What San Francisco Failed to Learn From the First Dot-Com Catastrophe
“Why Does A Tomato Need A Website?”
Or, What the City of San Francisco failed to learn, and refuses to learn, from the first dot-com catastrophe.
The one giant pillar upon which the city of San Francisco is built is galloping, naked, unapologetic greed. We all know this. Nothing new under the sun, really. We can’t undo the Gold Rush after all, but that pillar stands as mightily now as it ever has. To paraphrase the movies, greed has certainly been good for some, like Larry Ellison and his stupid little boat races on the bay, and never mind the death toll. And it’s been good for Mark Zuckerberg, co-inventor of the silliest toy of all time and apparently the worst thug-encrusted neighbor in town. It certainly has been good for Mayor Ed Lee and his barely-veiled monied corruptionistas, especially astonishing for a man who used to be a tenants champion and who told us all he really didn’t want to be mayor.
The three-ring circus that is San Francisco has a long and proud tradition of an almost comic inability to learn from past mistakes. The City That Knows How, a delightfully unfinished phrase coined by one of Ed Lee’s predecessors, simply has never made even the slightest attempt to fathom the very basic definition of insanity; trying something over and over again expecting a different result. Cast your mind back, if you will, to 1995. The internet was just starting to make some noise commercially, and it got annoying quickly. Christ on a rusty bike, the jingles some of these “companies” came up with for their ads made you want to claw your ears right off your head. My dear friend Chef Scott Kendig and I were sitting around watching TV one evening. Iron Chef, more than likely. On the screen suddenly came a commercial for the Tomato Advisory Board. Odd, I remember thinking. And then came the question from The Chef, noticing this new thing called a url at the bottom of the screen at the end of the ad, that to this day stands as the perfect portent of the current state of San Francisco and Silicon Valley’s poisonous effects on it: “Why does a tomato need a website?”
A tomato doesn’t need a website. But suddenly every proverbial tomato the world over just had to have one. Why? Because having one was like having a phone number on steroids. A zillion little companies sprouted up peddling a version of something no one needed or wanted, soaked in imaginary money. When Pacific Bell Park (a little later SBC Park and now AT&T Park, because doing the right thing and calling it Willie Mays Park was apparently a dumb idea) opened in 2000, there was a big Webvan logo out in right field. You couldn’t miss it. It was sitting right next to the big Enron logo, and you can make of that what you will. We used kosmo.com once or twice, but quickly concluded that it was easier and way less lame just to go down to the corner store for ice cream. Meanwhile, Mayor Willie Brown and his cadre of cronies took huge public loud-mouthed delight in allowing Silicon Valley to turn San Francisco into a tech trash bedroom community, turning a willful blind eye to the ensuing evictions and wholesale flight of artists and musicians. He ushered in unprecedented real estate development, and the architectural cowpies he allowed to be built will be stinking up our skyline for generations.
To be fair, Brown’s predecessor Frank Jordan was largely a piece of useless work. I met him once as he was getting out of his limo on Columbus, dressed like a C-list gangster, hell-bent on abusing a homeless guy he actually kicked. To be fairer, Brown did some good, or at least he tried in some respects. His huge increase in funds for MUNI was a good idea, on paper at least. But our long-standing motto remains unsullied and intact: “MUNI-The next best thing to getting there.”
But yes, sometimes it’s hard to know where to direct one’s frustration, who should be accountable, who’s to blame. The tech shuttle buses are a great example. I have certainly failed, heroically sometimes, to suppress the urge to hoist a middle finger aloft at a Google bus on my way to my weekly gig at Amnesia in the Mission, a la Freewheelin’ Franklin. But it’s an utterly useless gesture, and barely even symbolic. Am I pissed at the drone workers on board, still “at work” on their supposedly luxurious ride home? No. I’ve been one of them. Am I pissed at the bus driver, making a pittance while hauling around this gaggle of drones? Certainly not. That dude’s trying to figure out how he’s going to pay his phone bill. Am I pissed at the bus itself? Hell, no! I’d like to have one for the band. But thanks to Willie Brown’s carefully laid paving stones, polished up a bit by Gavin Newsom, here we are with Mayor Ed Lee and Tech Trash Volume Two having set up shop within another stupid little bubble, screwing it all up for the rest of us all over again.
“Let’s try this thing again,” says San Francisco City Hall. “I just know it’ll work this time.” My dear, dear city, it simply won’t. Webvan and Kozmo and their repulsive ilk went up in smoke for a reason. Most of us were cheering when it happened. The lasting legacy of the dot-com crash of the late 90s and early naughts is the establishment and current perpetuation of a culture of non-necessity – the useless online thing that exists for no other reason than to be sold to Goople one day for an obscene payday, turning the rest of us either into lazy-ass Munchery addicts, or pissed-off locals wondering why we’re once again being treated like guests in our own city, rather than residents. Tech, we’ve seen your dumb-ass ideas before; once upon a time they were called dot-coms, and now they’re called apps. This city is awash in greed money and artisan toast, and MUNI is still a mess.
Contrary to what the San Francisco Chronicle was trumpeting last year, Ed Lee did not run unopposed in the last mayoral election, as anyone reading this knows. He has to go. The lessons of the year 2000 must be learned already, and the influence of tech puny-mindedness must be at least mitigated if not stopped. There’s a gigantic difference between ‘tech’ and ‘technology’. The latter actually benefits people and society as a whole, while the former is ever more short-sighted money-grabbing douchery. So, dear FDR, I might disagree in a way. Heedless self-interest is most definitely good economics for a tiny handful of people, those that are eating all the pie around here. A tomato doesn’t need a website. The modern-day translation of that is you don’t need Munchery, among the most irresponsible of the new crop, a perfect example of San Francisco’s cultural and societal amnesia, a spectacular example of non-necessity and waste, and a direct descendent of an entire failed industry’s lunacies and ridiculous business models. Learn how to cook. It’s not so hard. I’ll teach you if you want.