Evgeny Morozov and Tim O’Reilly’s Twitter Debate About Silicon Valley and its Effect on San Francisco’s Culture

by Joey deVilla on January 31, 2013

san francisco - morozov - o'reilly

There’s an interesting debate that’s beginning to brew on Twitter between:

  • Evgeny Morozov, journalist, social commentator and author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, published in 2011. The book’s thesis is that while the internet is seen as a democratizing force, the Western world’s “cyber-utopian” rose-coloured glasses blinds it to its dark side, in which it “entrenches dictators, threatens dissidents, and makes it harder — not easier — to promote democracy.
  • Tim O’Reilly, probably the best-known tech book publisher, founder of O’Reilly Media and all-round champion of the Free Software and Open Source movements.

The debate began with this tweet:

The essay in question is a diary entry by San Francisco-based writer Rebecca Solnit, author of Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, an exploration of the city through many different points of view. The entry appears in the February 7, 2013 edition of the London Review of Books (and online here), and it looks at the detrimental effect of the culture of Silicon Valley on San Francisco. She writes that like the prospectors from the Gold Rush, who came to the area to get rich and whose wealth allowed them to take over the place, the techies who come to the Bay Area today are displacing those who have called the place home for decades:

A Latino who has been an important cultural figure for forty years is being evicted while his wife undergoes chemotherapy. One of San Francisco’s most distinguished poets, a recent candidate for the city’s poet laureate, is being evicted after 35 years in his apartment and his whole adult life here: whether he will claw his way onto a much humbler perch or be exiled to another town remains to be seen, as does the fate of a city that poets can’t afford. His building, full of renters for most or all of the past century, including a notable documentary filmmaker, will be turned into flats for sale. A few miles away, friends of friends were evicted after twenty years in their home by two Google attorneys, a gay couple who moved into two separate units in order to maximise their owner-move-in rights. Rental prices rose between 10 and 135 per cent over the past year in San Francisco’s various neighbourhoods, though thanks to rent control a lot of San Franciscans were paying far below market rates even before the boom – which makes adjusting to the new market rate even harder. Two much-loved used bookstores are also being evicted by landlords looking for more money; 16 restaurants opened last year in their vicinity. On the waterfront, Larry Ellison, the owner of Oracle and the world’s sixth richest man, has been allowed to take control of three city piers for 75 years in return for fixing them up in time for the 2013 America’s Cup; he will evict dozens of small waterfront businesses as part of the deal.

Here’s an excerpt from its final paragraph:

I think of it as frontierism, with all the frontier’s attitude and operational style, where people without a lot of attachments come and do things without a lot of concern for their impact, where money moves around pretty casually, and people are ground underfoot equally casually. Sometimes the Google Bus just seems like one face of Janus-headed capitalism; it contains the people too valuable even to use public transport or drive themselves. In the same spaces wander homeless people undeserving of private space, or the minimum comfort and security; right by the Google bus stop on Cesar Chavez Street immigrant men from Latin America stand waiting for employers in the building trade to scoop them up, or to be arrested and deported by the government. Both sides of the divide are bleak, and the middle way is hard to find.

It reminds me of Paulina Borsook’s Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High Tech, published back in 2001, as well as her 1999 essay, How the Internet Ruined San Francisco, which I read prior to moving there to contribute to the ruination.

Strangely enough, there’s no Wikipedia entry for Paulina Borsook, even though she’s notable enough to warrant her own page. Perhaps the Wikipedians (a rather huffy libertarian bunch, from the sound of them) aren’t too keen on her. I’m not the only one who’s noticed this recently.

In response to Morozov’s initial tweet, Tim O’Reilly posted this:

…and thus began the debate:

If you’d like to see the full exchange, complete with sabre-rattling and cheering bystanders, it’s here.

While I understand and even sympathize with Morozov’s point of view — I’ve seen what he and Solnit are talking about first-hand — he comes off as being a bit of a dick. Perhaps it’s my bias: I know Tim O’Reilly, and the last time I saw him (at SxSW 2012), he stood up from the middle of his conversation, yelled “Joey!” and gave me a big hug.

As much as I like watching a good heated exchange, I’m with Jeff Sonstein, who tweeted this comment in the middle of the back-and-forth between Morozov and O’Reilly:

They would be useful discussions, and not just in terms of the relationship of Silicon Valley and San Francisco. They’d be applicable to any city undergoing a transformation due to changes in the economy, or an influx of new people, or even just plain old gentrification. Do newcomers to a city have responsibilities ensure that their disruption is minimal to those who already live there? Are the private systems like the Google Bus, which hauls Google employees to work, merely a practical way to let employees enjoy city life at home and still work in Mountain View, deep in the exurbs, or is it a snobbish way of shielding the tech aristocracy from the local hoi polloi? Does the “I’m building the future” mindset blind us to our actions, letting us carelessly destroy the past?

As techies, these are questions we have to at least consider, if not answer.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 rageahol January 31, 2013 at 11:42 pm

“Are the private systems like the Google Bus, which hauls Google employees to work, merely a practical way to let employees enjoy city life at home and still work in Mountain View, deep in the exurbs, or is it a snobbish way of shielding the tech aristocracy from the local hoi polloi?”

the “or” there seems unjustified. it is of course both.

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