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