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 Personal Essay 





"The Bay Area"






Written in 1999, this essay recounts some personal conflicts between the opportunities of the Internet boom and the sense of unfotunate change in my childhood home. It is presented here as a kind of snapshot of a time that has, thankfully, left us.



This story has never been published.



The Bay Area

When I was a kid, you could drive from my hometown to San Francisco in twenty-five minutes and never apply the brakes. When I was a kid, there were no Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) trains, no carpool lane, and no Spare the Air Days. There were no $600,000 lofts, no waiting lists for tiny studios, and no gentrification of ethnic neighborhoods.

Well, I am not a kid anymore, and the Bay Area has sure grown, too. The Peninsula is owned by VC warlords. San Francisco is owned by twenty-eight year-old Web moguls. And all the spaces in between are populated by ambitious folks who would fill any vacancies in the cel-phone & laptop army. That drive from my hometown to SF now takes over an hour at any time of day.

Change is an inevitable part of life, of course. Since Bill Hewlett and David Packard began work in a Palo Alto garage in 1938, the Bay Area has been a hotbed of technological, demographic, and finally cultural change. The Bay Area gulped and swallowed the personal computer and its attendant industries. Multimedia, we handled. Yet, against this backdrop of change, the explosion of the Internet is singularly colossal in its scope and effects. In "Accidental Empires," an interesting book on the history of the personal computer, Robert X. Cringely argues that a new technology takes 30 years to gain full acceptance in mainstream culture. Only then do we understand the ramifications of the technology. More revolutionary than the PC itself, the World Wide Web is about five years old in its popular form. There is no way to predict where it is headed. In many respects the crucible for this change is the Bay Area. Suffice it to say: the place of my birth will be one crowded and different pot in 2020.

Changes in ownership laws and tenant rights are well underway. After five years of living in San Francisco, my two roommates and I were owner-evicted. Owner-eviction is the latest manifestation of this nutty real estate market. When a rental dwelling is sold, the new owners can evict tenants immediately if and only if he or a family member moves in for at least a year. Prospective owners are willing to relocate their families just to participate in the boom. It's been a topic of much heated debate in San Francisco. Since our eviction, the rental law has been changed to allow the eviction of only one apartment in the unit. Too late for us, and the two senior women who had been living in the units below us for a combined 46 years. All of us were out. One of my old roommates now lives in a box that he rarely visits, and the other, who must drive quite a bit, roosts in a neighborhood with wretched parking. Both have since stepped into the Internet economy. Both are now cel-phone- and laptop-enabled. I left town.

The army continues to grow. Newly minted MBAs land at SFO every day. Bounded on three sides by water, San Francisco can no longer expand to the open south where the population of the Silicon Valley grows at a similar rate. The only way for the city to accommodate all of these new faces is to grow straight up in the air. Quaint warehouses are leveled for 20-story apartment buildings whose units fill on the blueprints alone. Bayside views turn into backside looks at the sparkling structure that is one step closer to the Bay. Coming across the Bay Bridge a year ago, I could chart the progress on the new baseball park. Now, I can't even see it behind a phalanx of homogenous buildings and high-rise cranes. To walk through San Francisco is to test yourself against a gauntlet of careening cabs, wooden construction sidewalks, redlight runners, a growing homeless population, and way, way too many jackhammers. There's a brusqueness in the air--honking horns, bumped shoulders, a guy yelling from down the street. These ions are poised to react. In the press, it's called, "The Manhattanization of San Francisco." I think it is the permanent mutilation of one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

All of the activity across the Internet has generated tremendous traffic on the four-wheel highways, too. It took ten years to repair the freeway that collapsed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, yet the results are already inadequate to satisfy the hurtling SUVs. Stretches of the Highway 80 Interstate system do not clear at any hour of the day. For years, the SF Board of Supervisors has debated expanding BART to San Francisco International. While this no-brainer of a project is finally underway, allegations are emerging of rampant corruption and cronyism. Down at the airport, plans have begun to add new runways to what is already rated as one of the most dangerous airports in the country. Always the last to Get It, our local governments are struggling to catch up.

Often, work takes me down to the peninsula. "Can you come in for a meeting?" folks ask, and I cringe. For, any meeting down there means another game of traffic roulette that these folks loathe every morning. There is a particular spot on Highway 880 which, if it is reached a single minute after 6:15am, doubles my commute time. Software people are not patient drivers, on the road or the keyboard. Studies have indicated that the internal "irritation meter" begins to rise if a person must wait more than 1.25 seconds in front of a static screen. Stuck in traffic, one friend became so frustrated that he punched a spider web in his windshield. An extra forty minutes on the road with like-minded folk does not start a happy day.

The sites along the commute do not improve my disposition, either. A stretch of Highway 101 between San Mateo and Palo Alto has evolved into a gambler's town of garish billboards placed at regular intervals to plead with you to visit another version of These billboards, alternately derivative or wildly geeky, are placed at 100-yard intervals for miles. The billboard virus has spread elsewhere. My brother, a database architect, tells a story of driving on one of the more isolated stretches of road down in the marshlands at the south end of the Bay. On a billboard, he read an ad for a technical job that, in his estimation, was applicable to maybe one hundred people in Silicon Valley. Such a placement on that lonesome road where only one or two of the hundred might see it suggests the value of these people to the ever-expanding maw that seeks to assimilate them. In pointcast marketing, where technical consumers can find what they're looking for through personal contacts, recruiters, or the Internet, such an ad is pure flattery. For techies, the schmooze is in full force, its scars on our landscape.

Indeed, developers are the stars. My brother came to town for a week to relax and have dinner with a few friends. Before dessert, all of them had placed serious offers on the table. A good engineer is worth five mediocre ones and generates real work for ten people. Developers have leverage. In Hollywood, it's called, "suck"; whatever you call it, it has arrived in dollars and options. A friend lost a lead engineer when Microsoft came calling with a $1.5 million bonus to redo his last year of work up in Redmond. No slouch himself, this friend routinely rejects offers that pay $250,000/year plus stock. An entire middle tier of recruiters is tasked to find these people, schmooze these people, and get them seated and coding for their customers. Recruiting is a whatever-it-takes kind of environment. I have had new clients tell me that they found my resume on job websites that I have never visited, let alone authorized to use it. And I'm just a writer. The power of cut-and-paste has generated huge ethical issues; the simplicity and speed of it inside this giant cloud of money allow those issues to be conveniently forgotten. For, cut-and-paste does not leave an audit trail.

We outside the inner circle struggle to gain admittance or to accept our limitations. Having grown weary before thirty of the struggles to get to and from work, non-technical friends often ask about the life of freelancing. Others complain about being enslaved to their San Francisco apartments, as they cannot afford a comparable place within the same commuting distance. They own nothing--no car, no home, no investments--and have lassoed up to ten grand in credit card debt. These friends talk of freelancing as some form of internalized escape, as if their world outside the apartment is rife with anxiety and frustration. Few of them are technically trained. They work for years to Get It, only to finally realize that this world of software, in its entirety, is ultimately incomprehensible. If you jump on the software ride, the fundamental states are confusion and anxiety, where correcting human error against a NASDAQ-driven deadline is a state of being. The rate of change in the Internet Age only heightens the woe. For my friends just getting started on the computer, there is no joy in what they do. They bust tail not for the pleasure of the work. They bust tail in fear of being left behind.

Let us not forget the people who have no stake in the Internet. The City of San Francisco has begun to subsidize housing developments for teachers who, by law, must live in the city yet cannot afford to do so. And teachers are among the most socially valuable workers--what about caregivers and tradespeople? Do they get subsidies, too? Formerly middle-class families can no longer afford to buy in San Francisco. Or, they end up in homes like this one in an undesirable SF neighborhood: a four-room box with a crack through the foundation across the whole house was offered for $380,000. It went for half a million. The term "million-dollar fixer-up" is a reality in San Francisco.

If your income is fed by quieter sectors of the economy or, worst of all, a government agency, it is impossible to maintain your standard of living. The Fed's monetary policies have kept inflation in check and the stock market roaring. One of the net effects is to put more money into the hands of people who already have it. Inflation levels the playing field for everyone, in a sense, but this influx of wealth brings more disposable income to people who already have it. The rich get richer and hedge their piles of stock with real estate. For families with kids, the situation must be terrifying. Money doesn't stay around the home, yet to buy that home is to enslave yourself to it.

That's the essence: already, we have become whipped and prodded by the Internet and its ramifications. On this monstrous merry-go-round, each of us rides our horse up and down and around and around. While we can choose to get off, we cannot afford to do so.

So, I sit over here in Oakland, cutting rent checks, and think about this place I love. Perhaps more than your average soul, writers tend to get nostalgic about childhood. Back then, the Bay Area was warm and sleepy. It didn't matter where you lived or where you went. Neighborhoods were safe. San Francisco was accessible. Homes were available. And no one knew our secret. I have been to many cities and many countries yet haven't found a place superior to the Bay Area of my childhood. Five years ago, my sister told her future husband that she would never move out of the Bay Area. Now, they're looking for houses on the other side of the country. And they already own one here.

And here we are, according to Mr. Cringely's hypothesis, at Day 2 of the creation of the Internet World. This time, there is no God manning the controls. We are all alone on this one, each of us in isolation typing away at our keyboards, filling the void with code, with HTML, with stock transactions. We think so hard about software problems and have no time to contemplate their meaning. We struggle for knowledge, to acquire information in order to produce more information. Download knowledge or cut-and-paste it; in the Information Age, knowledge is the most accessible commodity and in its rarer forms, the most highly valued. But where is the wisdom? Where is the guidance? There is no precedent for this world, no blueprint by which to judge our progress, and there are no brakes on the machine. By default, we assume that by doing what benefits ourselves, the government ensures that we are doing good by all. Yet our government can't even build enough roads, let alone prepare for and regulate the massive demographic and cultural changes that have begun and will snowball by Day 7. In the face of rampant economic progress, community is the first church to be steamrolled.

--there is no profit in the publicity of danger. Who pays attention to Smoky the Bear or McGruff, the Crime Dog? They are cartoons and sideshows, cloying pleas for attention to serious matters under a hailstorm of stimulation. No one remembers the warnings going forward, but most can read the signs in the rearview mirror.

So here I ride the merry-go-round. At times, it is engaging, if not mind-blowing. On a conceptual level, the Web will be the greatest facilitator of communication between people with faster access than television and richer content than the telephone. Already, people are connecting from opposite sides of the globe across an ever-growing range of subjects. Day by day, we are witnessing the birth and growth of something truly awesome that had, until now, been the conjecture of dreamy-eyed science fiction. Truly, the visions of tomorrow are arriving the day after today.

To ride the merry-go-round or to get off--that is the question. In many respects, the urge to write is a struggle for simplicity and clarity. For wisdom. In words, the battles of each day are part of the war between the soul and its place in the world, fought letter by letter, line by line, and page by page. As of this writing, the war is a standoff: I, too, do not know what to make of the Whole Thing. I may not understand this world in development, but this world seems to like itself and to buy its own hype. So I will return to work: a bit fearful, a bit greedy, and perhaps a bit fearful of my greed.

I remember eating lunch with a friend in a park in downtown San Francisco. It was later in the afternoon, yet the sun was still hours from dropping behind the low-slung buildings to the west. People lolled in the grass or ambled over to listen to a string quartet playing Bach. My friend, another lifelong Bay Area resident, had just started working at an Internet startup, his first job in software. He rattled on about their plans and his role in them. His world seemed full of promise. Six months later, his company had spiraled downward. He quit and moved to Europe. I may follow him, for he may have acquired in six short months the wisdom that has eluded me for twenty years. Sometimes, I walk by that park and think of him. Except between 10 and 2, it is now cast in shadow.

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(c) 2007 Steven P. Olson. All rights reserved. Samples are for demonstration purposes only.