The Future of the Sun

The story of the biggest transformation of our time has a marketing problem: no one knows it’s happening.

There were many important events that happened in 2016. Some were deafening, trumpeting the seemingly inexplicable ascent of backwards-facing forces. But one event of great historical significance went largely unremarked upon.

In 2016 solar power became the cheapest form of new electricity on the planet and for the first time in history installed more new electric capacity than any other energy source.

Amid the sepia haze oozing from the past’s rusting, orange pipeline, humanity was placing a serious bet on a new kind of future. And you didn’t even know about it.

That’s a problem.

 

Powering Disruption

It was a bit like if you had a source of whale blubber in the 1840s and it could be used as fuel. Before gas came along, if you traded in whale blubber, you were the richest man on Earth. Then gas came along and you’d be stuck with your whale blubber. Sorry mate — history’s moving along.
Brian Eno

“The beginning of the end for fossil fuels,” according to Bloomberg, occurred in 2013. The world is now adding more capacity for renewable power each year than coal, natural gas, and oil combined. And there’s no going back…. The shift will continue to accelerate, and by 2030 more than four times as much renewable capacity will be added.”

The International Energy Agency’s Executive Director, Fatih Birol, said, “We are witnessing a transformation of global power markets led by renewables.”

“While solar was bound to fall below wind eventually, given its steeper price declines, few predicted it would happen this soon,” notes Bloomberg.

In the United States, as coal production fell an estimated 17% in 2016, continuing an 8 year decrease, the solar market nearly doubled, breaking all records and beating oil, coal, and natural gas as the country’s biggest source of new electric generating capacity. While it’s still just a tiny fraction of the domestic electricity mix, in 2016 40% of all new capacity additions came from solar. 2016 was also the 4th consecutive year that US solar jobs grew by more than 20%, according to the Solar Foundation. One out of every 50 new jobs added in the United States in 2016 was created by the solar industry, which now employs more people than oil, coal, and gas extraction combined.

“Solar investment has gone from nothing — literally nothing — like five years ago to quite a lot,” said Ethan Zindler, head of U.S. policy analysis at BNEF. “A huge part of this story is China, which has been rapidly deploying solar” and, Bloomberg notes, helping other countries finance their own projects.

Between 2008 and 2013, solar panel costs dropped by 80% worldwide thanks to the accelerant of Chinese manufacturing. As Scientific American writes:

China leapfrogged from nursing a tiny, rural-oriented solar program in the 1990s to become the globe’s leader in what may soon be the world’s largest renewable energy source.

According to DOE, the [Chinese] federal government was willing to chip in as much as $47 billion to help build its solar manufacturing into what it calls a “strategic industry.”

In building up the world’s largest solar manufacturing industry, one that became the price leader in most aspects of the world’s market — beginning with cheaper solar panels — China helped create a worldwide glut. [In 2013] there were roughly two panels being made for every one being ordered by an overseas customer.

By 2015, China’s domestic market bypassed Germany’s to be the largest in the world…. [Today] China dominates the solar market in PV installation as well as total installed capacity, with the United States a distant third and fourth, respectively.

“If there was ever a situation where the Chinese have put their whole governmental system behind manufacturing, it’s got to be solar modules,” [Ken] Zweibel [30-year veteran of the U.S. solar industry and DOE] said.

“They fundamentally changed the economics of solar all over the world,” said Amit Ronen, director of the Solar Institute of George Washington University.

The impact of cheap, abundant solar technology has begun to ripple out across a planet where, as Scientific American notes, “the mathematics have long shown that solar power is the most abundant energy resource.”

In 2016 Sweden announced it’s committing to becoming 100% renewable by 2040. India broke a world record with a 6 square mile-wide solar farm, and set its sights on doubling its solar power capacity. In January, Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest crude oil exporter, announced a plan to invest $163 billion in renewables to support 50% of the country’s energy needs by 2050. Although admittedly their goal is to free up more oil for export in the short term, the country’s fate, The Atlantic reports, “may now depend on its investment in renewable energy.”

Before 2016 came to a close, China announced plans to cancel over 100 coal plants in development and to create 13 million jobs in renewables over the next 4 years. (For context, the US clean energy industry is just over 3 million jobs. The entire US tech industry is 6.7 million jobs.)

“The question is now no longer if the world will transition to cleaner energy,” FastCompany writes, “but how long it will take.”

According to the International Energy Agency, while solar makes up less than 1% of the electricity market today it could be the world’s biggest single source by 2050

Already, The Wall Street Journal reports, energy companies are beginning to confront the “crude reality… that some fossil-fuel resources will remain in the ground indefinitely.”

“A Goldman Sachs report last year forecast solar and wind will generate more new energy capacity in the next five years than the shale-oil revolution did in the last five,” writes David Bank, of ImpactAlpha.

Bloomberg predicts peak fossil-fuel use for electricity may be reached within the next decade. Peak gasoline demand by 2021.

For over 100 years, the oil industry and its stakeholders have believed that the market for their products will continue to grow ad infinitum without competitive challenges,” energy economist, Peter Tertzakian wrote last month. “Never in my 35-year career following energy markets has there been so much widespread disagreement about future demand for oil.”

From the water’s edge of 2017 we can see out onto the horizon. When the future history books are written, 2016 will be the year the tide turned.

Why didn’t we realize it?

 

Powering Denial

“For as I detest the doorways of Death, I detest that man, who hides one thing in the depths of his heart, and speaks forth another.”
— Achilles, The Iliad

“We live in the Stone Age in regard to renewable power,” Florida state Rep. Dwight Dudley, said last year in Rolling Stone’s expose on the war entrenched utilities are waging on solar energy. “The power companies hold sway here, and the consumers are at their mercy.”

Rate hikes and punishing fees for homeowners who turn to solar power [have] darkened green-energy prospects in could-be solar superpowers like Arizona and Nevada. But nowhere has the solar industry been more eclipsed than in Florida, where the utilities’ powers of obstruction are unrivaled… .The solar industry in Florida has been boxed out by investor-owned utilities (IOUs) that reap massive profits from natural gas and coal… .These IOUs wield outsize political power in the state capital of Tallahassee, and flex it to protect their absolute monopoly on electricity sales.

The rise of distributed solar power poses a triple threat to these monopol[ies]. First: When homeowners install their own solar panels it means the utilities build fewer power plants, and investors miss out on a chance to profit. Second: Solar homes buy less electricity from the grid; utilities lose out on recurring profits from power sales. Third: Under “net metering” laws, most utilities have to pay rooftop solar producers for the excess power they feed onto the grid. In short, rooftop solar transforms a utility’s traditional consumers into business rivals.

The utility trade group Edison Electric Institute (EEI) warns that rooftop solar could do to the utility industry what digital photography did to Kodak, bringing potentially “irreparable damages to revenues and growth prospects.”

Few industries are worse equipped to deal with disruption than power utilities. Their profits depend on infrastructure investments that pay off over a generation or more. “Utilities are structured to be in stasis,” says Zach Lyman, partner at Reluminati, an energy consultancy in Washington, D.C. “When you get fully disrupted, you’ve got to find a new model. But utilities are not designed to move to new models; they never were. So they play an obstructionist role.”

Obstruction plays out in the State Houses, but it also plays out in hearts and minds. Here’s what obstruction looks like as a messaging strategy:

 

Bills percolating through state legislatures across the U.S. are giving the education fight a new flavor, by encompassing climate change denial and serving it up as academic freedom.

Newsweek

 

 

 

And so on.

But behind the petroleum-jellied lens of blurry obstructionism “Freedom” is just a marketing gimmick when you’ve got nothing left to lose except your entire whale blubber fortune.

As futurist Alex Steffen explains:

There is no long game in high-carbon industries. Their owners know this. They don’t need a long game, though… . All they need is the perception of the inevitability of future profit, today. That’s what keeps valuations high… .The Carbon Bubble will pop not when high-carbon practices become impossible, but when their profits cease to be seen as reliable.

For high-carbon industries to continue to be attractive investments, they must spin a tale of future growth. As it becomes clear that these assets will not produce profit in the future, their valuations will drop — even if the businesses that own them continue to function for years. The value of oil companies will collapse long before the last barrel of oil is burned.

Put another way: The pop comes when people understand that growth in these industries is over and that, in fact, these industries are now going to contract. That’s when investors start pulling out and looking for safer bets. As investors begin to flee these companies, others realize more devaluation is on the way, so they want to get out before the drop: a trickle of divestment becomes a flood and the price collapses. What triggers the drop is investors ceasing to believe the company has a strong future.

“Gridlock is the greatest friend a global warming skeptic has,” a spokesman for an Oklahoma senator says in Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. “That’s all you really want. There’s no legislation we’re championing. We’re the negative force. We are just trying to stop stuff.”

The energy generated by the obstruction force of the most powerful industry that has ever existed on the face of the Earth has created such friction it has ground our sense of the future a halt. The lights keep dimming on us and we don’t know why. The gears of culture groan precariously against grinding, backwards momentum. The crude, snake oil slogans peddling past glory are so bleakly recursive they erase the very idea of future. And that is no coincidence. Carbon has a stake in wiping the future out of our imaginations. Because in the Future the world pivots.

 

Powering Destiny

One of these mornings
It won’t be very long
They will look for me
And I’ll be gone.
— Patti LaBelle

This past October, Liu Zhenya, the former chairman of China’s state-owned power company, State Grid Corp., came to the United Nations to present a vision for what a post-carbon Future would look like. He described a global power grid that could transmit 80% renewable energy by 2050, Scientific American reports.

His speech invited U.N. support for a new international group to plan and build the grid. It’s called the Global Energy Interconnection Development and Cooperation Organization (GEIDCO), and China has named Liu its chairman. [This] global grid would transmit solar, wind and hydroelectric-generated power from places on Earth where they are abundant to major population centers, where they are often not.

His grid’s development would take shape in three phases. First, Liu explained, individual nations would redesign their own power electric grids. He noted that China’s effort is already underway, generating 140 GW of wind power and 70 GW of solar power, “more than that of any country of the world.” By completing a network of long-distance, high-voltage direct-current power lines to move renewable power from the north to the south and from the east to the west, China could finish its new grid by 2025, he predicted.

The second phase, Liu described, would be an international effort to build regional grids that would be able to transmit substantially more power across national borders in Northeast and Southeast Asia, between Africa and Eurasia, and between nations in both North and South America. The third phase would build power lines and undersea cables that would connect the regional grids. The upshot would create what he called a “win-win situation.”

There would be plenty of work for “all global players” to coordinate the effort, to share and innovate new technology, and to develop global standards and rules for cooperation, Liu promised. He closed his U.N. presentation with a glimpse of a future world where a combination of renewable energy, a network of high-voltage direct-current transmission lines and “smart grid” operating systems can serve the planet the way the human “blood-vascular system” serves the human body.

When the global grid is completed, “the world will turn into a peaceful and harmonious global village with sufficient energy, green lands and blue sky,” he predicted.

Is it kooky that the Chinese would be talking about World Peace on the eve of 2017? Sure. But the thing is — that could have been us.

In the 1960’s, American architect and systems theorist, Buckminster Fuller created the World Game project. An alternative take on the war game simulations that dominated the Cold War era, the World Game requires participants to solve the following problem: “Make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological damage or disadvantage to anyone.”

“The global energy grid is the World Game’s highest priority objective,” Fuller wrote.

Half a century after this idea of a distributed energy Future first emerged out of the American counterculture, a representative from the world’s second largest economy just presented it at the United Nations as the vision for his country’s energy ambitions.

“We argue so much about the silly politics of climate change and fail to recognize the gargantuan economic opportunity that this presents,” says Gregory Wilson, co-director of DOE’s National Center for Photovoltaics. “The energy system is going to get re-engineered, and someone is going to do it. The Chinese seem to have recognized the significance of this opportunity.”

Last year China invested a record $32 billion in overseas renewable energy projects. A 60% increase from the year before. Over the next 4 years the Chinese plan to to invest $360 billion in renewables domestically to boost capacity by 500%. The rapidly accelerating innovation that this kind of financing unleashes creates global market forces that may have their own momentum. From radically reimagined (and profoundly cheaper) battery technologies to printable solar panels that could transform “nearly any surface into a power generator” to electric busses that can go 350 miles on a single charge, new pieces of this vast puzzle seem to be emerging almost daily.

“Eventually,” Vox’s David Roberts writes, “power generation and storage will become ambient, something that simply happens, throughout the urban infrastructure. With that will come more and more sophisticated software for managing, sharing, and economizing all that power. [This] will one day change the world as much as the internet has.”

Indeed, as TechCrunch writes: Energy is the new Internet.

An undeniable, distributed energy Future powered by solar and other renewable sources is emerging. Perhaps the only Future on offer in the 21st century thus far that presents a bright vision worth striving for.

And yet — from a consumer perspective, solar energy seems to have no idea what it’s really selling.

 

Powering Desire

“If you don’t like what is being said, then change the conversation.”
— Don Draper

“In 2008, when fracking was still just a tiny thing, Davos was crowning it as the start of a new world order,” clean energy entrepreneur, Jigar Shah said recently on the Energy Gang Podcast. Yet solar is still considered “just a tech thing,” he lamented. “We’re not Earth shattering.”

Where does the momentum for a movement come from, Shah wondered? Why is solar perceived as just some sort of… appliance? Why, despite breaking records and reshaping trend-lines the world over in 2016, isn’t solar getting the kind of buzz befitting one of the biggest stories of our time?

Because messaging.

Here is how SolarCity, the largest residential solar installer, positions its product:

“Our solar panels not only generate energy on your roof, they can also generate cash in your pocket. That’s because when you go solar you can save on your monthly utility bill and secure lower fixed energy rates for years to come. The savings over time add up and allow you to plan for your future. See how quality, savings and affordability make going solar the right choice.”

Solar is the Future but you’d never know it from the way it’s marketed. And this commoditized framing is reflective of the industry as a whole. The retail model for solar hasn’t changed from what it was a decade ago. But the world has. The internet is on our doorstep but solar is still selling people on the value prop of word processors.

Compounding the messaging problem, solar is still positioned as an “alternative.” Droga5’s campaign for NRG Home Solar still presents renewable energy as an option relative fossil fuels. (Perhaps inevitable given the nature of NRG’s legacy-fuel masters.)

Both of these misguided approaches are a drag on the industry’s true potential. Solar isn’t a gadget, or an alternative lifestyle — it is an entry point to the new Future. In 2017, the territory of a desirable Future is totally unclaimed white space in consumer consciousness and the solar industry is uniquely positioned to own it.

Here’s how:

 

– Industry-level Messaging Platform –

In the 1990’s the Got Milk? campaign gave a commoditized product the status of a cultural icon. Executed at a trade level by the American dairy farmers, the industry-wide platform created a bigger impact than could have been possible for any dairy producer individually.

Like milk, energy is not a sphere with recognizable consumer brands that are part of the larger cultural conversation. The one notable exception, of course, is Tesla, which dropped the “Motors” from its name when it acquired SolarCity at the end of 2016. Analysts insisted that this acquisition is an “unneeded distraction,” and that Tesla ought to be “singularly focused on becoming a mass automobile manufacturer,” but that is a shortsighted view for a company that now makes solar panels and energy storage products. When it comes to Tesla’s true ambitions, as CEO, Elon Musk puts it, “We need a revolt against the fossil fuel industry.”

Everything Tesla does unequivocally insists, desirable Future, but there is enough shine for the entire industry to own. At the end of the day, it’s solar itself that consumers have an affinity for — 

Even among the majority of all political affiliations, no less—

It doesn’t take a moonshot PR campaign to capitalize on this abundance of positive consumer sentiment. Just a cohesive voice with which to claim the message and consistently speak it into the culture.

 

– Expand the Target Audience –

Everyone in solar is targeting the same homeowner and business audience. A vastly unexplored area is strategic ways to engage literally everyone else.

In 2008 I wrote about Toyota’s integration with Whyville, an online virtual world for tweens:

Pretty much the coolest thing you can buy in Whyville is a Scion, and its added bonus is that then you can drive all your other friends around in it in the game. The most fascinating thing about this whole strategy, however, is that the Tween demographic is between 8–12 years old. It’s gonna be a while before they even have a driver’s license, let alone be in a position to be buying a car in the real world, but when they are, they will already have a virtual experience to draw on when making the purchase decision.

As the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center shows with its Clean Energy Activity Day program for elementary and middle school students, this approach doesn’t need to just be virtual.

From group purchasing at a community level to modular options for renters to innovative uses for incentive programs and student grants, and more, what are the actionable and scalable strategies for expanding the target audience and the bottom line across the solar industry?

 

– Sell the Experience –

Most people don’t really want to think about energy. We flip a switch and the electricity is just there. We interact with electricity literally all day, and never think about it. The narrative of distributed, storable, smart-gridded, clean energy is so profoundly different from what most people know, or know how to think about, for them to understand it — or even want to — requires a transformative shift in the way it is communicated.

When Apple first marketed the iPod, it didn’t sell the product, they sold its end result — the experience of music:

Later campaigns for the iPhone didn’t even show the product at all:

The product became the conduit to the experience. And the experience that solar has to sell is Future.

 

– Claim the Narrative of Future –

Two decades ago — back when it was still possible to talk about the future as anything but dystopia — a series of ads painted a striking vision of how that future was going to unfold. “Have you ever borrowed a book from thousands of miles away,” asked the ad voice. “Crossed the country without stopping to ask for directions? Or watched the movie you wanted to, the minute you wanted to?”

“You will,” said the voice, “and the company that will bring it to you: AT&T.”

Today I use a device to do basically 90% of what those ads predicted. (OK, I’ve never sent a fax from the beach, or tucked a baby in from a phone-booth, but you can’t get the Future 100% right). All of these things are so obvious and mundane now we barely even remember — some of us never knew — there was a time before. But, indeed, there was a point when this fantastical world was the future, and the future still seemed like a fantastical world.

There are no grand visions for the future now, no scenarios for humanity that don’t fill us with dread. A dying oligarchy tells us dissolution is freedom; regression is hope. It has disfigured our understanding of what’s happening in our world. The result is a gaping void in our collective vision when we look ahead. 17 years in to our new century there is a desperate hunger for a bright vision for the future, and at the moment arguably no one outside the world of clean energy has a legitimate claim to one. In the end, it’s not about utility bills or net metering laws or even solar panels for that matter. It’s about a vision of a Future worth demanding. Solar has the opportunity to be the voice of that vision for decades to come with a simple, cohesive, culture-focused messaging strategy.

    



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Engineers in the Mist

 5 Days & Nights With Startup Millennials in San Francisco.

 

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THURSDAY MORNING: San Francisco’s Hottest Zip Code

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“Our power was out this morning,” The text message from S, the 27-year-old CTO of a fashion startup in San Francisco reads, “And hopefully it is back on now but… ?”

In Los Angeles, I receive this information as I’m heading out the door to LAX on my way “upstairs” to San Francisco for the Chief Innovation Officer Summit and some meetings. The salient-seeming text arrives, and evaporates like rising steam, pushed into the abyss beyond my screen by more incoming iMessage bubbles of instructions about S’s street address, the lockbox code to get the keys to her apartment, how to locate her room, disclaimers about the room’s condition (Um, it’s a little bit of a disaster because basically every day I drop my clothes on the floor and grab new clothes to wear horizontal line mouth emoji), etc.

As I’m waiting to board one of Southwest’s hourly nerd bird flights from LA and SF, I see an article on the Verge titled, “Crashing the Casting Call For 94110, a Show About San Francisco’s Hottest Zip Code”:

Last month fliers began appearing on certain blocks of San Francisco advertising open auditions for a television pilot about “six leading technology executives living, learning, and loving together in San Francisco’s Mission District.” The shlocky concept was named 94110 after the neighborhood’s zip code, and was roundly ridiculed online. Nonetheless, nearly 100 hopefuls showed up for the casting call this weekend, which was held at SFAQ, a dinged-up, lived-in little art gallery in the Tenderloin.

94110 is S’s zip code.

At this moment my return flight is scheduled for 2 days from now. When I eventually leave, nearly a week later, the power in S’s apartment will still not be fixed.

 

THURSDAY EVENING: What Is My Mother No Longer Doing For Me?

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I arrive just in time to catch the end of day 1 of the Chief Innovation Officer Summit. It’s at the Hyatt Regency in the Embarcadero and I can generally remember how to get there from the Mission even without the help of the Google Maps app.

The first time I came to San Francisco I was 12 and I fell in love. In high school, I’d visit every spring break, sitting on top of Nob Hill writing sprawling love poems to the gorgeous city, taking the 24 up Divisadero imagining which house the interview in Interview With The Vampire had taken place in, trying on hippie eyelet dresses in the stores on Haight, which still smelled of nag champa when I wore one to prom. The day after my last final freshman year of college I got on a plane and moved there. I was 18 and San Francisco was full of artists, musicians, dancers, and cultural rebels. It was a totally different city, peopled by totally different kinds of residents.

Watching my fellow riders on the inbound J train now, I am reminded of a census statistic I’d seen recently — between 1990 and 2010 San Francisco’s black population fell 35.7 percent.

In the evening, I meet up with a friend who is a data scientist at an on-demand meal delivery app (think: Tinder for dinner). He tells me he is working on optimizing the food display options for conversion — making sure users would be more likely to see meals they were going to want to order more quickly as soon as they opened the app.

“The tech industry used to think big,” Farhad Manjoo wrote in the New York Times:

As early as 1977, when personal computers were expensive and impractical mystery boxes with no apparent utility or business prospects, the young Bill Gates and Paul Allen were already working toward a future in which we would see “a computer on every desk and in every home.” And in the late 1990s, when it was far from clear that they would ever make a penny from their unusual search engine, the audacious founders of Google were planning to organize every bit of data on the planet — and make it available to everyone, free.

These were dreams of vast breadth: The founders of Microsoft, Google, Facebook and many of the rest of today’s tech giants were not content to win over just some people to their future. They weren’t going after simply the rich, or Americans or Westerners. They planned to radically alter how the world did business so the impossible became a reality for everyone.

We are once again living in a go-go time for tech, but there are few signs that the most consequential fruits of the boom have reached the masses. Instead, the boom is characterized by a rise in so-called on-demand services aimed at the wealthy and the young.

With a few taps on a phone, for a fee, today’s hottest start-ups will help people on the lowest rungs of the 1 percent live like their betters in the 0.1 percent. These services give the modestly wealthy a chance to enjoy the cooks, cleaners, drivers, personal assistants and all the other lavish appointments that have defined extravagant wealth. As one critic tweeted, San Francisco’s tech industry “is focused on solving one problem: What is my mother no longer doing for me?

herecomestheairplane
 

During dinner, S texts me. Her roommate, R, has “Somehow acquired this awesome house for the night. So… I’m going to go there to hot tub. Come. It’s like $1,000/night but he got it for free, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. ALSO the power is still fucked.”

“Ooofff,” I text back. “Mostly cuz my phone.”

“Fortunately, I’m an engineer. So I connected the light in my room to an extension cord. So you can swap the light for your phone maybe?”

“I like how you’re like, ‘Power is fucked. Oh well. We’ll go to another house.
¯\(°_o)/¯.’”

“I mean we flipped all the breakers in our house. And the apartment upstairs. It’s like, fuck it. The door doesn’t close unless you kick it hard. Landlord is coming tomorrow. We have to hide the cat.”

“#SoSF.”

“If you want to stop by to say hi, it’s — “

 

FRIDAY MORNING: How Do We Adapt To Millennials?

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At The CIO Summit Day 2, Debra Brackeen, the head of the Innovation Network at Citi is talking about biometric integration with financial data, and I’m sipping grapefruit juice and eating a muffin and thinking — who could have predicted the sci-fi future would be so mundane when it arrived, you know?

Everyone is dressed like they’re running for office. I am definitely feeling like a spy; witnessing the ghost of Christmas future. “How do we adapt to Millennials,” someone asks during Heather McGlinn, Wells Fargo’s SVP, Strategy’s, presentation, “Leveraging Disruptive Technologies to Enhance Competitive Advantages,” in the way that you talk about a group of people when they’re not in the room. And, I mean, they aren’t. At the moment, the Millennials are stumbling into their startups after partying all night at Airbnb mansions on drugs from Silk Road.

All roads lead to discussions of disruption. Tim Sutton, the Global Head of Innovation at Clear explains how companies now need to grow their business minimum 4% every year just to maintain market share. If you’re really just maintaining, you’re actually falling behind. A dilemma since, as he puts it, “There is no white space in a consumer’s wallet.” And meanwhile, somewhere beyond the Hyatt’s glass walls, out there in the fog of war of San Francisco, an army of barbarians wages daily assault on the gates of the establishment, gaining ground even if they lose, simply through chaos.

Citing the New York Times’ leaked 2014 Innovation Report, Jill Lepore wrote in The New Yorker:

Disruption is a predictable pattern across many industries in which fledgling companies use new technology to offer cheaper and inferior alternatives to products sold by established players (think Toyota taking on Detroit decades ago). Today, a pack of news startups are hoping to ‘disrupt’ our industry by attacking the strongest incumbent.”

A pack of attacking startups sounds something like a pack of ravenous hyenas, but, generally, the rhetoric of disruption—a language of panic, fear, asymmetry, and disorder—calls on the rhetoric of another kind of conflict, in which an upstart refuses to play by the established rules of engagement, and blows things up. Don’t think of Toyota taking on Detroit. Startups are ruthless and leaderless and unrestrained, and they seem so tiny and powerless, until you realize, but only after it’s too late, that they’re devastatingly dangerous: Bang! Ka-boom! Think of it this way: the Times is a nation-state; BuzzFeed is stateless. Disruptive innovation is competitive strategy for an age seized by terror.

On a panel about “Strategy Vs Execution,” Pat Conway, the Chief Knowledge Officer for the U.S. Army, is heard saying, “In battle, your biggest obstacle, aside from the adversary, is terrain.”

What must it have been like to awake each morning to an ever-unchanging world? For the majority of humans through the majority of human history this was reality. Today we wake up each morning in a war zone; a disrupted terrorscape where everything has shifted out from under us during the night.

 

FRIDAY EVENING: You Still Use Skype?

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I wake up from a nap at 8:30 to a text from S letting me know a car is coming for me and to be ready in 20 minutes. Half of the apartment is still without electricity but an on-demand chauffeur summoned by magic is coming to whisk me off to a secret speakeasy.

“Do you know where we’re going?” I say to the Lyft driver.

“Do you know?”

“Um….. No? I thought you did?”

“When I pick up the next person,” he says noncommittally.

A few minutes later the other passenger gets in. “Do you know where we’re going,” I ask him.

He’s baffled. “Are you going to the same place?”

For a few moments literally no one in this car knows what we’re doing here.

It’s 2015.

Eventually the Lyft driver gets my destination coordinates and drops me off on a street corner in North Beach before driving off to deposit the other Lyft Line passenger. A few moments later S, R, and their respective dates appear. S has Uber (for them), Lyft (for me), and Luxe, an on-demand valet service (for her brother) all running on her phone at the same time.

At the speakeasy I’m telling a story about getting a Skype call on a Virgin flight a couple of years ago. “I was so bewildered I hit the green button without even thinking. And then immediately felt like an asshole and hung up.”

“You still use Skype?” R’s date, a Yale grad who works at Google, deadpans.

This is San Francisco now. Fueled by so much one-upmanship and relentless competitiveness and insecurity. It’s a social world designed, literally, by people who came up playing Dungeons and Dragons, who relish intensely complex systems and arcane rules. The trick to enjoying yourself in San Francisco is not to have very much at stake.

In case you’re curious, 300 million people still use Skype, but the coolest girl you know probably uses a flip phone so.

 

SATURDAY MORNING: Leaving San Francisco. 

 

Saturday morning everyone is going to Napa and although this was not originally part of the plan, apparently, so am I.

R shows up at the apartment in the morning after You Still Use Skype’s place and while we are waiting for the Luxe valet to bring S’s brother’s car, he tells us a great app idea he’s just thought of: “So it’d basically be Tinder, but just for me. Like that’s all you can do. Is just swipe right on me.” He pauses his rapid-fire delivery to let the concept sink in. “TechCrunch would be all over that. I’d get wifed so fast.”

“Is that what you want, though,” I say.

He considers. “No.”

We spend a while drifting aimlessly as the wait for the Luxe valet lingers on and no one is exactly sure why. Since S ordered the service from her phone she’s the only one who knows the status of what is or might be going on, but S is already in Napa by this point and details are intermittent and sketchy at best. We wonder if perhaps the valet is driving the car out to Napa; is he following her GPS dot around from winery to winery?

The doorbell rings. An electrician arrives to inspect the power outage. A 20th century service while we wait for the 21st century one. Eventually information is absorbed in some kind of vaporous way that the Luxe valet has confused our address with one in San Mateo and after this gets resolved eventually the car arrives and R, S’s brother, and I go to Napa.

 

SATURDAY EVENING: The Human Centipede Economy.

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“The Luxe valets use your car to be Lyft drivers,” S says.

“It’s The Human Centipede Economy,” I declare.

R jumps on this and proceeds to map out a full workflow diagram. “Let’s say you start with Airbnb at the top, right? Then below that you’ve got all the property management companies who then all use Homejoy to clean the houses, and Washio for laundry, and Lyft to get around,” and so on and on.

In Napa some people leave our group and new people appear. All day I am the only one who isn’t an engineer. R later explains the difference between engineers, programmers, and developers, but at the moment it’s all the same and we are LOLing and lolling around bucolic winery grounds, wasted on champagne.

“What class of drug is GHB?” Someone asks.

“Drano,” T answers. T is a new addition to our crew. He’s just moved to San Francisco from New York to start a job at a $500-million startup literally the day before. By the second winery he is explaining why he never engages with “torsos” — profiles of headless, chiseled, abdomen selfies — on Grindr, because one time he did, and quickly realized why the guy didn’t include his face.

“I’m actually bi,” he tells me when we go out into the vineyard to take drunken photos amid the leaves.

“Oh, you are?” I say, fiddling with photo filters. “But do you ever just feel like…. you know, paralysis of choice?”

He laughs and I realize this isn’t what he thought I was going to say.

Eventually it becomes evident that I am clearly not heading back to San Francisco tonight and somewhere between Napa and Sacramento I am calling Southwest and changing my return flight.

 

SUNDAY MORNING: Career Scoping.

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We wake up in a Mongolian yurt. It’s sunny and warm out here in Colfax, and we are sitting by a pool waiting for breakfast as hawks fly overhead.

People are talking about working at pre / post IPO companies as different career strategies; “making money off the speculation;” “upside.” People are talking about deciding whether to work at Stripe, Slack, Reddit. People are talking about strategically deciding to work at a series B company; “career scoping.”

This is how people talk. And oddly it already feels less grotesque than it did yesterday. We become accustomed to things. These are just the elements of their actual lives. They can’t help it any more than you or I can help the inevitable echo chambers of our lives. We are all stuck in our own myopias.

“Where do you want to work in 25 years?” I ask.

Everyone goes quiet.

S shakes her head. “Oh, that’s not the plan.”

At some point someone says that they don’t really have to work at all.

“But I’m still interested in the power and the money,” R admits. “That’s an optimization scenario I have defined for myself.”

R says this phrase a lot. Life is all an endless string of “optimization scenarios” for maximizing happiness. I suggest that we all generally have a default happiness set point that we can’t really fux with too much; a personal baseline we’d return to eventually no matter if we win the lottery or become paralyzed.

“So, it might not even matter what I do?” He shrugs, grinning, his pink-tinted Aviators reflecting the aquamarine.

 

SUNDAY EVENING: An SF Trip.

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“Oh, you’re from LA?” a friend of a friend is saying to me at dinner. I’m back in San Francisco now. It’s cold and dark and the weather feels like the city is spitting at you. “I’m so sorry. LA is terrible.”

“Yup,” I say. “Totally is. You should definitely NOT go there.”

The SF / LA relationship is like a bad breakup where one side never quite got over it. A strangely persistent, one-directional antagonism going back decades in California’s cultural history. “San Francisco is too smug and self-centered for LA,” Ellen Sanders wrote in Trips: Rock Life in the Sixties, “The worst implication you could put on something in or from San Francisco is to call it an LA trip.” Frank Zappa neatly summarized this tension in his autobiography: “No matter how ‘peace-love’ the San Francisco bands might try to make themselves, they eventually had to come south to evil ‘ol Hollywood to get a record deal.”

At dinner I mention a Berkeley Journal of Sociology article by Eric Giannella I’d read recently titled, Silicon Valley’s Amorality Problem, to an ex-Googler:

Silicon Valley’s amorality problem arises from the blind faith many place in progress. The narrative of progress provides moral cover to the tech industry and lulls people into thinking they no longer need to exercise moral judgment.

The progress narrative has a strong hold on Silicon Valley for business and cultural reasons. The successes of science and technology give rise to a faith that rationality itself tends to be a force for good.[4] This faith makes business easier because companies claim to be contributing to progress. Most investors would rather not see their firms get mired in the fraught issue of [morality]; they prefer objective benefits, measured via return on investment. Progress, as we think of it, invites us to cannibalize our moral aspirations with rationality. It leads us to rely on efficiency as a proxy for morality.

There are alternatives to the progress narrative. Many people find meaning in their work through a narrative about making a contribution. Rather than thinking about contribution in a historic sense (i.e., progress), contribution can be thought in terms of specific groups of people.

My dinner companions tell me a story of a recent Airbnb adventure as support of new tech’s contribution. And I understand. I, myself, have just come back from a wonderful Airbnb adventure to a yurt, so, “I get it,” I say. “Airbnb is fun.”

“No, it’s not just fun,” ex-Googler insists. It’s bigger than that.

Downstairs our major cultural contribution is superhero movies. No one producing Avengers 17 or whatever thinks they’re “changing the world.” And that’s OK. Fun is OK. But upstairs it’s different. There is a palpable, existential need for innovation to be righteousness.

“One of the great triumphs of Silicon Valley is its success in framing its companies’ objectives as missions,” John Herman wrote on The Awl in Notes on the Surrender At Menlo Park:

There is a toxic mindset that permeates discussions about most accelerating, inevitable-seeming tech companies. It conflates criticism with denial and nostalgia. Why do people complain about Uber so much? Is it loyalty to yellow cabs and their corrupt nonsense industry? A word of caution about Facebook is not a wish to return to some non-existent ideal time. Worrying about the details of the coming future is merely taking that future seriously. People who insist otherwise? They have their reasons.

Anyway, what were we talking about? This is all going to seem so insane in twenty years. Or two years.

RT6ZPpp

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Monday Morning: Engineering Sex.

This particular Monday it’s Memorial Day, so no one is at work, and S is telling me while blowdrying her hair in the part of the apartment with power, “I have this thing that I do on first dates, where I tell them to meet me at this bar that I know is closed on Mondays, to see how they’ll react. Will they freak out? How will we solve problems together?”

And I’m partly horrified and partly fascinated and partly jealous. Some vital optimization scenario I feel I would have thought of if I was an engineer: how will we solve problems together? It’s like a job interview. “What do you want the reaction to be?” I ask. “Do you want them to pick a new place? Do you want them to ask you to pick?”

“I don’t really care,” S says, “So long as they don’t just freak out.”

I recall the Army’s Chief Knowledge Officer at the CIO Summit talking about “Mission Change;” being able to adapt when the objective suddenly shifts. “Get comfortable with uncomfortableness.” he said; a military zen koan.

R, who is 6’4″, has his own strategy. “My type is really tall girls. Like over 6 feet,” he says, because he knows up there he’s got way less competition.

Back in the car there was a lot of time to kill from Colfax to San Francisco, and we spent it user testing T’s updates to his various dating profiles, which he was retooling from a New York persona to a San Francisco look and feel with the methodical grind of coding. Photos of black Jack Spade jackets overwritten by green zip-up-hoodies.

Everyone was on Tinder of course. S mostly used Hinge. They knew of the League but no one was on it. R said recently he’d been meeting girls offline. “It just works better,” he said, “Cause in real life you get my personality, and that compensates.”

“Do you guys use Snapchat?” I asked.

“I use it to send dick pics to the girls I’m seeing,” R said.

“Do you include the face,” T wanted to know.

“Yeah. I’ve got a go-to angle,” R said, sliding down in the backseat, positioning his hand between his legs. “It makes my dick look huge.”

In Sacramento we saw the Capitol building and R and T took a selfie and sent it to a mutual ex who is a professional dominatrix. At one point she used to be T’s sexcam show partner.

She texted back: “:)”

When we came back to San Francisco, R was telling me a story about a girl he’d started seeing recently. It was nearly midnight and I’d plugged an electric kettle into an overflowing power strip in a part of the apartment with electricity and made some hot chocolate and we sat by the fireplace in the living room and tried to stay warm.

“She asked me, ‘What’s your favorite porn site?’ And I said, no, you write down yours on a piece of paper and then I’ll do the same, and when we swapped, it turned out we’d both written down the same one.”

“One night, we’re having sex and she says, ‘I think you’re bleeding.’ And I turn on the lights and I realize I’ve got a nosebleed and it’s bad. There’s blood everywhere. On the walls, pooled in the sheets. It’s in her hair, all over her face, her tits” — as he’s describing what I can only picture as a murder scene I realize he’s titillated. “We both came harder than we ever had before. She has this framed poster of the Black Dahlia on her wall and some blood got on that and she just never cleaned it off and when I come over it’s still there.”

“But you know,” he went on, “There is one girl…. I’ve known her a long time. She’s the sister of my best friend growing up. I’ve been in love with her my whole life. She’s not even super tall or anything. But she’s just got this look about her, you know? I’d ask her to marry me tomorrow if I thought that she would say yes. But I know she won’t. We still hook up sometimes when we see each other. But she’s, you know, dating some other guy, and she’s in LA…”

Then he got a text from one of the girls he was sleeping with and disappeared into that strange netherworld between the Lyft there and the Lyft back.

 

MONDAY EVENING: Mission Change.

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On the flight back to LA I’m watching a Keeping Up With the Kardashians special about Bruce, pre-Caitlyn, Jenner, play silently on the iPad of the girl to my left. On my right, a woman is coordinating logistics for some kind of shoot tomorrow morning. “Get the releases for them,” she’s saying. “They’re in the second drawer. I have to go. We’re about to land.”

I guess this is what we do now. We talk on the phone on airplanes.

She is not using Skype.

San Francisco is like one of those ancient cities now — the kind that has an entirely new city built right on top of it. The people I knew in San Francisco as a teenager and in my 20s all moved out. And in their place, a new and different generation has moved in like fog, obscuring what was there before and transforming the analog into the Cloud. You have to abandon your memory, if you have it, of San Francisco the way it was, and approach it as a totally new American city that now exists on the map. A city with its own new set of social dynamics and value systems, peopled by systems nerds concerned with optimization scenarios not only for the products they create but, by extension, everything else: from dating to careers to transportation to dinner. This is their contribution to our culture (for better or worse).

As we descend into LAX I think about watching the hawks flying overhead on Sunday morning out at the yurt, as we stared up at the sky, looking up from the pool and being blinded by the sun. They circled us like prey as we ate poached eggs. Someone recited trivia about how hawks fly. They catch pockets of hot air, and glide. Predators don’t even flap their wings. They just rise.

    



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SXSW 2015: The End of Techno-Joy

 

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Art by: Sue Zola

 

I used to be pretty excited about technology. I’ve worked in social media since before the term existed; I co-created an app, I wrote pretty rah-rah-tech essays that people liked, like “Why Iron Man is the First 21st Century Superhero” (hint: his relationship to tech). I, like you, side-eyed wet blankets like Evgeny Morozov and Sherry Turkle and Jaron Lanier, like, sucks to be them; glad I don’t have their problem. Until, one day, I did. It started when I was writing Objectionable, and it never really went away. But perhaps nothing has made it feel quite as immersive as going to South By Southwest Interactive 2015.

The first time I went to SXSW was 8 years ago. The social web was a wild west where new and interesting things were emerging, and, unless you worked in music at the time, you probably didn’t give a shit. (Myspace was still the social network running everything, so don’t even). Twitter didn’t take off until, in fact, SXSW that year, and Facebook wouldn’t do anything at all even remotely relevant to brands until a few months later. At the time this was all a ghetto called “new media;” I had a title with the words “electronic marketing.” Since then, the tech startup industry has become a major, entrenched, cultural establishment, disrupting and colonizing other culture industries like entertainment and music. The SXSW festival, because it spans Music, Film, and Interactive technology, has come to occupy a unique position on the venn diagram of these 3 main influences of contemporary culture. So here’s a few snapshots from where we are in 2015.

 

MUSIC.

Pretty much all the highlights of my third SXSW trip that are fit to print, involve music, so we might as well just get the fun out of the way first.

Before I even got to Austin, the coolest flight I’ve ever had happened to me. I was seated next to an awesome, come up rapper from Miami, called Enoch da Prophet, whom you should listen to immediately:

We talked for a bit about how the new generation of hiphop (J Cole, Kendrick, etc.), is rebelling against the violence, materialism, and other stereotypical “bullshit” of what’s become the established hiphop mainstream in order to define themselves and their own, new sound and vibe. If this is what the future of hiphop sounds like, I am soooo into it.

The moment I landed in Austin, my major evaluative criteria for which otherwise indistinguishable tech-sponsored parties to attend quickly turned out to be based entirely on music. There were parties with performances and / or DJ sets by Sir Mix-a-Lot, Busta Rhymes, Nas, The Flaming Lips, and more — all as part of Interactive. You could tell the difference between Interactive parties and Music parties because the former all had nostalgia-wave acts with name recognition among middle-aged marketing executives. By contrast, if the people on-stage and mostly everyone else are in their 20s and more interested in dancing than networking and the majority of the visible badges people are wearing around their necks have the word “STAFF” on them and the air smells like Swisher Sweets and hash, you can easily tell you’re at Music.

Mostly, the event that lived up to and exceeded the anticipation I had for it was Odesza at the Spotify House. It was their first time playing SXSW, and they were super adorable and excited and totally rocked the shit out of everything and got everyone goin’ up at 5 pm on a Tuesday.

Also fun was the party at the W with The Jane Doze, where my best friend, Jason, was managing a bunch of mermaids. Jason lives in Austin and co-runs Sirenalia, which creates custom, high-end silicone mermaid tails. The startup-sponsored party had hired a few of the mermaid performers to hang out in the pool and be generally Instagrammable.

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Jason and I spent a lot of time talking about parenting in the age of social media, since Jason had just become a father 8 days prior. There’s a lot to consider now, like what your general philosophy is going to be about how you treat technology and content sharing, when the subject of said content is your progeny. Kids don’t get to “choose to be online now,” Jason says, “any more than they got to choose to have a mailing address.”

In retrospect, Music (and also music) turned out to be a welcome, transportive reprieve from the relentless grind of Interactive.

 

INTERACTIVE.

On the plus side of what I got to see as part of the official Interactive programming was a talk by Martin Harrison, Planning Director at Huge, entitled,  “The Empathy Gap: Why Stalin Nailed Big Data.”

“One death,” Harrison quoted Stalin, “is a tragedy; one million is just statistics.” Basically, at a certain point the scope of violation becomes so massive that our minds kind of break at trying to comprehend it or calculate a just recourse. We literally can’t even. For example, in an experiment, people gave shorter jail sentences to food company executives who knowingly poisoned 20 people (4.2 years), than 2 people (5.8 years):

One of the most notable things about this talk was that it was so good even the questions asked by the audience at the end were legitimately interesting and extended the conversation (a phenomenon as unheard of as sitting next to someone relevant on an airplane). One of the questions was how can we institutionalize empathy within risk-averse organizations reliant on the dehumanizing safety-blanket of data? Harrison had some interesting thoughts about this, namely to do with having diversity among the decision-makers.

On the other side of the spectrum, I also went to a panel called Culture Clash: When Marketing and Product Converge, which I had actually been really interested in, not only personally, as this is the exact intersection of disciplines I’ve found myself straddling since launching Mirrorgram / SparkMode, but also from a macro, inter and intra-industry perspective. For marketing, this is the next big step in the evolution of the agency model — as Deutsch’s VP, Invention Director, Christine Outram says, “from ads that are designed to die, to ads that are designed to live” as products that people use every day. And for the product side, marketing is a critical capability to understand and embrace. What the ad world (at its best) has done for the length of its existence is seek to understand and leverage insights about human behavior. (Happiness is a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing… it’s okay. You are okay.“) This human competency is necessary to surf the culture currents and capture lifestyle opportunities in a way that just features alone don’t.

Spoiler alert, the above paragraph is not what the panel was about at all. At least not the first 20 minutes of it, after which my friend, Rachel Rutherford, the Co-CEO of fashion startup, Pose, said we had to go. It was hard, she said, to listen to what marketing considered to be product successes.

 

@rachelaubrey's shoe game tho…

A photo posted by babiejenks (@babiejenks) on

 

“Welcome to how the other half lives,” I told her.

But that’s kind of how the whole premise of SXSW is flawed, though, isn’t it? Because so few things really are the kind of marketing or product successes we’re all claiming they are — in one day I managed to attend two different presentations that both referenced the now half a decade old, Old Spice Guy campaign. But you can’t sell a $1200 festival pass on the reality that most of what attendees are going to hear is aggrandized to sound amazing, to look epic, to seem important, to be Instagram-worthy. SXSW Interactive has a mass hallucination to uphold. And you’ve got an expense report to justify. One talk for real included a slide titled, “So what do I need to tell my boss I learned from your presentation so my expense report gets approved?” —

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Ppl photo’d the shit out of that.

 

CULTURE.

One of the most jarring things that happened at SXSW was at the start of the Flaming Lips show sponsored by Spreadfast, which was super cool-looking and also had the feel of being deliberately reverse-engineered for Instagram. At one point, Wayne Coyne literally stopped a song and restarted it because the audience participation on the lyrics call-and-response wasn’t up to par for the optics “for YouTube.” Later, when I relayed this story to my friends they insisted that Coyne’s way too punk rock for the whole thing not to have been a joke, and maybe they’re right, but here’s the thing…. no one in the audience got it. This is 2015. We do as many takes as it takes to get something share-worthy. It’s not a joke; it’s where we are now as a culture.

Everything feels inescapably more cynical now. One night at a party at the Handlebar, I was talking to a couple of guys from San Francisco. I mentioned that I’d used to live there, and they asked me the standard followup, “Where?” But I shook my head and said, “The question isn’t ‘where,’ it’s ‘when?'”

I lived in San Francisco in 2000. It was a totally different city then than it is now, 15 years later. One of the guys from San Francisco was working at a new mobile search app, or whatever. (The goal being to take away even just .5% of Google’s market share. #Innovation!) He was describing the environment in San Francisco now. “You go out to cafes or anywhere, and it’s just” — he hunched over, smushing his arms against his chest like a Tyrannosaurus, fingers manically typing from flaccid wrists. “Meep, meep, meep,” he said in a robotic voice, completing the pantomime. Then he lowered his hands and confessed, “I’m shitting on the situation, but at the same time, I work in this industry.” He shook his head, sighed into his drink, “I’m part of the problem.”

Earlier, at the W party with the mermaids, Jason was wearing a sailor hat to complement the aquatic motif. A guy walked up to him, his eyes darting back and forth shiftily, his voice so conspiratorially low I could barely make out what he was saying; a question that seemed too absurd and sketchy to be real. Jason smiled carefully, and shook his head.

“Did he just ask to buy your hat off of you,” I said as we walked away.

“Yes.”

“Jesus. I thought he was looking for drugs.”

“I know.”

There was a relentless, transactional quality to SXSW Interactive interactions. You could imagine people picturing price tags floating above everyone’s heads like Sims character diamonds. Is that for sale? Is he for sale? Are they for sale?

I remembered an article I’d read a few months ago in Fortune, The Age of Unicorns, that began, “Stewart Butterfield had one objective when he set out to raise money for his startup last fall: a billion dollars or nothing. If he couldn’t reach a $1 billion valuation for Slack, his San Francisco business software company, he wouldn’t bother. It wasn’t long ago that the idea of a pre-IPO tech startup with a $1 billion market value was a fantasy. Google was never worth $1 billion as a private company. Neither was Amazon nor any other alumnus of the original dotcom class. Today the technology industry is crowded with billion-dollar startups. When Cowboy Ventures founder Aileen Lee coined the term unicorn as a label for such corporate creatures in a November 2013 TechCrunch blog post, just 39 of the past decade’s VC-backed U.S. software startups had topped the $1 billion valuation mark. Now, casting a wider net, Fortune counts more than 80 startups that have been valued at $1 billion or more by venture capitalists. And given that these companies are privately held, a few are sure to have escaped our detection. The rise of the unicorn has occurred rapidly and without much warning, and it’s starting to freak some people out.”

On my last day in Austin I heard about Jumpolin, a local piñata and bouncy house store, that was torn down to make space for parking for a South by Southwest tech party:

The morning of February 12, 2015, Austinite Sergio Lejarazu was driving past his small business, Jumpolin at 1401 E. Cesar Chavez Street, on his way to drop his daughter off at school. That’s when he noticed something strange. Jumpolin wasn’t there anymore. He pulled over and quickly learned that his new landlords, Jordan French and Darius Fisher, operating as F&F Real Estate Ventures, had demolished the building that Jumpolin occupied for eight years. The building still had all the inventory, cash registers and some personal property inside. Sergio and his wife Monica say they were given no prior warning and were up-to-date on their rent with a lease good until 2017.

In the end, the sponsor wound up moving the party to a different venue anyway due to the controversy. (Although not before one of the landlords managed to make an analogy to cockroaches in regards to his tenants.)

Reading about this happening — for a festival, for a party for all of the entitled, out-of-towner assholes like me and you and everyone we know in our badge-holder echo chamber — I felt gross. We are all sighing into our free drinks now; we’re all part of the problem.

Beyond the impact of its output, undoubtedly the most pathological impact technology has already had on our culture is economic. The increasingly stratified division between the people who make a living in some technology-adjacent field, and everyone else. And worse — the way people in technology treat “everyone else.”

When you ask people if they’re from Austin, the real locals consistently add the phrase “born ‘n raised.” My best friend is one of these people. He moved back to Austin after a stint in San Francisco came to an end when he was no longer able to afford to live there. Now he sees “the Google glass people” moving to his hometown, “and they have nothing to contribute to the culture except money.”

It’s beyond a cliche now to talk about how San Francisco has changed. Living in LA (where we don’t have a non-exploitable culture anyway, ha ha ha), I’ve heard the conversation about San Francisco turning into Monaco humming away up north in the distance. But in Austin, it felt very real and present and metastatic — it felt like everywhere else would be next.

If he couldn’t reach a $1 billion valuation, he wouldn’t bother… How much for your hat?…  Is he for sale?…  20 people… 4.2 years….

One city gone is a tragedy. The rest is just statistics.

    



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Hello, SparkMode!

Created by The Glitch Mob’s Justin Boreta, and BRIGHT, Inc., SparkMode is the first artist-owned app that lets you create, edit, & share digital art and design your own custom art products, from prints to decor, and beyond…

 

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Get the free app.
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You may have noticed the crickets here at Social-Creature for most of 2014 (eeesh 160x160x85-see-no-evil-monkey.png.pagespeed.ic.dCoZ8IyrSj). I was a little bit busy. Justin Boreta and I were cooking up a new creative project, called SparkMode.

If you haven’t been to a music festival recently, Boreta is —

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We’ve made some things together before that you’ve watched and clicked and played with. SparkMode is the next step in the evolution of Mirrorgram, an app we launched in the Fall of 2012. More than 2.5 million people created 10 million pieces of digital art with the app, igniting a pop aesthetic that took over music, fashion, and advertising for a bit.

But since those early days when the idea for Mirrorgram was first conceived (on the Glitch Mob tour bus; rock ‘n roll \m/), a lot has changed….

 

The iPhone has completely revolutionized how we make art.


You and I take this for granted now, but it’s become insanely easy to make art. It used to require really complicated image editing software, and the whole learning curve that came with it. And before computers, you needed years of training and practice to get your creative skills to match your artistic intent.

Now, you can get an app that’ll let you create cool stuff with a few taps in seconds. It’s a totally new relationship to the process of making art. It’s simple, it’s effortless, it’s fun. It’s an instant jump from inspiration to execution.

But why stop at the screen?

As Boreta says, “I love the feeling of getting art made into tangible things you can feel with your hands.”

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SparkMode allows you to create art with app simplicity in a new medium — physical space.

In SparkMode you can layer multiple image effects to create kaleidoscopic patterns, trippy, abstract art, and beautifully symmetrical photo edits; and you can design physical art to make your offline world more beautiful, too. Order your creations through the app, and get them shipped to you anywhere in the world. We’re starting with canvas art, stickerbooks, and prints, and plan to expand into new creative mediums in 2015.

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BRIGHT, Inc. makes products, experiences, and brands people love. Find out more: brightincorporated.com

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  • Product Strategy & Roadmapping
  • UX Strategy: Mobile, E-commerce, Web
  • Growth, Community, & CRM Strategy
  • Brand Strategy
  • Content Strategy
  • Multi-Channel Communications Planning

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