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Disruption Chic

Scott Lucas | April 2, 2014 | Story Tech World

“There’s a lot of evidence that this bubble is not a bubble.”

“I actually run a fly fishing business now.”

“Sure he’s a CEO, but he’s really a cool guy.”

A few dozen disruptors, mostly men—blazers and jeans for those over forty, hoodies and less-expensive jeans for those under—sip jalapeƱo margaritas and snack on whole shrimp in the Lower Pac Heights home of Susan MacTavish Best, the publicist and lifestyle guru who was recently described by the Daily Mail as "Silicon Valley's answer to Martha Stewart." Her mission, as David Talbot described it in San Francisco in 2012, is to "to drag her tech friends away from their keyboards and make them mingle"—in tonight's case, at a salon featuring Tim Draper, the Silicon Valley investor recently made famous by his proposal to split California into six separate states.

So mingle I do. If a standard cocktail party is a chance to relax with intimates, then this is whatever the opposite would be. Everything is on the record, and there are at least a half-dozen other journalists here. It's demonstrative. It's public. It's performative. The usual stock of light conversational topics is worthless here: Nobody cares about the how much rain the Bay Area has received, the upcoming start of baseball season, or what's on television. I don't even think these people own televisions.

Instead, we're expected to render opinions on whether or not bossy should be banned. We chat about Ro Khanna's chances to unseat Mike Honda in the next Congressional election. Did Zuckerberg make the right move in buying Oculus VR $2 billion? (It's clear to me that several people are deliberatively refraining from referring to him as they normally would, as Mark.) On the other side of the long wooden table, a debate breaks out about whether some event—I didn't catch the start of it—is more like a Woody Allen movie or a Woody Allen book.

At some point in the evening, my wife sees a slightly hunched older man saunter in the front door, drinking from a large can of Red Bull.

"This is such a transient city," I am told.

"I heard Draper actually wanted to do twenty states, not six," someone else says.

We are ushered into the living room to begin the formal session, while, behind us, several Latina women begin to clean up.

We gather in the well-appointed living room, under the consummately polite moderatorship of Economist editor Matthew Bishop, who notes that the evening's ostensible theme is "the rise of devolution"—that is, the decentralization of government that Draper proposes.

It becomes clear very early, however, that nobody is really here to seriously entertain Draper's ideas. As he launches into his pitch, with unaffected-yet-insistent tone of a college professor or a Lutheran pastor, I can tell from the smirks that not everyone is buying his schtick. Draper talks about how he started his political career by volunteering to teach the principles of business at his children's school. From there, he founded an education nonprofit and served on the state's Board of Education.

The problem with California, he goes on, is that the state "pays the most for the worst-run state government." The answer? Competition: "In business, what happens when you have only one choice? You end up with the cable company. So why not start enough states so as not to have a monopoly?"

Around this point, Draper is interrupted by a member of the audience. "You're an elitist," says the man. "This is a progressive city." It's clear that this is an audience made up of people as accustomed to being the focus of attention as Draper is.

(A few days later, I catch up with the interruptor. His name is David Landis, and he runs a public relations firm in San Francisco. He clarifies: “So many things are going right with California. What’s he talking about would help the One Percent." Landis thinks he has a better idea than Draper does. "Instead of splitting up the state, we should be annexing Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming—maybe even Texas.")

The One Percent charge isn't the last that gets thrown at Draper, but it's the one that does the least damage—after all, we're at a multimillion-dollar Pac Heights Victorian, listening to a discussion between a tech VC and an Economist editor. The elitism yacht has sailed. Of the criticism in the room, about half of it seems to be coming from people who think Draper's plan is crazy, and the other half from those who think it's not crazy enough.

Some audience members suggest looking at decoupling governance from place entirely. Sounds strange, sure, but Amazon decoupled place from book buying and Netflix decoupled place from films. Draper seems taken aback, managing only to say, “If you split California up, the new states could try all kinds of experiments."

"We need to have a refresh," he continues, "of the state government platform."

The kind of competition Draper is urging is that of state governments to attract businesses—like tech firms. “Other countries around the world are competing to lure Silicon Valley away. Our country isn’t. They’re trying to push us out,” he says. The clear subtext: Silicon Valley is the prettiest girl at the dance, and she's getting tired of having to dance with only California.

At this, there is some conspicuous eye-rolling. The well-preserved man, having finished his Red Bull along the way, launches into an extended anecdote about Casper Weinberger, the Secretary of Defense under Ronald Reagan.

"Who is this guy?" I whispered to a man standing next to me.

"That's John Perry Barlow," he says. "You might want to look him up."

So the next day I did. Turns out he wrote lyrics for the Grateful Dead, helped found the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and is a Fellow at Harvard. I'm sorry to use this cliche, but it's the only way I can describe him. He is the most interesting man in the world.

After a while, it becomes clear that Draper hasn't, as they say, been doing his due diligence. He refuses to share poll numbers with us. He hasn't brought any staffers with him—or even any copies of the petition to get his proposal onto the state ballot. He hasn't thought out how the water rights would work in the new states—perhaps the most key question. After two hours, it's still unclear why Draper is putting on this dog-and-pony show: The whole six California idea is too radical to pass at the ballot box and not radical enough to be interesting. So is it just a blatant ploy to burnish Draper's name recongition for a future run for office? Or is he just a really rich guy with a naive idea?

Draper ends the formal part of the salon with this: "If this state thing isn’t working out, we should try something else. Sure, there will be a few years of disruption, but we’ll sort it out." The early crowd begins to head home as the late crowd heads back to the kitchen for more drinks. Somewhere off in the distance, pot is being smoked.

I make my way over to Draper to try put that question of motivation to him. Why call the Bay Area's state Silicon Valley, for instance? In a city in which a solid chunk hates what the tech industry has done to it, isn't that just throwing away votes?

“San Francisco is basically Silicon Valley now,” Draper tell me, as though he's speaking to small child.

And with that, he slips out the door, steps into his waiting Tesla Model S, and zips off into the night.

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