Gone City


Emeryville CA, October 16, 2018

I’ve been dipping into Richard (Dick) Walker‘s new book Pictures of a Gone City: Tech and the Dark Side of Prosperity in the San Francisco Bay Area (PM Press, Oakland, CA, 2018). It’s a fascinating read. The book discusses how Northern California’s Bay Area – including Silicon Valley, the city of San Francisco, and the East Bay – has emerged as the global epicenter of high technology. Importantly,  the book also examines the broader context, downsides and implications of the region’s massive high tech growth.

It is always interesting to see how different authors account for the rise and dominance of high technology in the Bay Area.  Walker, who is is Professor Emeritus of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley, goes through several accounts, including the role of US defense spending, R&D investment, spillovers from Stanford University, and the activities of the creative classes. While these all have a role, in the end Walker emphasizes these key drivers: 1. the Bay Area’s ability to fund start-ups at scale through massive venture capital assets; 2. “eager entrepreneurs” – including many talented and ambitious migrants from other countries as well as other US regions; and 3. the swirling exchange of ideas and innovations within the Bay Area’s dynamic industrial cluster which in turn is well-linked to global supply chains and talent pools.

The sheer dominance of the Bay Area today in developing and profiting from high technology innovation is amply documented in the book. Reproduced here, in one chart that caught my eye, is the lead in patenting that the Bay Area has opened up in recent years over other large US metropolitan areas (Fig 1.1).

From Walker, 2018 (p. 15).

There is an explicit 21st Century “Tale of Two Cities” aspect to the narrative.  Information technologies and financial services have accumulated huge amounts of wealth for the Bay Area, with many billionaires and hundreds of thousands of highly-paid IT workers; yet there is also a great deal of homelessness, low-paid work and poverty, housing prices are not affordable for many (maybe most!), and widening inequality amid huge wealth. Alongside numerous gleaming business towers, prestige cultural buildings, and expensive new apartments,  lower-income neighborhoods are being displaced and gentrified with sprawling urbanization and long-distance commuting reaching far out from central business districts. Environmental degradation is high, notwithstanding the strength of environmentalism in the region, and the Bay Area’s long-standing progressive traditions are challenged by the sheer scale of the issues faced (and the unhelpfulness, even ruthlessness, of the current federal administration).

The title of the book alludes to “Pictures of the Gone World” – an early 1950s poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. In that poem, Ferlinghetti writes: “The world is a beautiful place to be born into if you don’t mind some people dying all the time or maybe only starving some of the time which isn’t half so bad if it isn’t you.” Seven decades further on, this remains poignant for the Bay Area today, which combines so much beauty with what many now regard as too much unhappiness and misery.

Walker’s analysis looks at both the impressive growth and depressive depths of Bay Area technology-driven development. The former always seems to beget the latter in Walker’s dialectical unpacking of the dynamics of technological capitalism. Walker eschews policy agendas or technical solutions, and does not deeply question the intrinsic nature of technological development and how we might control it. But he does argue for an upsurge of “radical organizing” to push for social progress.

On a personal note: Dick Walker was a fantastic, truly helpful, intellectually brilliant, and much appreciated member of my doctoral thesis committee at UC Berkeley. Wonderfully, I was able to meet up with Dick this last weekend to discuss the book and other things too!