I lately had the luck to return to San Francisco for the first time since the pandemic, and I was very keen to discover whether the place was “back”.
There had much been much talk on tech Twitter in the intervening period on the collapse of San Francisco (and by extension) the Valley as the world centre of technical, and therefore in these days cultural, innovation: people were supposedly moving out of town to Hawaii or Austin or back to Europe with the opportunities presented by the shift to remote work; the role SF played as the thriving hub of ideas, talent and capital was indeed now supposedly anachronistic: startups were, Twitter asserted, now, more than ever, emerging all over the world due to a democratisation of access to market opportunity, capital, and know-how; and with the house prices too damn high, the urban innovation too damn slow, and the variety in human experience too damn narrow, it was often announced on my Twitter feed that enthusiasm, people and fun were heading elsewhere.
Yet lately, a certain amount of content-marketing on Twitter asserted that the place was “back”. https://twitter.com/bonatsos/status/1600562432836919296?s=20&t=wDfK9NT4wrrO2WrVWD27BA The challenge with such proclamations of course is that they are exactly what one would expect to hear, corruptly, from the people most keen for this to be true when it isn’t.
So I thought I’d inspect the situation. Is SF indeed back?
The metaphor of “coming back” here has the following mapping: there is an authentic space that represents SF’s true or best self. The locus of its actual self had passed outside of this zone, gone walkabouts: events have made it “lose itself” and so it was, apparently, looking to find oneself, chart the journey back to that authentic zone of self.
The San Francisco of yore
That authentic zone of San Francisco’s self is the reason I care about this, for San Francisco has always been the place I believed to be closest to renaissance Venice of any place on earth at the present time. Yes, the architecture is an embarrassment; yes, the level of European-style civic competence and style is flatly wretched, as attested by the contiguity of the homeless and the staggeringly wealthy, and the absence of any modestly competent form of public transport; yes, there are limits to the available range of human thriving.
But such classic objections only bring into sharper relief the astonishing flourishing of human ingenuity, cultural influence, and power to invent the future that San Francisco has lately piped out. SF in the 2010-2020 time-period has been a place of scintillating intellectual aliveness, human hopefulness, and creative inclusiveness. Hanging out in SF imbued one with a sense of creative possibility that made any other city, even London, feel pedestrian by comparison.
All of which is to say that the prospect of the place having lost its mojo made me sad.
Analysing towns through their parties
One can always test the pulse of a city at a party, the only form of human social activity where people come close to being themselves. Parties are of course also the most fateful of human activities, where more new collaborations, ideas, relationships, and simple good feeling occur than in any other human activity. It’s easy to see in the rich human texture of a party at the heart of community the overall quality of its culture: the mixity of people, whether the ideas are revving, whether there is optimism and gumption, whether there is a creative open-ness to the future of human experience and how it can be sculpted towards greater futures.
In the past, San Francisco parties have been an open book on the underlying cultural vivacity of the place. They were characterised by at least the following four notable
- A great mixity of interesting people
- Intense intellectual engagement with ideas
- Generosity, inclusivity and positivity
- An open-ness to new forms of life
So with this in mind I attended a few parties in SF as I passed through- to audit the situation of the town.
- The mixity of interesting people
In the great parties of the past, San Francisco exhibited an entertaining mixity of people from inter-related technical spheres.
So you’d be sipping a gin and tonic by the sink at some house-party kitchen, and over the course of an hour you’d find yourself exchanging with a rich menagerie of different characters: a Nasa engineer, someone tinkering with robots, a neuroscientist, the dude who runs growth for Facebook, a performance artist. To find these people one would admittedly have to parse out a string of early-stage founder bros, but such was life.
Returning to San Francisco, I found that the mixity remained strong. Perhaps there has even been an improvement. Where before you might chat with a Tesla engineer, now you chat with an ex-Tesla engineer working on an electric flying car. The NASA people now seem to have their own space companies. The ML people are looking much more cheerful about life. The fringe intellectuals seem to have remained in town, and there was a good mix of left-wing Berkley types and artists in the mix. There were mercifully few VCs. And there were an encouraging number of people working on ambitious climate tech, perhaps 10 years slower than they should have been, but at least going at it was charisma now.
All in all, I’d rate the mix of characters as outstanding. This felt “back”.
2. Intense intellectual engagement
I recall in 2012 being at a party on a boat in SF (an Icelandic ice-breaker-turned commune, not a glitzy yacht), where there was a six hour conversation I dropped in and out of fastened resolutely to the topic of Bitcoin. In London at the time, it was relatively tricky when discussing the topic to get beyond “is it a scam, or not? It’s probably a scam” , there was a total absence of knowledge or curiosity.
But at this boat-party conversation there was a striking depth and curiosity to the discussion: talk went deep into different mining protocols, technical hard ware, governance, alternative protocols; it danced through the history of economics, the technical details of cryptography, the practical questions of self-custody vs centralised exchanges; it got lost for an hour on the percentage chance of a catastrophic security vulnerability. It was, for me, far too long and detailed. I was there to have fun. But I was very impressed by the intellectual depth and honesty, as I passed in and out of the conversation over the course of the long night. I was particularly struck by the combination of play and research: the hosts were in fact mining bitcoin to heat their boat.
Returning to SF, the new topic on hand is, predictably, generative AI, and I found a very similar energy of intense intellectual engagement. SF flocks to the latest hot thing, but it does so with a ravenous interest in the ideas that support it. The limited shelf-life of the concept of prompt engineering, the nature of AI systems as really just being mnmeonic devices, the field of possible architectures of chaining these LLMs together, the fundamental scarcity of new training data, and a possible coming ceiling in the capacities of such systems.
Part of the fun of SF is that the people who do the fundamental work are part of the conversation; how good is GPT-4? “Well, I’m chief architect and reports of its intelligence are overblown. We’re still struggling hopelessly with the bullshit problem, and we may need a whole new approach.” Getting “insider” takes on things, seeing the mode of speaking, the method of thought: this is simultaneously demystifying (the people doing the work are not inaccessibly intelligent, as one might suspect) and you get a hot-off-the-press casual insight into what they actually think vs what they boast about on Twitter. And even if Deepmind continues to do the most important work in AI from London, it was nice to see some signs of competence and confidence on the SF AI scene.
One note of concern was that there was a quirk of conversation in SF in its glory years that all conversations wound up eventually in fundamental physics, typically with a Stanford researcher present to chaperone the quality of the discussion. While quantum physics and information theory did come up fairly regularly in the latter stages of conversations, I felt the seriousness of engagement and the depth of understanding wasn’t quite what one would expect from a 2014-vintage chat.
It’s difficult to say whether this is evidence of a broader decline in intellectual vivacity, but I would say that it’s something for the town to keep an eye on.
3. Generosity and positivity
A particular merit of SF in the glory years was its positivity. Not the angry Paul Graham kind of self-promoting positivity (he’s anyway more Palo Alto than SF), but the softer kinder enthusiasm for the new, the willingness to get excited by others’ ideas, the unselfish enthusiasm for the transformation of the world by anyone for the better.
And here SF if exactly as one would wish to find it. In the UK, when one explains one’s project or startup, the default reaction “oh, like [your annoying competitor]”. In SF, introductions, ideas, positivity flows. It’s almost therapeutic the level of positivity.
I’m not sure this quality ever left the town, but it definitely remains there.
4. Open-ness to new forms of life.
At the heart of San Francisco and the valley during its glory years was of course a high level of engagement in the annual explosion of imagination that is Burning Man: a giant engine of imagining how the world could be different. And with the return of IRL Burning Man, the city was palpably vibing back into that marvellous admixture of hands on engineering, playful formation of new communities of action, speculative science-fiction and good old fashioned fun that characterised its greatest moments.
Meanwhile Polyamory remains a staple of conversation. This is important, since polyamory indicates a willingness to think outside of the strictures of normal societal thought. On the other hand, it would be nice if other forms of human institutions (democracy, say) were to attract the same level of creative interest from these talented communities.
One concerning point is that there remain to my knowledge no known examples of Polamory in San Francisco actually working in any kind of nourishing long term way, and a lot of intellectual bandwidth is given over to the “communicating of emotions” etc that forms part of the local methodology; that said, even if polyamory in SF is yet more more comically incompetent than it was in 2014, this must count as a return to the authentic self of the city.
On this front, then, San Francisco is also firmly back.
In conclusion: the parties show that SF is back
So, in sum, San Francisco seems to be largely back, returning to its authentic self. A scintillating mix of diverse talents bustles around the parties; people are excited by the future and intellectually engaged with it; there is generosity and positivity in the inclusion of a tourist like me; and people are still curious about and energised to invent new forms of life.
It was a relief to discover that a typical long conversation still includes reference to quantum physics and Burning Man and polyamory. One might speculate that it does so for the very good underlying reason that physics is the fundamental picture we have of reality; because burning man is the greatest party on earth; and because sexuality is the reason we’re all here in the first place.
There have also been no meaningful improvements to public transport, the problem of homelessness, nor building regulations.
As a concluding note, I was once again very struck in fact by how industrial San Francisco remains: as one drives around the small city, there are endless scruffy industrial plots and storage areas whose value for housing one imagines would run into the tens of millions of dollars. It seems as though some competent local governance and changes to building regs could be very useful in tackling the deficits in the city, so that it can do even better in the future.
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