Disrupting Disrupt

A friend and I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to hit the final TechCrunch Disrupt after-party last night. Because, sheer curiosity. So here comes one of those borderline journalistic essays where, no, I didn’t actually formally interview anyone. But a conversation we had offered a fascinating glimpse into attitudes held by folks working in the tech startup sector, so I’m blogging it.

My friend and I just went in (I was allowed in as press after being obnoxious about it; his borrowed badge had a girl’s name on it), drank free Coronas, and talked to people. Unsurprisingly, we soon found ourselves in a heated discussion as we sat in a booth on the top floor of Mezzanine, across from a young, well-dressed tech worker with ties to the venture capitalist world. I’m relaying what he said here without using his name. Is that disruptive or something? Well, fuck it, here goes.

As a San Francisco resident who works at a company at the heart of the tech startup world, he had very strong opinions about tech’s influence on the city’s housing market. He and others were in full agreement that rental prices in San Francisco are utterly ridiculous and out of hand.

But he dismissed critics who single out tech workers as agents of gentrification, calling them unrealistic and out-of-touch. The only way to respond to the crisis is to build taller buildings and increase density, he insisted. But those critics from the far left are just too stubbornly resistant to change, making it impossible to build anything. As he saw it, those shrill critics and their penchant for protesting everything were the reason the housing crisis is as bad as it is.

The techie we met was an impassioned speaker, his face muscles tightening and eyes fixed upon us with intensity as he informed us that change is inevitable. It’s just the way things go, he said. You can’t expect to stop it. For example, it’s unpopular to say that the Tenderloin should be made better, he told us – the critics would just howl about removing poor people – but that location is so critical, given where it is! And even if tech did make a concerted effort to find a solution to the housing crisis, he added, it would never be enough to satisfy those critics, who would only dismiss it. “They would just say, ‘oh look, now the techies are getting their way,’” he practically exploded. “‘Now the city is just going to be just like Manhattan.’”

I started to dig in, pointing out that the city was dotted with construction cranes building mostly market-rate housing that no one with an ordinary income could possibly afford. But my friend kept his cool. He calmly asked the techie if he really wanted to live in a city where everything resembled the Financial District.

Financial districts in nearly every city in America are practically identical to one another, my friend pointed out. “It’s like an algal bloom. It sucks the life out of everything.” The difference between living in a culturally diverse metropolis, and a “company town,” where just about everyone has some financial connection with the venture capitalists who are running the show, is the difference between living in a vibrant city and one where that dead-zone effect extends to every corner. Is that really what we want?

Upon hearing that, our techie softened, and grew a little more contemplative. And he made some remarkably candid remarks about tech culture, something he eats, sleeps, and breathes.

It’s all so “hyperactive,” he told us. He regularly sees people who come to San Francisco and try to accomplish as much as possible, with the greatest expediency, so they can cash in and get out. “It’s not like you’re going to stay here,” he said. Startups come and go literally in a matter of weeks, he added, so you never have a chance to get to know people. “It’s transient,” he acknowledged, but a common refrain is that that’s precisely what makes it so “dynamic.” Yet he acknowledged that at the end of the day, it all amounted to a situation where practically nobody has any lasting connection to the community.

No, a bland, boring, monocultural city isn’t what anybody wants, the techie told us, once we really got into it. To the contrary, he said, people in tech would rather be exposed to art and culture. “I’m an optimist,” he insisted. He’d like to believe that the tech community would never allow that sort of outcome, he added sincerely, that they’d come together to find some solution, for “the greater good.” But I pressed him on this point, asking if he was willing to advance that conversation. Would he warn people that something had to change? “In order to do that,” he said, “I’d have to grow a serious pair!”

I blurted out, “But you’re supposed to disrupt!

It was the comic relief we all needed in what was becoming a seriously emotional exchange, and we all started cracking up. Soon after, we were interrupted by some performance on the main stage, where a guy wearing a gigantic yellow smiley face on his head – like a spherical, 3D emoticon – was lighting the globular thing ablaze. The cartoonish smiley face went sideways while sparks spewed out from it, while blaring techno music thumped along with the spectacle. Applause and hollers arose from the crowd.

Then, promptly at midnight, the lights came on, and any sexy veneer that might have exuded from a gathering of VCs and startup founders faded instantly. Suddenly it was all just tired conference-goers, mostly men, who’d been showered with free beer and wine while continuing to network late into the night, many of them still wearing enormous printed badges that said, “DISRUPT.” Many of the out-of-towners were probably starting to wonder where exactly in San Francisco they even were, and how long it would take for an Uber to show up and ferry them away.