Last July, Google threw an office party. But this being Google — the third largest company in the world as of January — it wasn't really a standard ice-cream-cake-and-canned-beer office party. The event was luau-themed, so the company hired staff to dig big holes in its Mountain View campus' lawn and fit spits inside for the purposes of roasting pigs, according to people who were there. There were tables full of food and drinks scattered around. Also on offer: a sophisticated wave machine so employees could try their hands at surfing — miles away from the ocean.
In the tech world, nearly everyone has these stories of inordinate wealth. They're repeated — in a tone somewhere between sheepish, astounded, and proud, depending on who's doing the telling — so much they get passed around and fossilized into legend. In the course of several months and more than two-dozen interviews for this story, I heard plenty of them: the time Airbnb flew Ashton Kutcher in for a meeting. That one company party with the ice luge, or the one with a surprise appearance by Jane's Addiction. The guy who lost his iPhone several times over the course of one hedonistic weekend, buying a brand-new one each time ("you know, because he can," the storyteller added, wide-eyed), or the one who just bought a $5,000 bicycle, or the one who flew halfway around the world on a moment's notice, just to get away for the weekend. At a party for a midsize San Francisco startup whose employees happened to have an office in-joke about Smirnoff Ice at the time, an entire room was filled with buckets of it.
"The money here is obscene," Nick Bilton wrote in a now-infamous July 2012 post for The New York Times' tech blog, Bits. "The newly minted rich are obsessed with outperforming their rivals. One industry party I attended had a jungle theme. This included a real, 600-pound tiger in a cage and a monkey that would pose for Instagram photos. A prominent Googler's Christmas party in Palo Alto had mounds of snow in the yard to round out the festive spirit. It was 70 degrees outside. Sean Parker, a founder of Airtime, threw a lavish, $1 million party that included models he hired to roam the room and a performance by Snoop Dogg." Bilton's examples are arresting, but his point is that none of this is all that uncommon in a region that's seen a massive influx of money in a very short time.
You don't need to look hard to see the effects of tech money everywhere in the Bay Area. The housing market is the most obvious and immediate: As Rebecca Solnit succinctly put it in a February essay for the London Review of Books, "young people routinely make six-figure salaries, not necessarily beginning with a 1, and they have enormous clout in the housing market." According to a March 11 report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, four of the ten most expensive housing markets in the country — San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Marin counties — were located in the greater Bay Area. Even Oakland, long considered a cheaper alternative to the city, saw an 11 percent spike in average rent between fiscal year 2011-12 and the previous year; all told, San Francisco and Oakland were the two American cities with the greatest increases in rent. Parts of San Francisco that were previously desolate, dangerous, or both are now home to gleaming office towers, new condos, and well-scrubbed people.
More young people have more money in a more concentrated place than perhaps ever before. Old money is being replaced by new, but it's a new kind of new, one that has different values, different habits, and different interests than the previous generation. The very rich have always, to a greater or lesser degree, been guilty of excess, but what's changed is that the Bay Area's new wealth doesn't necessarily have the perspective, the experience, or the commitments of the group it's replacing.
And that brings with it a whole host of disparate side effects: The arts economy, already unstable, has been forced to contend with the twin challenges of changing tastes and new funding models. Entire industries that didn't exist ten years ago are either thriving on venture capital, or thriving on companies that are thriving on it. It is now possible to find a $6 bottle of Miller High Life, a $48 plate of fried chicken, or a $20 BLT in parts of the city that used to be known for their dive bars and taco stands. If, after all, money has always been a means of effecting the world we want to bring about, when a region is flooded with uncommonly rich and uncommonly young people, that world begins to look very different. And we're all living in it, whether we like it or not.
When the massive Bay Lights went live a few weeks ago, it certainly felt and looked like a harbinger of something, or at least a big deal: 25,000 LED lights running along the Bay Bridge's western span, rigged up to a computer system to make an ever-changing light show and one of the biggest public-arts projects in history. The national media wrote breathless profiles of the project and its artist, Leo Villareal; thousands of people watched its inaugural show from the San Francisco marina.