Tag Archives: silicon valley

Adventures of a Not-Quite-Luddite Millennial

7 Aug

I am a crappy millennial. I have never been on the driving edge of tech savviness, and have no desire to be there. I was a somewhat late adopter to Facebook and Twitter and Snapchat—though I will confess to enjoying all three once on them, especially the latter two—and am only now climbing on the Instagram train. (Here it is, in all its glory. It took me seven years to get over my disgust of those obnoxious filters that overwhelmed early Instagram.) I am one of the few people in my generation who uses an alarm clock, as my phone goes off when I go to bed. I don’t even own an e-reader, preferring to fill my apartment with the old-fashioned kind of book. I have sports on as background noise with some regularity, but outside of that my TV is usually only on for an hour or two a week. When I forayed into the online dating world—a world I found facile and underwhelming—I was disappointed by the number of young women who think that talking about how much they watch Netflix makes them seem interesting. (And yes, I know what “Netflix and chill” means.) I have never owned an Apple product.

While some of my inadequate representation of my generation stems from personal preference, I can spin out a more thought-out backing for all of this, too. Our tech infatuation runs the risk of leading us to forget important things. STEM majors are all well and good, but I vigorously oppose any effort to divorce them from broader study of the humanities. I am easily suckered in by articles warning of Silicon Valley moguls who are plotting to alter human nature or pursue Singularity, and find such instincts about as fundamentally repulsive as any. I find any effort to hold up these modern-day monopolists as heroic model citizens worthy of emulation at best crass worship of consumerism, and at worst a deeply troubling attack on the idea of a virtuous life. If Mark Zuckerberg runs for President, I will order myself a MAGA hat.*

Still, I’m not exactly a candidate to lead the local Luddite Society. As I confessed earlier, I’m a satisfied user of plenty of new platforms. Social media has been a boon for someone with a friend network that has scattered all over the globe, and has helped preserve some deep ties despite great distance. As a millennial in a workplace that trends much older than I am, I am automatically designated the tech expert. Despite being a liberal arts kid to the core, I have come to be pretty comfortable in the world big data, at times even known as the “data person,” a title that leaves me wondering how I’ve been pigeonholed into something I never considered a strength, at least relative to some of my other skills. (Either that or I just have an inflated opinion of my skills as a writer, geographer, hockey pundit, and student of political thought.) I like to think, however, that my natural skepticism of big data and all of this supposedly-newfangled-but-not-really information is what allows me to be a passable interpreter of such information, and to know what it’s actually saying instead of making a simplistic first reading. I will continue to make that push.

My instincts also tend to downplay the extent to which technology changes us. A statement issued by an organization on its Facebook page is no different from a press release from a few decades ago, save for the speed with which it is spread; Presidents have likely said Trumpish things since the dawn of Presidents, but only now can they go public thanks to Twitter. Same with this blog and some of my other forays into online writing: the medium is different and the audience more accessible, but there’s nothing at all groundbreaking about writing one’s thoughts and throwing them into the public square for broader consumption. These are questions of magnitude, not radical new means of communication, and lead me to doubt the claims over how much tech has changed our lives.

Every now and then, though, some alarm bells go off that make me worry this natural conservatism is all wrong. Take this recent Atlantic article, chock full of alarming stats about today’s teenagers and the extent to which phones have come to rule their social lives, leading to drastic drops in traditional kid activities and replacing them with lonely interactions highly correlated with depression and a surge in suicide. I’m not that much older than these kids, and use the same basic platforms that they do, but many are apparently incapable of interacting in other ways. This life, as the article shows, is defined by atomism and anomie, trends that I have long feared pose a greater threat to human flourishing than the whims of any political leader. A truly sorry fate for humanity emerges, our demise not found in nuclear war but in our own beds, where we lie for hours chatting with people we cannot see and drowning in porn instead of genuine pursuit of intimacy. Who knew that soma, the drug from Brave New World, would turn out to be an electronic object?

And yet it’s entirely possible to use smartphones in moderate, healthy ways. The danger comes not from the technology itself. It comes from the erosion of the wall between a public and a private life. Both are important, and need their own separate realms. The public side involves all of the stuff I throw out on here and on my other social media accounts, and any notoriety I achieve through some of my other pursuits, whether in work or in local political circles or even the world of hockey. This public persona is partially curated by myself and partially forced on me by how others perceive it, but all ultimately designed for the consumption of others. And then there’s the private side, which will remain out of the public eye for me and close family. I’m not going to elaborate on that here, because that would defeat the point.

But I will share how I’ll maintain this divide, just in case there are any fellow travelers out there. I will continue to use that alarm clock, and turn the phone off (yes, totally off) when I go to bed. The only sorts of crises that cannot wait until the morning are the ones that will wake me up anyway. I will continue to own two cell phones, which may seem like overkill at first, but allows for a clear separation: one is for work, and one is for life. My future children will be subjected to real books and athletic or outdoor endeavors instead of screens in their early years—just as many of Silicon Valley’s elite do with their kids—and while I’m sure they’ll get smart phones or whatever the hell we’ve replaced them with at some point, the standards will be clear early on. (Thankfully, I live in a city where one still sees children roaming freely with some regularity, and where people tend to live with modern technology, yet never really on the cutting edge. These were far from minor factors in my decision to move back here.) The extent to which I showcase things like my family on social media will be inversely related to the amount of public attention I receive on it. I will continue to take days and even strings of days where I unplug completely. And I will continue to keep up with what the cool kids are doing, both to stay relevant and so I can continue to pass judgment.

Enough with the polemics for one day, though. Time to get myself out of the soft glow of my phone and out into a moonlit Minnesota night.

 

*I’ve used this line before, and have been told that my opinion of Zuckerberg sounds like it was formed by The Social Network, not his actual persona. This is probably true, especially since Aaron Sorkin wrote that film in a way that conformed to my preconceived biases. I will also confess to a visceral reaction to his fashion; why have we let this schlub who pretends he doesn’t care but in fact does care immensely define our design standards? Still, I think Zuck is an awful potential candidate given his political naïveté and his vague techno-optimism that displays a worrying lack of capacity for self-reflection or acknowledgment of negative consequences.

I’m hating on Silicon Valley a lot here, perhaps in part because the ethos of that elite is so different from the East Coast elite with which I rubbed shoulders in DC. The faux cool strikes me as more insidious than good old-fashioned Acela Corridor aristocracy, as it makes ridiculous claims about saving the world and “disruption” (how I hate that word) while aspiring to pretty much the same ends. The old order has its hypocrisies, but at least it’s predictable and rooted in philosophies with a somewhat better grip on reality. Still, I don’t lump them all in the same box: there is a world of difference between Peter Thiel, the crown prince of atomism, and the likes of an Elon Musk, who actually builds tangible things and shows genuine recognition of technology’s dark side. But empowering this lot runs the risk of opening Pandora’s Box, which I believe our current President has already opened far enough. Such is life in an ever churning world.

Road Trip Journal II: Salt Lake to San Francisco

27 Jun

(Part I)

Day Three: Descent to the Bay

On paper, this is the longest driving day of the trip, as we head from Salt Lake to San Francisco. We’re out early and grab some pastries before plowing out westward. If Wyoming seemed like vast tracts of nothing, today will eclipse that entirely: western Utah and much of Nevada are as empty as an area around a major American highway can be. We first skirt the Great Salt Lake, striking in contrast with the brown hills rising around it, and then the land becomes white: salt flats, all in a line across the floor of the Great Basin. Signs warn us to stay alert, lest we fall asleep at the wheel and veer off into a salt mine. Here and there, drivers have done exactly that, intentionally: tire tracks head off the freeway and some ways out on to the flat, and a couple of cars sit out there doing whatever it is that people do on salt flats.

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We can see Nevada from nearly forty miles away, as mountains thrust their way upward right at the border. The contrast is immediate: a cluster of casinos scream their presence just across the state line, ready to welcome in some sinful Utahns. Even a dismal gas station some ways further along has a slot machine room. The road itself winds up and down brown, scrubby passes, and we glimpse the first of many peaks we pass on this day that still have some snow on their upper reaches. There are occasional hints of greenery along rivers, and little oasis towns interrupt the monotony. We cruise through Reno without stopping, and begin one last major climb up into the Sierras.

After we cross the border into California, the mountains are finally green again, and I-80 pitches upward. We’re stopped for an agricultural inspection, and then detour off the highway for a jaunt down to Lake Tahoe. It is, as expected, gorgeous. Its cool waters are bliss after a long day in the car. We wade out some ways after a late lunch. The road around the north shore of the lake is a delight to drive as it weaves through the resorts and quaint shops; we ditch the AC and throw the windows open. We stop for a quick jog up Eagle Rock, a rocky extrusion near the shore that offers commanding views of the lake and the mountains beyond. We could spend much more time here, but the ocean calls.

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The descent from the Sierras is probably the trip’s most extreme drop, as we sink from 7,000 feet at the Donner Pass—a site that brings back fond memories of a long internment on an Amtrak train here many years ago—to less than 1,000 feet in the Central Valley. Sacramento reveals some very California scenes: an eight-lane highway baking in late afternoon sun, the westbound lanes crawling while ours is crowded but motoring along. Signs everywhere alert of us the ongoing drought, and urge us to avoid watering our lawns.

We come to the Bay Area as the sun is sinking toward the horizon. A golden haze looms over the city and the bridges, the fog seemingly aglow and the Transamerica Pyramid thrusting its way out above the Financial District. Thanks to some unexpected good fortune, the traffic on the Bay Bridge is manageable, so we can plow straight into the heart of the city with minimal delay. It happens to be Pride Weekend here, too. We’re not exactly in Utah anymore.

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This is my first time in San Francisco, and my first glances leave me as awed as I’ve ever been by any place on earth. As a sucker for hills, large water features, wine, Mexican food, and Mediterranean climes, this is in many ways my ideal city. The hills and fog and water make it feel curiously familiar to a Duluthian, and it is incredibly easy to live well, and spend easily, here. The closest comparison that I’ve seen before is probably Barcelona, but even that is much more spread out than San Francisco, and this city is very much its own. Its crowds and its prices are drawbacks, along with that lingering threat of a tremor that could dump it all into the bay. But the color, the vibrancy, and the unmatched views put it among the greatest of American cities without even expending effort. (And oh, does San Francisco expend effort, even if it tries to play it down with that faux Bay Area cool.)

We’re relieved to find parking just off the freeway—too easy, as we’ll eventually learn—and meet my cousin at his place in Hayes Valley, in the center of the city just north of Market Street. He knows how to host an urban planner, and shares a long stream of details on the streets and neighborhoods we pass. He leads us on a walking tour up a hill toward dinner at a fantastic Mexican restaurant, and we stop by a couple of bars to wrap up our evening, one with an incredible variety of local beer, and one that’s an excellent little dive. It’s a solid introduction, and we have much to explore over our two full days along the bay.

Day Four: Shattered Glass

After three straight days of ten hours on the road, we finally had a day to settle back and enjoy a city. My cousin is our guide, and our tour of San Francisco begins with Twin Peaks and Grand View Park, which together offer commanding views of the entire city. Twin Peaks has the more dramatic approach, and its upper reaches have been covered over by a pink triangle (the symbol used by the Nazis to mark gay Jews, now reclaimed) for Pride weekend. Below it, The Castro is decked out for the festivities, and people are pouring in for the festival. Grand View, meanwhile, is more subtle: the neighborhood around it features staid single-family homes, and its approach involves narrow streets turned staircases covered in intricate tiles that blend into murals from the bottom. Between the two, we have a complete panorama of San Francisco.

We continue a drive across the city and pass through Golden Gate Park, a sea of greenery that descends from the center of the city down to the ocean. It’s bigger than Central Park, though its water features are on the low side due to the drought, and there’s no shortage of congestion here, either. We head for the beach, which has a magical discovery for us: CorgiCon 2016, a festival for the wonderfully cute dogs. They all prance about the beach, burrow in the sand, and befriend one another. Some are in costume (flags, t-shirts), and one wears a GoPro. This is San Francisco, after all. They join their human handlers in beach bliss, and some of the more daring ones sprint through the surf, but most everyone keeps to the beach.

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Next, we head a short ways up to Land’s End, the point that which the ocean meets the Golden Gate, the strait feeding into the bay. The scrub-covered slopes with their groves of cypresses evoke the Mediterranean, and breakers crash in on the rocks in aqua hues. The bridge stands proud across the strait, and trails meander along the cliff. We stop in at the Sutro Baths to admire these old ruins, and wrap around the park with steady views of the ocean and the bridge beyond. We complete the city tour with a drive through some of its more distinctive ethnic neighborhoods, and return to Hayes Valley to regroup before dinner.

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Everything gets thrown for a loop when we hike up the street toward a pre-dinner drink, and I notice that the back passenger side window of my friend’s car is wide open. It’s been smashed, and glass is strewn across the street and the back seat. We’d brought in most of our valuables, thankfully, and insurance should hopefully cover the window. Still, there are substantial losses: my tent, our sleeping bags and pillows, some my friend’s clothes, my Duluth East cap, a Georgetown sweatshirt, my camera battery charger, the beer I’d brought as gifts for hosts, and a bunch of audiobooks from the Minneapolis Public Library. Thankfully, the library will forgive our costs with a police report, and most of the camping gear was hand-me-downs. (Though the tent, the sweatshirt, and the East cap did have some real sentimental value.) We’d put the more valuable stuff in the trunk, but there was enough scattered objects of intrigue such as clothes and food across the back seat to make the car an inviting target.

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In a way, I’m lucky: I’m 26, and this is the first time I’ve been a victim of any sort of crime beyond the theft of a pencil. I try to be vigilant, but I also took car safety for granted in decent neighborhoods of major American cities. No more, apparently. For the rest of my stay, I find myself inspecting the tent camps of San Francisco’s homeless—of which there are many—in wishful hope for a glimpse purple and white Eureka tent. This city lacks the no-go zones of a Chicago or even Oakland across the bay, but it has an underbelly that looms on many corners. We rush the car into a repair place before it closes.

Dinner plans are further disrupted by a Pride week parade we were unaware of, which blocks our access to the pizza we’d hoped to have. (We later learn this is the lesbian parade, which apparently is its own show in addition to the better-known gay parade on Sunday.) A giant procession makes its way down from Dolores Park, and we have to jump through the crowd to negotiate our way to the other side of the street before walking parallel to a relentless drumline. Rainbow flags are everywhere, people lean out of second floor windows (some wearing nothing but duct tape covering teats), and others shower everyone in confetti. The placards are a mix of raunchy comments, expressions of solidarity for Orlando after the recent massacre, and broader leftist slogans. San Francisco, uninhibited and on full display.

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We grab burritos at a taquería on a corner and take our dinner back to Dolores Park, which teems with sunbathing revelers. Booze and pot abound, though somehow no one has a bottle opener, leaving us struggling to gain access to Coke bottles. The park, to my intrigue, earns its name from Miguel Hidalgo, the father of Mexican independence, whose statue lords over the hill; at its base sits a replica of the bell he rang to signal the start of the revolt in Dolores Hidalgo in 1810. Here, we meet an old Georgetown roommate of mine, and he joins the party as we meander over to another friend’s place for some beer tasting.

It’s been a night among the demographic emblematic of the Bay Area, late twenty-somethings with jobs in tech or research or some other start-up with boundless knowledge of food and beer. They’re all superb arbiters of taste, though also self-aware enough to know the complexity of their life here, and of the looming challenges on the horizon, as family obligations begin to arise. From this perspective, Silicon Valley seems less like some magical zone of invention and more like another place where people are trying to get ahead and get by. We’re all in the same boat, and for all of the Bay Area’s bells and whistles, they all seem fairly tame now. The tech culture’s facade comes down: everyone here displays an intimate knowledge of apps, and equal measures of frustration with how poorly they all function. The evening ends with a Nob Hill rooftop view of much of the city, including both the Bay and Golden Gate bridges and the Transamerica Pyramid. Fading, we retreat to bed afterward.

Day Five: Divine Wine

With the city swamped for the Pride parade on Sunday, two cousins and I escape to wine country north of the city. This is the heart of American viticulture, and a necessary journey for a wine lover. We take our time in starting out, and then head north through Napa, laughing at the traffic jams coming into the city as we cruise out. There’s no shortage of opulence along Napa Valley, as the wineries have all built their little villas and luxurious estates amid the grapevines, and display questionable command of Italian as they adopt or make up names to convey their prestige. Some are familiar names, while others look to break in, and all look to ride the cachet of the Napa name to greater recognition. Seeking some more exquisite experiences, we drive on past most of them.

The first stop is also the most absurd: Castello di Amorosa, a legitimate castle perched just above the north end of Napa Valley. The stonework is astonishing, and in among the turrets and battlements are a chapel, a great hall, a drawbridge, and some elaborate loggias. (A few extra dollars admit one to the torture chamber, among other special rooms.) The wine and service here are not especially remarkable, and it brings in crowds in a way that our later destinations don’t, but it’s still a winy wonderland. We’ve created a complete spectacle.

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Our next stop is the polar opposite experience. Locals, a wine cooperative in the miniature downtown of Geyserville, has no pretentions of an elaborate setting. It just delivers far better wine for no tasting fee, and reliably lures its visitors to purchase their favorites. Here, it’s easy to savor the different options and make informed comparisons, and make some effort to expand a mediocre vocabulary to describe the flavors we imbibe.

After a lunch stop in Healdsburg, we head into Sonoma, where we make two stops: first at Mazzocco, which specializes in Zinfandels, and then at Ridge, one of Sonoma’s gems. It’s a baking hot day in wine country, with temperatures in excess of 95 degrees, but we can linger inside while sipping at our glasses and still enjoy views of the vineyards marching out beyond us. I can’t resist a purchase from Ridge, though a looming trip through Canadian customs keeps me from going too crazy with the credit card.

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Now that we’ve had our fill of wine, we head back to Healdsburg, where a well-manicured central square makes the area appear even ritzier. We stop by its brewery, Bear Republic, best known for its Racer 5 IPA, though I elect for a delectable sour instead. As if we haven’t sampled enough satisfying beverages, we then head down the 101 to Santa Rosa, where we visit one of my cousin’s favorite breweries, Russian River. Their variety is so great and their ability to deliver on all of them so impressive that it would be a waste just to get a couple of beers, so we share a complete sampler with 18 different beers, from standard lagers to classic West Coast IPAs to Belgians to sours. With the help of some pizza, I’m feeling decidedly fat by the end of the tasting, but I manage to finish it all off.

The sun sinks toward the horizon as we head back south through Marin County. It’s down below the horizon by the time we reach the Golden Gate, but there’s still enough of a glow to make a detour up the coastal road worthwhile. I’m treated to panoramas over the Golden Gate Bridge, the city, and the ocean beyond. The wind howls and the fog begins to roll in; it’s a solid 40 degrees colder here than it was back up in Sonoma. Still, it’s worth taking a moment to drink it all in, one last sip at the vessel of Bay Area beauty before a final drive over San Francisco’s hills down into Hayes Valley. It’s been a rich weekend that has sapped my wallet in more ways than one, and I’m sure to return before long. For now, though, it’s time to hit the road again.

(Part III)

Silicon Valley and Technological Utopia

28 May

Silicon Valley troubles me, and I don’t think I’d survive very long in Palo Alto. This isn’t anything personal, really; I know plenty of lovely people who have gone out there to seek their fortunes, and wish them nothing but the best. It just isn’t me. I have never owned an Apple product, and I do not wear blue jeans (though this is more for practical reasons than some great boycott or fashion statement). I am a fan of Evgeny Morozov, who has made a living out of writing books with such fantastic titles as The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom and To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism. I prefer print journalism to online content, and real books to e-readers, weight and bulkiness be damned. My musical tastes are fairly mainstream, and though I do a lot of writing, I do not see much glory in the supposed genius of individual creation or some “entrepreneurial spirit;” rather, I think that things are far more complicated than that, and that the works of most any person stand on the shoulders of countless forerunners.

That said, I am not a Luddite. I spend too much time on this laptop every day, and though I do not use my smartphone heavily, I happily embraced mine when I first got it. I was quick to jump into the world of internet message boards as a teenager, and have actually built some real connections through that, along with a side career of hockey coverage. I enjoyed the early community-building of Facebook, though I use mine less and less as the site has grown more and more commercialized. While I do not have a Twitter and am driven nuts when “social media analysts” appear on the news to read famous people’s tweets, as if tweeting were anything other than writing or making a very short statement via any other method of human communication, I have been known to go spying through other people’s Twitter feeds, and before long I may have an account (primarily for hockey purposes, though one never knows). Being a teenage boy in the era of the internet opened me up to other, umm, “wonders” unavailable to previous generations. I am grateful to live in an age with the technology that we do have, and would not want to go back to some earlier time of alleged simplicity.

What really bothers me about Silicon Valley is not precisely the downside of its various breakthroughs (though they are real), nor anything explicitly superficial (though I do think the superficial is often deeper than we think it is). It is, instead, the hubris of a culture that believes technology can save everything. George Packer has an excellent exploration of Silicon Valley in last week’s New Yorker, though it is, sadly, behind their paywall (as most everything I try to link to on that site seems to be). Taking pride in a quality product is one thing; believing that one’s product somehow offers the answer to the world’s ills is quite another. There’s the pretension of claiming one’s industry will drive the future of the nation’s economy while simultaneously employing only a handful of highly skilled and educated workers. The political ethos of the Valley, to the extent that it exists, involves a naïve, cheery optimism that leads its champions to take pride in their own successes while remaining completely unable to understand those who did not make it to the top. It is libertarian in nature, but not in an aggressive, Ayn Rand-ish way. It does recognize, at least on some level, the value of human connections, given its emphasis on social networks. But it is a very impoverished view, presuming that these networks can somehow weave together into a social fabric that can replace the institutions that form the building blocks of the United States as we know it. To see how this dream looks in practice, look no further than Palo Alto and San Francisco (the free preview of the Packer piece does a good job of painting this picture). While this gentrification and growing inequality is not at all unique to the Bay Area, it certainly belies any supposed exceptionalism along the San Andreas Fault. Instead, it is a microcosm of the 21st Century United States: glistening in wealth, but atomized; socially liberal, but only skin-deep in its diversity; caught up in this myth that further liberation will somehow solve all of our problems.

I’m painting with a broad brush, of course, and perhaps I’m picking on Silicon Valley. It probably isn’t hard to find similar attitudes in other elite ghettoes, from New York investment banks to Washington bureaucracies to the Boston academia. But, at the very least, many of these people seem cynically aware of their positions, and public opinion of these institutions reflects that accordingly. Silicon Valley, on the other hand, remains a fairy-tale land of opportunity and possibility, a realm of happy groupthink unaware of the dark side of their worldview. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, the old cliché goes, and once again, the old cliché proves true. The most dangerous people tend to be the ones who cannot conceive of the possibility that they might be wrong. I can only hope that Silicon Valley is more mature than Packer suggests, or that it will mature–or, if necessary, be exposed for what it is–before long.