I just got back from a long trip to San Francisco. I biked for 19 days, and then finally arrived in San Francisco. I spent the entire time walking around the city on foot. Taking your broken running shoes and feeling the cracks in the sidewalk as you ascend massive hills surrounded by beautiful architecture is a unique experience. San Francisco’s architecture, particularly the homes are like something I’ve never seen; I’ve never been to a city where all the houses were so small, and the downtown core contained so few skyscrapers, or massive apartments/condos. Yet, there is a double edged sword in San Francisco, one that I think a lot of cities are experiencing, although extremely uniquely in San Francisco as techno-capitalists descend on the city in search of inspiration.
A great article ran in New York Times last year called ” A Line is Drawn in The Desert“, which discusses Silicon Valley’s obsession with awe, but only if they can still keep the comforts of their own home. I would extend this further: in search of inspiration, of coolness, being hip, and searching for wonder, the techno-elite are in fact destroying the things that they want to be inspired by. In San Francisco it’s led to the gentrification of the city. A town once known for its working class artists, and distinct neighbourhoods is now a place few can afford to live. I do not mean to romanticize poverty, or the struggles of the working class. In fact that’s the opposite point.
Cue in famous sociologist (well maybe if you study sociology!) Walter Benjamin’s concept of the flaneur. The flaneur is a stroller, a romantic, removed, detached, and can move through the city fairly undetected. When I first heard about this concept I thought it was awesome, until someone pointed out to me that there are few people in the world who are not white, and male who can access a space in this way, in fact, I would take it further and say no one can act fully in this manner. Everyone leaves ripples, and when the artist class, or the even richer techno-flanerie class moves through a neighbourhood to live among the people like a 19th century anthropologist, the only thing that can come from that is the destruction of the lifestyle. The very thing we romanticize is the thing we end up abolishing simultaneously. Unlike the artists who so romanticize the lifestyle and the movement though, techno-flanerie is its own beast. It attempts to watch the world, while actively rejecting it.
Yet, there are few spaces like the tech industry that have been so engaged with an intentionally destructive flanerie. Take Burning Man. While I have never been to Burning Man, I have a pretty good grasp on what the concepts of self-sufficiency, and gift economy include. Living in your own massive tent with wait staff is not being engaged, it’s not giving up part of yourself and being involved. It’s more like looking at the tiny humans from above, and then stealing the ideas you like from them. It’s why Silicon Valley can consume LSD looking for inspiration and not have to worry about the police locking them up for drug possession. If everyone could be a Techno-flaneur it might be ok, but sadly it couldn’t work that way. To be inspired by someone else’s life, the other person must always be the object of analysis.
Yet, I still walked down the streets and thought they were beautiful. In fact, the concept for this article came while I was walking around San Francisco. An irony hardly lost on me.