The Invasion of San Francisco, and Intellectual Property

FEW scribes write more eloquently than Rebecca Solnit about sense of place, especially San Francisco’s. She’s got a very fine piece in the London Review of Books today about the way the tech boom is remaking the Bay Area. Cities and the arts have a long and fruitful relationship, so this has serious consequences for the creative class. Google, Facebook and the others are major players in the world of culture these days.San_francisco_fire_1906

Solnit starts by describing protests over the Google bus, inspired in some cases by the evictions of middle-class folk as rents skyrocket.

One of the curious things about the crisis in San Francisco – precipitated by a huge influx of well-paid tech workers driving up housing costs and causing evictions, gentrification and cultural change – is that they seem unable to understand why many locals don’t love them. They’re convinced that they are members of the tribe. Their confusion may issue from Silicon Valley’s own favourite stories about itself. These days in TED talks and tech-world conversation, commerce is described as art and as revolution and huge corporations are portrayed as agents of the counterculture.

The other most valuable passage in this piece is about the self-made, libertarian, market-knows-best mythology of the digital subculture:

The story Silicon Valley less often tells about itself has to do with dollar signs and weapons systems. The industry came out of military contracting, and its alliance with the Pentagon has never ended. The valley’s first major firm, Hewlett-Packard, was a military contractor…Silicon Valley made technology for the military, and the military sponsored research that benefited Silicon Valley. The first supercomputer, made by New York’s Remington Rand, was for nuclear weapons research at the Bay Area’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

The internet itself, people sometimes remember, was created by the military, and publicly funded research has done a lot to make the hardware, the software and the vast private fortunes possible.

Lest you wonder what this has to do with a blog on culture, let’s take a look at another story today, about a fight over intellectual property. The story, “Congress in middle of copyright battle,” looks at one specific fight between two bloggers. But in the big picture, we see a larger war between Hollywood and Silicon Valley.

Now, copyright is complicated, and I am not a zealot on the matter. In some cases, movie studios and record labels have been too aggressive at extending copyright and claiming songs and characters that should be in the public domain.

But the Silicon Valley information-wants-to-be-free philosophy is corrosive and dangerous, and the tech companies are amassing fortunes that allow them to lobby Washington as vigorously as the movie industry does.

Rarely do I find myself agreeing with the Hollywood establishment or the MPAA, but: Intellectual property laws are crucial to allow writers, musicians, artists, animators and other members of the creative class to be compensated for what they do. Some of these laws deserve to be reformed, but threats to their existence will leave us all poorer. It will become impossible for anyone but the already wealthy, celebrities, or tenured academics to work in culture.

FINALLY: Speaking of all this, I am digging a new series in Pacific Standard called “How Do You Make a Living, Creative Person?”

Now, I’ll point out what may be obvious to some: The people who show up in magazine profiles are the exception, and the success of a few people does not mean the system is not broken. (Amanda Palmer’s success doesn’t mean that pop musicians are not, by and large, in crisis.) Many talented creative folk are struggling. But this doesn’t mean we can’t learn from those who’ve somehow cracked the code of a creative life in the 21st century.

The first one, on Providence, RI, artisan Jeff Deegan, is here.

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