Also posted here.
News of the discovery of gold draws hordes of people from around the world to San Francisco, California. The aspiring fortune-hunters are mostly men (and a few intrepid women). They settle close to the goldfields, displacing local residents.
The year is 2018. The goldfields are the Financial District and Soma, the two tech-dominated enclaves in the city.
“Click clack, click clack,” goes the keyboard of my company-issued rose-gold Macbook Pro. I’m at my summer internship at a tech company, writing code while lounging on a patio in our high-rise office building. We can see through the windows of the investment bank next door.
“Why work hard for money when you can work hard for impact?” a co-intern asks. I take a bite from a company-provided power bar and continue coding on my project to upgrade payment plans.
When I take the elevator down, the company’s mission statement surrounds me for 10 seconds. The words “We make work easier” cover posters plastered all around the elevator. The door opens into the company cafe. I pick up a large matcha latte from the in-house barista, who has decorated the latte’s foam with a heart.
The company encourages interns to schedule “coffee chats” with employees, and I usually schedule two 30-minute chats a day. I love to ask employees why they joined the company. “Erin,” a long-time engineer at the company, says, “This team cares about adding real value to the lives of people. Other companies like Facebook make money off ads and want to waste people’s time. We give everyday folks more time.” I don’t want to disappoint Erin, so I don’t tell her that I use the extra time the company product gives me to browse through joke channels.
Erin wastes no time in finishing our chat, and I walk over to meet “May” from Marketing. She looks up from her computer, and I wonder if she’s been posting customer success stories with smiley emojis on the company’s announcements channel again.
“Michelle, you don’t know how important this company is,” May says. She takes a sip from her kombucha, which the company has on tap. “Imagine the people in non-profit jobs. They’re going to do so much good when they’re more productive.”
I want to ask May if she had considered working at a non-profit, but she is distracted by a notification on her Apple Watch and has to leave. I wonder if she received a reminder to go to her in-house massage therapy appointment or a midday company-sponsored spin class.
At lunchtime, employees put on their sunglasses before trekking down the block for food. I feel the camaraderie when, dressed in Patagonia jackets with the company logo, we skip together over the urine on the sidewalk outside our office. When we walk past people in sleeping bags, we quicken our pace, evading eye contact while seamlessly continuing our conversation about high rent prices in San Francisco.
Twice every week after work, I head to a “dinner party,” which is tech-speak for a networking event with neither party nor dinner. I usually go with “Debra,” a friend I met through tech Twitter. One Wednesday night, we order an Uber from the Financial District to drive us to her friend’s dinner party. Along the 10-minute journey, high-rise office buildings give way to taquerias, murals and cathedrals. A crowd of white men in Patagonia vests transforms into a crowd of Mexican men in streetwear (and some white men in Patagonia vests). We are in the Mission District, a Latino neighborhood that my tech friends love to live in “for the culture.” We get out at a street corner. We see a van stuffed with household appliances and a man in the driver’s seat urinating into a water bottle. We dash for the host’s apartment and meet a bouncer, who directs us upstairs. It is a spacious, white loft apartment, straight out of an IKEA catalog.
A bespectacled 30-year-old man projects his voice from the living room stairs. “Not everyone can afford to invest money.” He looks like a jaded software engineer bored with working merely for his (high) salary. He wants a fun side project. The room of 40 applauds.
The next man in line takes over. He is dressed in a button-down business shirt. “I’ve gotten interested in global blindness lately. Vision is just so fascinating!” He then moves his finger from left to right, trying to showcase a new thing he learned about eye movement. I imagine him hypnotizing his employees in his office, just for kicks.
“James”, the host, takes the stage. “Thank you for the speeches. Go forth and mingle!”
Debra tells me that he used to run the Thiel fellowship, a fellowship that gives undergraduates $100,000 to drop out of school and start a company. She tells me that he now runs 1517, a venture fund he set up to invest in these young founders. Later, I look at his website, which claims that “the path geared towards higher education is not for all.” The website also quotes Nietzsche: “A real education is a liberation.”
The website also explains the origin of the name “1517”: “On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to a church door in Wittenberg to protest the sale of indulgences. These were pieces of paper the establishment church sold at great cost, telling people it would save their souls. The church made a fortune doing it. Likewise, universities today are selling a piece of paper at great cost and telling people that buying it is the only way they can save their souls.”
Debra whisks me away to introduce me to one of James’ beneficiaries. A pimply teenager in an MIT hoodie tells me that he dropped out because school is “useless and too expensive.” “Climate change is such a big problem,” he adds. He pauses for our nods. “It’s a billion-dollar industry.” I wonder if he wants me to invest or to join his engineering team. He reaches into his jean pocket for his phone. “This app will solve the whole problem.”
I feel a tap on my shoulder. It is “Ralph,” an intern I had met while waiting in line for free brunch at a career event that morning. “San Francisco is such a small world!” he exclaims. Indeed, the two tech enclaves and gentrified parts of historical neighborhoods in San Francisco are our whole world. He proceeds to give me his opinion on self-driving cars and how “the average man on the street” will never accept “the good we do for him.”
Only 30 minutes have passed, and Debra and I are bored. We clutch our handbags and run past the van with the homeless man to get into our Uber. On the drive back, I notice that the two main streets running through downtown San Francisco are Mission Street and Market Street. They run parallel to each other; they never intersect.