Overworked tech professionals are suddenly wondering “what was it all for?” say San Francisco residents Andrew Smart and Sonja Schmer-Galunder. Could this be the end of the productivity cult?
Here in San Francisco we spend all day in video conferences for work, and all evening in video conferences with friends and family. We’ve been failing miserably at homeschooling our children through distance learning. Ironically, more of their learning happens offline than online. They are forced to get to the core of that conflict between brothers, with no escape. They jog around our 50 square foot backyard, and play on the trampoline.
The vibrant city life, with spontaneous Saturday morning run-ins at the Farmer’s market, has been replaced by an eerie emptiness. Masked food service workers form long queues in the parking lot of Whole Foods Market (owned of course by Amazon), in neighbourhoods they probably never visited before, each six feet apart, standing on painted circles indicating where they are meant to stand.
The Wing, a female co-working space (which very recently opened its first London office), designed to promote collaborations among its members striving for self actualization, offering paleo-lunches and turmeric lattes, has laid off 90% of its staff. The doors to a vibrant space, full of blush pink sofas and color-coded bookshelves of all female authors, together with the latest Mirror workout systems and make-up rooms in downtown SF, are now closed. Instead, working moms and dads share home offices with their children as new co-workers.
The streets are largely empty and especially noticeable is the absence of those infernal electronic scooters zipping by. The once bustling cafés and bars are boarded up, but recently maskless revellers have caused consternation by gathering outside bars in North Beach on the street standing much closer than the magical six feet apart. However, cycling, as in many cities has made a comeback.
In cases and deaths, San Francisco and Silicon Valley were largely spared the carnage that struck in other US cities like New York, or regions like Lombardy. The tech industry sent everyone to work from home weeks before any official decrees; potentially removing hundreds of thousands of people from circulation. And the nerds don’t mind. Then San Francisco went on lockdown when the city only had a handful of cases, but this early week of preemption (initially derided as unnecessary) seems to have staved off the tragedy that befell New York and may now play out in the rest of the US under Trump’s complete abandonment. San Francisco’s young new mayor London Breed is being hailed a hero for her early, decisive leadership and frank communication with the public.
Some San Franciscans, perhaps conditioned by the permanent threat of a massive earthquake and annual wildfires, have got out of town; others have complied with the stay-at-home orders. People generally wear masks. However, you can still see Dolores Park filling up on nice days with millennials doing as much social distancing as they can muster. The virus of course has struck along the deep tructural fissures in the region’s racial, social and economic inequality; as in the rest of the country. The city’s Latinx population has been the hardest hit. Those who cannot afford to shelter in place and get groceries delivered are those who are delivering the groceries and putting themselves at risk. But San Francisco is a place of contradictions. The city is finally placing many homeless people in hotels – something it should have been doing for decades.
Uber and Airbnb – the quintessential “unicorns” of Silicon Valley lore are laying off as much as twenty five percent of their workers as people have stopped travelling and moving about. The glittering offices stocked with free gourmet food, free massages and Kambucha bars are all empty and the question is will this version of San Francisco ever return? Will this cause the skyrocketing rents in the city of come crashing back to pandemic earth? As many as 430,000 New Yorkers have left that city, and it’s unclear how many have left San Francisco.
Many tech workers already work from home some or most of the time, especially those software-engineer types for whom direct social interaction is already traumatic. One may hope that the hippie ethos that was once pervasive here can again emerge as the city starts to open up. Will we finally help the most vulnerable out of this crisis and retain a permanent sense of community? Or will we disperse to remote, much more affordable places closer to nature, now that the inflated price tag for access to Silicon Valley’s social network is obvious?
The tech industry is hunkering down and trying to preserve the mental health of its workforce. It is interesting to witness the reactions of an industry largely used to being able to dictate the terms of its existence humbled by a microscopic piece of protein that cares not one bit for quarterly earnings. The virus attacks us doing what it is that makes us most human – close contact with others.
Rilke told us to be idle with joy, to ransack our inner selves for wisdom and poetic inspiration. With all the contradictory psychological advice to use this time to write a novel or learn ancient Greek; but don’t be hard on yourself if you are not productive, we should take Rilke’s advice to heart and embrace our collective idleness. Rilke learned how to examine trees in the minutest of detail in order to write powerfully moving poetry about trees. And it is through this Zen-like stillness, silence and idleness that we begin to perceive what has always been right under our noses – infinite beauty in the mundane details. After an idle time, Rilke said we can then raise our hands and hear what we normally do not.
The question is whether Silicon Valley will listen to itself. There are increasing reports of overworked professionals having epiphanies during this time of forced inactivity, suddenly wondering “what was it all for?” Could this be the end of the productivity cult?
Sonja Schmer-Galunder is a Social Anthropologist working for a small research company that merges theoretical social science with AI. She also runs social isolation simulation studies at the Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation habitat on the Big Island of Hawai’i. She lives with her husband Andrew Smart and their two sons in San Francisco.
Andrew Smart is an author and researcher in the tech industry in San Francisco. He is interested in idleness, AI and philosophy.