Discover more from Margins by Ranjan Roy and Can Duruk
Welcome back, San Francisco
This should have been a Medium post
Hi. Can here. This one is personal.
Hello, San Francisco
I was young and restless. I didn’t even realize the start date on my offer was the day after I graduated when I signed it. Luckily, the good folks at Digg were understanding and pushed it a couple of weeks. I still flew from Pittsburgh to San Francisco the day after the ceremony, but at least there was some slack.
I didn’t have a place to stay when I landed, so I went to this warehouse my friend used to stay. It was exactly that, a giant warehouse turned into a living space. There was a giant hammock, and the first person I saw sleep on it was a guy who kept talking about his apartment sharing app, or site as we called things then. I remember asking him name over and over again. It just sounded a bunch of vowels to my Turkish ears, instead of an actual word. Air-something-something?
In a week or so, I found a place to stay with my roommate, who I met from my internship at Yahoo! the year before. We had two huge rooms, a sprawling living room and a view of the Bay from our balcony. Even with our entry-level jobs, we could afford a pretty luxurious place because we worked in capital-t Tech. Of course, we bought a giant TV, coupled with not one but two gaming consoles. Our complex had a pool and two saunas with views of the downtown San Francisco, so people came around often. Life was good.
Work was good too. In less than a week’s time, I was checking in code to one of the biggest websites at the time. Push, wait, boom. Live. Celebrity CEOs were in the office because I also worked for one. I was young, fresh-faced, wide-eyed and those things mattered to me. My close friend at the time, who worked for an oil company on the east coast didn’t believe we had a fridge full of beer in the office. Blasphemy! She couldn’t even wear open-toed shoes and we had an intern who refused to wear shoes. Gross. Could he have at least worn some Vibrams?
Digg was a special company, at a special time. We threw parties, and fancy people showed up. We were a technology company, apparently, so we did what technology companies do and over-engineered things. Things didn’t work at our scale, apparently, and we bet the company on an untested, unproven infrastructure. Things overall didn’t work out too well. Lots of ink would then be spilled on what happened. I, too, spilled some.
My short but sweet tenure at Digg was an accelerated course to life in Silicon Valley, or at least Silicon Valley’s Layer 7 that is San Francisco. The idea seemed nice enough on paper; democratize the news. A bunch of people built a website quickly and it got popular. They raised a ton of money and built some fancy offices. We came up with unique ways to track you all over the web, before doing so would get you a congressional hearing. Then we killed them, somewhat performatively. There were some technical innovations along the way. Voting brigades with questionable politics frequently took over the site before they were collectively called alt-right. Whatever you see happening online now, has happened to Digg in some form or fashion.
Digg doesn’t exist anymore, at least in any way comparable to its past form.
Silicon Valley and the San Francisco it was born into, however, is here and it’s all turned to 11.
Goodbye, San Francisco
After a few years working in tech, things started to take a dark turn for me too.
I was bothered by how expensive the city has gotten. I went from being able to afford a nice place with my junior level salary to having to have multiple roommates to save some money. I felt unsafe, as a man, walking down the street. The human suffering I saw on the sidewalks took the joy out of doing anything for myself. I could see smoke rising from a fire at a homeless encampment from my window.
Tech people seemed to be everywhere, but no one seemed to like us. My girlfriend at the time used to take The Google Bus, and the protests scared her. Posters plastered on my walk home casually hinted at violence towards my brethren. I used to have an album of “techie scum” stickers on my phone. We even accidentally broke democracy?
So I left, first my job, and then San Francisco.
I flew to New York, where I thought about what I wanted to do. I wrote a bunch of things to get things out of my head and on paper. That seemed to help, but it didn’t seem like what I wanted to do. I lived partially on my savings, while also doing freelancing.
In the meantime, in somewhat of a contrarian move, I decided to go to business school. I specifically applied to school outside of California. Through a very convoluted yet intentional turn of events, I got into INSEAD and ended up spending a year split between glitzy Singapore and sleepy France.
And then, in a move that surprised no one but myself, I came back.
As an immigrant, one of the first things you notice in America is how people smile all the time. As a skeptical and a deeply cynical Turkish person, your first instinct is to suspect foul play. You assume that people who smile all the time are either idiots or that they are out to get you. Your friends, for example, cheerily ask you “What’s up?” as they see, but since they don’t wait to listen to your existential droning, you deduce that they are idiots. Similarly, you deep down want to punish the waitress at the cafe for donning a fake grin, as you despise being treated like a human ATM for tips.
A more subtle thing, however, you realize about Americans is how they foolishly optimistic they are about the projects they want to embark on. Back in the motherland, we do not teach kids that they too can be presidents they grow up. The main goal, like in most other parts of the world, is merely to not mess things up too much.
I know this can sound somewhat tone-deaf in 2019, with Trump and climate change and wars, and a myriad of things that make it look like the sky is falling at all times. Yet, even today, the difference between America, and especially Silicon Valley, and the rest of the world is very striking.
In America, people think about the future in a way that’s hard to comprehend for many outsiders. In Turkey, even your best-laid plans do not survive the first contact with your friend, let alone the enemy. Here, people look at obstacles and consider them milestones to clear, not hurdles to be stuck at. In many parts of the world, the natural reaction to any idea, no matter how good it is, is to poke as many holes in it as possible. Here, and I say this with a straight face, people paper over your stupidest ideas because that is just what friends do.
And I wish more people living in America, and especially in Silicon Valley understood how rare, and diminishing, of a commodity that is. It is the obliviousness to the challenges and the foolish naiveté that makes this place work.
I joke a lot, maybe too much, about the obnoxiousness of tech people who want to make the world a better place. The navel-gazing venture capitalists that seem to quip koans all day, every day are annoying. Yet, underneath all that dorm room philosophy, still lies this very rare belief that tomorrow might be a better day than today.
My co-host Ranjan looks at the world through the lens of finance. And maybe, as he says, we are living in a world so flush with capital that we are simply getting high on our supply. That thought has a certain appeal. I don’t think even on 4/20 in Hippie Hill, you could ingest enough drugs to type the words “we want to elevate our consciousness” with a straight face on an IPO prospectus.
But I would like to believe there’s more to it than that. I am genuinely convinced it’s the naiveté.
Last week, I was talking to a friend whose acquittances started an autonomous driving company a few years ago. The founders, who I remotely knew, were generic software engineers that didn’t seem to have any background in what would be required to start building any of the required software or the hardware. I asked my friend, how they started it. There had to be a catch.
He shrugged and said they thought they would figure it out as they went along. Look, I know that this sounds like a cop out-answer. But bear with me for a second.
There’s a way to look at a problem like and worry about all the things you possibly cannot do, and all the things that can go wrong. Most of the outcomes end up in a bad place, ranging from not being able to get this out and running, to actually killing people.
Yet, it’s also possible to simply start somewhere and see where things go.
It turns out, it possible to find a ton of websites that tell you how to hook up a computer to a relatively cheap car, and start controlling it with your keyboard. It’s possible, turns out, that you can find a sample project written by a grad student that allows you to use your laptop’s camera to read the road markings and signs. And it’s possible, turns out, to find empty parking lots where you can test all this stuff out without risking hurting someone. And at some point along the way, it’s possible to end up with something that works, barely, to get someone who might help you out to get to the next place.
I recognize my industry of choice is not perfect. The bro culture runs deep in many places. Casual sexism and racism are still par for the course. Entire parts of the industry either run on preying on people’s psychological vulnerabilities, or regulatory vacuums that put people’s data at risk. I try to voice my opinion on those issues I care about, sometimes at a considerable professional (and social) expense. Because, I think, otherwise I too am complicit.
Similarly, as I decide to call this place home, I want to be involved in solving its problems. The housing crisis is the undeniable existential risk here. And while much of the problem lies at the state level, I’ll be donating my time, money, and platform to get more housing built in this city. I want it not just for myself, but so that there’s a vibrant community of people here.
And lastly but maybe most importantly, I’ve made it a point to stop the digital rubbernecking equivalent of sharing and commenting on everything that’s bad happening in San Francisco and technology industry. This isn’t to say I am isolating myself from the problems, but rather, I am actively acknowledging the gravity of the problems instead of doing the least productive thing of complaining about them.
I encourage you to do the same on all three.
I’ve come to realize, in the time I was away from the city I’ve lived longest in my adult life and the only industry I’ve worked that I miss them both dearly.
I didn’t miss the smell of piss in Soma but missed the views of Golden Gate from Hawk Hill. I did not miss the transactional view of romance that permeates the dating scene, but I missed the people who get excited about the most inane stuff that I found enticing too. I did not miss talking about technology 24/7, but maybe that’s more on me. I didn’t miss the people who talk about their latest funding at a dive bar, but I missed having friends who I can drop by without having to call ahead.
People here, for whatever reason, still carry on that haze of optimism. The idea that you too can give it a try. There are obstacles, but they are just there to jump over, not get stumped by. If you fail, it’s not good, but it’s also not over. You might think people take it a a bit too far. However, I think that is the right side to err on.
We’ll see if I am right, but this time I am optimistic.
What I’m Reading
A Walk in Hong Kong: I think about my time in Singapore daily. It’s hard to describe the highs and lows you get being in a city, or a state, that is so well run yet so…rule-based after living in United States. It comes at a cost, and it’s hard to tell if the idea scales over time, but it does make you question your most strongly held assumptions about how an advanced society could be run. Maciej of @pinboard fame sends his dispatch from Hong Kong, where he’s there during the protests. It’s worth a read, as most things Maciej writes are. His fascination with Hong Kong hits close to home.
All that prelude is to say, coming in to the Hong Kong protests from a less developed country like the United States is disorienting. If you have never visited one of the Zeroth World cities of Asia, like Taipei or Singapore, it can be hard to convey their mix of high density, mazelike design, utterly reliable public services, and high social cohesion, any more than it was possible for me or my parents to imagine a real American city, no matter how many movies we saw. And then to have to write about protests on top of it!
AI’s new workforce: There are two ways how so much of what counts as AI is actually powered by humans. On one hand, you have humans that pretend to be robots to impress you. On the other hand, many of the “real” artificial intelligence tools require millions of pieces of data, carefully tagged by humans so the robots could learn. It’s less artificial than is farmed. Obviously, now there’s a huge cottage industry that spans across the human task supply chain. The input is us; output: AI.
AI supply chain companies insist that their work no longer involves mindless, rote labelling of basic objects such as cats, dogs and houses but has evolved into a far more specialised set of tasks.
For instance, iMerit employees might analyse in-car footage of drivers, including facial expressions and eye blinks to determine driver fatigue; they have trained voice clips for Amazon’s Echo speaker to understand language and analysed satellite imagery of individual buildings and construction sites, to train risk assessment algorithms for insurance companies, Ms Basu said.