It’s no secret that San Francisco’s very different today than it was prior to the pandemic. It used to be a place filled with electrifying energy with people building their visions of the future left and right. Now, it’s a place with a self-sabotaging school district and more than twice as many opioid deaths as there were covid deaths.
As people are tentative about what the future of work will look like (where it will end up between a Balaji-esque game of pseudonymity or a full swing back to the office), people are also speculative about what the future of San Francisco and tech will look like. Not too long ago, all you needed to succeed was to move to the bay area, set up a Twitter account and go to enough parties until you found someone crazy enough to give you seed funding or someone crazy enough to hire you. Then, after a few startups or discovering the next Facebook, you’ll be left with enough money to not worry about working ever again.
While it’s certainly the case that there are still tech companies with offices in SF, a number of them have relocated to another SF (South Florida) and workers have also moved to a handful of “pandemic cities” like Austin and New York. With some companies switching to a remote friendly setup, tech workers are realizing that there still exists a high demand for their labor (one which software engineering bootcamps and no-code tools don’t chip into) and they are realizing that being allowed to comfortably work from the suburbs with their family [which was initially a temporary shift to account for covid policies] is something they can force to continue with enough interest.
So, as people vote with their feet and VCs look for any excuse to set up camp in a city that doesn’t have California taxes, what does this forbode with regard to the foggy city? There are some with general optimism for the city, some with a conviction that something must be done, as well as those who have simply given up. Taking a short a step back, SF was historically the place to be for both talent and founders. The reason the bay area was able to attract so much talent was because the companies offering decent salaries (namely FAANG) were stationed there and the reason people kept coming to start companies was all the desirable VCs as well as talent would be available next door. Now that the said talent pool is leaving and big name VCs have set up offices in other cities, it would seem the case that its time has past and SF is no longer the grand solve-all it once was.
However, this conclusion neglects the history of SF and how this isn’t the first time a gold rush (pun intended) has come and gone. Really, SF has had this pattern for a long time. Take this passage from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (or listen to Johnny Depp in the movie adaptation) which was written in 1971 as a sort of reflection on the counterculture in the 60s:
“Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era—the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run . . . but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant. . . .
History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.
My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights—or very early mornings—when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles an hour wearing L. L. Bean shorts and a Butte sheepherder’s jacket . . . booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end (always stalling at the toll-gate, too twisted to find neutral while I fumbled for change) . . . but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was: No doubt at all about that. . . .
There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. . . . You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. . . . And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
The sentiment around the “universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning” rings a very similar tone to the idealism of people looking forward to self driving cars or the ICO boon in 2018. Another reason why this overall passage is great (aside from capturing the raw energy that so many people would agree with having seen in tech in the 21st century), the line about being able to see where the “wave finally broke and rolled back” not too long ago also suits well here. In fact, I’d postulate that 2015 is the year SF as we know it died.
From Google getting rid of their “Don’t be evil” slogan to the start of Gawker’s ultimate downfall as well as the Washington Post’s blow to Theranos, 2015 was as much of a caricature of tech as this timeless parody of “We didn’t start the fire”. The quick theory for what started twisting things is that Facebook reaching a billion daily users in addition to the buzz of Trump and the 2016 election brewed up a highly politicized world with people losing faith in tech. The tinfoil-hat theory for what happened is that Thiel (who is one of the most impactful figures of the tech industry) made a handful of interesting decisions that year that almost indicate an increased belief in the thesis of the Sovereign Individual. Whether it’s purchasing a large estate in New Zealand (affirming the Tiebout model) or establishing OpenAI (effectivley accepting that Uber-human technology would be an inevitablity), Thiel had less reason to regard SF as the valhalla to remain a part of which would eventually cascade out to the rest of the industry.
But, regardless if 2015 or 2020 (when the pandemic struck) is the year that knocked SF off its feet, this would only fit into the larger pattern of enthusiasm coming and leaving. We have: the 70s looking back on the 60s, the early 90s looking back at the hardware boom in the 80s, as well as tech startups and investors following the dot com bubble being weary of going public. In each of these phases, those who were able to be “at the right place at the right time” got their time’s worth and moved on to some other location whereas, anecdotally, you see young and ambitious [or just naive] people fill in the gaps to start new things.
Why should we expect this pattern to take place once again? For starters, just because some companies/workers have taken the opportunity to leave, it doesn’t indicate that everyone has left nor that every company is looking to leave the bay area. Next, there is genuine value to in-person interactions. People didn’t flock to Clubhouse or Zoom bachelorette because they wanted to leap into the Matrix, they did so to supplement for the lack of real world interactions available. Actually, this quarantine was simply a case study that showed us what we already knew, that we could comfortably spend hours a day behind a screen. Lastly, with people who are looking forward to the post-SF tech industry, people are comparing prospective tech cities to SF like a dopey romantic compares everyone to their first high school crush; whether explicitly like “SF is alive and well in New York” or via cargo cult.
Given how quickly the world transformed and the industry shaped around policies/restrictions, this is far from the end of the story. As someone who works in tech and isn’t about to comfortably sail off to a Greek villa, I figure this riff would be of interest to others exploring the state of things as well as navigating the next decade.