Slouching Towards Googletopia
I warn you in the strongest possible terms: Do not click through to this Emily Witt essay on n+1 unless you can stomach descriptions of extremely pornographic acts. There are no pornographic images, but the acts described are beyond the beyond. I found the essay worthwhile for its Didionesque depiction of a kind of Bay Area utopianism, and what the freedom celebrated by that culture, and continuing to make its way into the mainstream, portends for the rest of us. Below, this is how it opens. I include nothing pornographic here:
On a Monday last April, I stood in line at JFK Airport to board a plane to San Francisco. Before me stood a silver-headed West Coast businessman. His skin had the exfoliated, burnished sheen of the extremely healthy; his glasses were of an advanced polymer; he had dark jeans. He wore the recycled ethylene-vinyl acetate shoes that are said never to smell. His fleece coat was of an extraordinary thickness and quality, with a lissome external layer that would not pill. He seemed like the sort of man who would pronounce himself a minimalist and say that everything he bought was selected for its extraordinary craftsmanship and beautiful design. But the silver fox’s computer bag was a cheap thing with netting and buckles that saidGOOGLE on it. The person in front of him in line wore a Google doodle T-shirt with Bert and Ernie where the Os would be. In front of him was a Google backpack.
Until I left San Francisco it never went away. It was embroidered on breast pockets, illustrated with themes of America’s cities, emblazoned on stainless-steel water bottles, on fleece jackets, on baseball caps, but not on the private coach buses that transported workers to their campus in Mountain View, where they ate raw goji-berry discs from their snack room and walked about swathed, priestlike, in Google mantles, with Google wimples and Google mitres, seeking orientation on Google Maps, Googling strangers and Google chatting with friends, as I did with mine, dozens of times a day, which made the recurrence of the logo feel like a supremacist taunt.
My first day in the city I sat in a sunlit café in the Mission District, drank a cappuccino, and read a paper copy of the San Francisco Chronicle that lay anachronistically on the counter. I overheard someone talking about his lunch at the Googleplex. “Quinoa cranberry pilaf,” I wrote down. And then, “coregasm.” Because that was the subsequent topic of discussion: women who have spontaneous orgasms during yoga. The barista was saying how wonderful it was that the issue was receiving attention, coregasms being something a lot of women experienced and were frightened to talk about. Those days were over.
The people of San Francisco were once famous for their refusal of deodorant and unnecessary shearing. Sometimes, walking down the street, past gay construction workers and vibrator stores, I was reminded that this was the place where Harvey Milk was elected (and assassinated), where the bathhouses had flourished (and closed). But most of the time I noticed only that the people of San Francisco appeared to have been suffused with unguents and botanical salves, polished with salts, and scented with the aromatherapeutics sold in the shops that lined Valencia Street. The air smelled of beeswax, lavender, and verbena, and the sidewalks in the Mission glittered on sunny days. The food was exquisite. There was a place in Hayes Valley that made liquid-nitrogen ice cream to order. I watched my ice cream magically pressured into existence with a burst of vapor and a pneumatic hiss. This miracle, as the world around me continued apace, just moms with Google travel coffee mugs talking about lactation consultants. Online, people had diverted the fear of sin away from coregasms and toward their battles against sugar and flour. “Raw, organic honey, local ghee, and millet chia bread taming my gluten lust,” was a typical dispatch. “Thank goodness for ancient grains.”
At night I was alone, and I would walk down the street listening to sermons in Spanish from the storefront churches and the electronic hum of the BART train below. The city was a dream world of glowing screens and analog fetishism, of Google, orgasms, stone fruits, and sparkles. A Greek chorus of the homeless and mentally ill connected these fragments into deeper conspiracies, until I began to see conspiracies myself. I would walk down the sidewalks of the Mission and note their glittery resemblance to my powdered blush in its makeup compact. “This sidewalk looks like Super Orgasm,” I would think, Super Orgasm being the name of the particular shade of blush I own. My makeup reveled in contemporary sexual politics: FOR HIM & HER read the sticker on the back of my paraben-free foundation. I contemplated a possible economic index comparing the cost of a pint of honey-lavender ice cream to the federal minimum hourly wage. I ran to Golden Gate Park, where giant birds of prey gazed hungrily upon glossy dachshunds. The cyclists passed in shoals, dressed in Google bicycle jerseys.
I had never had a coregasm and my sexual expectations conformed to widely held, government-sanctioned ideals. I was single, and now in my thirties, but I still envisioned my sexual experience eventually reaching a terminus, like a monorail gliding to a stop at Epcot Center. I would disembark, find myself face-to-face with another human being, and there we would remain in our permanent station in life: the future.
In San Francisco, people thought differently. They sought to unlink the family from a sexual foundation of two people. They believed in intentional communities that could successfully disrupt the monogamous heterosexual norm. They gave their choices names and they conceived of their actions as social movements. I had come to San Francisco to observe this sexual vanguard, but I did not think their lessons applied to me. “But what is your personal journey?” they would ask, and I would joke about this later with my friends.
Here’s how the essay ends, except for a final scene of depravity, which I’ve not included. Reading the part I’ve just quoted, then this one, is like swimming from one island to another through a lagoon of raw sewage. Let me be clear: I’m not damning the writer; she simply describes what she saw. Witt concludes:
I had insisted to myself that I wanted a long-term, committed relationship, of the kind celebrated by the CDC and most happy endings (of the narrative sort). I had decided that any other kind of sexual relationship was a “waste of time.” Having committed myself to a limited worldview I saw not as limited but rather as dignified and adult, I was able to distance myself from the very question I had gone west to investigate—one that was turning into a major question of my adult life: if love could not be relied upon to provide an idyllic terminus to one’s sexual history, and naive performative attempts at a noncommittal sex life resulted only in health scares and hurt feelings, how best to still carry out a sexual existence?
In San Francisco, the right to be a lawfully wedded couple was not taken for granted, but this question was still pursued with a cheerful, pragmatic determination. It came accompanied by Google spreadsheets, jargon, discussion groups, community centers, dietary changes, and hallucinogens. San Francisco’s sexual vanguard might overuse words like “consciousness” and “mindfulness,” but the success of their politicization of sex had repercussions that reached across the country. The mind-set could sometimes seem grim, or at least all that talking kind of dampened the feeling of spontaneity. But they meant it: “Polyamory is a decolonizing force,” one person explained to me. “If you want to transform society, it includes our intimate relations.”
I met with everyone I could. I met a group of Google employees in their early twenties, beneficiaries of the country’s most elite educational institutions, now applying their sharp minds to the investigation of multiple concurrent relationships. They all did yoga, were extremely attractive, and accompanied their sexual experimentation with controlled consumption of psilocybin mushrooms and MDMA. They spoke of primary and secondary relationships, and described a world in which jealousy and possessiveness were the sins to overcome. I attended the cult-like meetings of a group of people who have devoted themselves to the female orgasm. After a “game” at one meeting, where I stood directly in front of a male stranger who looked in my eyes and repeatedly demanded answers to the question “WHAT DO YOU DESIRE?” for several minutes, I went home, drank almost a full bottle of wine, and wept.
I took the train across the Bay to Oakland for a quiet dinner with several anarchists, to talk about anarchist ideas of sexuality. They all wore black and spoke of their decisions with a seriousness that my friends in New York might have had derided. The anarchists cooked kale and dressed their pasta with cashew pesto from a jar. Oakland’s soft summer warmth came as a welcome relief from San Francisco’s miserable microclimates. We dined with the windows open and the evening sun flooding into an apartment lined with books.
In another part of Oakland I met with a radical queer activist who had a platonic partner, a sexual partner, and a rotating cast of people with whom she “played.” (The really tough part, she admitted, was the scheduling.) I asked if her platonic partner was not just her roommate, or a friend, but she explained that it involved a deeper commitment: going to holidays at each other’s family homes, caring for each other when sick—everything expected of a husband or wife except for the sex. It wasn’t any easier than marriage, either: they were in couples’ therapy.
In the past twenty years, in San Francisco especially, the celebration of choice over systems has coincided with the advent of new technology and an influx of money and entrepreneurs. One result has been the healthy, humane workplaces presented by Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the other Bay Area companies and their acceptance of individual expression in the corporate workplace and of families in all their forms. These changes made for a better working experience, but they also made it easier to complacently watch the flourishing of unfamiliar digital monopolies, to partake in the consumer delights produced by unprecedented inequality with a mistaken sense of political agency, and to pay to watch a woman get gangbanged on the internet with a clean conscience, because the producers used the rhetoric of the fair and just. The ghosts of the formerly ostracized, including the untimely dead, haunted the city. The general consensus was that we honored the dead and the formerly oppressed by enacting the present utopia.
The wealth and the corporate culture that produced it defied the old models of good and bad. Google’s motto, “Don’t be evil,” had been adopted across a range of industries. Evil, unfortunately, remained loosely defined: we would know it when we saw it. But all we saw on our computers were our photographs, our friends, our broken hearts, our writing, our search terms, our sexual fetishes.
The friendly blandness of Google’s interface bestowed blessing on the words that passed through its sieve. On Google, all words were created equal, as all ways of choosing to live one’s life were equal. Google blurred the distinction between normal and abnormal. The answers its algorithms harvested assured each person of the presence of the like-minded: no one need be alone with her aberrant desires, and no desires were aberrant.
Googling [deleted words — RD] will lead you to a video I saw recorded in San Francisco one April evening. In life, the sex I saw there did not upset me, but when I arrive at the video via Google I want to turn it off. The whole motivation of our new sexual paradigm might be to ensure that nobody will be alienated, but porn is a medium where the expression of one person’s happy sex life can easily shade into another person’s estrangement.
I watched how my friends became anxious when the subject of porn came up. Some people enjoyed watching it as part of a daily routine. Some felt enslaved by their desire for it. Others saw their real-world sexual experiences reduced to a corny mimicry of porn, and wished they could somehow return to a time when porn was less ubiquitous, or was just soft-focus tan people having relatively unadventurous sex by a swimming pool. Since more men watch porn than women, the occasional imbalance of knowledge caused distress all around and was perceived at times as an imbalance of power. Porn made people jealous, it hurt feelings, it made them worry about whether their partners were attracted to them, or to the kind of people they watched in porn, who might have a different color hair, skin color, or bra size. Because porn loves the taboo, it was also sometimes racist and misogynist.
It’s tempting to think that life before internet porn was less complicated. There are sexual acts in porn that it would not occur to many people to attempt. We have more expectations now about what kind of sex to have, and how many people should be involved, and what to say, and what our bodies should look like, than we might have at a time when less imagery of sex was available to us. But if the panoply of opportunity depicted in porn seems exaggerated, the possibilities are no less vast outside the internet. The only sexual expectation left to conform to is that love will guide us toward the life we want to live.
What if love fails us? Sexual freedom has now extended to people who never wanted to shake off the old institutions, except to the extent of showing solidarity with friends who did. I have not sought so much choice for myself, and when I found myself with no possibilities except total sexual freedom, I was unhappy. I understood that the San Franciscans’ focus on intention—the pornographers were there by choice—marked the difference between my nihilism and their utopianism. When your life does not conform to an idea, and this failure makes you feel bad, throwing away the idea can make you feel better.
If you have a strong stomach, read the whole thing. I kind of hope you will, because the conclusions Witt draws can seem like abstractions unless you’ve read the things she witnessed. It reminded me of a conversation I had recently in which I said to my interlocutor that I had no patience for people who romanticize or laugh lightly about a certain way of life, because I knew people who lived through it as children, and it was a horrible way to live. You sometimes need to stare at a thing straight on to understand it.
The thing that stands out to me in this Witt piece is not so much that human beings do vile things to each other, but that the most free and richest people in the history of humankind use their liberty to degrade each other and to choose to be degraded in ways that would get them arrested or confined to mental institutions if they did it to animals.
The moral of this story seems to be: Unlimited money + unlimited freedom = Hell — created not by God, but by humans.
Again, Didion got there first, nearly half a century ago. Here’s the opening of her essay, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”:
The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misplaced even the four-letter words they scrawled. It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers. Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held the society together. People were missing. Children were missing. Parents were missing. Those left behind filed desultory missingpersons reports, then moved on themselves.
It was not a country in open revolution. It was not a country under enemy siege. It was the United States of America in the cold late spring of 1967, and the market was steady and the G.N.P. high and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose and it might have been a spring of brave hopes and national promise, but it was not, and more and more people had the uneasy apprehension that it was not. All that seemed clear was that at some point we had aborted ourselves and butchered the job, and because nothing else seemed so relevant I decided to go to San Francisco. San Francisco was where the social hemorrhaging was showing up. San Francisco was where the missing children were gathering and calling themselves “hippies.” When
I first went to San Francisco in that cold late spring of 1967 I did not even know what I wanted to find out, and so I just stayed around awhile, and made a few friends.
I remember thinking a lot about Didion a few years ago on a trip to the area, being struck by the great beauty of the place and the pervasive sense of spiritual darkness, which seemed so unsettling to me precisely because everything looked and felt so perfect, like paradise. A friend who worked in a senior position in Silicon Valley told me that it was common for people who worked in the industry to take classes in how to cope as a family with extreme and sudden wealth. Ordinary people who happened to have a real talent for computer work were coming to the Bay Area, getting rich, and losing their moorings. In 2000, the NYT wrote about this Silicon Valley phenomenon. Excerpt:
The rapid pace of technological change, the long hours required of start-ups, the making of vast fortunes at an early age, have brought with them new challenges for families, said Paul Schervish, a professor of sociology at Boston College who is studying the effects nationally of the recent surge in family wealth.
”The material life of this period has accelerated way beyond our spiritual understanding of it,” Professor Schervish said. ”For the first time we can no longer use ‘we can’t afford it’ as a cultural limit.
An interesting aspect of this topic: I remembered reading that story in the Times, and went googling for it. While I was searching, I came across a piece from a few years ago on the Media Research Center’s site, griping about the Times disparaging great Silicon Valley fortunes in a story about class divisions there. It rarely seems to occur to many conservatives to think about connections between sexual decadence and family breakdown, and the freedoms granted by great wealth. Similarly, many liberals wouldn’t make the connection either between the sexual liberties they champion and celebrate, and the deleterious consequences of same. Witt’s report makes a case that the two are a lot more closely associated than we like to think.
Anyway, my question to you: Are the differences between Didion’s San Francisco and Witt’s San Francisco more important than the similarities? Discuss.