HACKER HOS­TELS

GQ (Australia) - - IN­SIDE - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY STEPHANIE PAKRUL

From where Sil­i­con Val­ley’s new breed are dis­rupt­ing the tech world.

the kitchen at 20Mis­sion, San Fran­cisco’s most fa­mous hacker hos­tel, two young tech work­ers are pre­par­ing lunch. Shan­nin is lay­ing salted broc­coli and sprouts on a roast­ing tray while his friend Nel­son, bleary with bed-fug, flls the ket­tle. “I’m un­em­ployed,” says Nel­son. “Look­ing for a new job.” The rent at 20Mis­sion comes in at be­tween $2200 and $2800 a month, which gets you lit­tle more than a mod­est room and a sec­ondary skunk high from the pot­heads in the com­mu­nal lounge. Around here, that’s con­sid­ered cheap. San Fran­cisco has the high­est rents in Amer­ica – a one-bed­room apart­ment costs, on av­er­age, more than $3690 a month – 23 per cent more than in New York. Real es­tate’s gone crazy be­cause the world’s fnest tech brains have all herded to these streets to fll am­bi­tions and wal­lets. So what chance has Nel­son got? He’s an An­droid en­gi­neer. He’s 23, self-taught, with a hand­ful of ob­scure, low-sell­ing apps in Google Play’s store and some ex­pe­ri­ence at a start-up called Bento – an alerts stream sim­i­lar to the failed Google Now. Who needs an­other An­droid en­gi­neer in San Fran? This city, and Sil­i­con Val­ley to its south, is crawl­ing with Nel­sons. And that’s why Nel­son will, it’s fair to pre­sume, go crawl­ing back to his home city of Chicago by the time the next rent cheque’s due. “I’m sorry to hear you’ve lost your job,” I tell him. “That must be hard.” “Yeah,” he sighs, lean­ing against the kitchen counter, Moto 360 chunky on his nar­row wrist, his hair a sleepy mess. He stares at his feet. “Right now, I’m try­ing to de­cide if I want to work for Square or Airbnb.” “What, you have job of­fers al­ready?” “Oh, I’ve had of­fers since be­fore Bento even shut down.” He scratches the back of his head. “I’ll prob­a­bly be de­cid­ing to­mor­row. Right now, I’m lean­ing to­wards Square.” He glances at the ket­tle while Shan­nin slides his veg­eta­bles into the oven and Diana, the so-called ‘House Mom’, ar­rives with the morn­ing’s mail. Nel­son opens a white en­ve­lope and pulls out a card. It’s from Airbnb. “Oh, man,” he says. “See? They’re try­ing to con­vince me.” The card has been per­son­ally signed by per­haps a dozen peo­ple: ‘Con­grats on the of­fer, Nel­son!’ I’m con­fused by this. “But you’ve not even ac­cepted it yet,” I say. “I know,” he says. “So who’s signed it?” “Peo­ple I don’t know,” he ex­plains. “These com­pa­nies are pushy.” “That’s an un­der­state­ment,” says Shan­nin. “They’re pushy in many dif­fer­ent ways. You get ex­plod­ing of­fers that run out in ‘x’ num­ber of days and bull­shit like that.” “I liked what Square did more,” says Nel­son. “They had an en­gi­neer I fol­lowed on [coder web­site] Github send me an email. I was like, ‘Oh my god, Jesse Wil­son emailed me!’” He looks down at his card again. There’s a slip of pa­per tucked into the en­ve­lope. It’s a voucher. “Oh dude,” he says. “They sent $100 of Airbnb travel credit. This is ridicu­lous.” Shan­nin shakes his head, smirk­ing. “That’s lame.” The story you expect to write, in a place like this, is a vari­a­tion on a theme that’s been told for hun­dreds of years: they come from far and wide, hav­ing heard tales of streets be­ing paved with gold but, alas, dis­ap­point­ment and fail­ure, so on and so forth. But that isn’t the true story of the Sil­i­con City or its fa­mous Val­ley. The spoils of this gold rush are real. This, af­ter all, is a re­gion pop­u­lated by the com­pa­nies that are busy ‘dis­rupt­ing’, squeez­ing all the money out of the mu­sic busi­ness, the book busi­ness, the news­pa­per busi­ness, the ad­ver­tis­ing busi­ness, the re­tail busi­ness, the ho­tel busi­ness, the taxi busi­ness and God knows how many more busi­nesses. All that money’s got to end up some­where. $100 of it just al­most lit­er­ally fell into Nel­son’s hand. I’m told that an en­gi­neer like him, “a cou­ple of years out of col­lege”, could expect to earn up to $180,000, cod­ing for an es­tab­lished com­pany. This is why there’s such a de­mand for spe­cial­ist ac­com­mo­da­tions like 20Mis­sion: SROS, or ‘sin­gle room oc­cu­pan­cies’ – con­verted ho­tels that used to be known as fear­some places full of itin­er­ant work­ers who would drift from job to job. They’re now known as cool places full of itin­er­ant work­ers who drift from job to job, a life­style that we’ve learnt to call the ‘gig econ­omy’ in the 21st cen­tury. We’re all mini-en­trepreneurs, now, bounc­ing from job to job, whether it be driv­ing

for Uber or cod­ing for Google. “Part of this comes from the fact we’ve really moved away from com­pa­nies tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for train­ing and keep­ing em­ploy­ees for years and years,” says Pro­fes­sor Alice Mar­wick, au­thor of Sta­tus Up­date, an an­thro­po­log­i­cal study of Sil­i­con Val­ley cul­ture. “We re­ward this al­most con­stant stream of free­lancers, where you’re only at a com­pany for a year or two, and you’re re­spon­si­ble for keep­ing your skillset up to date and if you don’t do that, and can’t get a job, it’s your fault. Peo­ple have really bought into this idea.” In­deed, one of these peo­ple is Shan­nin. “Peo­ple’s work lives are very fluid, es­pe­cially with soft­ware engi­neers in this area,” he tells me. “I don’t know a sin­gle per­son who’s like, ‘I’ll just get a job at Google, I see my­self there for 15 years.’ It’s like, ‘I see my­self here for a year or two and we’ll see what hap­pens.’” It’s im­pos­si­ble to say how many hacker hos­tels there are in the Bay Area, but the local and tech press are greedy for sto­ries of scan­dal and ec­cen­tric­ity in as many as can be dug up. The Negev, where Nel­son and Shan­nin stayed be­fore they se­cured a room at 20Mis­sion, has been re­ported in The San Fran­cisco Ex­am­iner for charg­ing $1750 a month for a spot on a bunk bed, for over­crowd­ing (60 peo­ple in a space meant for 22), for cock­roaches, for mice and for a “con­sis­tent odour of gas from a bro­ken wa­ter heater”. (Negev’s co-founder, 26-year-old Danny Haber, had pre­vi­ously been in trou­ble for run­ning an il­le­gal on­line al­co­hol de­liv­ery ser­vice at his univer­sity.) Chez JJ, in the Cas­tro, was closed af­ter re­peated com­plaints from a neigh­bour, a 46-year-old govern­ment worker, who felt suf­f­ciently tor­mented by his build­ing’s younger oc­cu­pants that he re­sorted to play­ing a chil­dren’s song at full vol­ume, set­ting it to re­peat, then leav­ing the house for hours at a time. The Startup Cas­tle, a tu­dor-style man­sion near Stan­ford Univer­sity’s cam­pus, be­came the sub­ject of on­line mock­ery when its en­try re­quire­ments were re­vealed. Among other things, ap­pli­cants were re­quired to ex­er­cise ‘at least 15 hours in a nor­mal week’, have a ‘top class de­gree’ and en­joy ‘ pet­ting dogs’. Deal­break­ers (their word) in­cluded hav­ing more than one tat­too, driv­ing a car that was “given to you by your par­ents”, mak­ing more than three posts a day on so­cial me­dia and own­ing an ex­pen­sive hand­bag. The res­i­dents of 20Mis­sion ad­mit that their par­ties, which can at­tract 800 guests, in­clud­ing fre-jug­glers, aren’t ap­pre­ci­ated by their neigh­bours. When Diana gives me a guided tour, she con­fesses there’ve also been com­plaints of su­per­nat­u­ral dis­tur­bances. “There’s a hooker ghost,” she says. “It’s a woman who got mur­dered here.” “And what does the ghost do?” I ask. “How does it man­i­fest it­self?” She looks at me as if I’m stupid. “Well she’s a hooker, so she rapes you.” I fol­low Shan­nin down the cor­ri­dor to his room. 20Mis­sion is on the build­ing’s frst floor, above re­tail spa­ces, which are mostly empty. You en­ter via an un­marked door be­hind a metal grille, the only clue to the es­tab­lish­ment’s na­ture an an­gry ‘Dear Techies’ flyer on a cor­ner post, ac­cus­ing them of am­biva­lence to­wards a long list of so­cial jus­tice is­sues such as ‘pros­e­cu­tions of sex work­ers’ and ‘the mur­der of trans women of colour’. The door, which un­locks via a phone app, opens to wide stairs, up which is a lobby area, with its un­col­lected Ama­zon de­liv­er­ies and its map show­ing the home­towns of for­mer res­i­dents, in­clud­ing one from Ade­laide, seven from Mel­bourne and none, oddly, from Syd­ney. 20Mis­sion is ar­ranged as a large square – its frst floor pas­sages named things like Do­ge­coin Drive and Lite­coin Lane, ref­er­ences to Bit­coin that I pre­tend to un­der­stand but don’t. The walls are painted with ’60s-style hippy mo­tifs – frac­tals and psy­che­delic heads – and cutouts of but­ter­flies and snowflakes. The cor­ri­dors have 41 heav­ily-stick­ered (‘I heart robots’; ‘Die Techie Scum’) bed­room doors com­ing off them and cen­tre on a gravel court­yard. They kept chick­ens on it, for a while, but the city council found out and forced them to pay for ret­ro­spec­tive ar­chi­tec­tural plans for the coop. The whole project ended up cost­ing $14,000. The chick­ens pro­duced one egg. Shan­nin leads me into his room, which is as smart and or­derly as he is – books fled neatly, draw­ers par­ti­tioned into lit­tle sec­tions, a $4000 car­bon frame road-bike hang­ing, spot­less, on the wall. It’s the size of a ho­tel room for one, which is what it was when the build­ing was con­structed, and be­neath the smart black paint you can still see glow-in-the-dark stars, stuck on by some long-gone oc­cu­pant per­haps in need of es­capism and some per­spec­tive in the mo­ments be­fore sleep. Shan­nin is as beau­ti­ful as a choir­boy and thin as a pen. He of­fers me a slice of the sour­dough he baked this morn­ing. It’s wrapped in a lit­tle white sheet. It’s de­li­cious. He tells me he moved to San Fran­cisco two years ago when he was 22, and worked as a soft­ware en­gi­neer for a cou­ple of start-ups, but he’s since de­cided to pur­sue the ul­ti­mate dream.

He’s ven­tured out alone, into the free mar­ket wilds, and is aim­ing to found his own suc­cess­ful busi­ness, prefer­ably a “uni­corn” – the term given to star­tups (think Uber, Snapchat or Airbnb) that be­come rapidly worth more than Us$1bn. “I pre­fer to work for my­self,” he says. “Peo­ple I know said, ‘You like to bake and you like to get baked so you might as well make ed­i­bles.’” His busi­ness, now that he’s piv­oted away from cod­ing, is choco­late or­anges soused in cannabis oil. He sells them for $35. “In 2014, in California alone, there was more than [Us]$1bn in le­gal cannabis sales,” he tells me, with great se­ri­ous­ness, as if I were in a po­si­tion to reach into my wal­let and of­fer him twice that for three per cent of his busi­ness. “And it’s not even le­galised for recre­ational use yet.” The Founder. It’s an ideal of self that stalks the minds of the most am­bi­tious women and men in this, the most am­bi­tious of ter­ri­to­ries. Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Mark Zucker­berg, Larry and Sergey Google. They’re Greek gods – flawed, awe­some, in pos­ses­sion of the su­per­power most en­vied by the peo­ple of the Val­ley and its city: the abil­ity to change the world. I’m told there’s a bona fde founder liv­ing in 20Mis­sion, al­beit a denizen of one of the lower pan­theons. Al­lan Grant raised $35m for his startup (“a ca­reer mar­ket­place for the world’s knowl­edge work­ers”) and, as a re­sult, is the only res­i­dent to en­joy a pri­vate toi­let. I want to talk to him but, Diane has warned, “He’s a bit of a snow leop­ard,” and an ac­tual meet­ing is un­likely. In the mean­time, I ask Shan­nin to de­scribe his vi­sion of a true Founder. “Some­body who sees their prod­uct as their child,” he says. “When I give an orange to some­body and they get this big smile I just feel so proud.” “So it’s hav­ing a vi­sion be­yond money?” I ask. “That’s what a lot of VCS [ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists] look for,” he nods. Pro­fes­sor Mar­wick be­lieves this en­tre­pre­neur­ial ideal, which also res­onates in the wider cul­ture through avari­cious in­ter­net celebri­ties such as Kim Kar­dashian and artists like Bey­oncé, with her ‘suc­cess­ful, in­de­pen­dent busi­ness­woman’ im­age, has its roots in the ne­olib­er­al­ism that be­gan in the ’80s. The Rea­gan-thatcher doc­trine, which saw reg­u­la­tions and wel­fare cut, unions marginalised and de­monised and the mar­kets put in charge, has come to defne who we are. Mar­kets, of course, favour the self-start­ing busi­nessper­son who re­lies only on hard work and guile for their sur­vival, while shun­ning help and hand-outs. The in­fants of the Rea­gan-thatcher era are the adult celebri­ties of to­day. “We live in a time where mar­ket rhetoric, for bet­ter or for worse, has be­come al­most pop cul­tural,” she says. “There’s a sense you go af­ter cor­po­rate money, and that way you’re in­de­pen­dent and no one can tell you any­thing.” The en­tre­pre­neur­ial ideal has its home-base in San Fran­cisco and the Val­ley. Nowhere else will you hear the be­liefs of the hy­per-in­di­vid­u­al­ist, ne­olib­eral self-ex­pressed so clearly. For Shan­nin, the days in which we re­lied on big or­gan­i­sa­tions to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for us are over. “For a while, a good life was, you got a good ed­u­ca­tion at a top­tier univer­sity, then you go on to one of the big com­pa­nies, like a GM or Ford, a big in­sti­tu­tion and you work your way up that lad­der,” he says. “Then peo­ple started re­al­is­ing that’s not the only way to live. Every­body started fo­cus­ing more on in­di­vid­u­al­ism. It’s gone from work­ing for the com­pany, where you have a se­cure job and you get a car and health in­sur­ance, to fo­cus­ing on what you’re ac­tu­ally, truly pas­sion­ate about. Some­thing that you ac­tu­ally have your hands in rather than just do­ing it for some­body else and get­ting that pay cheque in re­turn.” I leave Shan­nin to start cook­ing his next batch of ed­i­bles and sit, for a while, in the com­mu­nal lounge. There are men with shiny skin smok­ing pot and play­ing Fall­out on a 60-inch tele­vi­sion, gui­tars propped up in the cor­ner and, on the wall, a pur­ple throw that de­picts a med­i­tat­ing Bud­dha. The shades are drawn, the air is smoky, time is slowed. De­spite never hav­ing been in this room be­fore, I recog­nise it in­stantly from my own twen­ties, when I smoked skunk and watched peo­ple play Plays­ta­tion for hours. I feel awk­ward. I feel old. I sit for a while, fak­ing a long, fas­ci­nated squint at the book­shelf, be­fore try­ing to start a con­ver­sa­tion with the Fall­out boys. No words ar­rive in my mouth. This is un­set­tling. There’s a hor­ri­ble pos­si­bil­ity I might be get­ting stoned from all the smoke hang­ing in the air. I smile, palely, at a woman with red hair and a tiny fringe who’s hunched over a colour­ing book, blue pen­cil in hand. She turns out to be Stephanie Pakrul, aka Steph­thegeek, whose own Wikipedia page de­scribes her as an ‘in­ter­net per­son­al­ity’. To­day, she’s con­sumed noth­ing but Soy­lent. Later, she’ll put some medic­i­nal mar­i­juana in a batch and tweet about it be­ing “the most San Fran­cisco thing ever”. Her tweet will be retweeted by the deputy tech­nol­ogy ed­i­tor of the New York Times. Steph blogs on Medium, posts on Tum­blr and makes money as a web de­vel­oper and cam girl. She is, ac­cord­ing to her profle, turned on by flat­tery, beau­ti­ful eyes and get­ting tied up and blind­folded; an ex­pert in sub­mis­sion, squirm­ing and de­bug­ging code. “I’m work­ing on a mu­seum of web de­sign tech­niques from the ’90s,” she says. “And I’m do­ing this ex­hibit of In­sta­gram photos of mine meshed up with old shots from how­ever long ago.” “And have you got a big life goal?” “Change the world, of course,” she says, brightly. She shows me her mu­seum, which is a web­site com­prised of pieces of old web­sites. “This retro web de­sign thing feels like it’s on the per­fect path right now,” she says, ex­cit­edly. “I want to be the retro web per­son.” I’d heard ru­mours that polyamory was fash­ion­able in the tech scene – monogamy per­haps be­ing yet an­other an­ti­quated no­tion ready for dis­rup­tion. Stephanie tells me that 20Mis­sion is its epi­cen­tre. The orig­i­nal hip­pies, who gathered for their ‘Sum­mer of Love’ 90 min­utes away from here on foot, be­lieved in self-ac­tu­al­i­sa­tion through drugs, cre­ativ­ity, sex and rad­i­cal authen­tic­ity:

that we could be­come the best ver­sion of our­selves, and in do­ing so re­design the hu­man or­der, by dis­rupt­ing the es­tab­lish­ment and their bour­geois rules. The peo­ple of 20Mis­sion are their di­rect de­scen­dants, tough­ened by ne­olib­er­al­ism and weaponised by tech. What con­nects the group sex and the start-up mind­set is a de­vout be­lief that putting self above all al­ways leads to progress. “There’s an orgy cul­ture here, defnitely,” says Stephanie. “There are peo­ple here who have very ac­tive sex­u­al­ity and ex­pres­sive­ness, have mul­ti­ple part­ners, have a lot of kink go­ing on, go to sex par­ties, go to BDSM par­ties and all that kind of stuff. Ma­jor, ma­jor, like, open-sex peo­ple. It just per­me­ates. It’s a great anti-lud­dite kind of thing. It’s not about re­cre­ation or em­u­la­tion, it’s about let’s drive the world for­ward, let’s use all this tech­nol­ogy but let’s also stay con­nected to each other and, like, all the hip­py­dippy won­der­ful­ness.” What Sil­i­con Val­ley en­trepreneurs of­ten don’t like ad­mit­ting, but some­times will if you nudge them, is that, po­lit­i­cally, they’re lib­er­tar­ian. This is the ide­ol­ogy of ‘ra­tio­nal self in­ter­est’ that had a pro­found – and ex­treme – ex­pres­sion in the ideas of the philoso­pher and best­selling nov­el­ist Ayn Rand. Ba­si­cally, the idea is that if we all look af­ter our­selves, we won’t need govern­ment or so­ci­ety or reg­u­la­tions or, in­deed, any­one else to take care of us. Lib­er­tar­i­an­ism is ne­olib­er­al­ism with a big­ger dick. Rand has a bad rep­u­ta­tion among main­stream politi­cos these days, and is of­ten pitched as a pi­o­neer of the ‘greed is good’ mind­set (and, to be fair, she did write a book called The Virtue of Selfish­ness). The Sil­i­con Val­ley Founder, that myth­i­cal crea­ture who stalks these lands and its hacker hos­tels, can be seen as the ul­ti­mate Ayn Rand hero: selfsh, self-in­ter­ested, dar­ing, hard-work­ing, cre­at­ing cap­i­tal and the world of the fu­ture while at­tack­ing or ig­nor­ing govern­ment reg­u­la­tion, tak­ing ad­van­tage of cheap for­eign labour and avoid­ing tax. Af­ter I leave 20Mis­sion, I travel deep into the Val­ley it­self, to the Rain­bow Man­sion in Cu­per­tino, an ‘in­ten­tional com­mu­nity’ that houses staff from com­pa­nies in­clud­ing NASA, Ap­ple and Google. There, cook­ing pan­cakes with his top off, I fnally meet a real one. A Founder. This is 38-year-old Daniel Faber, a tall, ath­letic, charis­matic ge­nius from Tas­ma­nia who co-founded Deep Space In­dus­tries, a multi-mil­lion dol­lar start-up that wants to mine as­ter­oids. “We’re not try­ing to bring ma­te­ri­als back to earth,” he ex­plains. “That doesn’t make eco­nomic sense. We’re af­ter wa­ter, hy­dro-car­bons, nickel, iron – all the ma­te­ri­als and equip­ment that are nec­es­sary to build cities in space.” (This isn’t a joke. For quite a while, I thought it was, but now I’m con­vinced he means it.) These space cities, Faber thinks, might be what’s nec­es­sary for us to ex­per­i­ment with such com­mu­ni­ties. “It’s never been tried, this pure lib­er­tar­i­an­ism that Ayn Rand was pro­mot­ing,” he tells me, as he cooks mul­ti­ple pan­cakes us­ing mul­ti­ple pans. “What we need is a chance to try it. If we had a whole bunch of habi­tats in space that were some­what po­lit­i­cally iso­lated, you could run these experiments. That’s one of the things that will in­evitably hap­pen. Some­one rich enough will build one of these places and go and do what­ever they like.” I ask why lib­er­tar­i­an­ism ap­peals, par­tic­u­larly, to engi­neers. “They be­lieve they can de­sign some­thing bet­ter,” he says. “Given all the flaws in the cur­rent sys­tem, that’s at­trac­tive.” Faber be­lieves we’ll have space cities in 30 years. On my last day in Sil­i­con Val­ley, I’m in­vited by res­i­dents of Rain­bow Man­sion to watch a rocket launch: Elon Musk’s Spacex is tak­ing a NASA satel­lite into or­bit, a small step in the Tesla founder’s quest to en­sure the hu­man race’s sur­vival by colonis­ing other plan­ets. We drive south to Santa Bar­bara and ar­rive at our ho­tel af­ter dark. In the lobby, I fall into con­ver­sa­tion with Cate Levy who works at a start-up that’s de­vel­op­ing veg­e­tar­ian meat. She was raised in Florida, in a con­ser­va­tive cul­ture, and is the only voice I hear, dur­ing my visit, that ad­mits to doubts about Val­ley lore. “They’re try­ing to change the world but they’re not think­ing about sys­tems, and how this new thing might dis­rupt the old world in a bad way,” she says. Levy tells a story of an ex­cited dis­cus­sion at a New Year’s Eve party about a cheap ro­bot that pre­pared all your food from scratch. She protested, of­fended at the pos­si­bil­i­ties for mass un­em­ploy­ment. “But all the mid­dle­class jobs have al­ready dis­ap­peared in this coun­try! Not ev­ery­one can go to col­lege and be a pro­gram­mer.” “They don’t seem in­ter­ested in the wider im­pacts of what they do,” I say. “There’s lit­tle com­pas­sion for peo­ple out­side their im­me­di­ate cir­cles.” “It’s kind of heart­less.” “Yeah,” she laughs and shakes her head. “It’s mak­ing me more un­com­fort­able the longer I’m here. I don’t know what to do with my­self. I’m afraid, if I stay here for too long, I’m go­ing to for­get the rest of the world’s not like Sil­i­con Val­ley.” But the prob­lem for Levy, and for many of us, is that, in­creas­ingly, it is. n

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