Even in tech, it's aristocracy vs. bourgeoisie

Summary:It's old guard versus new in San Francisco's moneyed Pacific Heights neighborhood, as history repeats itself with a slightly nerdier narrative.

pacific-heights-san-francisco-bw-flickr-atomicjeep-640px
San Francisco's Pacific Heights neighborhood. (Paul Hart/Flickr)

Leave it to Vanity Fair to conduct a deep investigation into the culture clash between two moneyed classes in a posh San Francisco neighborhood.

Evgenia Peretz profiles the well-heeled folks of Pacific Heights, the affluent neighborhood which both serial romance novelist Danielle Steel and Apple design chief Jonathan Ive call home. (Now there's a House Swap episode waiting to happen.)

How affluent, you ask? Enough for Curbed, the real estate blog network, to publish a list entitled "The 10 Least Expensive Properties for Sale in Pacific Heights." Nearly all of these bargain basement properties start at more than half a million dollars.

It's not the money that's most interesting, though. (Not that $16 million "fixer-uppers" aren't interesting!) It is rather the cultural divides between new money and old, a narrative that has played out over and over with every major economic boom in the U.S., most recently with technology in the Bay Area.

Note the differences in outlook.

Here's San Francisco society fixture Denise Hale, quoted by Peretz: 

"They bore the hell out of me. They're one-dimensional and can only talk about one thing. I'm used to brilliant men in my life who leave their work, and they have many other interests. New people eventually will learn how to live. When they learn how to live, I would love to meet them."

And here's Nextdoor founder Nirav Tolia:

"Silicon Valley people tend to be allergic to this notion of 'society.' Kissing the ring doesn't do anything. Like, who kisses the ring? What people do is, they commit themselves to excellence and they work really hard to create that... The people with privilege aren't the ones creating the great companies. It's the people who work the hardest, have the best ideas, and are the most passionate and most innovative."

One is an immigrant from a war-torn country; the other is not. Can you tell which is which?

Yet history does repeat itself, and we can only wonder if the meritocratic wave of success championed by Bay Area technologists will change its course at all. Will the new wave of tech moneymakers assimilate into high society, or will we begin to see bags of startup swag stuffed in the back of a Porsche Panamera hybrid?

So far, the narrative is unfolding fairly close to script. If you caught the brilliant New York Times piece last week about Oracle chief executive Larry Ellison's quest for a world sailing championship, you'll know that, spurned by the prestigious St. Francis Yacht Club, Ellison took his billions to the neighboring (and less established) Golden Gate Yacht Club, capturing the trophy that he sought and upending social order on their shared spit.

The story closely mirrors another, from 1889, when banking titan J.P. Morgan defected from New York City's oldest private social club, the Union Club, after it rejected for membership his friend and Erie Railroad president John King. Angered with the establishment, Morgan went on to build and found the rival Metropolitan Club. (How microscopic are these social strata? A vice president of the United States, Levi Morton, was a founding member of Morgan's club.)

Fast forward to 21st century Silicon Valley. As wealth compounds in technology's latest hub, with successes riding new successes, we're seeing more and more headlines about this strange new culture that seems less about engineering software and more about engineering upper crust society. "Inside Sean Parker's Wedding: The Planning Details, the Menu, the Décor, and the Favors," Vanity Fair gushed just one month ago, no doubt an impressive feat of press coverage for a triumphantly nerdy event outfitted by Ngila Dickson, the Academy Award-winning costume designer for the film The Lord of the Rings.

Valleywag calls it a bubble; I call it must-see television for our favorite industry. Pass the (truffled) popcorn.

Topics: Tech Industry

About

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. He is also the former editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation. He writes about business, technology and design now but used to cover finance, fashion and culture. He was an intern at Money, Men's Vogue, Popular Mechanics and the New York Daily Ne... Full Bio

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