Who Stole Bohemia?

Michael Bernick
Former California Employment Development Department Director & Milken Institute Fellow

(This is a longer version of an essay that first appeared last Friday, Jan 25, in the San Francisco Chronicle opinion section.)

San Francisco is being taken over by technology workers; its creative culture replaced by a culture of  money; its bohemia replaced by a tech conformity.

That’s the view put forward recently by former Salon editor David Talbot, writer David Eggers, and other members of San Francisco’s literary establishment. It is worth commenting on, since it couldn’t be further from the truth.

Screen shot 2013-01-30 at 7.26.55 AMIt is among the tech community that a vibrant new culture is emerging. It is a culture testing new forms of economic organization, elimination of social hierarchies, and self-definition through work.   Further, it is a culture that far from stifling bohemia, bears resemblance to earlier bohemias, in a passion for ideas, rejection of nine-to- five conventional employment, and even rejection of prevalent materialism.

Mr. Eggers tells San Francisco Magazine that tech industry’s main contribution to San Francisco is providing money for street repairs, public services, fixing the parks. Culture and social improvement are best left to him and his colleagues at 826 Valencia.

Certainly, the technology industry is bringing in tax revenue for city services, as well as creating jobs directly and through related services and construction. It is doing a lot more in innovative social entrepreneurship that Mr. Eggers ignores.

Part of this social entrepreneurship involves new approaches for longstanding urban challenges of inner city business development and job training. I’m been involved in job programs for over 33 years in San Francisco—starting in 1979, as part of a group with the San Francisco Renaissance job training/entrepreneurship center, and continuing to the present.

Today I look out at how the tech community is addressing these same challenges, and our efforts sometimes look like child’s play. Kiva, headquartered on Howard Street, and other crowdfunding sites are turning everyday citizens into lenders for small businesses, and are redefining the role of the lender as an active participant in the business. NewMe Accelerator and Black Founders are expanding the pool of African American entrepreneurs—still small after several decades of government programs. LearnUp, AfterCollege, Internbound, and other job training/job placement sites are testing new ties with employers for training and internships.

Further, the tech community is addressing specific San Francisco job challenges. Sf.citi, the association of technology firms began collaborating this month with the ARC, integrating workers with disabilities into tech positions.

Beyond employment/economic development solutions, the tech culture is pioneering new forms of economic cooperation and collaboration, as in its activity around “collaborative consumption” or as it’s also known, “the share economy”. Local firms, such as Froomz, Task Rabbit, Getaround, Vayable and AirBnB are providing platforms to enable existing resources to be used more fully and far more individuals to become part time entrepreneurs.

Froomz enables individuals or companies to rent, lease or donate commercial or residential spaces to be used through more of the day; Getaround enables individuals to rent out their autos; and AirBnB enables individuals to rent out rooms. TaskRabbit (“get just about anything done by safe, reliable, awesome people”) and Vayable (“the best way to find unique, insider travel experiences worldwide”) abet new forms of self-employment.

The “share economy” is not only put forward as a form of social organization, but also as a form of organization for life within the tech community. Going beyond the traditional business incubator concept, SF firms such as Rocketspace, Hattery and Hatchery, are encouraging a mix of entrepreneurs who not only share physical space, but are part of an entrepreneurial community, sharing contacts and ideas.

Other firms have expanded the concept to shared residential spaces in San Francisco, in which entrepreneurs, tech and non-tech, live together in a quasi-communal environment, not reluctant to share enthusiasms about their work and its social implications. Like George Eliot’s Dr. Lydgate, the tech entrepreneurs seek to be discoverers.

The bohemias that existed in major cities throughout the United States in the late nineteenth century and twentieth century were defined mainly in opposition to bourgeois mores and ethics. Its denizens were voluntary refugees from the middle class, nine-to-five world.

Much of bohemia was populated by poseurs and frauds, and a place in Mary McCarthy’s phrase “where young people throng for a few years before settling down to real life “. But among bohemia were also the serious writers, painters, journalists.

Screen shot 2013-01-30 at 7.27.08 AMIn his autobiography, Fragments of  the Century, writer, political activist, and socialist Harrington captures the mix of debauchery and high-mindedness. Harrington himself might drink through the night at the White Horse bar in the Village, and sleep until 12:00 am. Between noon and midnight, though, he would be writing, reading, thinking, producing books that continue to be read today.

It is a seriousness of purpose and ideas that distinguishes the tech culture from others who make claim to being a part of bohemia today, whether it be the members of Anonymous or the staffers at Salon and other left publications. The former revel in a crude ahistoricism, while the latter have lost all edge, becoming stenographers for the national  Democratic Party establishment.

Further, though the bohemias of the nineteenth century and first half of twentieth century were anti-capitalist in orientation, bohemia is not a natural opponent of the market economy.  Today, with so much of the economy socialized, calling for state ownership is no longer a radical act.  The tech culture is a market-oriented one, but with solutions that challenge the status quo in their opposition to both government and corporatist authority.

I do not mean to romanticize the tech world. A good portion of the tens of thousands of new apps and hundreds of new ways of finding the right restaurant or purchasing the right phone have little value, social or otherwise. The market in relatively short time, though, will sort out the schemers and fakers Many of the social media and internet commerce now in operation in San Francisco will be out of business in a few years.

Additionally, there is a good deal of overconfidence  among the tech elite (though who of us was not overconfident in our twenties and thirties). In hiring and philanthropy, the tech community still can be a very closed community.

But it is also a very young community, and will evolve in the next few years. Those of us who have been here for some time should welcome its members and its evolution, rather than mock or oppose it. Far beyond the jobs and income they are generating, the young tech entrepreneurs can challenge and renew our thinking and ways of doing things, if we are open to them.

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