Saving San Francisco


First came the gold-seeking 49ers, and then came the newly-minted computer science college grads.

“We’ve been a city of innovation ever since the Gold Rush,” David Chiu, supervisor of San Francisco’s board of directors, declared at the Share conference in May 2014. Share, hosted in San Francisco, convened for two days to talk about the most recent developments in “the sharing economy,” an industry newly thrust into the startup scene by heavyweights like Uber and Airbnb. But the conference was also a glimpse into what the future of “sharing” may look like: share your parking spot, your household appliances, your personal belongings, all with a click or a swipe on your smartphone.

From its inception, Silicon Valley has enjoyed its longstanding reputation as a home—the home—of rapid growth and development. And although the South Bay, just a few Caltrain stops away from San Francisco, geographically dominated tech culture in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, demographics have finally shifted northwards. Now, San Francisco’s name has become synonymous with its inhabitants: the young, male, college-educated hackers. The city itself has transformed into a hotbed for tech startups, of which the sharing startups comprise a substantial subset. Tech companies are moving into the SoMa neighborhood. Their workers are moving into Mission, the adjacent neighborhood. And longtime residents are moving out, into cheaper districts, or across the bay into neighboring Oakland.

Much ink has been spilled over San Francisco’s recent and dramatic transformation. The city’s rapid (and accelerating) process of gentrification has accumulated its share of both vocal critics and champions. Headlines about protesters picketing outside the windows of Google buses appear alongside announcements of multimillion—or billion—dollar valuations. Allegations of rising evictions in apartments later transformed into Airbnb getaways coexist in the same city as Airbnb’s headquarters.

Gentrification isn’t a new phenomenon. Brooklyn has undergone a similar process: new residents and new industry moved in, displacing existing residents as rent and the prices of consumer goods rose. Other urban pockets across the nation are currently gentrifying. And the process itself is not unilaterally negative: oftentimes, rises in cost-of-living expenses are coupled with decreases in neighborhood crime rates.

Yet San Francisco somehow feels like a special case. With an industry that associates itself with an anti-establishment spirit of “disruption” and a communalistic spirit of mutually-beneficial sharing, the exclusivity of the Google buses and the rising numbers of evictions in the Mission district clash with the narrative that the industry prides itself on.

Disrupting Trust

In the Bay Area, the product isn’t just software or hardware; it’s the philosophy behind it. Jason Tanz’s recent article on trust in the sharing economy in Wired claims that the success of sharing services—ranging from loaning out power tools to crashing for a night in somebody’s spare room—hinges on a level of trust that has otherwise become defunct in our modern lives. Tanz presents a vision of the sharing economy that positions algorithms as intermediaries to human interaction, a world where technology and commerce facilitate small interconnections between strangers.

And here, “small” is the operative word. In Tanz’s world, riding an Uber to the airport isn’t merely a convenient and inexpensive alternative to a taxi, it’s also a blow—however slight—against the institutions (like taxicabs, presumably) that have created what he refers to as a “centralized trust infrastructure.” This structure, he claims, has served as a poor substitute for the real person-to-person trust that sharing services are finally resurrecting. Small-scale, personalized interactions that comprise the heart of sharing services provide an alternative structure to the centralized institution: a benevolent anarchy operating on the Google Maps API.

The rhetoric Tanz uses to describe the sharing economy mirrors the rhetoric of Silicon Valley startups in the aggregate. “Disruption” pits the scrappy, enterprising startup against industry giants, suggesting that the very nature of progress rests in the complete uprooting of pre-established, woefully ineffective systems. The idea has become something of a call-to-arms in tech: disrupt public transportation. Disrupt the hotel industry. Disrupt restaurants, parking spots, hardware stores. No industry is safe. And now, following Tanz’s argument, neither is something as vacuous as “trust.”

Jill Lepore’s bruising critique of the economic underpinnings of “disruption” exposed the critical flaw of disruptive innovation: it is an economic theory that only works when applied retroactively. It holds no predictive power. However, when exclaimed earnestly, a call to “disrupt!” serves less as a guiding economic principle and more as an ideological vision for what Silicon Valley, at its best, must strive to do. While Airbnb provides a powerful alternative to the hotel industry, “Bélo,” Airbnb’s new logo, eschews the practical in favor of the ideological. The upside-down looped heart, with its charm and simplicity, invites users to reinvent and reinterpret the logo. The Bélo is “homemade” and “unique,” expressing the company’s commitment to individualism and to the desire to find a common core—belonging—within diversity. Brian Chesky, founder and CEO of Airbnb, blogged that “people thought Airbnb was about renting houses. But really, we’re about home. You see, a house is just a space, but a home is where you belong. And what makes this global community so special is that for the very first time, you can belong anywhere. That is the idea at the core of our company: belonging.”

The idea of disruption pairs powerful dogma with what appears to be the perfect vehicle for it: the hungry startup staffed by college-educated computer science students. This seems, in part, inevitable. It’s hard to idealize the machinations of some international conglomerate, but we can still spin Cinderella stories of dorm-room startups. And when it comes to realizing a vision as grandiose as belonging in a global community, speed matters. Startups can achieve a breakneck pace of development that city councils cannot hope to match. No wonder even the most idealistic of college undergraduates seem to gravitate towards this fix-it-yourself ethos.

“You can live off the energy [at Airbnb]—the place is electric,” a recent undergraduate intern explained to the HPR. “[Startups] are the modern day gold rush. I met a lot of kids [in San Francisco] who were interested in getting rich quick, but there’s a strain of idealism in that, too.”

The former intern elaborated that Airbnb’s emphasis on “belonging anywhere” is not just a clever marketing ploy, and that “culture fit” played an important role in the hiring process. “The values were as important as my skill set. … They prioritized personality and goals … I know the people there, and the [employees] were generally there because they wanted to make the world a better place through opening up people’s homes. Whether or not they are … is yet to be determined.”

The San Francisco Bay area runs not on algorithms but on idealism. And as hackneyed as phrases like “disrupt” and “revolutionize” may seem, the talent flowing into Silicon Valley, and the pace of development that the private sector can offer, positions startups to actually fulfill their creative visions. So what’s missing?

The Imperfections of the Algorithm

Despite all of Airbnb’s talk of “belonging to a global community,” the end result is less utopic than the slogan suggests. The Mission district of San Francisco, known for its colorfully graffitied walls and proximity to SoMa, has been propelled to local stardom as the nucleus of the gentrification debate unfolding in San Francisco. And recently, reports surfaced indicating that landlords in the Mission district had forced out tenants in order to convert the properties to Airbnb rentals, much to the chagrin of proponents of the sharing economy. Aside from the already-rising rent prices in San Francisco, the rise of homesharing provides another powerful incentive for homeowners to break lease contracts, evict tenants, and opt for more lucrative ways of utilizing extra space. Paradoxically, the company that believes that “[one] can belong anywhere” has actually stripped individuals of their own homes. And yet, in spite of this, Airbnb has continued to release advertisements promoting their logo redesign and the company’s role in creating a culture of belonging.

From where, or what, does this stunning disconnect emerge? “We have unprecedented access to information … and this is largely a function of technological change,” Tressie Cottom, sociologist and research fellow at Microsoft Research Network’s Social Media Collective, stated in a recent talk at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. “But we are also living in an ideological moment—in this idea of meritocracy—that is all too happy to assume what I call ‘technocratic solutionism,’ the belief that [technological innovation] will magically erase persistent inequalities.”

In a conversation with the HPR, Cottom suggested that algorithms and software are being developed absent a broader awareness of inequalities—of access, of experience, and of external perception—amongst user bases. Empirically, the very algorithms that Jason Tanz envisioned as facilitating a utopian view of human interconnection seem to actually reinforce existing socioeconomic inequalities. At a roundtable at Share, Nikki Silvestri, executive director at Green For All, revealed that performance ratings of Airbnb owners, all else equal, are stratified across racial and gender boundaries, with white females performing the best and black males performing the worst. “There are issues of perception. There are issues of class, and race: stereotypes and prejudice. All of the things we all carry. And when you talk about stranger to stranger systems, these behaviors will replicate,” Silvestri explained during the roundtable.

Cottom noted in an interview with the HPR that “algorithms, as they are being designed, are not at all interested with helping people make better choices. They’re interested in learning about what decisions people are inclined to make and how to leverage that information for profit or attention.” Profit influences product. And counter to claims of trust and community, these algorithms are leveraging existing systemic biases and perpetuating them.

As the sharing economy—like so many similar subsets of the tech industry—attempts to capitalize on its ideals of “trust” and “community,” the natural tendency to quantify may further exacerbate existing inequalities in its user base. Susie Cagle, a Bay Area journalist and author of “The Case Against Sharing,” argued that “there are still all types of good that can come out of the sharing economy … [but] now it’s going to come with the problematic aspect of a ‘trust score.’” The “trust score” that Cagle refers to captures the idea of the aggregation of all the information collected on a participant in the sharing economy. Cagle’s wariness over the quantification of something abstract like “trust” comes from the ease with which subtle biases can influence an individual’s rating for any single transaction. “The issue with the Uber rating system for drivers and passengers is that it’s ripe for abuse and discrimination,” Cagle argued. “That’s not discussed enough. You can rate your driver based on whatever standards you think you should, and Uber doesn’t tell you what to take into account, and they don’t tell you that any driver with below a four-and-a-half star rating is automatically deactivated.”

It seems, however, that implementing some sort of control for race or gender could offer a possible solution. But, as Cagle noted, “While there’s potential there, I don’t see it happening. Because I don’t see these tech workers feeling concerned about it.”

The unwillingness to alter algorithms in order to correct for systemic biases does not signal an inherent failure of technology. Rather, the act of championing purely quantitative approaches embodies a certain strain of selective blindness. Such myopia seems inevitable given the demographics of the region. Recent diversity reports released by Twitter, Facebook, and Google revealed (to little surprise) that the modal tech worker is white, male, and college-educated. “[T]he problem with algorithms is that people are still behind them … and we know that these tech companies—Facebook, Twitter, and the like—are heavily dominated by white men,” Cottom continued.

“Software engineers at Airbnb are predominantly white or Asian males,” the former intern confirmed. “The demographics aren’t necessarily related to [issues like the Mission evictions or the biases in Airbnb user performance], but they affect it.”

Moreover, from above, demographic homogeneity in firms that finance startups may also contribute to a lack of awareness of sociocultural problems. Cagle noted in an interview with the HPR that “if you look at pictures of boards of venture capital firms, they’re predominantly white men.”

And in the city of San Francisco itself, the socioeconomic, gender, and racial dynamics are just as salient. According to the Brookings Institution, the city has the fastest growing income gap in the nation. And the process of gentrification has worsened gaps between socioeconomic and racial groups, disproportionately affecting San Francisco’s black population. Demographic data suggest that the tech industry is largely insulated from issues surrounding race and class, and this insulation has appeared to perpetuate the region’s brand of “technocratic solutionism.”

Nellie Bowles of Re/code recently published a collection of quotes on figures in tech from the Code Conference in May. They seem to reflect the disconnected naïveté that Cagle and Cottom criticize. “You’re qualified to drive a car, but not professionally doing it. Congratulations, boom, you’re making [a] $90,000-a-year average Uber salary,” Mike Jones, former CEO of Myspace, is quoted as saying at Code. He makes it sound so simple. Never mind the optimism built into the $90,000 approximation.

This idealistic treatment of the products of the tech industry ultimately prevents companies and their workers from approaching the tough conversation of correcting for entrenched inequalities that their software does little to correct for. The ideology of “disruption” perpetuates a fiction of equality and impartiality, and as long as Silicon Valley continues to subscribe to it, the utopian goals of startups like Airbnb will inevitably remain elusive.

Software Solutions

However, to view San Francisco’s “technocratic solutionism” as a fundamentally broken ideal critically underestimates the dynamic and rapid progress that tech industry is capable of achieving. Both Cottom and Cagle suggest that continuing to invest in tech education for groups currently underrepresented in STEM could provide the kind of enhanced social awareness necessary to reconcile tech’s ideals with its reality. Increase the numbers of women and minorities in the field, and the kind of products pitched will shift to reflect the wealth of additional perspectives.

But perhaps a more fundamental realignment is warranted here. If the industry’s approach to software is to optimize the product based on existing circumstances—prejudices, inequalities, and systemic biases included—then tech companies lack the philosophical motivation to act as intermediaries. If the industry views technology in a sociopolitical vacuum, then the industry will continue to create platforms where individuals who have traditionally benefited from political and economic structures will continue to benefit from these “disruptive” technologies.

Technocratic solutionism, as a driving force for innovation, needs to be retooled to position the algorithm as a new kind of intermediary. Technology must be a critical tool to accounting for inequalities in a manner that mitigates, rather than exacerbates, persistent inequalities within the platform. Whether this involves altering the driver rating system in Uber or encouraging more discerning reviews on Airbnb, a greater potential for nuance in the evaluation of stranger-to-stranger interactions could be a crucial first step.

Increasing representation (both in the workforce and among customers) may provide motivation from the roots. And support from above, in the form of similar actions from industry giants, could further catalyze this change of mindset. However achieved, devising tech platforms that structure interactions between individuals in a way that promotes empathy and corrects for systemic bias, will empower the industry to finally approach some of its loftier ideals. Only then can San Francisco truly reclaim its reputation as “the city of innovation.”


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Copyright 2017