Two Drinks With Filmmaker Walter Thompson on Tech’s Historical Amnesia
I sat down for two drinks with San Francisco startup veteran and filmmaker Walter Thompson — interviews in a Re/code series called “Two Drinks With” (you can order kombucha, but I will judge you). Thompson talked about our collective amnesia about San Francisco history, and his struggles with getting a documentary to be as popular as potato salad.
It’s 5 p.m. on the dot on Wednesday, and filmmaker and startup veteran Walter Thompson is already halfway through his first cocktail when I show up at Alembic in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. I find him waiting for me, wearing a baseball hat and a trimmed white beard, on a blue-velvet banquette at the back of the moody bar.
What is he drinking?
The Gold Rush — bourbon and bitters — he says. I order the same, and he orders something called the Presbyterian.
Alembic is a famously fussy artisanal cocktail spot (ingredients may include the likes of persimmon shrub or peppercorn syrup) in a historically radical-hippie neighborhood. I have no idea what stood on this location before it was this bar, which is something Thompson has set out to fix.
Thompson, 44, who has worked at half a dozen influential startups, is now making a documentary called “Golden City,” detailing the changes in San Francisco since his arrival in the first tech boom in 1996. Focusing on tech’s effect on transportation and housing, he wants to “create a shared frame of reference” so people know what they’ve lost when it’s gone. Because that much is inevitable.
It hasn’t been easy to get support, though: He’s crowdfunding the project on Indiegogo, but halfway into his funding period, he has only reached 10 percent of his $50,000 goal.
“The audience doesn’t see themselves as part of the ongoing drama of being displaced, even though we all are,” Thompson says. “Now, if it were a potato salad, or a new wallet, then maybe it would be different. But this … no one wants to feel like they’re part of someone’s hassle.”
Next to his cocktail, he had a book about LA’s history, “City of Quartz” by Mike Davis. He said he was inspired by “City for Sale,” about San Francisco in the 1960s during a turbulent period of urban renewal.
Before starting on “Golden City,” Thompson was working for a startup called Mr. Number, which used shared-contact lists to build a national caller-ID system, and was partly shut down by Google for privacy violations. He left the company to take care of his dad, think about his purpose in life and pursue hobbies like brewing ginger beer.
“I was going to bring some tonight, but my friend didn’t want me to look like a flibbertigibbet,” he said.
I assure him that a gift of ginger beer would indicate nothing of the sort.
A Long Island native, he studied creative writing at Oberlin and started a job as a Webmaster for a mail-order retailer of science-fiction memorabilia (“for people who want ‘Dr. Who’ ornaments”). He worked for Mark Pincus at a push-content site Freeloader, acting as curator, or “editor in chief of the Internet,” a now-obsolete role that was useful when Internet connections were so slow that people needed digests of its contents each morning, like a TV Guide. When the company was acquired in 1996, he moved from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco.
His move happened to coincide with the peak of the first round of tech boom times. A real estate broker told him that the residential rental vacancy rate at the time was one-half of one percent. He ended up in corporate housing.
And then, the bust: “I remember one day looking around and being, like, ‘Wow the traffic is light,'” he says.
Thompson says he sees a documentary as an effort to “create more glue between people” and a “shared sense of history” in a divided, constantly disrupted city.
“How do I get you out of your office, away from delicious and free sushi, to go to the local falafel place?” he says. “There’s a private shuttle from Caltrain to Twitter HQ, but there’s also a bus bus on that same route. But they’re going to the Hive. And then celebrities come in every day. Why would you leave? Why would you talk to people who were here before?”
If I had free sushi at work, I would eat it.
“If you’re in tech, things are pretty good. If you’re not, things are getting worse. It’s not your fault because you work at Uber — your hands are clean — but there are unintended consequences of being in a tech town,” Thompson says. “You know in Paris, they’re smashing Uber windows?”
What happened to the Google bus protests here?
“They fizzled. And there’s no ‘displacement beat,'” he says. “The Chronicle [the city’s local newspaper] has a blog for the cannabis beat, but there’s no Golden City beat.”
“Why not? The problem is growing. When the falafel spot is gone, and you’re at your upscale restaurant, you should know what was there before,” he says. “And there used to be more solutions. In the gold rush, they sold water lots. We can’t do that anymore.”
“It’s true. Sea-steading doesn’t sound so bad,” he says, laughing. “There are some good examples of creative thinking. Le Video is partnering with Green Apple Books so they survive.”
But do we really need to save the VHS store?
“What’s the cultural value of having a store that may not be at this moment au courant?” he asks. “The history here is too rich — this city has reinvented itself too many times for us to forget the layers.”
What’s next for him?
“I’ll go back to tech, but it’s a challenge. I’m literally a graybeard now,” he says, stroking his white goatee. “I apply for jobs, and I’m older than the CEO, and I’ll max out the salary cap. They like my ideas, they want me to freelance, but they hire a 24-year-old to be on staff. What’s so insidious about the -isms — ageism, racism — is you can’t ever quite put your finger on it.”
He thinks it has something to do with the fact that people in tech seek out people who look like them, or look like success stories — venture capitalists seek founders who seem like young Mark Zuckerbergs, a behavior known as pattern recognition.
“I can’t tell you how important pattern recognition is to the tech community — people need to smell themselves,” he says.
“The whole idea of learning how the other half lives, it’s gone — we’re siloed,” Thompson says. “Which is a word I don’t like. I think I got it from tech.”