Only Connect: A Review of Richard Walker's Pictures of a Gone City
The Brooklyn Rail
April 4th, 2018
By 2100 the San Francisco International Airport will likely see half of its runways submerged in water, reports a New York Times article from March. The study referenced in the article argues that land around the Bay Area that previously had been thought to be sinking at two millimeters per year could in fact be sinking by ten millimeters.1 This problem, now commonplace in our changing climate, is not easily ignored, seeing as the Bay Area has more start-ups, social media companies, venture capital, and tech corporations than anywhere else in the continental United States. The new study was done by Manoochehr Shirzaei, a professor at Arizona State University and Roland Bürgmann, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
Another professor at UC Berkeley, Richard Walker, has just written a book on the subject of the Bay Area, Pictures of a Gone City: Tech and the Dark Side of Prosperity in the San Francisco Bay Area, which both traces the history of information technology and considers the implications climate change will have for Silicon Valley. In the words of a recent study of the area, “San Francisco won the information age lottery, becoming the world center of that technological revolution.”2 To a millenial such as myself, this “luck” of the Bay Area is obvious, but, as Walker shows, the economic focalization of the Tech Industry in the Bay Area has far little to do with luck.
Walker, Professor Emeritus of Geography, has a wealth of experience writing about the area; he has published three books on California since 1990 on topics ranging from agribusiness to conservation of ecology.3 In Pictures of a Gone City Walker appears comfortable applying his geographer’s lens while conducting a tour de force of class analysis, geographic history, and prediction of the future of the Bay Area’s tech sector. The book gets around to the subject of climate change in the chapter titled “Saving Greenland: Environmentalism in the Age of Global Warming.” He praises the past environmental accomplishments of the Bay Area, “but praising past achievements is no longer enough.” This sentiment could be applied to the entirety of Pictures of a Gone City. Ultimately I was left questioning the point of starting on a positive note—praising the Bay Area’s past environmental, economic, and technological achievements—when these efforts have always been entangled with the exploitative imperatives that Walker criticizes.
The dream of the internet was disintermediation—the removal of the cultural and physical mediators that influence our lives—and yet the internet is mediated by wires and physical infrastructure that is vulnerable to climate change. The type of disintermediation that we now call “connecting” on the internet, both to other users and to the information that is being organized, is ultimately only the illusion of disintermediation. Our lives on the internet are mediated by algorithms and software, and even by the font on your favorite social media platform. Mediators exist on the internet, and their design is inherently political. Walker looks at how we came to trust the infrastructures and creators of the internet. He thinks that “there is more at work here than the love of machines and technologies.” Considering the capitalist idea of progress and the wish to dominate the natural environment, he concludes that the separation of humanity from nature has underpinned the dream of capitalism (he invokes the famous Marx quotation, “all that’s solid melts into air.”) This feeling of immateriality in many ways perfectly describes the internet.
Walker takes time to describe a world which is now quite familiar. As he spends the opening chapters describing the terrifying—albeit fascinating—ahistory of Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon, he is not only nostalgic, but even expresses wonder at the world these technology giants have created. He forgets that many of his readers, and most students, grew up in a world where many of these economic and technological changes were already under way; many of the innovations he marvels at are only astonishing to those who can remember a world without them.
Pictures of a Gone City is divided into three parts, the first of which takes a look behind the facade of wealth and celebrity that tends to obscure some of the technical aspects of how Silicon Valley operates. Walker traces the history of growth that has occured in San Francisco since the 1980s. While the rest of the country faltered during the recession, the Bay Area continued full throttle into prosperity with growth in personal income exceeding that in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and Boston.
Much of the first part of the book, “The Golden Economy,” looks at the development of enterprise forms that are now commonplace: the startup, social networking sites, and web portals. He acknowledges the effect of the Silicon Valley entrepreneur on the larger economy: “The mythology of the plucky tech entrepreneur has diffused around the world, becoming a key element in the capitalist dream world of today.” The unfurling of Silicon Valley capitalism has not only changed the way we interact with the economy, but also formed a whole generation. If people are socialized to be productive human capital within the economy in which they are raised, then millennials were shaped to be productive within the confines of Neoliberalism. It is from this tech-dominated social imaginary that we seek to escape.4 The internet provides this escape, if only for a few minutes on the subway, or at the office. The escapism the internet offers may feel like connection, but in a time of environmental catastrophe our lives in the virtual world appear more like a disconnection.
In the second half of part one, Walker flips the spectacle of continual upward financial growth on its head, showing how the vast majority of the wealth generated from Silicon Valley is funneled to a handful of billionaires. He illustrates how the housing market has struggled to respond to the quick changes in market caused by the tech industry, and he shows that San Francisco has a higher poverty measure than any other Bay Area county. The reader is not only meant to question why this disparity exists, but to ask who is responsible. In a list of the “Bay Area’s Fifty Billionaires, 2016”5 tech tops the list with a total of 24 billionaires compared to 11 in finance.
Walker understands the problems climate change poses to the physical infrastructure of the internet. The Bay Area sits precariously along the largest estuary on the West Coast. The rising sea levels are only made worse by high tides and coastal storms. King tides, which mostly occur in the winter, can add a foot or two to already enormous storm tides, creating storm surges over 50% larger than regular tides. Walker points out that real-estate developers have been eager in the last decade to buy up low ground, which is needed for most industry, housing, and transportation. While Save The Bay, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and restoring the San Francisco Bay Area, has done much to stop this development, they may be too late. Although Houston and Miami have “set the bar so low that the Bay Area cannot help but look good by comparison,” Walker makes a contrast with the Netherlands. On an ancient estuary, the Dutch have transformed the Rhine and Scheldt into dry land and have engineered the way the river flows. But Walker does not see this as a likely solution for San Francisco. The studies that have been done, such as the “California Sea-Level Rise Guidance Document” from 2010, have been “strong on warnings but short on specific responses to sea-level rise.” He points out that, although Save The Bay helped vote in Proposition A in 2016—a $25 million per year tax on all property in the nine county Bay Area which goes to the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority—there is only so much that can be done to transform marshlands, and more drastic measures must be taken.
The Rockefeller Foundation is named as giving $5 million in “resiliency design projects” for the region. What is it that they are looking to protect? It is clear that although the dream of the age of Information Technology was to have complete disintermediation and a shift from the physical to the virtual, the physical world is crashing in on all sides, and ecological systems will not bend to the utopian ideals of Silicon Valley. Fires have been tearing through Northern California and in the Bay Area; “farther out, idyllic housing developments for second homes and miniranches are even more exposed. The people who move into such neighborhoods love the sense of open space and contact with nature, and just to put an exclamation point on it they plant up their yards with more trees and shrubbery and fail to adequately prepare safety cordons around their houses. Such places are urban wildfires waiting to happen.” It is ironic that those attempting to leave the city in an effort to reconnect with nature are subject to this violent awakening. Is this the reconnection suburban Californians in the Bay Area are seeking? The planting of shrubbery and trees only illuminates the degree to which the connection is an imaginary one. However, with global climate change nature is no longer something that is acted upon, but something that acts on us. With the realization that nature can no longer be compartmentalized into a cute, controllable state, an escape into the virtual world that Silicon Valley idealizes may seem all the more appealing.
The third part of Pictures of a Gone City traces the “Dreams, Nightmares, and Political Realities” of the Bay Area. Here the analysis turns to global warming, the future of the left, and utopias and dystopias of the IT revolution. In the ninth chapter Walker inquires into the creation of the virtual utopia of cyberculture and disintermediation. He concludes that many of the leaders of Silicon Valley are disconnected from the world they have created. “To their way of thinking” he says “the new digital technologies have opened up vast horizons of possibility for humankind, and with evangelical fervor they have spread the gospel of cyberculture.” While the Bay Area tech giants he investigates indeed spread this gospel of cyberculture, the seeds of their creed had been planted long before many had heard of the internet.
The theory of cybernetics, created by Norbert Wiener when he was a professor of mathematics at MIT, devised a new way of understanding regulatory systems. Wiener set out to explain how we can understand all systems on the basis of treating information as a measurable quantity, allowing it to be studied statisticallly. In his 1950 article, “Cybernetics,” Wiener writes, “any system for the transmission of messages must be continually ready for the transmission of one or the other of a set of alternatives. In order that these alternatives may be read clearly, it is essential that the line be cleared from the confusion of past alternatives. This is done with the aid of filters and similar selective apparatus.” This understanding of information has since been applied to Earth’s systems, humans, and computers.
As the internet broke out of the confines of the military, cybernetic theory was picked up by early tech pioneers, many under the influence of the Bay Area’s psychedelic counterculture. Early internet influencers such as Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalogue, and literary agent John Brockman, were ready for the idea , to use Wiener’s words, of a “selective apparatus filtering the alternatives of transmission”—much of the literature surrounding psychedelic drug use coming out of the Bay Area at the time told a similar story of the human mind. Fred Turner, author of From Counterculture to Cyberculture, notes the connection between USCO, a media art collective Stewart Brand was involved with, and cybernetics: “Light, electricity, and mystical ‘energy’ generally played a role in USCO’s work very much like the one ‘information’ plays in Wiener’s cybernetics: they became universal forces that, functioning as the sources and content of all ‘systems.’”6 The coming together of the Bay Area’s art scene and counterculture with the philosophy of cybernetics shaped the way the web we now know was devised and constructed. To understand the ways in which the web fails to connect us, it is necessary to understand how the creators of the web failed to see us as people.
I often wonder if it is ultimately helpful to see humans as another information system like a computer, taking information as “a quantity which measures order, instead of disorder.”7 I was recently advised by a friend to turn my iPhone colors off, rendering everything black or white. His point was that the color on our phones stimulate us, and much of the time we spend staring at our screens is for the pleasure of this stimulation. The change—texts, photos, email, were all deprived of color—was not hugely noticeable at first, but when I eventually switched the color back on I was shocked. Every app became immensely more appealing. When turned back to black and white, I began to realize the ways in which some differences fade. The blue and green text boxes that distinguish iPhone users had vanished. How was I to discriminate the iPhone users from others—the green clearly being a classed identifier? With no color I began using my phone less on the subway, opting for the less accessible gadget—a novel. When we read a book we live in a world that is black and white, all attention working to piece together words and meaning.
I later learned that the black and white theory was from a lifehacker.com article, and there have been many articles since claiming to disprove the trick. However, I am still enthralled by the need felt by so many people to break the addiction to our phones. If the current structuring of information technology is centered around a philosophical system that views the brain as a giant processing machine meant to measure order instead of disorder, where does this leave us?
Facebook, and all of social media, is one place where disintermediation and cybernetic theory combine, with the result that humans are expected to “connect” more on the internet by breaking down the barriers between people and information. Walker looks at Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg, who reiterates that “Facebook was not originally created to be a company. It was built to accomplish a social mission—to make the world more open and connected.” In a New York Review of Books essay on Facebook, Zadie Smith comments on Zuckerberg’s commitment to connection: “He uses the word ‘connect’ as believers use the word ‘Jesus,’ as if it were sacred in and of itself.”8 The connection that the internet makes us feel by removing mediators—or as Facebook put it with its new motto in 2014, to “move fast and break things”—does not produce greater knowledge, lasting friendships, or opportunity simply by nature of creating connection in and of itself.
Walker understands the falseness of “connection,” even though he praises the good that seems to come out of the interconnected world of the internet. However, he does point to some structural changes that could be made, such as algorithm accountability legislation. In Walker’s eyes, the solution is not to turn away from your phone, but rather to democratize the technology—taking control of the internet out of the hands of technology corporations. Much of the book looks historically at how the internet became commodified, and the jobs this created in the Bay Area. However, as highlighted in the third chapter, this wealth has not been shared, as the Bay Area has one of the most concentrated populations of billionaires, and problems of growing inequality between different strata of the labor force.
The billionaires are continuing to insulate themselves from this inequality. Walker highlights the partnership between Paypal founder Peter Thiel and Patri Friedman, grandson of economist Milton Friedman, as emblematic of neoliberalism, an economic model much indebted to Milton Friedman, and its entanglement with tech entrepreneurialism. Thiel and Friedman’s organization The Seasteading Institute is working to build completely wired floating islands on the ocean. The institute claims to be “working to provide a machinery of freedom to choose new societies on the blue frontier.” To do this, the institute is building a prototype on a Polynesian lagoon. While the wealthy will float on the rising seas, the locals will be left to fend for themselves.
Elon Musk, who co founded Paypal with Thiel, is also devising plans for escape. “Technotopian escapism,” Walker says, “is fully manifest in Elon Musk’s obsession with rockets and establishing a colony on Mars. Tesla’s Musk has created a space exploration company, SpaceX, to carry out his scheme.” The dream of space travel is much like the idea of the internet in offering the promise of escape from physical and ecological realities. However, as the tides rise in the Bay Area, Musk and Thiel might have to find a bigger spacecraft. Thiel imagines that his lifeboat of floating islands will succeed in avoiding the implications of global climate change—but he is wrong. Every device that provides us with the feeling of interconnectedness uses materials that were drilled from the earth, and these devices now clutter landfills and amass mountains of waste. Below the Bay Area run millions of wires, wrapping themselves around the estuary that now is sinking into the sea. Information technology and cyberculture intend us to leave the physical ecological setting to which we are bound. However, as tech billionaires plan their next attempt at escape, the natural world is closing in on all sides.
Pictures of a Gone City surveys almost every aspect of internet technology in the Bay Area. The book is published by Spectre, and it is easy to see it being courselisted. Many of the chapters—all exceptionally well researched—could stand on their own. The book’s strength is its scope; its main weakness is that there are issues that Walker touches on and quickly abandons, shifting his lens elsewhere. While this gives an all-encompassing view of the Bay Area’s relationship to IT, the focalization of the book is unclear, and Walker does not present one clear thesis or solution to the problems he identifies. At its strongest, Pictures of a Gone City demonstrates Walker’s skill as a geographer. The reader truly gets a feeling for the landscape where the action is taking place. If there is one thread tying the whole book together, it is San Francisco itself, and Walker’s deep feeling for the fate of his city.
- Griggs, Troy. “More of the Bay Area Could Be Underwater in 2100 Than Previously Expected.” The New York Times, March 7. 2018
- Storper, Michael, Thomas Kemeny, Naji Philip Makarem, and Taner Osman. The Rise and Fall of Urban Economies: Lessons from San Francisco and Los Angeles. Stanford University Press, 2015.
- And see his article “It’s (Still) Chinatown, Jake”, in Field Notes, November 2015.
- Harris, Malcolm. Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials. Little, Brown, 2018.
- Source: Guzman 2016 based on Forbes 400 annual list.
- Turner, Fred. “Stewart Brand Meets the Cybernetic Counterculture.” From Counterculture to Cyberculture. The University of Chicago Press, 2006.
- Wiener, Norbert. “Cybernetics”. Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 3, No. 7 (April 1950)
- Smith, Zadie. “Generation Why?” The New York Review of Books. November 25, 2010.