Last night I walked from Civic Center BART station in San Francisco down Eighth Street south of Market to a Cal Innovates event on communications technology at Airbnb headquarters. Usually, there’s a huddle of homeless people at the corner of Market and Eighth, but the entire southeastern corner was now fenced off and gutted with a half dozen cranes poised to lift off at dawn.
And so it continued down Eighth, which was pockmarked with great holes in the ground reminding me of the WWII destruction I’d seen as a child in Bremerhaven, Germany, where my dad had been stationed as a U.S. Army bandleader in the early and mid 50s. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell whether San Francisco is a war zone or a thriving technology center.
888 Brannan’s lobby – where AirBnb is headquartered – looks like Yosemite Valley, with cavernous white walls ascending to stacked floors of windowed offices. Weathered logs, made to look as if they had just fallen into place naturally to form comfortable benches, were scattered throughout the lobby, but to enter the elevators, one had to pass through security by entering one’s name and contact info on a touchscreen computer. On the 5th floor, where the company cafeteria is located, dinner – braised duck, wild rice pilaf, pinto beans, vichysoisse, and shredded celery heart and Brussels sprouts (no gluten and no dessert) -- was self-service, just like in college.
About 80 employees and other folks came to eat and hear Jessica Rosenworcel, an FCC commissioner, being interviewed by Internet rabble rouser Andrew Keen, author The Internet Is Not the Answer, which embellishes on the harmful side effects of the technology revolution. I sat down at an open table with a couple of Airbnb employees, who told me they were both recruiters.
“Whom are you recruiting?” I asked.
“Computer science graduates,” they both said.
When I asked where they found them, they said they were going to five elite universities, including Stanford and Harvard.
I recommended they try local community and state colleges and also find interns from local programs like Oakland’s Hack the Hood, which trains low-income youth in basic web site coding.
I asked the recruiters if they knew how to code.
“No,” they both said.
“Then how can you know how to recruit good coders?”
They didn’t have an answer, but I guess, by reverse reasoning, if someone graduates in comp sci from an Ivy League college, then they know how to code. Or at least how to get a degree.
The FCC commissioner, Rosenworcel, fresh from CES and draped in a lilac scarf, pale green jacket, fitted black pants, and three-inch spiked heels, spoke like a politician: satisfying everyone and saying as little as possible. She does support net neutrality but isn’t sure whether Tom Wheeler, head of the FCC will come out for it. Keen asked lots of relevant questions but he took a scattershot approach to the interview -- covering everything and nothing deep enough to dig someone’s grave.
All I learned after half an hour is that the spectrum – our “invisible infrastructure,” and the air of Airbnb – is limited and that the FCC will come up with “creative” ways to parcel it out so that everyone benefits. Since the FCC’s five commissioners are presidential appointees, I wonder how much politics rather than creativity will play in the commission’s decisions. No one pressed Rosenworcel on what her creative cures might include, but she strongly asserted she was against privatization of what is now public space.
I decided to walk back to the Powell Street BART station via Fifth Street, figuring it might be safer. Near the Bay Bridge freeway underpass, though, an entire block was crowded with men (and a few women) standing around, smoking, drinking, huddled together although it wasn’t really cold. A log was burning in the street and a police car passed by without stopping. I walked in the street rather than on the sidewalk and waved to some of the men as they gave me a surprised look. What was an old lady in a black coat carrying a book bag (with an Albany library copy of My Struggle, Volume 3, by Karl Ove Knausgaard, a memoir proving that living in an enlightened socialist state doesn’t necessarily make one happy; there are just different reasons, other than poverty and ignorance, for being miserable) doing in their hood?
Only at the intersection with the freeway entrance did I notice the St. Vincent de Paul sign on the building I had just passed. Under the freeway was a line of shopping carts ballooning with black plastic garbage bags. And on a dirt embankment across the street I saw shapes of people hanging out, talking and smoking in what seemed like a convivial atmosphere, much like a street fair.
A few blocks north, the scene completely changed as new million-dollar condos popped up, and their denizens and designer pets strolled the glittery streets. I saw a bright white doorway entrance to Yahoo, new hotels and eateries, and a flock of tech companies, like Eventbrite, where I had just listed a tech event I’m hosting in Berkeley this month featuring a fake secret love bot, Smitten, from the AI company Pandorabots.
The contrast between Airbnb headquarters and the Fifth-to-freeway homeless headquarters in such close proximity stunned me. Talk about inequality. I’m sure the Internet is not the answer or even the problem, but I do believe it could help provide answers to restoring shelter, education, dignity, and work to those living on the streets. An Airbnb for homeless shelters?