San Francisco: Slight Return

My relationship with San Francisco is a complicated one. As a tech person coming of age in the 90s, the Bay Area for me is indelibly linked to things like Sneakers, Hackers, jwz, and The Invisibles. Rollerblading post-Riot Grrrl girls in The Mission. VX gas out on Alcatraz. Perl code blazing past a terminal at 100 characters a second, inventing the future.

Ragged Robin

Then we found ourselves in that future. This was widely considered a mistake.

Of course, there’s an argument that the squalor that you’re greeted with in the city is more honest than in other cities. That instead of things being hidden, you’re confronted head-on with what capitalism does to people and your complicity in coming to the place for a tech conference whilst also working for a search company1 that has its central offices in San Francisco. You helped to build this. The central search engine core can be found everywhere from Uber to Palantir.

Obviously, as a terrible centrist-liberal2, I have thoughts. Given that the occupancy rate of the downtown office space is apparently around 20%, let’s start converting them into housing and offering people places there. Then there’s the old standby of just giving people money which, despite what people will tell you, is actually really fucking effective, or if people do want to remain in camps, let’s at least make them sanitary, providing showers, toilet facilities, and access to medical care. But oh, the cost, the cost! If a company can afford to build something like Salesforce Tower, then it can have a bunch of money extracted from it via tax purposes for the greater good. And come on, doing that to XCorp would just make everybody’s day.

So, yes, every time I ride into the centre of the city on BART, I have thoughts, let’s just put it that way.

(while we’re here, let’s also point out that taking BART from SFO airport is the best way to enter the city, and anybody who suggests otherwise has had their brains affected by leaded petrol poisoning. As the trains wind in and out of tunnels on the approach to the centre, you get to see the hills of San Francisco and all the houses leading off into the horizon, schools and gardens, actual people going about their lives just outside the window. As opposed to the gridlock you see on the interstate)

Still, though, the first night on this trip? It gave me most of my imagined SF. A perfect day, weather-wise; wisps of clouds in the sky, sun out, but you can still wear a light jacket. Market Street is quiet, but not dead, and then onto The Mission, which is full of life, genderfluid and all shapes and sizes, ages and colours. Unsettling driverless cars drive past the window of the bar you’re drinking in, and it feels like The Future That Was Promised.

Two days later, you’re sitting in a mall bathroom staying quiet while a security guard physically removes the occupant of the stall next to you for attempting to shoot up. And then you go back to the opulence of the tech conference that has so much money it drafts in LL Cool J for nightly entertainment.

As for the conference itself, eh. I picked up about two new things, but in general it just felt like an extended advert for a search company3. Which is I guess to be expected, but I know that things like WWDC can get really deep into the technical weeds (I watched videos of conference talks back in the day!), so I was disappointed that there wasn’t a lot of that here. But maybe that isn’t the main type of audience for Google Cloud Next.

Anyway, for me the conference was something of a means to an end; what I was really going for was the chance to see a bunch of co-workers that I haven’t seen in person since February 2020. And that was great! Plenty of drinking, talking, laughing at my total inability to draw a cup of coffee, and more besides. I’ve been working from home for over seven years now and do not miss the office one little bit, but meeting up a few times a year has been something I’ve missed a lot.

Of course, I had plane issues both going out there and coming back; it really does feel like air travel is in a terrible state at the moment, especially if you have a connecting flight. I was quite glad previously about the new direct CVG→LHR flight, but after my travels these part few months, I think it’s going to make next March so much less stressful…

UPDATE: Just to be clear though, I didn’t see anything in San Francisco that suggested the ‘doomloop’ that the worst people are saying about the city. I walked through downtown, the Mission, the Tenderloin at various times of day and night, feeling no less safe than on any previous visit to the area.

  1. No, not that one. ↩︎

  2. Of course, my definition of centrist-liberal includes my voting history of casting support for Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, so your mileage may vary. But compared to some of my friends, I’m basically middle of the road, honest. ↩︎

  3. Yes, that one. ↩︎