Like all yoga classes I’ve dared to attend, this one is an utter disaster. I can’t even get the downward dog right. As I try to follow the instructions that the teacher is drawling into her microphone, she politely trains her eyes on the sportier enthusiasts rather than my awkwardly contorted body. My humiliation on the mat is made bearable only by the surroundings: the class is taking place in a splendid new park on the roof of a recently rebuilt bus terminal in the centre of San Francisco. It is four floors above street level and six city-blocks long, all encircled by office towers with glass façades that are reflecting the blue Californian sky. It feels like exercising on a cloud.
This recently opened green space is connected with another cloud too: the computing kind. Many of the surrounding towers house private companies known as “unicorns” – meaning that they’re valued at more than $1bn – most of which offer some kind of online business service. As I struggle to balance on one leg, I can see Box, Databricks, Okta and Slack, all of which help people to communicate or do clever things with their data that they had no reason to do a decade or so ago. Most obvious among the new generation is Salesforce, a software giant that pays $4m each year to name the transit centre that I am currently exercising on top of – and which also occupies the region’s tallest building.
When I covered technology for The Economist in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I often hung out on University Avenue in Palo Alto, about an hour’s drive south of San Francisco. This was ground zero for the dotcom boom, the era of the browser wars, when casual still meant casual, and Palm Pilots and BlackBerries were the hot new handheld devices. In those days, before Wi-Fi became widespread, people still talked to each other in coffee shops. They even drank cow’s milk.
Now, 15 years on, I tend to roam in a completely different area to cover the tech industry. The newer firms are less often in the Valley than in San Francisco itself, and specifically in the vicinity of Salesforce Park, a part of town that was previously home to boarded-up warehouses from sunset industries. You didn’t want to go there at night.
The change isn’t just one of geography. Where once the tech industry largely concentrated on devices and software, far more firms now make money out of interactions between users and with online services. Like the park, the industry has moved up to the cloud, where the air is thinner: there is less stuff, more talk.
The culture of those techies has changed accordingly. The engineers of the past were often earnest, awkward and dressed in ill-fitting jeans. The techies of today wear an identikit uniform of expensive tight-fitting T-shirts and jeans. Like the tie-wearers of yesteryear, many hipsters bear their individuality only through their choice of trainers. Lycra makes a common appearance too, especially during yoga classes.
The language has also changed. In University Avenue, I used to overhear discussions about the latest chip design or a new programming language. Take a stroll around Salesforce Park’s walking and running trail and the twenty-somethings with Airpods sticking out of their ears are spouting marketing terms about “onboarding”, “the funnel” and “the customer journey”. Superlatives are frequent – everything is “superb”, “super-gorgeous” and, of course, “awesome”.
But perhaps the biggest shift is the divide between the tech world and the rest of the local population. In this, Salesforce Park feels like a metaphor. Sure, it’s beautiful. Some 600 trees and 16,000 shrubs native to arid regions of California, Australia and South Africa were planted across the park’s five acres, the length of about four football fields. Crossing this greenery is an undulating path that connects seating areas, a café, a playground and a grassy amphitheatre (the site of my unfolding embarrassment). Down one side of the park runs a “bus fountain”, a long line of mini-geysers that are triggered when a vehicle drives through the transit centre below, an unpredictability loved by visiting children.
Yet the park is also exclusive. In the late 19th century public parks in Europe and North America were created as part of a movement to provide a cleaner, healthier place for factory workers to go at a time when the Industrial Revolution was polluting cities and many people toiled in dim light. Later they were lauded as a place where people could mix. Salesforce Park, by contrast, seems actually to widen social divisions.
Since it’s high up, the park is necessarily walled. To enter it you must take a lift or an escalator (there’s also a gimmicky gondola, but you can only take it upwards). Both because of the elevation and the access, the park employs a crew of navy-uniformed security guards. And, like all defence forces, their mere presence is a deterrent to some who might wish to enter. On the streets around this area it’s hard not to stumble over a homeless person: in the past two years, the number of rough-sleepers in San Francisco has risen by nearly 20% to more than 8,000 people. Though homeless people often congregate in other green spaces, there are none in this one. If my yoga class is anything to go by, the guards allow only the already healthy to enjoy the area’s health-giving facilities.
The activities allowed in the park are restrictive too. Sure, al-fresco yoga has its benefits, as, I’m sure, do the UrbanKick, Zumba, writing and knitting classes there. But a multitude of regular outdoor activities are banned, including all ball games, skateboarding, scooting, kite-flying and large picnics. (The park’s regulations also list every body part that may not be revealed unless you’re under the age of five.)
Even the park’s many occupants don’t necessarily mix with each other. As the yoga instructor wakes us up from our meditation and my indignity comes to an end, the participants clap politely, roll up their mats and pick up their glass water bottles (plastic is now considered rather last century). We all go on our way with barely a nod to each other. None of which bodes very well for the bright youngsters of Silicon Valley riffing off each other to come up with the next big thing. Serendipity feels far away. Despite the joy of looking out from the rooftop, it might be even better if we were less up in the cloud, and more down to earth.•