Friday, October 30, 2009

#28 The Cultural Creep of Silicon Valley


Some revolutionary technologies, like the printing press, the bicycle, and the George Foreman grill, do not carry murderous undertones. We assume there may be collateral costs - scriveners go on the dole, a kid scrapes his knee, Michael Scott burns his toe cooking bacon - but none involve rivers of blood or an inanimate object with a homicidal agenda.

Our hunches here are pure intuition but they're also almost always correct since weirdly, some technologies, like some humans, aren't corruptible for purposes of evil, while others, like the Ford Pinto, lawn darts and Richard Nixon, are just waiting to turn on us.

For a long time we've been preoccupied with being attacked by toasters, robots, and television sets but Silicon Valley tech boom has provided a sleeker and more probable set of menaces. The advent and widespread use of the Internet, virtual realities and mobile devices has raised all manner of horrors the media won't shut up about: cyber stalking, identity theft, texting at the wheel, Nigerian princes, etc.)

The fact of our obsessive fear probably reflects the legitimacy of the threats but it's also why we don't really have to worry. Things that have obvious intrinsic value and obvious intrinsic evil, like the Patriot Act, Megan Fox or the Second Amendment, will never ultimately undo us because the drama between the good and the bad is too thrilling for society not to vigilantly monitor and control the dynamic.

What gets us in the end is the nonobvious extrinsic evils. No one really gets eaten by a shark or shot or mutilated by an Internet predator; we get killed by eating too many Sourdough Jacks.

The extrinsic evils of Internet-related technologies - increasing physical separation, shallow communication, shortened attention spans - are, for the most part to most people, psychological nonfactors even though ultimately these are the things that 1) by glacial creep and snowball effect (e.g., twitter shortens attention spans which spawns new technologies to service the ever enlarging market of people with short attention spans) totally reconstruct social behavior and 2) probably alienate us and make us feel unhappy. That is the point of exposure: where the societal superstructure is changing without people noticing. The possibility of a serial killer trolling chat rooms freaks us out but the guy using technology to f*ck you over just a little bit in a novel way - he's the cultural creep.

According to a study at the university of Texas, for example, there is a false degree of intimacy assumed by women who look for love on the Internet. The scientists found that the high frequency and intensity of email communication convinces women to alter their sexual boundaries.

Admittedly this is not a phenomenon isolated to San Francisco (according to most recent estimates, 30% of Americans have used online dating services) but 1) that doesn't mean it's not relevant to WTANGISF and 2) anecdotal evidence suggests that normal people doing things like match.com, craiglist hook-ups or Facebook romance is disproportionately high in the Bay Area, probably because this is where the technology behind it all was invented.

One of the great illusions of the Internet is the proposition that we can understand people more effectively through the fake world of Facebook or match.com than at a bar or a club, a belief which is totally wrong but easy to embrace since an inorganic simulacrum of reality 1) is less emotionally stressful 2) allows more separate occasions of contact (which in real life means something but in virtual reality meaning almost nothing) and 3) is incomplete enough to conceptualize as being better than it actually is.

This is how the cultural creep makes his move and why girls feel falsely intimate with him. He can text an ostensibly personal message to fifteen girls at once, go from married to single by a click of a radio button, and pick up girls at a bar and on match.com at the same time. The limiting factor for the size of a lothario's harem is almost never charm, it's time. It takes time to talk on the phone and actually be in a certain place at a certain time and to create different identities for different women. Modern technology is eroding such transaction costs.

Understand though that the already desperate position of 95% of SF guys is exacerbated by this. A special irony of online dating is that it far more superficial, salacious and sausage-festy than the standard bar environment. Match.com, for example, reported a gender ratio of 60-40% in 2005 and if Match's subsequent silence on the issue and anecdotal evidence is any indication, the ratio now is much much worse. In addition, places like match.com are supposed to connect people based on individuality rather than random physical attraction: their hobbies, cultural tastes, etc. along with a nod or two towards a political persuasion or world view, all these being defining personal attributes and, at the same time, everybody who dates online finds out, qualities no one cares about at all.


A worse and higher level problem is that the population of the online dating pool is almost unlimited, which seems like a good idea but is really
an all-time backfire for men. Chuck Klosterman made the insightful comment that pursuing women already in relationships is strategic because in order to win a single woman's affection you have to be more desirable than every other single guy around "but if you meet a woman who is dating some dude named Mitch ... you merely have to be more desirable than Mitch."

Klosterman here was simply pointing out a loophole in the evolutionary law that women are drawn to the alpha male, the loophole being that alpha maleness is a completely relative concept. Online dating is the logical opposite of Klosterman's tiny loophole. When pursuing a girl at a normal social venue, a bar for example, you have to be the most desirable guy who showed up at that bar at that hour, which, concededly, makes for inauspicious odds, but a site such as match.com is infinitely more competitive, since it lacks any real temporal or geographical parameters. You have to be the most desirable guy on the Internet.

That the cultural creep of Silicon Valley is bad for SF guys, however, doesn't necessarily mean it's bad in the absolute. Robots are evil only if you're not a robot. The question of the matter is less about morality than the nature of choice: are women's romantic preferences founded on out-of-date biological compulsions (that now make women see all men as creeps or losers) or on a deep-seated and unwavering instinct for finding fulfillment, specifically in the make-believe arms of an avatar who says he's not married? The answer, if you live in San Francisco, is yes.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

#27 The Language of Silicon Valley


Lily Tomlin said language exists to satisfy man’s deep need complain, and perhaps this blog is both the evidence and the aspiration. Of course the joke is funny only because it’s so far from being true. Language and this blog really exist, just like law, religion, economics, and ultimate fighting championships, to sort out who gets to hook up and hug it out with whom, a hypothetical to which the answer is always: Jeremy Piven.


This is precisely why public speaking is universally man’s greatest fear. Fail at language in public, with everyone around to see, and it's sexual suicide, not just with respect to the girl who rejected your shamefully awkward Starbucks come-on but every girl who witnessed it and the hundreds probably thousands of girls who are instantly texted and twittered. You're f*cked. You just lost all your mojo and got on the schneid, at least for a while, at least until, say, you taunt someone smaller than you in public.


For women, of course, language skills are a little less paramount as pressures of sexual selection, since, if they’re clever about it, they can rely on diversionary tactics - rules of decorum, bitchiness, mini-skirts, etc. But if you’re a guy the issue sooner or later will get pressed directly. A teacher will call on you, the star football season will end, the waitress will finish pouring the other coffee. Wear all the sleeveless Ts you want, but eventually you’re going to need to say something.

Single guys in weaker moments deny this. When the realities of
being short or fat seem particularly salient, like the Sunday morning after twelve Heinekens, all male tragedies get sourced to aesthetic and genetic shortcomings. They regress to the preliterate period of middle school and early high school where misshapen body parts and dim dating prospects defined most everyone, and the former facts were the strongly correlated cause of the latter. When you're 15 construing the world through your insecurities makes sense, because your peers really and sincerely do hate you, on the level of your soul, due to your weak chin or spindly legs or whatever, but by the time you're an adult, after girls start meeting people who know about Woody Allen films, attributing romantic failure to physical imperfection is less logical. It's kind of like thinking the toast got burned because the milk’s expired.

The inexorable fact is some guys have language gifts and some have biceps and out of cosmic fairness or as some sick metaphysical joke those groups seldom overlap. This is why guys team-up, both in hair-brained Roxanne-style schemes and on really advanced levels, as demonstrated by the Hollywood complex, where nebbish Harvard grads feed lines to thickheaded but handsome louts. To the extent such stratagems work it’s rarely with equal benefit. Some virigin in Culver City spends four months writing the first draft of Fool’s Gold and as a result, Matthew McCounghney blasts seven sorority girls on spring break in Cabo.

But in San Francisco something even more complex has happened. Guys have forsaken the language common to society for a language common to guys who love building computers. This language is like English in a way, except for the part about humans being the communicating interface and sensing the emotions of others.

Other guys who also specialized in this language have been recruited to relocate to the Bay Area and those guys have recruited others and so by now every poindexter and egghead loner who survives twelve to sixteen years of public school beat-downs gets a job in Santa Clara and a loft in SOMA. They wander about the Bay Area in a loose but huge confederation of pidgin-tongued social misfits.

Now here's the problem: society hasn't figured out what to do with these guys. Geeks are geeks and women hate them but the economy loves them. Author Bryna Siegel says "In another historical time, these men would have become [presumably virginal] monks...suddenly they're making $150,000 a year with stock options." That's the oxymoron. Being an expert at a coding language is lucrative but it's also like being male gymnast, perhaps the only sport in the world that’s impressive but doesn’t impress women. Women construe it as minor form of autism.

This problem spills-over into another: the economic value of the geeks is misleading to regular SF guys, who are long accustomed to thinking that the secret to professional and, by proxy, sexual success, as a politician, salesman, lawyer, reporter, rapper, or Michael J. Fox as a Kansas boy in Manhattan, is out-talking the people around you. With all the shifty-eyed geeks tooling around in Porsches the paradigm has shifted, sufficiently so that regular SF guys increasingly doubt the pay-off of charm and wit, which is grade A self-sabotage. It's like pursuing gridiron glory by emulating Plaxico Burress' strip club moves.

Language, according to academic Steven Pinker, is supposed to be common to all societies, and any given culture is approximately as skilled at it as any other. Without language, the thinking goes, no girls get talked into or out of anything, and without that, you have no naughtiness, no new generation and no surviving culture, just some harrowing Ray Bradbury single-gender dystopia, popularly known, of course, as the city of San Francisco, where the newest model iPhone is always ringing, but no girls are around to hear.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

#26 The Employees of Silicon Valley


In mainstream movies, as often as not, the technical genius, the brainiac who saves/redeems humanity by calculating an impossibly complex set of mathematical/programming proofs/codes, is Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe or Val Kilmer. God knows why movie goers accept this conceit since in real life techies are about as glamorous as a kid brother with a club foot. Even that annoying hipsterish guy from Mac commercials is a rosy delusion. In real life the tech genius is Paul Giamatti, but more depressed.

And yet: movie goers like Paul Giamatti. He’s smart. He’s funny. He’d be a winning dinner or road-trip companion. Sure he’s dyspeptic, incorrigibly introverted and self-loathing but he’s real. He’s true. He’s interesting. He’s us. Maybe we’re not AS geeky as Paul Giamatti we all have an inner geek that can relate to him. No one sees the Wolverine or Jim Morrison on screen and thinks “That’s me!” but we all sort of feel, on some level, like the unwanted, unconfident wine-geek doofus who can’t get laid to save his life in Sideways.

In San Francisco, of course, it’s not a metaphor. We literally ARE that guy. We work at Google, HP, Facebook, Genetech and so on. We’re engineers, patent attorneys, CTOs, lab technicians and quality control officers. We grew up on a diet of online war games, academic decathlons, socially mandated celibacy and noogies. Our geekness is not some secret, inner sense of self-regard but prevailing public opinion - which is pretty much all that counts.

Whether this fact should be celebrated or bemoaned has traditionally depended on ideology: either you thought that human advancement was about intelligence and thus geeks were good or you thought it was about being cool (i.e., socially influential) and geeks were scourge. It was just assumed that girls, along with Republicans, third grade bullies, people from L.A. and basically anybody psychologists considered half-way normal, were blood-sworn believers in the latter.

But by now - post youtube and twitter and the rest - the ideological debate isn't really relevant, because now the geek drives a better car than you do. As social developments go, this is total revolution, this is like the lowliest cave-man discovering fire, and everyone sort of acknowledges it by reading fluff pieces on "geek chic" and watching Judd Apatow films but, at the same time, no one believes it matters. The basic propositional attitude that the geek is a social liability has not changed at all. People just take it for granted that there’s a billion geeks in the SF Bay Area and that girls hate geeks and that’s just the way it is.

This, given conventional wisdom and a mountain of cross-cultural statistical evidence, seems pretty f*cking improbable. People vaguely suppose that somehow female superficiality explains it. The idea is that girls either begrudge geeks for being a) too intellectual or b) too ugly. The former is a male anxiety derived from high school but that was never actually ever true and the latter is a canard aggressively promoted by soap operas, Seventeen and Cosmopolitan and falsified by the lifestyles of Mick Jagger, Donald Trump, and every man alive in the UAE.

What everyone knows at least subconsciously but is probably too guilty to point out is that while there is no valid ideological or a superficial reason to reject the geek, there is still a reasonable one: the geek's personality.

The geek's big secret is that at his core, behind the awkwardness and Return of the Jedi underpants, is a whole lot of repressed negativity. Day to day reality hates on him and he hates on it.

He hates the bullies and the insults and the atomic wedgies and he hates his peers’ lack of imagination, the pabulum that comprises most people’s brains, the hackneyed behavior and the inane status mongering, and the idiots in high school who thought it was cool to shotgun Coors at the rope swing on Fridays or lunch at Taco Bell and then carry their Taco Bell soda canisters to Spanish class as undeniable emblems of their superiority.

Supposedly. We guess.

So the geek makes the most rational move available to a higher minded human. He gets out. He withdraws to a wholly fantastically universe, a make-believe existence constructed not with money or power or sex or cats or any of the other bullsh*t things that usually attract female attention but instead with Proust novels or Mac OS code or the periodic table or off-shoots of George Lucas’ imagination. That’s the definition of the geek: someone who finds his happiness in a place where real people don't exist.

The irony here, and why geek abuse makes us feel so conflicted, is that the facts that make the geek pathetic also make him heroic. He’s unhappy and bullied but he persists. He fights the long hard fight. He is scarred but not vanquished and this makes him profoundly human or at least human in the most interesting way, not just because he is the underdog but because the scars of humanity are far more compelling than its unblemished forms, which is why the Oscar never goes to The Mexican or Point Break but instead to films about brilliant but geeky Jews or gays being killed.

But life involves a lot more than the pursuit of extraordinary meaning and knowledge, or, for that matter, the inexorable tragedy of that pursuit. In fact life, and the relationships that comprise it, even the ones we really, really care about, are mostly made up of totally uninspired, unexceptional and benign routine. And that’s the way we like it. We like our quotidian latte at Starbucks and casual, effortless break-room chatter and impromptu jaunts to the lake for summer skinny-dipping. If you’re whole life, or at least a major chunk of it, was a movie, you’d rather be slapsticking about the Hamptons with a grinning Andrew McCarthy than wasting away in a concentration camp with a starving concert pianist. Everyone feels that way, including girls, except for Ashley Olsen, who is very serious.

The fact the geek is both content is his alternative universe and intriguing in a situationally specific way in this one, doesn’t, on a relationship level, matter much. And the fact that SF guys are often reformed geeks, or at least self-identified reformed geeks, attempting to morph into normal members of society, capable of playing by conventional rules of hierarchy with new found money or occupational prestige, doesn't go much further. It helps but like a fine Italian suit on a two-headed circus freak. In the most routine and intimate of human things, such as pillow talk, shared silence and extra-marital nooners, the geek forever feels like he did when he was 15 and being shoved up against a locker: angry and bored and (as Rilke says to us (when we’re in the mood for deep, deep, really special wistfulness (like maybe just after we’ve seen Lost in Translation)), unutterably alone.


It's a wierd, unforgiving thing to say someone is beneath us romantically. We do it all the time but it's still weird and mean and based on almost nothing, just a vague psycho-societal composite of the sexual ideal that is highly situational (even though we act as if it's not) and probably in the end makes us feel more heartbroken than loved.


But the geek actually IS beneath us romantically. He's intriquing, so people want to see him on display for amusement, and he's symbolic, so people want to know he exists for the same reasons they want polar bears to exist, but in the day to day trenches of every day existence he's unbelievably annoying, so people don't want him for
him. And somehow his new-found wealth and influence makes his core personality that much more insufferable. And though this in some small way legitimizes our discrimination and exculpates us morally, it also makes San Francisco the loneliest place in the world to wear Return of the Jedi underpants.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

#25 SF Guy-Girls vs. The Florida Female


European girls can be slutty, because they’re verbal, confident and culturally complex, but American girls can’t, because they’re from Florida.


Something happened to America sometime between the advent of air conditioning and the day Kim Kardashian got popular. Florida went from the least to the second most populated Southern state and it went from white cracker, feral hoggy swamp-land to corporate sponsored titty show. And while this was taking place, somehow, without really even trying, Florida imperialized, smash and grab style, the definition of what it meant to be an attractive female in America.


The rest of the country has not received this kindly. The rest of this country does not like Florida, at least not what Florida stands for even if we do not precisely know what we mean by that. There is an amorphous but widely popularized sentiment that all the fake boobs and fake tans and spring break style hedonism violates, in some vague way, our dignity, our sense of the home-spun, hard-working, humble life. Florida seems to embrace without reservation the most basal aspects of the human condition. Florida seems to self-consciously celebrate trashiness.


At the same time everyone knows Florida has won. Florida has achieved the final expression of egalitarian democracy, where people are judged entirely upon the merits they were born with or paid for with a summer maître d'ing at PF Changs; it is pure free enterprise, designed to appeal to a society which buys images and emotions before character and language, which is every society that ever existed.


Superficiality, according to Florida philosophy, is only bad if you’re ugly, which is totally unfair and presumptively ad hominem, the kind of theory that is born from a playground maturity level but that, like the chorus of Mim’s “This Is Why I’m Hot” (because you’re fly?), defeats logic and sense every single time. Deep down we all f*cking know that as brainy and complex as we aspire to be, in the end, even if the depth and breadth of our intellect is so extraordinary as to inspire a fatwa demanding our death, even if we ascend to be Salman Rushdie, arguably one of the greatest intellectuals of the modern era, once we achieve this, we’ll be chasing the skirt of some leggy tart half our age.


Publicly, at interviews, coffee shops, castle dinners in Elsinore, etc. we may be mannered, noble, even snobby, but when we don’t have to pretend anymore, when we’re in our sacred, private, most vulnerable place, when no one’s watching and all contrivances are dropped - when we’re in the bathroom - we’re nose deep in US Weekly. We’re not thinking on the possibilities that inhere in the human condition; we’re thinking, “Kelly Clarkson is kind of fat.”


Florida’s confirmed position is that girls take all the stuff they normally do in the bathroom - judge others, judge themselves, give illicit BJs, scream at their boyfriends, scream at the mirror, cry hysterically - and take it to the town square. Let boobs, Brazilian waxes, J├Ągermeister vomit, and orgasms be a girl’s personality center piece. That’s hot.


By contrast San Franicsco’s confirmed position is that we are a proud, equal society where men and women are taken seriously. In the divergence of the two philosophies lies the rub: if a theoretical SF girl seeks to flash a little feminine allure, it doesn’t make her a cretin, not actually, not by some imaginary universal or absolute measure, but it does create a problem of perception. It can be confusing. The reigning American aesthetic gestalt that Florida has generated puts parameters on how visual statements can be interpreted. It’s not that no American girls can be simultaneously sexually provocative, witty and self-aware but that vast majority aren’t - the vast majority are vacuous, self-centered narcissists, at least as far as we can determine from The Hills, The Simple LIfe and the ex-governor of Alaska.

And since the denizens of San Francisco are as susceptible to stereotype as anyone else that means that when that theoretical SF girl dons on a tight top and a short skirt suddenly people are calling her Donut Hole or Blow Job Brenda. They start saying she lives in a basement with a coke dealer and offering her roles in reality TV shows.

Hence, SF females (a scattering of honeys from Serbia and Turkey aside) don’t aim for sexy in their dress or carriage. They aim for anti-Florida. They are reserved, borderline haughty in demeanor and fashion themselves in one of three looks: the always vogue “I run Iron-Mans” guy-girl look, the cluttered Hipster, or the famous and very popular “SF black”, where you cover up every square inch of your body but are still fabulous because the fabric is black and black is daring and sexy, right? Not right. Boobs are sexy. Legs are sexy. Black is just a color. Black is what Batman wears so he can be stealthy. When Bruce Wayne wants to impress the ladies he wears a tank top.

But such are the effects of culture: they work us on the sly. Imperceptibly, incrementally, like frogs in a pot of heating water, our brains get boiled. We truckle to illogical but popular tastes, like triathlons, pegged pants and claims that witches float in ducking-stools. And so it happens that Kim Kardashian is soulless and horrible for humanity yet somewhere deep down inside we now believe that degenerate b*tch is sexy. We sort of think that’s what our girlfriend is supposed to be like. And SF women resist this, which is both eminently reasonable and totally unalluring and most importantly, one more reason there are no girls in San Francisco.