Geographer Richard Walker Discusses the Dark Side of San Francisco's Prosperous Tech Boom


UC Berkeley geography professor Richard Walker spoke with us about his latest book, Pictures of a Gone City: Tech and the Dark Side of Prosperity in the San Francisco Bay Area, which examines the Bay Area’s economic history and the social costs of the region’s latest tech boom. Walker’s past books include The Capitalist Imperative: Territory, Technology and Industrial Growth, one of the most cited books in the field of economic geography, and The Country in the City: The Greening of the San Francisco Bay Area.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

MFU: Why did you decide to write Pictures of a Gone City?

RW: Well, the reasons one writes a book are sometimes more accidental than you might think, like so much in life. The Bay Area is a place I’ve written about a lot. I had previously written about the dot-com boom in the 1990s. In the 2000s I wrote about the mortgage bubble in California and financial crisis of 2008-2010. So, I thought I should come back and revisit all that for the boom of the 2010s. I had been giving lectures on the astonishing tech boom and the transformation of the Bay Area, so I thought I’d turn it into an article. Then, friends of mine at PM press said, ‘Please do us a short book.’ It started out to be a short book but it ended up as a rather long one because there’s a lot to say and I know a fair amount about what's gone on here.

MFU: In this book you detail how San Francisco’s tech industry has brought about progress and innovation, but also how it has amplified inequities. You’ve said in other interviews that what is happening in San Francisco is just a sign of capitalism more globally, but can you discuss why you believe these issues are really concentrated in San Francisco?

RW: Right. There are a lot of similarities in what is taking place in all the big cities of the world, because the biggest metropoles are monopolizing the most important functions of capitalism, monopolizing capital itself, and experiencing phenomenal rates of transformation — gentrification, inequality, housing through the roof, and so on. But the Bay Area is number one in all those regards because it is the world’s center of the tech industry, the most important industry in the world today in terms of numbers of people employed in tech and in terms of the way it has revolutionized modern life.

MFU: Stories about tech entrepreneurs and giants often leave out the achievements of the people and the projects that came before them and how they benefited from public programs. Can you talk about the glorification of entrepreneurs and individual innovation in American society?

RW: Absolutely. To begin with, the tech revolution of the 21st century is popularly regarded as de novo – an utterly new phenomenon – as if capitalism hasn’t been revolutionizing industry and our way of life for the last 200 or 300 years. This is just the latest wave of something that’s been going on for a long time. If I had written this book in the mid 19th century, we would be talking about the railroads or the mining industry in the west; or if I were writing in the 1920s, we'd be discussing the car, the automobile industry, the arrival of petroleum, and so forth. Today it’s tech, but in many ways it's just more of the same. Obviously, the scale has gotten bigger because of globalization, the sophistication of the technology, and so on, but in some ways it’s a story we’ve seen before.

Now, as to the glorification of the entrepreneurs, that mythology leaves out the fact that their accomplishments rest on 200-300 years of modern science, industrial technology, the creation of institutions, the growth of cities, more educated labor, and so on and so on. More specifically, there is a deep history of information technology in the Bay Area, going back to the invention of the vacuum tube by Lee de Forest down in Palo Alto in 1908, the development of radio technology, tube technology, long distance transmission technology, then radar and sonar tubes, and special effects tubes for Hollywood. After that, comes solid state electronics in the 1950s with the transistor. Then microelectronics develops at a very high rate in Silicon Valley, more than anyplace else. In short, there’s this very long history that has left a very deep technological base, a very wide technological base for present-day tech innovators to stand on. Then, of course, behind all that is a hundred years of skilled labor, indeed, people of all levels of skill, from the very best scientists and engineers on down. There have also been a lot of brilliant tinkerers who were just a cut above the machinists and so on – guys had a lot of practical hands-on skills who set up their own companies. Today, of course, there is a huge concentration of hundreds of thousands of tech workers who make it possible for the big companies to function and for new ideas to proliferate, find a footing and be put into effect. So, it isn’t just a few geniuses by a long shot.

MFU: We’re seeing a shift in how communities engage with large corporations in terms of taxation. We saw Seattle almost succeed at passing a tax on big business; New York residents rejected the deal Amazon proposed there; and San Franciscans just passed a tax on the highest-earning companies to address their homelessness crisis. Can you talk about this shifting perspective and the backlash we’re seeing against these companies?

RW: Yes, and don’t forget about the lesser places like Mountain View that have tried to pass such taxes. The impact — particularly on housing and traffic — of all these tech companies and the growth of employment is dispersed around the Bay Area. So things are bubbling up from below, not just in the big centers like San Francisco, but all over. I think there’s a lot of revolt that hasn’t coalesced. Of course, new taxes are something that are very tough to sell, given decades of propaganda against taxation, so it's a tricky business for those trying to rein in the tech giants.

At the same time, there’s a suburb of Washington D.C. that’s going ahead with giving giving away the store to Amazon for its eastern headquarters. This is absolutely the wrong thing to be doing. Yet cities often feel desperate, doing whatever they can to attract business, selling themselves for a mess of pottage. Furthermore, they have been sold some quite bogus ideas about what’s going to bring them prosperity. One error is to think that prosperity only comes from private investment and there is nothing government can do on its own, so that the best thing local government can do is pave the way for private industry. Even worse, they're taught that it's a competitive world where capital will go elsewhere if you don't give away the store to reel 'em in. Yet, economic geographers have been saying for at least thirty, forty years, that if there's one thing we know for sure it is that tax incentives and giveaways do nothing to attract industry. Companies decide where to locate based on markets, on labor forces, infrastructure, and so on; for them, the giveaways are just frosting on the cake.

Furthermore, people are in the dark about the potential for independent government action for local development. Radical alternatives to luring private business are always greeted with sneers. Take for example the Green New Deal. ‘Oh, we can’t possibly afford it!’, say the critics. Well, in fact, the country afforded the first New Deal in the 1930s in the middle of the greatest depression in American history. So radical government initiatives are quite plausible, and the left doesn't have to invent quirky ideas like modern monetary theory to justify them; we have a lot of history to support something like the Green New Deal.

So, if tax breaks aren't the reason why the tech industry is concentrated in the Bay Area and other big cities, how do we explain it? The way economic geography works – as we see very clearly in the case of the Bay Area – is that once an industrial agglomeration gets established, it tends to keep growing as long as the industry is doing well. It has has been proven over and over that the economies of the whole are greater than the sum of the parts, and it is to every company and entrepreneur to be close to the action in such places. So, if you’re Mark Zuckerberg and you invent Facebook in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where does he end up? Silicon Valley. Because that’s where he can get the finance, the people, the advice, and put his idea into action. Same thing with Marc Andreessen, who invented Netscape in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois and then moved to the Bay Area. In fact, a huge percentage of the new startups in Silicon Valley over the last twenty years are Indian and Chinese engineer entrepreneurs. What are they doing here? They’ve come a long way to be in the center of the action.

MFU: You’ve also written about environmental issues for a long time and you’ve spoken about the libertarian tendencies in the tech world, how tech is promising to deliver the future, and why they see our democratically elected institutions as an impediment to growth. Can you talk about the limits of capitalism and how this mentality is not helping to address some of our most pressing social and environmental justice issues?

RW: Well, the tech titans are not addressing our pressing social and environmental issues. You can’t address collective social problems very easily, if at all, without the state, without government. The libertarian illusion is that any problem can be solved through the market – if you’re a right-wing libertarian, that is; left-wing libertarians think you can do it with local councils and workers' ownership. But modern society is too big and too complex for that approach, and the U.S. is just too huge. Unless you were to break the U.S. up into fifty countries, which isn’t likely, we can’t have that degree of direct democracy, so we need the state to solve our collective problems.

The libertarian tech boys don't even see the crises facing the world. They are in the middle of a market-driven explosion of their businesses, so to them everything looks hunky-dory. They also don’t see the world's problems because it’s outside their sphere of competence and most of them have their noses to their screens or to their bank books.

Moreover, to the extent they do see challenges, they’re very dismissive of traditional political and social solutions. Because they are the representatives of the new industrial revolution and the IT tsunami, they think tech is the greatest thing and inventions based on IT can deal with anything to arise. But solving problems like inequality, public housing, and gentrification is not like solving tech puzzles. Even farther from IT are problems like how to deal with popular resentment against inequality, let alone how to run a democracy. The tech titans don’t know anything about such things, which lie far beyond their field of vision and their capacities, however brilliant they may be.

It's good to remember that this kind of hubris predates the 21st century by a long time. It’s an ideology that’s been rife among the capitalists and engineers since at least the 18th century. Progress! We’re bringing you the future! The future will be a better place because we’ll all be richer, machines will make our lives more convenient, and there will be all kinds of fun new toys. That’s always been the lie. There’s always been a dark side to capitalist progress, as critics have long pointed. Unfortunately, it’s often been the conservatives, like Nietzsche, who have made the best criticisms of the cost of modernity, while too often the left has been entranced by modernity and the promise of the bigger, brighter future. It’s a very beguiling ideology. Americans have been total suckers for this ideology going back a long way. We dismiss the lessons of history. We only see ourselves getting bigger, richer, and more powerful.

MFU: You did an event recently with David Harvey at City Lights. How has Harvey influenced you? And since you’re both geographers, can you talk about how the field of geography has changed? It seems to be extremely popular in theory circles around the world. How have you seen that change in your lifetime?

RW: I backed into geography, which was a minor, almost forgotten discipline in the U.S. when I was young. I meant to go into a graduate program in environmental economics. I was just trying to get out of economics, because I knew I hated neoclassical orthodoxy as an undergraduate major. Because I was a budding environmentalist, I searched a program at Johns Hopkins called Geography and Environmental Engineering, and they offered me a fellowship. So, I went, and it turned out to be a real eye-opener, in large part because that's where David Harvey was.

I didn’t go to study with him, but once I arrived I met this funny English guy who seemed really nice and who said ‘I’m reading Karl Marx, maybe I’ll do a seminar on that. Would you be interested?’ I said, ‘Yeah sure, I guess.’ I was a product of the Sixties, but I wasn’t a Red Diaper baby or a big militant at all. I was just very open-minded and curious. And, you know, the first time through Capital is tough. You think, ‘What the hell is this about?’ The second time you go, ‘Oh, I’m starting to get it’. And the third time you say, ‘Damn! This is right on.’ So, I became a leftist via reading Capital with David Harvey.

When it came time to get a job I applied to some geography departments. I didn't even have very good training in geography because the Hopkins program was so eclectic. When I got hired at Berkeley, I had to start to learn what was going on in the field of geography, which turned out to be really interesting. In my department Carl Sauer had been the grand old man. He and other geographers had written some very fine stuff about environmental change long before I came along. At the same time, Sauer was a very conservative guy, his followers in my department were conservative, and most of American geography was terribly conservative and stodgy. The thing that busted it open was the influx of the so-called "scholarship boys" from England. There was a wave of newly minted PhDs in the 1960s and 1970s coming to the U.S. from Britain, where geography was the number one or number two discipline — much bigger than than here. Many of them were working-class lads who had gotten scholarships under of the postwar Labor government. A whole generation of geographers like David Harvey, Kevin Cox, Brian Barry, and Dick Pete came to the U.S. because there were more jobs here at the time and because they hated Oxbridge and wanted to be free of the class system of Britain. They brought a lot of progressive labor and left ideas with them.

That was really absolutely critical to the revival of American geography, which was quiet reactionary and stagnant at the time. For example, in 1970 there were only two tenured women in the entire United States in geography and maybe one or two tenured African Americans. That was it. There was this huge potential for the left to have an impact in geography. Moreover, the left managed to open up the discipline to a remarkable degree, allowing a kind of anything-goes attitude at meetings and in the journals. It really meant that a hundred flowers (feminist, queer, anti-imperialist, etc.) could bloom. Whereas, if in political science and economics the left was much more successfully suppressed. It was chiefly in sociology, geography, and anthropology where it really broke through, and in geography the effect was dramatic. David Harvey, a Marxist, could become the world's most famous geographer and geographical thinking blossomed and spread across the disciplines by the late 20th century. Today, not thinking spatially or environmentally is a sign of backward, narrow-minded scholarship.