university. Research parks are not a California creation, but the idea of creating a university-connected park certainly is. It sprang from the minds of Stanford University administrators in the early 1950s, who concocted the idea in large part because the university owned a ranchero-size parcel of adjacent land that it was unable to sell.
The architecture in the Stanford research park echoed both the Mission Revival campus buildings and the sun-drenched, Eichler-style modernism of adjacent residential neighborhoods. The manicured grounds and their ample parking channeled the automotive golden age of mid-century California. The park’s success as an early incubator of technology firms led other regions and nations to adapt this particular design aesthetic, often with few alterations. Red- tile roofs and palm trees dot the global technology landscape today, from Southern England to Southern China, evocative visual cues that these are places where innovation happens.
Global Silicon Valleys have encouraged the adaptation of a Californian aesthetic beyond the research park as well. Taking note of the Valley’s location amid an affluent residential suburb, many imitators of the past six decades have incorporated similarly deluxe residential developments of single-family villas and ranch houses into their plans. Today, subdivisions catering to high-tech workers, like Bangalore’s Palm Meadows and Shenzhen’s Mission Hills, not only evoke California in their nomenclature but also in the appearance of their houses, the layout of their streets, and the amenities offered their residents. Upstart Silicon Valleys are hardly the only places worldwide that feature these landscapes of wealth, but they often functioned as the leading edge of this type of development, and they reinforced the powerful cultural connection between the affluent California suburb and the technology economy.
Another California export is the laid-back, egalitarian, and highly networked business culture for which the Valley is famous. This, too, has deep roots. From the San Francisco Gold Rush on, the Bay Area has been a magnet for the brilliant and the odd. By the time commercial opportunities for technology began to open up in the late 1960s, it was home to a cohort of investors who were unusually tolerant of risk and willing to bet on untested talent. No other place in the country or the world has been able to reproduce this entrepreneurial ecosystem on the same scale. Top-down, government-fueled efforts to build silicon cities proved notoriously bad at doing so. Instead, the fluid, rapidly moving, technophile ethos of the Valley spread through the movement of people and the globalization of firms.
Again, characteristics unique to the Golden State played a role here. California’s significant Asian and South Asian populations, a large number of whom came here as foreign students, played a major role in the blossoming of the original Valley and in exporting its products and its culture elsewhere. As India and China liberalized their economies after the 1980s, immigrant entrepreneurs increasingly moved back and forth across the Pacific, playing instrumental roles in “new Silicon Valleys” from Shanghai to Chennai. Ultimately, the regions that have been among the more successful in creating high-tech clusters of their own are ones with a little bit of California—and quite a few Californians—in them.
They also are places that entered the high-tech race with a set of regional advantages much like the Bay Area’s. Take Bangalore, for example. Long before it became known as “India’s Silicon Valley,” Bangalore already had a reputation as a low-rise garden city with a pleasant climate, strong technical universities, and a concentration of public- and private-sector research activity—the result of two generations of concerted government effort to make the Bangalore region a hub of scientific activity. Bangalore isn’t alone. Other high-tech success stories have urban histories with strikingly similar characteristics. In California and beyond, new-economy triumphs usually have old-economy roots.
The bad news for those who would like to become “the next Silicon Valley” is that the Valley has proven remarkably resilient. Ultimately, the secret of Silicon Valley is that it wasn’t a consciously planned silicon city. It exists because of big things—like Cold War spending patterns, sustained GDP growth, and large-scale migration and immigration. It also exists because of unique local characteristics like risk-tolerant capital, entrepreneurial leadership, and good weather. It grew organically. It had room for happy accidents and lucky breaks.
The good news is that it is no longer the 1950s. Technologies that came out of the Valley allow global communication and collaboration on an unprecedented scale. There is no longer a lone high-tech capital where all stages of production occur. Silicon Valley is a network. It is a global supply chain in which many different cities play a critical role—from Bangalore to Bucharest, São Paulo to Stockholm.
These cities also happen to be doing some exciting things to reinvent the silicon city model. For Silicon Valley may be a unique ecosystem for technology creation, but it falls short on many fronts in terms of functioning well as an urban place. It is haphazardly planned and economically polarized. It is crowded and car-dependent to a degree that lowers its quality of life and degrades the natural beauty that lured people there in the first place. Effectively, Silicon Valley succeeded because it created a bubble of high-tech prosperity that kept other uses and other people at a safe distance. It also succeeded because it was good at disguising the less attractive and more polluting aspects of its business.
The exciting thing about the globalization of technology is that it is opening up space for new kinds of urban models—ones that are in turn shaping the original Silicon Valley’s urban future. Denser, walkable high-tech corridors in Singapore and Seoul are providing design inspiration for policymakers and planners in Palo Alto and San Jose. Architects are joining techies and CEOs in moving back and forth between California and the rest of the high-tech world, and redefining the technology workplace in the process.
So while other countries should not give up on the quest to become the next Silicon Valley, they should take its history seriously. And they might want to look to places other than the Valley for design inspiration. High-tech innovation doesn’t need a sleek suburban office building, and the knowledge worker might not want to live in a California-style subdivision. True high-tech magic comes from other things.