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What not to do in a Silicon Valley commune

In the modern commune, a case of beer is not welcome

When Hal Hodson moved into a communal house near Silicon Valley, drinking alcohol was his first mistake

When Hal Hodson moved into a communal house near Silicon Valley, drinking alcohol was his first mistake

Hal Hodson | October/November 2019

I didn’t plan to move into a commune. But when The Economist sent me to San Francisco for two months to cover a gap in our Silicon Valley coverage, my housing options seemed unpalatable. I didn’t want to live in a soulless serviced apartment, and hotels and Airbnbs were horrifically expensive for long stays. So I found myself trawling Facebook groups with names like “San Francisco flatshare”. A stranger suggested I look at a spare room in a communal house he knew. I wrote an earnest email introducing myself to its occupants and asking whether they had a room for a month. A few hours later I was in.

Communal living has long been part of San Francisco life. Its roots may go back as far as the Barbary Coast brothels of the 19th century, where living as a community lent a veneer of plausible deniability to sex work. The commune’s heyday was in the 1960s, when hippies in Haight-Ashbury came together in a counter-cultural social experiment that other groups across America soon sought to replicate. These days sharing a space with strangers appeals to many people in the city for financial reasons instead, as the tech sector has boomed and rents have risen. To some this is an uncomfortable proposition, a regression to the dormitory life of studenthood. Others have leaned into the situation, aiming to build households that, like their forebears, are bound with ties other than the traditional ones of family or romance. For me, it was a way to live with the people whose world I was writing about and immerse myself in a culture that has spread throughout the Western world.

The house (which I am not naming in order to preserve my housemates’ privacy) sits a few blocks from Dolores Park in the Mission District of San Francisco, in one of the many parts of the city that is now enveloped in the pong of weed. For $1,300 a month I got a basement room with nice wood floors and a sweeping vista of shoes hurrying across pavement. By San Francisco standards this is a very good deal. My 16 new housemates included someone who was starting a tech-driven nursery school from the second-floor rooms and another who was between jobs after becoming frustrated at Google, and working on software projects that never saw the light of day. One of the more revered housemates worked for OpenAI, a company focused on research and development of artificial intelligence.

At first everything went smoothly. The communal aspects of the house were organised through Slack, a messaging system for group chats that has become popular in techier workplaces. Household communications were divided up into different channels, with names like #chores, #activities and #community-engagement. A channel called #chill-times was used to alert other housemates that you were hanging out in the kitchen and wanted company. There was #dating, where housemates helped each other with affairs of the heart. One channel, #empathy, remained silent the whole time I was there.

Shared projects abounded. When I moved in the housemates had just finished putting together a wall of framed photos of themselves as children, an effort that lent a sense of homeliness to our financial decision to live together. A bookshelf in the kitchen featured reading recommendations from different housemates. The day I moved in there was a fresh post in #improvement-ideas, the starting point for such projects. It featured a photo of a waterproof notepad affixed to the inside wall of the shower in the basement. “Showers are one of the most common places to think up your next big idea or solution”, read a note, urging housemates “not to let your next idea go down the drain”. The post on the house messageboard commented that not many people had used the pad yet.

I made my first mistake early on. It came at one of the dinner parties, which tended to happen spontaneously: one person would sit down quietly to eat a stir fry, before others joined them with takeout or leftovers. I brought a case of beer, which seemed to offend the zest for self-improvement that defined the commune. Sleep, and getting enough of it, was the topic du jour. Entire dinners were spent discussing the finer points of sleep tracking, which monitoring gadgets worked best (the Oura Ring was popular); how best to optimise a bedtime schedule; what to eat; what not to drink. I felt like a Neanderthal, supping beer and interjecting to add that surely it was important to enjoy yourself now and again. This sat oddly with a group that was on a different path towards self-actualisation. Alcohol disrupts sleep, it turns out.

My scepticism was sometimes a problem too, not just in the house but in the wider tech community in San Francisco. By the end of my first month I had been drawn into countless debates about the merits of super-powerful artificial intelligence. My arguments against the inevitability of human-level AI fell on deaf ears at best, hostile ones at worse. The entire San Francisco tech world seemed deeply convinced of the good they were creating in the world.

I didn’t doubt the optimism and zeal with which many of these individuals worked towards technical solutions. I actually find it invigorating that, in the tech circles of San Francisco, people have the habit of telling you about their big idea within minutes of meeting you. But I found many techies that I encountered intolerant of criticism, with a commensurate lack of self-awareness. Silicon Valley is a place where belief seems to override self-reflection, and where too few people consider the potential downsides of the whizzy services they are concocting in their bedrooms and co-working spaces. Perhaps that’s just what you need to pursue something new. To confront true believers with these doubts is to face a barrage of increasingly fiery rebuttals, as though to question the system in which people worked was also to undermine the moral fibre of the individuals within it. In a society where God is definitively dead, and the age of Aquarius now seems twee, a belief in the power afforded by manipulating the internet and personal computation has risen to near religious levels.

By the end of the month I was yearning for a quieter life. One thing about communal living is that having space and time to yourself can be tricky, unless you are willing to confine yourself to your bedroom. I miss the sparky conversations. The sleep optimisation, not so much.