The Post-Apocalyptic Tech Scene

A reflection on what happens when only the rich have a place in the world.


I spent the last week traveling around the Rust Belt talking with startups and entrepreneurs. We spent time in incubators and accelerators, in co-working spaces and rehabbed manufacturing complexes. As I wandered through the post-industrial landscape, I kept recalling something that author and farmer Novella Carpenter said at a panel she did with my wife at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association a couple months back. Commenting on her neighborhood in west Oakland she said something like, "Where I live, the apocalypse already happened."

Jobs went away. Crack swept through on a wave of violence. People abandoned their homes. Businesses fell apart. This is the story of so many major American industrial cities. Everything went to hell. I think of Jay Z talking about what crack did to his neighborhood:

It changed the authority figure. Crack cocaine was done so openly, and the people who were addicted to it, the fiends, had very little self-respect. It was so highly addictive that they didn't care how they obtained it and they carried that out in front of children, who were dealing at the time. So the relationship of that respect, 'I have to respect my elders' ... that dynamic shifted and it broke forever. It just changed everything from that point on.

"I was very aware of the dangers involved because there were people dying [and] there were people going to jail and it wasn't a one-off. It wasn't an occurrence where everyone was shocked. It wouldn't be a shock like, 'How could that happen in this neighborhood?' It was really a weekly or monthly occurrence."

When I was growing up in rural Washington, meth swept through in much the same way as the exurbs experienced wrenching economic change. The Multnomah County Sheriff south of us in Portland created a website showing how people's faces changed after meth use: It's no exaggeration to say that heavy meth use makes people look like zombies

Point is: there are a lot of places where the apocalypse has already happened. Where "post-apocalyptic" is not a term for a new television show. Whole communities have been destroyed, predatory gangs and drugged out zombies left to roam the vacants as the locals hurry indoors before night falls. 

And yeah, things have gotten better, violence and crime down, in a lot of places. There's some hope all over, a feeling that we hit bottom some time in 2008 or maybe 2009. Most places, we're not *in* the apocalypse but past it. 

A lot of that hope comes from the Internet that you're reading this on. Everywhere, people are banking on technology. Technology for clean energy. Technology for local economic development. Technology for everything and everyone!

But few cities are lucky enough to hit it big with a Microsoft, a company that poured hundreds of millionaires out into the streets. For example, Groupon hasn't done that for Chicago. And as I've noted elsewhere, just across the border from Palo Alto, there's East Palo Alto, where 96 percent of kids qualify for free or reduced lunch at school. My favorite data design firm, Stamen, released a map showing all the private buses that run from San Francisco to Silicon Valley, the elite's mass transit. Work in one of those places, and you have a wonderful travel experience. Everyone else gets the bus or an underfunded Caltrain. One way for our country's elites. The car and a crowded highway for everybody else. 

It reminded me of Detroit's gleaming startup tower, the Madison Building. It's beautiful. And yet downstairs, the streets get flooded if it rains because the infrastructure isn't sound. And there's another Madison Building a couple blocks away, the Julian C. Madison building. It's old and dingy. The best you can say about it is that it's occupied. 

So many startup spaces (Shaker LaunchHouse in Cleveland, say) are just so bright and shiny and brimming with talented people. And always, within a mile, there are people living the hardest lives you can imagine. (Actually, we probably can't imagine them.)

Every time I come across one of these mindbending contrasts, I think about the movie Children of Men, set in dystopian London. Immigrants live in ghettoes, basically locked in. Gangs control the streets. No one can reproduce. The (ailing) state security apparatus has locked down everything. And yet when the main character goes to visit someone called "The Minister," he crosses into a poncy other London filled with guards on horseback and overdressed men listening to a nice orchestra. A woman leads a zebra around, another a camel. 

Inside, the great art of the world is being stored in the residence of an upper-crust guy who is very powerful politically. Picasso's Guernica sits on the wall behind the dinner table; the city stretches out from the windows opposite the painting. At the dinner table sits Alex, a tattooed, scarred kid controlling some digital device with finger swishes in the air, pretty much exactly like a Leap Motion controller

"Bastards. I know they have nothing to look forward to," The Minister says. "After all, the human species ends with them. But let me tell you, these last children are evil little pricks."

Utopias and dystopias are supposed to exaggerate the features of our world, the things that could go right or wrong. When I first saw Children of Men when it came out in 2006, it seemed like a wildly improbable guess at the future. Most days, it still seems that way. (Certainly the inability for anyone in the world to have kids doesn't seem to be on the horizon.) But other days, it seems the "developing world" model of an ultra-rich class living in heavily guarded isolation from the desperate underclasses is becoming the way of the world. 

Perfect world travelers versus people who don't have passports. The drone owners versus the drone targets. And, strangely, those who can move freely in physical space and those who can't.

Tech plays a role in structuring the way this bifurcation is going down. There is a set of official augmented reality technologies that will allow us to see the information that humans impose on and decode from the physical world. My hope, as a human, is that they lead to a reinvestment in the places people live and not a further retreat. Because one chilling vision of the future would be that one in which only the rich can afford a place in the world. For the poor, there will be cyberspace.