Leaving San Francisco (2001)

Originally posted on August 10, 2001 on Geekhalla.org, the Geekcorps volunteers’ site:

San FranciscoI am now part of the G3 group of geeks. I am leaving San Francisco for four months. I have been here since the early 90’s, when the city was sleepy and cafes were filled with people writing novels and at parties everyone wore cool purple hats and sparkly clothing but didn’t have jobs. By 1995, I was working in a web company out of a garage and we knew what to do on weekends because Craig Newmark sent some of his friends an email list. I had gotten the job after reading Laura Lemay’s Learn HTML in a Week and I did. At my interview, I sat on a ripped couch in the garage and talked to a bearded Stanford computer science graduate who still had a Brooklyn accent after 20 years in the Bay Area. He asked me to describe a technology goal that I had.

Before coming to San Francisco, I had spent a lot of time in a small village in the north of Bali where the local rice farmers didn’t have electricity, and making a phone call meant borrowing someone’s motorbike and driving nine kilometers to the nearest town, going to the telephone office there and waiting while the operator tried to reach Jakarta. I imagined that one day technology could improve the communication in that village, that the junior high teacher with his tattered books could find materials online, that there could be a kind of clean economic development that wouldn’t rend the landscape with Industrial Revolution smokestacks and blackened rivers, wouldn’t mar that green and shimmering rice-paddy landscape filled with tree spirits.

From that ripped couch in the garage I described my goal, and he looked at me and tilted his head thoughtfully, and then he told me his, to publish kids’ creative writing and art online, to create messageboards where kids around the world could communicate with each other. He gave me a written test where I had to fill in the name of the founder of Apple. I knew, because my parents had bought us an Apple II when I was fourteen.

I got hired. I remember when we got our first post from a teen in South Africa, how rare and exciting that seemed. The kids would date and breakup and talk about Oasis and Godzilla and Marilyn Manson and what to do since they were fifteen and pregnant. They helped each other. They got to know each other. They’d create other sites which were cooler. First it was the hacker kids online who’d have wild screen names like Alternachick and Tuxedo Mask and Ishtar and break the site and then apologize by sending me code snippets, and then it was any kind of kid with AOL and then it was everybody, even my mother in New Jersey got email.

The city got more and more crowded and people graduated from Wharton and Harvard Business School and came West and my old housemate who had the messiest room ever started a girls’ site that was bought out by Delia’s. At parties everyone wore cool purple hats and sparkly clothing and passed around business cards. In Bali, phone lines came to the village where I had lived. The first time I got a call from there, I said hello and then held the phone for a full minute in silence before Ketut abruptly started talking, without easing into the conversation with the small talk which is so habitual to those who have used a phone their whole lives. The world had changed.

And it keeps on changing. Today I walked to my local cafe and noticed how empty it suddenly seemed. The music used to be punk and hiphop and now was adult contemporary. Where were all the people who had descended on this city? There are for rent signs everywhere. You can buy cheap Aeron chairs from dot-com auctions on Craig’s List. The guy who interviewed me on that ripped couch sold his house at the top of the market and moved to Boulder. I, too, am leaving San Francisco. I have loved the chance in this city by the Bay to be part of a new industry, to be creative at work, to keep on learning. And now is the time to go to Ghana, to remember the original dreams of the positive change that technology can bring, in balance with a local culture — is that possible?

Category: Africa, Bali, Change, Ghana, San Francisco | Tags: , , , , 3 comments »

3 Responses to “Leaving San Francisco (2001)”

  1. Athena

    Shara, the cafes are getting full again with unemployed people but now the rent has to go down before they stay full, before they all start leaving. San Francisco, and America, is going through reflection, and hopefully not all the creative people will leave just yet.

  2. Shara Karasic

    Athena – if you’re there, not all the creative people are gone just yet. 😉

  3. Wayan

    Interesting shout out to Geekcorps eight years on – why the flashback now?

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