The tech industry, its money, and its political influence are hitting the silver screen next week in a new film critical of the “sharing economy” and the influence of Silicon Valley on San Francisco.
“Company Town,” which will have its San Francisco premiere at the Roxie Theater on Friday, October 28, at 7 p.m., takes places over a few tumultuous weeks in 2015.
Using the race between Aaron Peskin and Julie Christensen in District 3 as a “a referendum on tech,” as its directors describe it, the film looks at the regulation of tech companies, money in politics, displacement, and the sharing economy in San Francisco.
It also follows local reporter Joe Fitz Rodriguez from the San Francisco Examiner as he takes a walking tour of the Mission District, through Clarion Alley and down Valencia Street, to note the gentrification that has come to define the neighborhood.
“Company Town” was directed by Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman, who live in Berkeley and previously examined the tech industry in their 2001 film “Secrets of Silicon Valley.”
That documentary followed an activist organizing workers at a Hewlett-Packard assembly plant and the director of a computer training non-profit during the dot-com boom, looking at the blue-collar workers and commercial displacement in Silicon Valley during the early 2000s.
In “Company Town,” they shift their lens to San Francisco.
Both spoke with Mission Local over the phone last week.
The interview has been edited and condensed.
Joe Rivano Barros: How did this project originate?
Alan Snitow: We did a film called “Secrets of Silicon Valley” back in 2001 about the hype of high tech. We realized there’s been a big change over this period of time. Silicon Valley used to be libertarian in its desire to have anything (nothing) to do with government, but now companies are becoming much more political. In fact, they’re aiming to in some cases virtually take over political institutions.
Deborah Kaufman: We wanted to come back to this because the ways in which new tech companies that have moved from Silicon Valley to San Francisco have impacted the city are so severe — it’s like on steroids. The gentrification that’s going on in the Mission is really scary, and it really was an eye opener for me. Even a jaded middle-aged person can be a little bit shocked at the speed at which change is happening.
JRB: What are companies like Airbnb doing to influence politics in San Francisco?
AS: After spending $9 million to defeat Prop. F [the 2015 ballot measure that would have regulated short-term rentals], the newly hired Airbnb public policy officer said that Airbnb was going to [organize] clubs to be involved in local political (campaigns) around the country, 100 lobbying organizations around the country. Airbnb was creating a political machine based in and funded by an organization using the data of its users. We found that a real cause of concern.
DK: I’m not really sure that the users of these apps understand that they’re being mobilized to protect the fiefdom, to use a medieval analogy. There’s something unfair and not straight forward about it all. It’s upsetting, it’s not fair, and it’s different. It’s one thing to be upfront about it, [but] I don’t think people are aware of the idea to which they’re being manipulated.
JRB: A lot of the sharing economy is built on giving people additional income at a time when it seems the regular economy has failed them. Do you see that as a problem?
AS: If we’re creating an economy of freelancers, there have to be portable benefits. If we’re changing the job landscape, we still have to preserve the population and pay people reasonably and make life good. Human flourishing should be the aim of society, not profits for a small set of companies.
DK: I was shocked and disturbed about the way that Brian Chesky [the founder and CEO of Airbnb] talked about his way to create a million entrepreneurs [by renting out their homes]. It reminds me of the peddlers on the Lower East Side selling buttons on the street. It’s really saying you’re on your own, you’re isolated, everything’s going to be privatized. You’re now making money off your bedroom and the back seat of your car.
AS: It’s the end of a long process of cutting living standards and cutting expectations. When you cut people’s expectations, you cut their ability to organize because they don’t expect to be treated well, they don’t expect their government will treat them well, they don’t expect their corporations to pay taxes.
JRB: Despite that, we’re seeing a lot of the protests in the Mission District aimed at market-rate housing or private tech shuttles, for instance. What do you think of these demonstrations as a reaction to gentrification?
AS: The first thing they do is highlight the problem, because otherwise you have people responding in individual or small groups. Demonstrations are not by themselves a strategy of changing the direction of a neighborhood or being able to organize a political campaign. There has to be a lot more going on, and that’s why actually following a political election was so important for us.
DK: I love the direct action of the protest against the commuter shuttles. I think these demonstrations do crystallize a point of view. They’re really saying to the city, “No.” They’re saying certain things are unacceptable, and I think it’s important to put forward a red line in the sand that certain things can’t take place.
JRB: Tech shuttles are in a way the perfect symbol for inequality in San Francisco, in that they create a two-tiered system of transportation, but it seems necessary because the public services are failing to provide. What can be done when the public sector isn’t stepping up in the arenas of transit and housing?
DK: These buses have become symbols of something really negative for people who have to rely on public transportation. The opportunity to sit in the leather seats and have the wifi and be driven to their offices — it’s just a stark reminder of a two-tiered society.
[And] it has to be said: Tech companies are characterized by their whiteness and their maleness. Some companies are making an effort to do outreach for more diversity, but when you talk about what’s happening in San Francisco, I wouldn’t want this to be the model for other cities. You’re talking about the destruction of Latino and black communities. We can’t go along with this kind of corporate behavior.
We have to have housing that is not simply market-rate. Market-rate housing is creating a city of only the very affluent, and it’s really about, “What are our values?” and “What kind of zoning and local regulations can we have to prevent it becoming a city of only the affluent?” We’ve got to create housing for everybody. This is a question of public policy, it is not, “Let the market decide.”
JRB: Do you see tech going away? Would that be a good thing?
AS: If the progressive movements, tenants rights movement, Black Lives Matter don’t really work with new people in the city, tech workers among them, these movements will have a much harder time being successful and preserving communities. So the issue isn’t so much whether or not tech workers come or they go, it’s going to be how we all react and organize, because it’s not a tech block. Ron Conway is trying to organize a tech block, where tech workers are trying to organize along with their companies.
DK: Look it, tech’s not going to go away, but neither is everyone else. We’re here, Aaron Peskin’s not going anywhere, Jane Kim’s not going anywhere. There will continue to be negotiations and compromise and work towards creating the kinds of cities that hopefully diverse communities can continue to live in. Addressing the needs for sustaining diversity in the city — the tech workers are part of that.
Tickets for the showing at the Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St., can be purchased for $12. Its directors will be at opening night on October 28 alongside Supervisor David Campos and Christina Olague, a former supervisor. The film will have six showings until November 3.