Iâ€™m not sure where I heard this, but I remember in the last year an economist talking about post-recession economies in capitalist countries, and what stuck with me was when this economist said, â€œWell, capitalism always reconfigures itself after recessions.â€ Whether itâ€™s the shift from a producer to consumer society, the shift from blue-collar jobs to white-collar jobs, or the shift from office jobs to low-wage retail work, it seems post-recession â€œreconfigurationsâ€ often leaves whole industries and workers decimated — while a select few rise to the top of the new order.
If the Great Recession taught us anything, itâ€™s the post-recession â€œboom,â€ driven by tech, is making a small number of people extremely rich, while the vast majority of us struggle to maintain a middle class life. Many of the good paying jobs are in the tech sector, but those jobs take a very specialized skill set (or so weâ€™re told). If you donâ€™t know how to code, arenâ€™t under 27, and arenâ€™t dedicated to working 12-hour days (and some nights and weekends to hang with your bros), then youâ€™re unemployable. What do you do? Well you â€œshare.â€ You share your car, you share a room, or you share your labor by running errands as a task rabbit. More than that, you share your personal data with companies who use that information in various ways to enrich themselves â€“ while you get a warm fuzzy feeling of Likes, Hearts, Smiles, Favored, and Thumbs up as a reward. Moreover, because the current Gold Rush of apps has made many of the companies that create them stinking rich, the culture of the new big money is transforming cities all around the country. Nowhere is this more apparent than San Francisco. Itâ€™s a city that has historically attracted non-conformists, creative types, outright crazies, and people from all walks of life who settle here because itâ€™s a place where you can really let your freak flag fly.
Filmmaker, Alexandra Pelosi, grew up in San Francisco and finds it alarming that the city she knew and loved is being transformed by both the money and culture of the tech industry. Her latest documentary for HBO is entitled â€œSan Francisco 2.0â€ and in it she looks at what this tech culture has wrought in terms of both wealth and poverty. Pelosi spoke on the phone with me for a conversation about her documentary and the growing problem of income inequality. [Note: the interview has been lightly edited for clarity]
Alexandra Pelosi: I donâ€™t expect anyone from the Bay Area to learn anything from this film. I made it for the world to see whatâ€™s happening in San Francisco. So goes San Francisco, so goes the nation. For the people living there, they are going say â€œThatâ€™s nothing new!â€
Ted Asregadoo: Yeah, Iâ€™ve lived in the Bay Area for most of my life â€“ with five years living in San Francisco. I still work in The City, but itâ€™s clear in the last 6-7 years, both the city landscape and culture have changed into a city of extremes. You know, this current tech boom seems to go hand in hand with the aftermath of The Great Recession: the sharing economy and social media. Those aspects of tech have made billions and billions of dollars, and others who share their labor via Uber or Airbnb? Well, they are just barely hanging on.
Alexandra: Itâ€™s the Wild West out thereâ€¦itâ€™s big tech rising. We really donâ€™t make much in America anymore. I mean even the iPhone is designed here, and manufactured in Asia. So, you have to be grateful to tech companies for keeping America on the map. But at the same time, thereâ€™s a dark side to all the progress you canâ€™t ignore. When I look at the media landscape, all I see is glowing reviews of tech CEOsâ€¦the disruptersâ€¦you donâ€™t see Alan Zebroski in the Mission in a SRO because he lost his jobâ€¦because San Francisco is no country for old men. So, thereâ€™s this disconnect between the glossy coverage of the disruptors and the reality of what they are doing to communities they are colonizing.
Ted: Exactly. In â€œSan Francisco 2.0â€ you highlight Alan Zebroski, a 61-year-old former banking employee whose story is very familiar to many Americans: The Great Recession hits, he gets laid off, he burns through his 401k and Unemployment Insurance in months, and canâ€™t find good paying full-time employment because of his age and skill set. There are a lot of Alan Zebroskis out there, and the tragedy is that the tech economy wonâ€™t include him because itâ€™s a very exclusive club where Tech Bros only want to work with Tech Bros.
Alexandra: And you have to adapt or die. If you donâ€™t learn the new skills of coding, youâ€™re going to be living in an SRO. I think this conversation really resonates with older people, because thereâ€™s something really Darwinian about it. Anyone who is over 30 is getting a little nervous when they see whatâ€™s going on because they are afraid they are going to be sent off to pasture.
Ted: Yeahâ€¦people are living longer, but these tech companies only want younger workers, you have to wonder what are people going to do to make a living if they canâ€™t get jobs in tech companies that pay well.
Alexandra: What job is left for you, but to moonlight as a cab driver with your own carâ€¦you know, become an Uber driver. Or become an hotelier and rent out a room in your own house. Thatâ€™s how you get the sharing economy. You ask yourself: â€œHow can I hold on when thereâ€™s no work for me? Well, I guess Iâ€™ll become a taxi driver and run my apartment as a hotel.â€
Ted: As I was watching your documentary, I kept thinking that a lot of tech folks have a real libertarian streak in them. That whole â€œweâ€™re disruptersâ€ mentality also translates into both a kind of selfishness and a desire to gate ones self off from the world. Everything from work to social life takes on an exclusive character to it. And even when techies go clubbing, they close down the places and only want to make it exclusive to their friends.
Alexandra: Cities are supposed to be about the mix. Thatâ€™s why you want to live in a city or be near one. Thereâ€™ s a great mixâ€¦in theory. But not anymore. Now, as Robert Reich says, cities are becoming gated communities where only the rich can buy their way in. And that not just San Francisco, itâ€™s happening to all the great cities in the world. They are becoming gated communities where they are pushing out the middle class.
Ted: Right. And thatâ€™s in your documentary where tech has a large footprint in the cityâ€¦and Iâ€™ll just quote a part of your film where you say: â€œTech Brosâ€¦hipstersâ€¦yoga yuppiesâ€¦six-dollar cupcakesâ€¦organic juice shops and freshly minted millionaires working for new Silicon Valley start-ups.â€ Youâ€™re painting a contrast here between modern day 49ers and the creative non-conformist groups who have flocked to San Francisco because they just love the vibe of the city. In the documentary, though, it seems there are non-conformist/creative people who work in tech.
Alexandra: I didnâ€™t get that much access to the companiesâ€¦I mean youâ€™re assuming that I got to live on the campus at Google. Itâ€™s not like they wanted to have me around.
Ted: You were sort of a Gadflyâ€¦
Alexandra: Big Tech has a P.R. problem. The natives are looking at them like they (techies) are oblivious to the community where they are living. But they (techies) are young, you know? This is youth, and San Francisco is like the hot new club. And they are going to get tired of it and want to go elsewhere. Itâ€™s not going to last forever.
Ted: San Francisco is the â€œhot new clubâ€¦â€ You know, you also interviewed David Talbot â€“ one of the founders of Salon — regarding the Tech Bro culture and its effect on what makes San Francisco an attractive place to live, and he even said that people are coming here because they like the non-conformist/creative culture of San Francisco, but [many in the tech industry] are changing the city into something bland.
Alexandra: Isnâ€™t that amazing. Itâ€™s a weird contradiction that they were drawn to this city to be near interesting people, but all the interesting people are being pushed out because they canâ€™t afford to live this city. When people think of San Francisco, they think of hippies, gays, beatniksâ€¦they think of a counterculture. They donâ€™t think of â€œbrogrammersâ€ in their Chinos, pushing out middle class families.
Ted: Like you said earlier, you made this documentary for people outside the Bay Area and what may happen if Tech becomes a larger part of the economy and starts affecting more and more cities.
Alexandra: I donâ€™t think that anyone in San Francisco understands how important the city in the global conversation about the rules of the new economy. What are the rules? Are there gonna be any rules? We need laws to regulate industry. Or you can be a libertarian and say there arenâ€™t going to be any rules. Thatâ€™s fine. You can vote that way. Airbnb is going on the ballot in San Francisco, and the world is watching to see how a progressive city handles change. The leaders need to be able to write new laws without destroying the culture of the community, or we can say there are no laws, and we can vote on thatâ€¦The sharing economy has been getting away with not paying taxes by and large. If you want to drive a taxi or put up a hotel, there are certain rules you have to follow. And the tech companies are just disrupting those rules.
Ted: I donâ€™t mean to knock Uber or Lyft or Sidecar because I know people who drive for them. Some do it to earn extra money, but some do it so they can make rent or mortgage payments, but the gap between what they make and what the company makes is so wide. Uber is moving to Oakland and is going to take over a huge place that used to be a Sears, and they say they are going to need 4000 people to work there. Well, these are specialized jobs weâ€™re talking about. If you have your humanities or social science college degree, you canâ€™t just walk down to the corporate offices, and say â€œHey, you know, I have a college degree and can think critically and write well, and Iâ€™d like to work here.â€ Theyâ€™d just look at you and say, â€œYou have to know how to code.â€
Alexandra: [Driving for Uber] is what Bill Maher calls â€œthe desperate economy.â€ Do people really want to be driving for Uber? Or are they desperate for money? I mean if you do want to drive a car for a living, there are plenty of taxi companies who would hire you — if thatâ€™s your calling. But with the sharing economyâ€¦Robert Reich says itâ€™s really Darwinian. I mean, you donâ€™t have any safety net, you donâ€™t have money for retirement, you donâ€™t have health insurance, you donâ€™t have any kind of unionâ€¦I donâ€™t have any of those things as a documentary filmmaker. I donâ€™t have any kind of job security, but thatâ€™s a decision I made.
Ted: You talked about the rules and the role of city politicians and defining what those rules are. It seems it really difficult to regulate tech because politicians are afraid it will affect the economy negatively — and they are gonna get tossed out of office.
Alexandra: Big Tech writes the checks to lobbyists, to politicians to insure that they are protecting their own interests. And that should scare you. â€˜Cause itâ€™s not whoâ€™s sleeping in your extra bedroom, whoâ€™s driving you home in their, you know, Uber car, itâ€™s about every time you go online and who owns that data. Iâ€™ll tell you a scary story. You want to hear a scary story?
Alexandra: I went to California to do Bill Maherâ€™s show to promote â€œSan Francisco 2.0.â€ As luck would have it â€“ I have two small kids traveling with me — I did not have my ID when I went to check-in at the airport. I went to the TSA guy and said, â€œI donâ€™t have my ID. What am I supposed to do?â€ The TSA agent said: â€œYou have a choice. I can ask you three questions, and if you answer these questions correctly, you can get on the plane. But if you answer them incorrectly, you canâ€™t fly for 48 hours.â€ So, you have to tell them your name, address, date of birth, and Social Security number, but what do you think the first question was?
Ted: Something about your social media profile?
Alexandra: No. It was, â€œWhat was the last thing you bought on Amazon?â€
Alexandra: So, because I have small kids, I guessed something like, â€œWas it pants?â€ And the next question was, â€œWhat is the email account that is linked to your bank account?â€ Do you know that? I mean, if you have a number of email addresses, which one is the one connected to your bank account? How does the TSA know that Iâ€™m on Amazon? Thatâ€™s the scary intersection of Big Tech and government. Thatâ€™s the crazy stuff where the conversation is going. If you have all night, we can stay up and talk about that.
Ted: Thatâ€™s the thingâ€¦I mean, weâ€™re very leery about big government knowing too much aboutâ€¦you know, youâ€™re example at the airport is a good one. Itâ€™s like if Franz Kafka wrote a novel set in 2015, it would probably have some guard asking questions like that. But in the private realm, we donâ€™t seem to have a problem giving our information to Google and Facebook and Amazon and Uber. They track our online behavior and they track our movements through GPS on our phones if we opt in.
Alexandra: I travel a lot because of the documentaries I make — and because my last name is Pelosi — I hear a lot of anti-government rants from people I meet. And I tell them, â€œYou have way to much faith in the efficiency and competency of the government. They are seriously not that competent.â€ But the tech companies? They are very competent. Theyâ€™ve got everything stored about you. They know who you are and where you areâ€¦ and they tell the TSA what you bought on Amazon.
Ted: Whatâ€™s the big takeaway on your documentary, â€œSan Francisco 2.0?â€
Alexandra: First. We do need rules in the new economy. We need to know what the rules are â€“ if there are going to be any rules. If there arenâ€™t going to be any rules, then itâ€™s each man for himself. If thatâ€™s what capitalism has become â€“ and thatâ€™s a little Darwinian, isnâ€™t it â€“ then so be it. We need rules. And those elected leaders who are writing those lawsâ€¦well, we have to make sure they are not writing them in such a way that itâ€™s destroying the communities that they need to protect. Thereâ€™s a bigger question about who gets to live in the city? Do only rich people? Really, this is a film about income inequality — and thatâ€™s not a sexy topic. People arenâ€™t dying to watch another documentary on income inequality. Theyâ€™re not tuning into HBO to see what we have to say about income inequality. They want to watch â€œGame of Thrones.â€ But at some point we do have to ask ourselves, â€œHow are we going to make cities affordable for the middle class? How are we going to coexist as a society?â€ I mean you canâ€™t just push the middle class out and say that â€œonly the rich can live in the city, and weâ€™re closing the gate, and youâ€™re out.â€ The people who protect us should be able to live in the city they are protecting. You know, police, firefighters, and teachers should make enough to live in the same place they work.
Ted: Youâ€™re right. Secretaries, firefighters, cops, people who work in restaurants, hotels â€¦ the working classâ€¦the people who do the heavy lifting in society, they canâ€™t afford to live in the city.
Alexandra: I know that income inequality is not a sexy topic, but I do appreciate you taking the time to let me talk about it.
Ted: I think income inequality is a sexy topic. I mean Bill Maher talks about it on his show â€“ and I saw you on the show talking about it â€“ so itâ€™s a topic that does resonate with people.
Alexandra: I have to tell you something interesting about that. Iâ€™ve done Bill Maherâ€™s show a number of times. You know, you do the show and you go home. This is the first time Iâ€™ve done his show, gone home, and in the morning woke up, and my inbox was on fire. A million emails. Literally, though, it was three thousand â€“ I counted â€“ three thousand emails. And people were writing saying thinks like, â€œYou should come to West Palm Beach â€˜cause itâ€™s happening hereâ€¦you should come to Dallas because it happening hereâ€¦you should come to outside of Astoria, New York because itâ€™s happening here.â€ It seems everywhere you go, people have stories like this. Itâ€™s one of those things where Iâ€™ve been getting inundatedâ€¦people stop me on the street and say, â€œ You should come to my neighborhood and visit it.â€ Everyone, it seems, is feeling it in a similar way. Itâ€™s like everyone is getting pushed out further and further.
Ted: Youâ€™ve touched a nerve with your appearance on Bill Maherâ€™s show. I mean if you didnâ€™t, they wouldnâ€™t feel so anxious about their economic situation and start to lend their support to people like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump because they feel like they work hard, but they just canâ€™t get ahead.
Alexandra: Iâ€™m working on my next documentary about how we fund our presidential electionsâ€¦and I feel very lucky to be working on my 10th film in this Darwinian universe we live inâ€¦and I have to say that thereâ€™s something about Bernie and Donald that, umâ€¦I mean, people really are at the end of the line and are desperate. They feel thereâ€™s nothing left for them. But thereâ€™s something there that speaks to this era of desperation and their (Trump and Sanders) early success in their campaigns and the reality of capitalism today — and the reality of democracy today.
Ted: Alexandra, thanks for talking to me and I wish you a lot of success on â€œSan Francisco 2.0â€ and in your career.
Alexandra: I appreciate it. Thank you.
SAN FRANCISCO 2.0, Alexandra Pelosi (HBOâ€™s EmmyÂ®-winning â€œJourneys with Georgeâ€) returns to her hometown to document what the tech boom has in store for this historically progressive city. It debuts Monday September 28, 2015 (9:00-9:40 p.m. ET/PT), exclusively on HBO.