Last week I took the WTF roadshow to San Francisco. It took me back in time.
This is a weird thing to say, because I had never actually been to the Bay Area before. Strange for a fancy, future-y intellectual, no? But it’s true – my business simply never took me to San Francisco before last week. I’ve done Cedar Rapids and Seville, Dallas and Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec, but I had never been sent to America’s digital hothouse.
Dude, pretty nice place!
I do not really need to wax poetic on the Bay, the architecture, the view from Twin Peaks, the Bay Bridge, all of those classically great things about the city. Yet I came across something perhaps more noteworthy, if intangible. Walking around the streets of San Francisco between Adobe and Zynga and Blerp and Dlingle and the new offices of Pphart!, I got this strange, familiar sense, like Obi-Wan Kenobi getting a sniff of Darth Vader. “There is a presence I have not felt for a long time…it’s…it’s…”
I kept getting this wave of mysterious feeling of…winning? Things being possible? Of people really working their asses off in hopes of bringing an idea to fruition? General optimism? It was a disturbance in The Force that I had not felt for quite some time. Definitely pre-9/11.
I thought, whoa, it really has been a while since America was generally hopeful. These past ten or twelve years have been pretty dank. Before everything went to hell and we got into terror and torture and wars and housing bubbles, I distinctly remember the spirit of the Dot Com Boom, when you tried stuff and thought: “Hey, this could go awesome and make a ton of money! And even if not, I might meet a lot of people and learn a lot about the world – and put my mark on the future. Dude! Let’s find a cheap happy hour! Or is some new Dot Com having an open bar to promote their latest feature? Let’s go!”
No, Mister Depressing Poopy Pants, people REALLY DID SAY THINGS LIKE THAT IN 1999! For reals! And that open bar thing was actually happening in places like San Francisco, Washington DC, Austin, London, and New York! Even though you didn’t quite understand what anybody did for work, it was pretty fun.
Oh hey, I can hear you saying, yeah right buddy, it was a big fraudulent waste, here we go again with another bubble bullshit heist, fantastic. </EYE ROLL>
Well listen here, I don’t know if you’ve seen the rest of this blog, but I’m pretty hard to top for depressing, cold realizations about fraudulence and corrupt crapola in America – and even I say that you don’t get it. Here’s why another tech bubble in sunny California is really welcome, in my view.
Americans are not that good at cynicism
Walking around San Francisco, breathing in the VC vapors and the hype hallucinogens, it reminded me of why the last ten years have been so tough for Americans. The crushing unemployments and evisceration of the middle class aside, Americans just simply don’t know how to do depressed and cynical. Being down in the dumps is a completely rational reaction to the last decade’s cultural clusterfuck. You’re not supposed to do a happy dance after Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Katrina and criminal heist of the century on Wall Street. But that doesn’t change the fact – Americans simply don’t know how to deal with such widespread cynicism.
Americans reading this are probably saying, “Well, golly gosh, Eric, who is good at that kind of thing? Ain’t nobody good at being down in the dumps.”
Oh my sweet friend, plenty of people are good at it. The French, Spanish and Italians come to mind. They excel, each in their own way, at hanging out in bars, taking a drag on a Gauloise and saying, “Fuck man, same shit for five hundred years. What are you going to do? Now, give me another glass of that delicious local wine that only costs two euros. And pass me another dish of astounding flavor. I need to go over and have sex with my mistress before I begin my state-mandated nine weeks of vacation.” Generally, the former managers of global empires tend to get comfortable with not having everything work out. And being from Catholic cultures as opposed to cold, pucker-mouthed Puritans, they have no problem supplanting sensuality for moral certitude.
In brief, many other cultures are well-equipped to have things suck for extended periods of time. They can lose themselves in hedonism and world-weariness. Americans simply cannot.
You don’t know what good will come out of Dot Com Horseshit Version Whatever
There are those would say that this new round of tech-driven boom and bust cycle in California is going to be more of the same – economically meaningless crap built on good intentions, credulity and outright fraudulence. And in many cases, surely they would be right – but this misses the forest for the trees. Many people forget just how many tech “blue chip” companies came out of that era of E-Spatulas.com. Amazon, PayPal and EBay were around at the same time as all that frivolous nonsense – and they emerged, largely because of solid ideas, good management and a bit of luck thrown in. I am pretty sure that we wouldn’t give back Google in order to avoid the production of ignoble ideas such as currencies backed by Whoopi Goldberg. You can’t get much of anything done without a burst of creativity, and creativity almost always involves ideas both good and rotten. Maybe this round of Tech Boom/Bust contains just as much bad as fifteen years ago – and what if it results in just as much good? What if this round of entrepreneurialism turns out three or four businesses that are truly revolutionary, building the next round of innovation?
You can’t win if you don’t play. Isn’t that the American attitude?
There needs to be a place for winning
Much of this optimism came to me through a British colleague I met for coffee in downtown San Francisco. He reminded me that America is still a great place for him because it offers things no other country can. “You Americans need to remember what it is like in England. Back home, you are handed an identity at birth. If you want to go beyond that identity, it is like smashing into a wall repeatedly. You either stop trying, deal with the injuries – or come to America. Despite the tough times here, that is still as true today as it ever has been.”
This made me think of the reactions of my Canadian and European colleagues to some of my harsh criticism of my homeland. They have said, to paraphrase, “We’re counting on you. America is still a special place where people can accomplish anything.” Once again, this is not an American drinking the Kool Aid, these are Europeans reacting to an American ceasing to drink that Kool Aid. And they are right: there are tons of great places to live: Canada, Norway, Denmark, France, Spain, Bali, and so on. But only America is so stupidly optimistic. Only in America can you really try any fool idea that pops into your head, get investors, form a corporation, launch a product, screw it all up, and somehow still come back again with another idea.
The world needs a place like this. Right now, it seems to be alive and well once more in California. Maybe this is another fantasy trip, another spasm of unreasonably positive thinking. Then again, I’m not sure that Americans are good at anything else.