Lea Degen On Saving San Francisco And Getting Out Of The Kiddy Pool

In today's interview, The Browser's Applied Divinity Studies (ADS) sits down with Lea Degen, the host of Frontiers, a podcast that aims to make the tacit state of knowledge in advancing areas of technology, science, and the arts explicit and accessible to a broader audience. She is also the author of "We Must Save San Francisco", a piece in Palladium arguing for the importance of reforming America’s vanguard city.

ADS: I want to start by asking about the cultural backdrop to your essay.

You’re touching on a few subcultures here. There’s the libertarian / Progress Studies piece, the YIMBY / New Urbanism / NUMTOT piece, and then the burgeoning Palladium-style Governance Futurism view. How do these overlap? How would you even describe Governance Futurism?

Lea Degen: All these subgroups recognize that stagnation is not an option for solving problems that have their roots in scarcity (of which San Francisco housing is a prime example). The general overlap is an attitude of pro-growth, and a belief that the world is highly malleable.

I’m less familiar with the YIMBY/New Urbanism line of thinking, though similarly to the others I’d say that they adopt a systems-thinking approach to problem-solving.

It’s easy to take this for granted, but the YIMBYs, along with the other subcultures, are very forward-looking. We can learn from past policy successes and failures and the theoretical frameworks built up around them, but it’s up to us to adapt that knowledge to our particular problems.

Most importantly, the subgroups here hold the idea of the future as a specific place. In a West that thinks in quarterly increments and can’t quite manage to provide an appealing macro-narrative, this longitudinal thinking is sorely needed.

None of these subcultures are content. That’s kind of obvious right? You have to rebel against something. But it’s not just the purely economic circumstances they take issue with. For Governance Futurism, it’s rather the absence of elite responsibility. Since elites have traditionally functioned as custodians of the legitimacy that made individual undertakings socially-legible, they have played a big role in realizing ambitious projects in the past. Especially in Governance Futurism, there’s a recognition that our elites are failing in the role they traditionally played.

In the past, there was a kind of Noblesse Oblige, or at least the expectation of it. They had unique resources in terms of wealth, network, and knowledge, and used that position of security as an opportunity to be more risk-taking, more wildly speculative. At the same time, the big questions were still seen as open for debate. There were treatises written on the fundamental questions of governance, science and culture.

The cynical take is that dreams have given way to incrementalism. Romantic manifestos to lazy cynicism, noble adventures to jobs at McKinsey or Google.

A friend of mine at SpaceX says that Musk’s biggest accomplishment is giving bright minds meaningful work. Are you working on something greater than yourself? Interplanetary life is a wild and audacious goal, it’s not easy, and that’s precisely what makes it aspirational.

So it’s not just technocracy and better zoning. It’s the loss of vision and elite responsibility as the starting point for formulating alternative paths to the future.

Saving San Francisco

ADS: Your piece is titled “We Must Save San Francisco”, and certainly there is a sense that it’s broken, failing and in peril. But how exactly? Is the problem homelessness? The dysfunction of local government? Housing prices? Is it an imperative to resolve these issues only in that they affect the innovator-class and U.S. technological dominance by extension? What’s actually failing here?

Lea Degen: Unsurprisingly, they’re all connected. The slow supply side adjustment to increased demand for housing is a major issue, as is homelessness, but policy is upstream from both, which is why I see the root of SF’s perils in the dysfunction of local government.

It’s entirely within the power of elected officials to implement low-cost shelter and aid solutions for the homeless, instead of trying to house a small subset of them in expensive housing units.

There’s also the matter of the city’s DA who has established a name for himself through straight-out disregard for prosecution, which greatly reduces the cost of committing crime.

Though I’m focused on the “innovator class” and San Francisco’s symbolic role as an alleged “innovation hub” , the other 4/5ths of residents not employed by the tech sector are even more affected. They can’t necessarily afford to opt-out of using the city’s public services for private alternatives.

Meanwhile for tech-workers, the deterioration of public infrastructure changes how people view the city: as less of a home, and more of a hotel; a temporary gold mine that can be abandoned once riches are made, not a place to invest into.

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But with this mindset, why would anyone get involved in the first place? If you’re not putting down roots, why spend your Thursday nights attending school board meetings, or fighting political battles instead of going to Pilates?

If you can’t wait to leave, you won’t engage in community-building, you won’t interact with strangers… The result is a low-trust society. It’s young people who have no idea what it could be like to live in a place with a healthy social fabric. I went to buy a toothbrush at Walgreens, and even then had to ask an employee to unlock the cabinet that housed a repertoire of $5 items.

My experience is anecdotal, but Walgreens itself has said that San Francisco theft is five times the chain’s average. As of October, they’ve closed 5 locations in the city.

I’m glad you asked the question of where the real problem with SF lies because it seems to me that it extends beyond the immediately vivid taglines of crime and housing. I wonder how happy its population would be even if it was a functional city. At least considering tech, the faction of residents I’m most familiar with, I wonder how much the instrumentalization and endless drive for efficiency that permeates private lives also causes a sort of spiritual malaise. These issues go beyond SF--maybe they’re strongest there, but we certainly see the lack of meaning in lives all over the West--family and community, maybe also religious practice, used to provide for that, while modernity has left a gaping hole in many lives that is yet to be filled. In a place like SF with few children and few old people, thoughts of posterity are scarce. Individuals remain their own center of importance their entire lives. Those problems are much harder to fix.

The Privatization Of Quality Of Life

ADS: In a recent Bloomberg column, the economist Tyler Cowen writes about the privatization of beauty, particularly investment in interior design rather than exterior architecture.

There seems to be a similar effect in San Francisco, but it’s more like the privatization of quality of life, or the privatization of decency itself. Walgreens closes, so you start ordering everything online. Public trust is failing, so you take an Uber.

Taking buses contributes to the system, demonstrates demand, and in a functional system, drives more investment in infrastructure. The more we choose to privatize our lives by taking Ubers, the more public transit crumbles. In that sense, we exacerbate the very problem we want to escape.

I don’t mean to demonize this–it’s a reasonable reaction to a bad situation–but it is a downward spiral, right? And a coordination problem? As you said, the more tech-workers come to see the city as temporary housing, the less they’ll invest in the community.

Is there any escape? Or does the future just continue to trend towards hyper-personalized experiences in isolated worlds? That sounds depressing, but at least it’s a concrete vision for the future.

Lea Degen: I resonate so much with this characterization of privatizing the quality of life. During my time in the Bay Area, this was actually the major point of cognitive dissonance that made me want to write about the issue. Perhaps coming from Europe, I was used to lots of life filling the core of cities. People taking Sunday strolls through the narrow city centers, running into friends and catching up over pie and coffee at the local bakery.

Of course, this heavily depends on the city’s size and some traditions are crumbling away over there as well--still, the contrast coming from Berlin to San Francisco was great.

As you say, the more we privatize, the more we take away from what makes life in a city wonderful: most notably, the potential for surprise–unplanned, serendipitous interactions that happen in parks and streets filled with people.

With more privatization also comes more instrumentalization of everyday life. There’s more predictability about who you’ll meet, even how the interaction is structured and what the likely outcome will be. If you order from UberEats, you don’t walk to the restaurant and see other things along the way. If you take a Lyft instead of the bus, you won’t see what other stops are on the route, let alone get exposure to a representative set of people in your city. Staying in your microcosm of relatable thought becomes as easy as ever, which if you’re building tools that are intended to scale and reach into all sorts of societal pockets around the country and globe, seems problematic at the least.

To me, a city without serendipity is a city without soul.

It’s not just that privatization is a downward spiral for the city, it’s also an upward spiral for the private services! Living in VR is an escape, but it is also an investment. It’s just an investment other than your public space. As is taking Ubers, as is ordering goods online.

The physical world falls apart, so you play video games in VR

Yes, but having said that, I’m a bit skeptical about VR in particular. Even during Covid, we didn’t see a real transition. We met on Zoom and chatted on Clubhouse, but none of that’s happening through an Oculus. That’s despite continued advances in the technology, putting quality way above what it was in, say, the days of Jason Lanier’s VPL.

Lanier once described how while observing users of his gear, once a session was over, the team would present the user with a flower. There was a common reaction: the flower was perceived with renewed appreciation. So putting aside the potential tools-for-thought applications, maybe a side effect of VR is to reinforce the vividness and importance of the real world.

Sure the technology will improve even further, but the Luddity part of me maintains that there is something fundamental to physical connection. Covid proved in some ways that we will yearn for in-person interaction, and just how limited the virtual sphere still is at satisfying that need.

There’s the idea of brand new cities, which I like, but the growth of world-class cultural scenes, not to mention the number and diversity of people you could meet in a global hub like NYC, is measured in generations. A blank slate is appealing in its own way, but it will take more than a lifetime to build new robust cities.

The temptation is to flee to the cloud, to become part of no place at all. But as Samo Burja puts it:

Decentralization is another word for disassociation. The simulation of no-place is something San Francisco enabled...

The only way to really leave the dysfunction of San Francisco behind is someplace rather than 'no-place'. There is no escape from governing well.

As an example of someone recognizing the need to govern our pre-existing cities, Mike Solana is getting more vocal about political participation. And in contrast to career politicians, he would be sacrificing a more lucrative and attractive job to do so. Of course he has the means to move somewhere else, but he’s facing the problem instead, and thus signaling that the city has specific importance to him.

In a way, the question of whether the future is going to trend toward personalized experiences in isolated worlds is the question of governance: are we going to let the middle class further fall apart, let incompetent leaders reign our cities, and make immersion in public life that much more undesirable? I don’t think this trend is inevitable.

Is San Francisco Uniquely Broken?

ADS: Scott Alexander has a piece arguing that for all its ills, San Francisco is not clearly uniquely broken. It doesn’t build many new houses, but neither do other large U.S. cities. In fact, it seems to be doing better than Houston, which famously has no zoning laws whatsoever.

This effect seems to partially disappear if you compare metropolitan areas instead of cities, but it still raises an interesting dilemma. Are the problems with San Francisco just the problems with the U.S. as a whole?

Lea Degen: A friend of mine grew up in Tokyo, was stuck in the US for 18 months due to Covid, and only recently went back. He was stunned to find himself lost in familiar streets that had changed in his absence.

In Tokyo, construction is part of the city’s backdrop. It’s being continually reshaped.

In the West, it feels like we’ve just lowered our expectations. We no longer assume a rapid pace of change is achievable and there’s massive regulatory overhead.

I had a recent conversation with Olya Irzak who recalled a desalination company in Israel trying to build in California, and facing greatly increased expenses. It wasn’t because of technological flaws, the costs were mostly legal. Her own climate-tech company operates in a legal gray zone with enough uncertainty to deter less risk-tolerant entrepreneurs.

Philip Howard gave a talk at the Long Now on this topic. Under Eisenhower, the Interstate Highway System was installed in 15 years. Today, a single offshore wind farm near Cape Cod required a decade to receive its permit while 17 agencies studied the design. That was in 2010, so I tried to find an update, and unsurprisingly, the project never came to fruition. (A 2021 article speaks of a new project as “the country’s first major offshore wind farm that is only one proposal away”--so yet again we start over, speculating that construction may begin in 2022).

And these are precisely the important areas right? If we can’t act with urgency even in the face of a recognized emergency, how can we do it anywhere else?

Again, it’s a broader cultural question. The preference for protocol over individual agency becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. People replace active thinking with rule-abiding, which means they can’t be trusted with autonomy, which means it isn’t granted.

But you need real people to make things happen! You need autonomy, and that requires trust.

Simultaneously, the rise of those protocols means that even when agency is exerted, it’s in service of the system, or by naked appeal to it. There’s the familiar cushion of the bureaucratic absolution: “I was just following the process”. It’s not even “following orders” anymore, it’s an entirely dehumanized thing. As Tanner Greer put it: “What decides the destiny of Western man? Credit scores he has only intermittent access to. Regulations he has not read. HR codes he had no part in writing.”

Here’s the upshot: we’re automating away personal decision-making, resulting in the shrinking of agency, resulting in a low-accountability, and thus low-trust society. That’s the root of privatization in San Francisco. Through greater instrumentalization, the potential to create a healthy social fabric, the potential to be more human, is stripped of us.

Apart from regulation, I worry we’ve lost the tacit intergenerational knowledge that reigns in skilled trade jobs. With college as the default path, and the scarcity of apprenticeships, the only thing we’re constructing is our own obsolescence.

The Emergent Ventures Fellowship

ADS: On the topic of community, college and apprenticeship: your author bio lists you as an Emergent Ventures Fellow, the program run by Tyler Cowen of George Mason University to support “entrepreneurs and brilliant minds with… ideas for meaningfully improving society.”

What has this meant for you? Are you a Tyler Cowen acolyte? An apprentice maybe?

When I think about what attracted me to Silicon Valley in the first place, a lot of it transfers to the core values of Emergent Ventures. It wasn’t a lifelong infatuation with technology, but with the culture.

Growing up in rural Germany, it was confounding to see people who didn’t display the fear of failure that was so culturally dominant for me. I met people who took ideas seriously and wanted to solve problems.

Of course, if you live in the silo of San Francisco, you might have a skewed perspective of what constitutes a problem in the first place. When I arrived for the first time, I had spent the previous year working blue collar jobs to pay for school. So the sudden contrast of meeting tech workers raising millions in venture funding for apps solving problems that 99.9% of people would never consider as such was bizarre.

But there is a recognition of  genuinely important issues too, and seeing them persistently pushed was hugely impactful on my worldview.

Emergent Ventures is a collection of people with that mindset. Tyler talks about the importance of raising others’ aspirations, and when I think about this program, I see it as a hotbed of reinforcing ambition.

These kinds of problems are normally highly tracked, and require credentials just to get the credential. As Alexey Guzey describes the Harvard Fellows:

In 1933, the first group... [were], “all chosen on the basis of their exceptional promise, not their past work”... The Fellowship was created because Harvard’s then President wanted to “provide an alternative [to the Ph.D] path more suited to the encouragement of the rare and independent genius.

85 years later, 38 out of 39 Junior Fellows either hold a PhD or are enrolled in a PhD program and are explicitly chosen on the basis of past work, rather than promise.

So in contrast, it’s great to know that there’s a program that houses a colorful mix of niche proposals. Concretely, you get a network he’s willing to leverage, and the legitimacy of approval from Tyler. That doesn’t sound like much, but early in someone’s career it can make all the difference.

Most of it comes down to developing the set of experiences that show you can get out there and do things--without perfect preconditions and formal permission. My friend Molly Mielke put it well: “there’s an ocean of possibility around you, yet most people end up never leaving the kiddy pool.” As your environment and friend group matter a great deal in shaping you and your aspirations I think EV and its community can be great for that deconditioning.

ADS: You also run a podcast, called Frontiers, about the “open questions and implicit takes of the ambitious people working hard today to create a better tomorrow.”

How does a young, uncredentialed, and relatively unknown podcast host recruit guests of this caliber? Ivy League professors, startup CEOs, the Chief Innovation Officer of Eric Schmidt’s foundation. Is it the Emergent Ventures network? Are you really good at cold emails?

Lea Degen: The split between guests that come on through cold emails and guests that have been introduced through friends is about 50:50.

A thoughtful and concise message that signals you’ve dug into someone’s work and asked yourself some relevant questions related to their field can get you surprisingly far. I’m constantly amazed how underleveraged the power of cold-emails still is. There is effectively no real downside--the worst that can happen is a “no”. Meanwhile the potential upside is great.

Looking at it now, it seems very obvious that one should take advantage of this opportunity as often as possible. But, to me during schooling, this potential largely remained in the fog. You somewhat expect that things ought to be much more complicated than writing up a thoughtful note and hitting send.

If you had a few guests in the past, you can also start asking them for other recommendations. After the initial few it gets much easier to recruit. As with most things in life, you just have to start.

ADS: Is there anyone you wanted to have on, but couldn’t? Happy to signal boost.

Or anyone we should be talking to at The Browser, but might never have heard of?

Lea Degen: I’ve been wanting to talk to Kevin Kelly who seemed rather overcommitted at the time of my inquiry. His long and deep immersion in the technology scene and concurrent experience traveling through some of the remotest corners of the world give him a rare grasp on what technology is and what its future trajectory might be. I definitely plan to poke again in the future but a signal boost may well help ;)

Regarding a potentially under-discussed guest for The Browser, I find Dee Hock fascinating. He used to be the CEO of Visa and has written essays and books in the past decades that challenge much status-quo thinking today. I, for one, would love to further probe his thoughts.

As long as I’m asking, can you recommend one online purchase, one piece of music, and one daily habit?

Lea Degen: I’m not on the forefront of optimization brain hacks and ritzy lifestyle gadgets so I’ll go with something utterly unnovel, yet lately too uncommonly seen in many people’s places--get yourself a lot of plants!

It’s a small investment that yet has made me feel so much better around my place. The only danger is getting addicted and before you know it transforming your space into a jungle--a trend that’s slowly but surely creeping up in my life. Against the common excuse, there’re tons of options that don’t require a green thumb--as long as you can set a reminder to do a weekly plant watering run you should be good to go.

For music, I feel like I should highlight the most unknown great album I’m aware of--Air Con Eden by Jerkcurb. It’s hard to put into a box… there’s rock, there’s alternative. I’ve seen the music described as retrofuturist and that somewhat fits best.

When I was 18, I worked a summer job at a car factory and this album was the fuel for my 3:30 am drives there. I’ve listened to “Night on Earth” so many times without getting tired that it might just be the one song I will be able to jam to forever. I still love to listen to the album on rainy days or night rides. Plus, the artist behind Jerkcurb, Jacob Read, is also a painter and animator, and did all the album’s artwork himself. His music videos are worthwhile, too; prime examples of how much creativity can increase when you’re faced with budget constraints. The music and the art are both reimaginings of bygone times, “by someone several lifetimes too young to have been there, based on the hazy recollections and probable exaggerations of those who were”--in the words of this great piece on the artist.

For habits, I really try to get in daily time to both read and reflect. Many others have figured out a lot of stuff before you came around, so take full advantage of that! You need lots of input to connect threads, come up with new questions, and refine your sense of what even constitutes a good question.

But while it would be comfortable to stay snuggled under a blanket of book consumption, I think there’s a danger to over-consume as well, especially with the variety of media available to accompany every activity.

The glut of instant information waiting to be dug up can be both wonderful and overwhelming, depending on what point of the consumption curve you’re on.

When there’s no time for silence and pondering and you constantly receive input--podcasts on walks, books on the bus, videos while cooking--I think you’re running the risk of not having enough adhesive capacity for any piece of content to actually stick.

So I’ve been trying to intentionally get that quiet time. I love walks for mulling things over, sometimes with Chopin, sometimes all quiet. I’ve noticed some people almost feel guilty not squeezing the maximum out of the time available for them to absorb content. And maybe it’s just that my input ceiling is lower than theirs but I’ve definitely found that for me, in order to produce, I have to occasionally get away from the stream of noise, close the books, Macs, and headphone cases and just be quiet.

ADS: That’s a good place to end, but I’m desperate to get in one final question.

How did this all start for you, and where is it going?

Was there an inspirational moment?

Lea Degen: Growing up, people around me largely did not think of the future as a place that could actively be shaped. While there obviously are large variations in both places, I think people in Germany, and probably Europe as a whole, on net are less optimistic than people in the US. In the content I share I aim to reinforce the notion that the world is more malleable than commonly assumed, especially among my generation, where learned helplessness has become somewhat of a characteristic tagline.

I buy into Dan Wang’s conceptualization of Definite Optimism as Human Capital--the belief that better institutions, scientific and technological  advances, and humanistic progress are possible, is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The reason we should discuss the forward-looking projects of our time is that they foster imagination; and with imagination comes responsibility. If you have a concrete vision of what a better future could be, your inaction to help build toward it in some way becomes more bothersome. The very imagining of possibility itself being possible--an awareness of the contingency of the past and malleability of the future--can educe countless latent projects.

ADS: And on the other side, as a budding early-career intellectual, what happens next? More articles and podcast episodes? Do you have more concrete ambitions in policy work, or are you sticking to the world of ideas?

Lea Degen: As much as I enjoy writing, I’m averse to pursuing it 100% in my early twenties. I think that without enough real-world experience--exposure to a variety of social groups and problems-- you run into the danger of remaining inconsequential.

I first want to have a better map of the territory with which to determine what the right questions to ask even are. And then gain feedback through on the ground work. I’m really interested in the future of society, which is greatly influenced by technology. Hence, I want to understand that industry better. I think of startups, investing, and policy work all as providing different lenses through which to get a view on topics that together is gradually more representative of the truth.

Generally, I fear that without immersing yourself in practice, you run into the danger of slowly losing the ties keeping you on the ground; floating off with no grip on empirical reality.

Schopenhauer, a philosopher I disagree with on much, has a good criticism of the kind of ivory-tower-philosophizing that is exemplified by mere reading and passive study rather than experience and thought:

Experience of the world may be looked upon as a kind of text, to which reflection and knowledge form the commentary. Where there is a great deal of reflection and intellectual knowledge, and very little experience, the result is like those books which have on each page two lines of text to forty lines of commentary.

ADS: That’s a great place to end, and a good reminder to get back off the internet.

Where can people find you online for future updates?

You can listen to the Frontiers podcast here to learn more about the people rewriting the map in science, technology, and the arts.

For more personal updates, I’m on Twitter, or you can subscribe to my blog.

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