“In Los Angeles all the loose objects in the country were collected, as if America had been tilted and everything that wasn’t tightly screwed down had slid into Southern California.” -Saul Bellow
“California is a queer place — in a way, it has turned its back on the world, and looks into the void Pacific. It is absolutely selfish, very empty, but not false, and at least, not full of false effort.” -D.H Lawrence
“How Silicon Valley’s billionaires are trying to defy death” -Headline, This Week
What is it about California where modernity meets the Pacific Ocean? What did Nathaniel West, the author of The Day of the Locust, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Robert Towne who wrote the script for Chinatown know?
As a catastrophic chronic drought threatens to upend the state and spill all of its inhabitants back East, as periodic earthquakes rumble around, as late Fall fires burn orange bright, as the sun rises and shines nearly every day post the morning fog / marine layer, as the cold wind from the ocean whips the shorts-wearing denizens of San Francisco, so the souls of Californians conform to the multi-dimensional social, political and environmental manifold that holds them in a smothering embrace.
California regurgitates and spits up rancid dreams like a skid row alcoholic. But it also lifts scraggly-bearded code pounders up to the financial stratosphere (if not beyond). A fancy taxi service is valued at over $40 billion. Apple, Google, Facebook and Twitter rule almost 2 billion of the world’s online population. Tower cranes line the San Francisco skyline building aeries for the winners. Yet, on the street, more and more strung-out broken people walk through the city. During the first great wave of the Internet, many African Americans were driven out of their historic neighborhoods by the rising cost of living there. Rents now start at $2,800 / month. Soon, the entire city will be engulfed in a fathomless ocean of money. The old, the working class and even the traditional middle class are slowly being driven out. The $40-$100+ million condominium is now becoming a reality. New businesses catering to the ultra-successful are appearing daily.
Creating life-like augmented reality, machine-embodied super-intelligence, powerful general purpose robots and bodies that can thrive for 150 years are now in the gunsites, not to mention space exploration, and new sources of efficient energy.
America’s winners are now found in technology, finance and government. Everyone else can move to less salubrious settings.
California is the epicenter of technological transformation. Human beings will just have to adjust to the new worlds that are being synthesized here. Booth Tarkington’s Magnificent Ambersons, who fell from grace resisting the automobile, would last less than a few microseconds today. “That was so 15 minutes ago,” used to be a joke. Today, it’s a reality. The environment churns and churns and races forward running over anyone who might be stuck in the road. A dedicated Luddite might even create their own app to spread the message about the evils of apps.
When I arrived for the first time in the Bay Area in the early summer of 1990 after spending nearly seventeen years in the Boston area, my first response was the shock that every day was a carbon copy of the previous day: morning cloudiness followed by brilliant sunshine in a cloudless sky. A 4.8 temblor did shake me the first week I was here. I honestly thought I was the butt of some kind of cosmic one-liner. I showed up at Apple and found a rabbit (“Bowser”) running around the office. People wore t-shirts and shorts. I continued to wear blue oxfords and khakis, however.
One of the more brilliant young people in my group, who went on from Apple to sell his start-up company to Microsoft for $64 million died of a dissecting aorta in 2004. He was an exercise fanatic as was David Goldberg, the husband of Facebook’s Sheryl “Lean In” Sandberg who died a few days ago, also in the throes of vigorous exercise. One of the smartest and successful of my old group committed suicide last year. He had conquered every technology height and then some. But, the black dog finally overcame even his strong will.
I lived in a house in a bucolic suburb of Apple. When I would drive down the winding road to El Camino Real, I would see muscular young women, pumping their mountain bikes in the other direction. Was this a concomitant to the many nail salons that lined the main thoroughfare I wondered.
I never missed the nasty people of Boston and their tribal animosities generally expressed in their rambunctiously obnoxious driving habits. But, I found a strange vacuum in California. The ever present sun seemed to act as a social toxin; it drove away the desire to make good friends.
As I come to the end of my third and last tour of duty in the Bay Area, I’ve observed that one of the most popular pastimes is the “California disconnect.” It’s a variation of the Hollywood question “What can you do for me?” that seems to hang over every social interaction. Acquaintances are discarded like old newspapers. One of my friends who has lived for decades in San Francisco and is planning to leave the Bay Area for the South said something quite revealing to me: “San Francisco is a cold, cold city.” It is also a singularly un-erotic city in the sense that men and women do not flirt with each other. And public displays of affection are almost non-existent. It values food over friends. Simply put, it is a dynamic economic opportunity zone (like Shanghai, New York, London and Moscow) and a profound anti-community.