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…praying for the next dot com bust…

Posted by G.A. Matiasz on November 13, 2013

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A rising tide lifts all boats

So goes the old adage. The problem with a wise old saying such as the above, aside from amounting to a cliché, is that its also only half true. David Korten wrote in Agenda for a New Economy that “The idea that economic growth will bring up the bottom and finance environmental restoration has no substance. The so-called rising tide lifts only the yachts and swamps the desperate, naked swimmers struggling for survival, and no amount of money can heal the environment in the face of unrestrained growth in material consumption.” (2d. ed., p.42) William Pfaff, in an article entitled “Restoring balance to a globalized world,” (NYT, 6-4-7) makes a similar argument that, contrary to neoclassical economic theory, the most celebrated economic policies over the last 20 to 30 years are also the most counterproductive. Such policies do nothing to raise the living standards of the world’s poorest, but instead have guaranteed that the wealth of the richest members of all the world’s countries have reached astronomical proportions. This process has resulted in “the most profoundly destabilizing force the world has experienced since World War II,” responsible for “the social upheavals and progress of radicalization occurring in the world’s poor countries.”

The new adage should read: A rising tide drowns those with no yachts or A rising tide drowns those without boats.

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During the height of the last dot com bubble, around the end of 1999, I was looking for work as an IT professional in the tech industry. Some of my job search took me for interviews into West Oakland, at the time ground zero for the dot com bubble in the East Bay. Tech companies and start ups were moving into West Oakland, renting property, sometimes taking over whole blocks, displacing the poor black residents, and creating often well-fortified enclaves for their young white techie work forces. I remember interviewing at one startup housed in a renovated brick warehouse/residency that had more front door security than your average bank, with security cameras and pass cards. The side lot was surrounded by hurricane fencing topped with razor wire. The brand spanking new interior was all flashy colors, with places for the techies to store their bikes, play a variety of games like ping pong, cook and eat their meals, and even sleep between all night bouts of coding. Youngsters half my age zipped around from station to station on kick scooters. I was applying for the position of a server administrator, and part of my orientation for the potential job was being shown my own little cubby where I could sleep. It was made clear that I was expected to spend 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on the job, if necessary, as required by the young white techie workforce who, similarly, came in at any time day or night and spent 10, 15, 20 plus hours straight working on their respective projects. These tech geeks didn’t have a life, and I wasn’t expected to have a life either. The whole place had a fortress feel to it, plopped down in the middle of West Oakland’s crime and drug ridden ghetto, an affluent sanctuary, an all white high tech island surrounded by black poverty and misery. I got the call back for a second interview, but I never returned.

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The dot com bubble of 1997-2000 ended with a profound collapse as tech companies went bankrupt and startups failed. Dot com enterprises and workers fled West Oakland, disappearing almost overnight, leaving the community with rising levels of crime, drugs and poverty. Although West Oakland is statistically undifferentiated from the rest of Oakland, the rate of homicide reached its highest in more than a decade by 2006. The tech industry as a whole, particular dot com companies, and their IT workers were interlopers in West Oakland. They took over property and displaced people, but they didn’t give back to the community, either with time, energy, resources or wealth. When the dot com economy crashed and burned in 2000, West Oakland had not been improved. Indeed, it can be argued that it was left worse off than before its presence because the tech industry did nothing to better the community, abandoning it to rot in the intervening bubble period.

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There is a new dot com bubble brewing. Now that I live in San Francisco, I see signs of it everywhere. The cost of office space is skyrocketing, and the median price for a home has topped $1 million and “is directly tied to the strength of the Bay Area’s largely tech-fueled job market.” Evictions and gentrification are a concern not only in San Francisco’s Mission District, but in the City as a whole. Then, there is the introduction of several rather unsavory elements into San Francisco’s population at large.

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Hipsters are proliferating throughout the City, taking over whole neighborhoods. Christian Lorentzen has argued that: “[u]nder the guise of ‘irony,’ hipsterism fetishizes the authentic and regurgitates it with a winking inauthenticity. Those 18-to-34-year-olds called hipsters have defanged, skinned and consumed the fringe movements of the postwar era—Beat, hippie, punk, even grunge. Hungry for more, and sick with the anxiety of influence, they feed as well from the trough of the uncool, turning white trash chic, and gouging the husks of long-expired subcultures—vaudeville, burlesque, cowboys and pirates.” Congregating with their own in high priced coffee shops, cafes, bars and restaurants, their sullenness, cliquishness, self-centered narcissism, and incapacity to give to the greater community are legendary. Then there are the techies proper. Even wealthier and less diverse than hipsters, these tech workers are often targeted for the same hatred as their hipster cousins. Insulated from the rest of their fellow humans, their neighborhoods, their communities, and the rest of the world by their iPads, iPods, iPhones, computer notebooks, etc., techies travel to and from their jobs (where they work long, long hours) riding in private buses with air conditioning, tinted windows, and uninterrupted wifi. Google, Yahoo and Genentech buses cruise the streets of San Francisco, full of self-absorbed tech zombies. “What’s happening to San Francisco [as a result of this tech invasion] goes beyond the accelerating gentrification in multicultural districts like the Mission or Mayor Ed Lee minimizing affordable housing woes. The city that’s been a magnet for free spirits and immigrants and working-class people for decades seems to be losing its famous heart. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that its heart is being replaced by a software update.” So writes Steven Rosenfeld on AlterNet. “Meanwhile, hundreds more longtime residents have been put on notice for possible eviction. The Tenants Union says that the Mission, Haight-Ashbury, North Beach and Inner Richmond neighborhoods are the hardest hit, with upward of 100 households a month losing their longterm housing through a mix of evictions and paid buyouts, most of which aren’t recorded in city hall statistics.”

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The tech industry as a whole, tech companies from the established to the startup, and their tech workers give nothing back to their neighborhoods or to the city of San Francisco. Instead, they gut their environment of its unique character, its soul, replacing it with an ersatz, gentrified, high tech, sterilized imitation. Much the same can be said of their hipster cousins and their so-called “culture.” Is it any wonder that I sometimes pray for the next dot com bust?

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