No poetry or magic in being a robot

Monkey on your back, one of Kal Spelletich's art pieces.

I felt yesterday like I had been scooped after reading Jennifer Maerz’s post in the Bold Italic, which asked: Is Talking About High Rents So Often Crippling Our City?

She linked to the blog of “robotics genius” Kal Spelletich, who is a friend of mine. We’ve been getting into heated discussions on this very topic for months. Kal makes fantastical interactive machines that do things like spit fire, harness random mechanical motion to produce musical notes on a piano or a violin, or engulf you in an aromatic bundle of fennel, just for an instant. His creations are robots.

I spent a bit of time in his studio, a giant waterfront warehouse in the southeastern part of the city where strange, sharp-edged contraptions hang from the ceilings. I shared stories about the articles I was writing, increasingly on evictions and the dearth of affordable housing in San Francisco. But as we dissected the problem, Kal rejected what he saw as a narrative of desperation that has been formulated in response to the city's affordable housing crisis.

He had his own rant, saying his community’s impulse to make art was being hindered by anxiety-producing discussions over loss of living space. These constant, embittered discussions were not only tiresome but toxic to creativity, he said, and distracting people from actually engaging in their life’s work.

But something about his argument irked me, since the idea that people should bow out gracefully and pursue their creative endeavors someplace else sounded akin to surrender, while the stories I gravitate toward feature individuals who find a way to dig in and stand their ground. And taken as a whole, the greater the exodus of artists and idealists from San Francisco, the more watered-down the city’s cultural soup starts to feel. We debated it endlessly.

Here’s how Kal phrased it on his blog. “We don’t hang and talk about the revolution or our exciting new piece we are working on any more. The wind has been taken out of our sails.  We react to the corporatists and capitalists, we are not proactive. Our dialogue has been taken from us. I feel like we have played right into their hands in more ways than one.”

He concluded it by saying, “The head fuck, stress and wasted energy. ... There is nothing poetic or magic about it. And I do not see any answer for it in the Bay Area.”

I reflected on our discussions again when I read Mayor Ed Lee’s interview in the New York Times a couple weeks ago, in which Lee commented that “tech workers aren’t robots.” In a city bursting at the seams with makers and dreamers with high aspirations, those who possess coding skills are favored, since their work is perceived as having economic potential. Lee seemed very concerned with creating an environment in which they can thrive.

As the mayor told interviewer Willy Staley: “What I learned with tech companies is I gotta give people room to experiment, and also to make what might later on be a mistake. This is the attitude I want to build within San Francisco — give some time to the tech community. At the end of the day, tech workers are not robots: they feel, they think, they have values.”

That philosophy – the idea that people are people, and need room to breathe, experiment, maybe even maybe mess up – actually makes sense as a core value. The problem, as I see it, is that the economic reality of San Francisco makes it such that this recognition is extended exclusively to the tech set, while the same leeway is not granted to other kinds of makers, or to those pursuing a kind of success that can’t be defined strictly in financial terms. At the end of the day, all San Franciscans feel, think, and have values – but only some are receiving support for their work in the form of funding or policies that facilitate their success.

While one class is being encouraged to try, and forgiven when they fail, a different set – the creative or activist types who aren’t doing it for the money – are being sent the message that they must behave like tightrope walkers, or maybe robots, if they want to remain.

There are some signs of creative resistance – a community rallying together in memory of its heroes, some mischievous comic relief, here and there. By tapping into imagination instead of draining it all away with worry, this could prove to be the start of something.