The Warped Bay Area Economy

June 27, 2013

I’ve read two distressing (and lengthy) articles recently about what the latest rise of the 20-something technorati means for the Bay Area. In the East Bay Express Ellen Cushing focused on the disconcerting materialism of engineers and coders who earn gobs of money; in the New Yorker George Packer examined the clunky way in which entrepreneurs and CEOs are getting into the mud politically. Both pieces point out how rich kids and their mega-rich bosses are warping the Bay Area economically and dooming San Francisco to be a de facto gated community/playground for a wealthy and overwhelmingly white elite.

On its surface there is nothing new in this analysis. But a comment in Packer’s New Yorker piece by a 22 year-old entrepreneur gave me an unexpected shudder:

“If you’re an engineer in Silicon Valley, you have no incentive to read The Economist. It’s not brought up at parties, your friends aren’t going to talk about it, your employers don’t care... People with whom I used to talk about politics or policy or the arts, they’re just not as into it anymore. They don’t read the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times. They read TechCrunch and VentureBeat, and maybe they happen to see something from the Times on somebody’s Facebook news feed...the divide among people in my generation is not as much between traditional liberals and libertarians. It’s a divide between people who are inward-facing and outward-facing.”

Of course reading The Economist doesn’t make you a well-rounded person but the grain of truth in this observation is very bad news for the region’s future as an activist and artistic cauldron and especially for local non-profit arts and culture organizations counting on a new monied class to support their work.

As institutional philanthropy for the arts declined through the recent recession the salaries and net-worth of individuals working in the tech sector rose dramatically. In public conferences, and in private discussions, funders exhorted development directors to build relationships with these individuals not just to stick their names on new buildings but to support ongoing operations too. But from cultural organizations in the heart of Silicon Valley, to media-arts institutions working with the very technology that has made so much money for so many, the faucet has been basically stuck.  There are notable exceptions (this high-profile project is rumored to have had a lot tech money behind it) but fundamentally when it comes to supporting the arts, the disappointing view of the guys in the tech sector taken by Cushing in her East Bay Express’ piece seems right, they are “by and large, simply not interested.”

Add Levine’s insight and the disappointment turns to horror: they’re not just uninterested in the arts.... they’re not interested in anything!

Well, anything outside of their own parochial concerns. Or, as Packer reflects after spending some time in SF and the Valley: “It suddenly occurred to me that the hottest tech start-ups are solving all the problems of being twenty years old, with cash on hand, because that’s who thinks them up.”

Champions of the arts can talk effortlessly about the ways in which story-telling opens up worlds, and how visceral responses to music or a painting can connect people across distance and difference.  Humanists can articulate why intellectual curiosity is a good thing for the soul and why a capacity for empathy has served the cause of justice very well.

Engaging the rising class of literal and proverbial Google bus riders in the arts will require some repackaging of a traditional arts experience, some updating of fundraising tools and methods, and some changes to the structures of art-producing organizations themselves (all generally good and timely things) but those changes aren’t enough. To get them on board en masse means turning them from being inward-facing to being outward-facing; if any group can do it I believe artists can  - but it won’t be by handing out subscriptions to The Economist.