programming is terriblelessons learned from a life wasted

Come here and work on hard problems… except the ones on our doorstep.

I’m quite lucky. In March I took the time to take a genuine break from my real life, and escape to San Francisco to celebrate my thirtieth orbit around the sun. It was my first time outside of Europe, as well as my first time on American soil.

What follows is a very personal recollection of my culture shock. I wrote it for a much smaller audience, but friends have encouraged me to be a little bit more public about my experience. It isn’t really so much about programming, but one idiot’s view from the epicentre of the startup bubble.

I normally shy away from writing about politics, as I’ve witnessed what normally happens when programmers engage in debate. Besides, if using a computer doesn’t qualify you to espouse about people, what does? After all, technology is social before it is technical.

Last night, someone told me “In California, there isn’t a conflict between being a Capitalist, and a Liberal”, with a wry grin on his face.

It is decidedly weird here. i’m staying in Castro, which is like travelling into the future. Not free from violence or persecution but a far safer and tolerant place than many I’ve encountered. Then off to downtown, stepping over the homeless, weaving between the street corner schizophrenics. After a while, you’ll encounter a faceless industrial building emblazoned with an all too familiar logo.

Inside, once you pass the checkpoint, free food, free beer on taps, somewhere between a coffeeshop and a hackerspace, a bunch of rich people on macbooks with the appropriate stickers. Then back outside to the street to watch people die on your way to a microbrewery. A long drawn out argument about scala as you avoid eye contact with the rest of the world.

The companies here are more than just playgrounds, they’re enclaves. Many people here don’t socialise outside of their work, and when they do, it’s ex-coworkers. As a first time visitor i’m surprised at how isolated many of the people here are. in return for building a social space, the companies enable workers to pour their life into their work, with little time outside of it, beyond sleeping.

I’ve been here for nineteen days now, and it’s still shocking: the disparity between rich and poor. Thing is, those in poorer situations flock here, because they can get healthcare, support, and help, but other times it just feels like a passive aggressive fuck-you-got-mine. if you don’t tip, it isn’t so much a snub, it’s saying “i don’t think you deserve healthcare”. Alternatively for those with healthcare provided, it locks them into their job.

The cost of living is always increasing, and the flashy money from silicon valley is accelerating the gentrification of SF. rent-control is a last ditch effort to prevent those who grew up here from being displaced, but in return prevents them from being able to move within the city.

The dissonance here is enabling: come here, earn money, live in our playground, and don’t mind the poor, they’re better off here than many places in America. At least it’s not so cold that people will die sleeping rough.

I’m not sure if sf is pushing me to radicalism or conformism. It’s a tempting bubble—a hedonistic lifestyle where you can relive your early twenties, assuming you can live with the implicit death penalty for the poor and disadvantaged.

Now I’m back safely in my Scottish rut, I can’t say I’ve escaped the gaping void between rich and poor. It just isn’t so obvious on my doorstep.