Let Them Eat Code (Or: Silicon Valley Goes to Hollywood) Watching an early screening of “The Martian” with billionaires

It’s four days before the theatrical release of Ridley Scott’s new sci-fi fantasy The Martian, and somehow I’ve found myself sitting in a SOMA movie theater watching the film alongside some of the richest men in the city. Their power and influence, derived from the creation and sale of PayPal during the Wild West days of Web 1.0 in the late 90s, has only grown more phenomenal since the group shape-shifted into a tech venture capital firm named Founders Fund in 2005. By my willfully ignorant estimation, the collective net worth of this room is probably close to $7 billion.

As I, a nameless plus-one, prepared this morning to attend this remarkable gathering of the Valley’s economic and social elite, I did what any former poor-kid would do when he’s getting ready to go to the other side of the tracks. I freaked out about what to wear. Would an ill-fitting sports coat from Macy’s and some hipster-type black boots with a $150 pair of jeans help me blend in?

Look like you might have a startup. Project confidence. You care about IPOs. Say “disruption” with a straight face.

Apparently something about this private movie night for the Founders, their employees, their pals over at Elon Musk’s SpaceX (whom they have invested in), and invited guests from the Fund’s portfolio companies (a who’s-who of 2.0 winners: Spotify, Airbnb, and Lyft — the Founders were early investors in Facebook, too) is so important that Forbes Managing Editor Bruce Upbin is here. Bruce felt it necessary to fly across the country to conduct a 15-minute Q&A with Andy Weir, author of the bestselling novel upon which the film is based, in the presence of the Founders.

Once again, the inherent human desire to marvel at the universe brought us together. I’m not sure anyone really knows why. Maybe somewhere in our deep cultural unconscious, our species likes to step back every once in awhile and feel small.

I’m trying to figure out what that something is. It’s not just Upbin’s presence, who I heard was a “big fan.” Or Weir, who wrote software before he wrote sci-fi. Okay, fine. But the Founders Fund PR people also have invited 40 journalists “from top tech and business outlets” to the private screening. Why? What do these people think is newsworthy about a group of billionaires and their minions sipping fine wine and eating popcorn and enjoying a sci-fi flick a week earlier than the other half? Perhaps this is just how Silicon Valley goes to the movies?

As I rode the escalator up to theater number 12 at the Metreon — which used to seem exceptional, even out of place, in San Francisco, like supermodernity’s love letter to late-capitalism manifest in a city block of asymmetrical glass and steel — I realized just how normal this place now feels in the version of the city these Silicon Valley tech-gods are forcefully, some would even say violently, remaking in their own image.

After the black and brown rented security guards at the door checked my ticket, I walked into the theater. Two words loomed large on the screen: Founders Fund. There was an open bar and all the popcorn I could eat, and the Founders were footing the bill. They didn’t have whiskey, but that was OK (beggars and choosers and all that). The three glasses of Pinot Noir I drank were free, and therefore good. I drank them quickly to calm my nerves. I had never been in a room with so many people wearing Apple Watches. I imagined the colors of their Teslas valeted somewhere nearby: titanium metallic, midnight silver, pearl white. With each sip of wine, the questions grew louder in my mind, slowly breaking through the look of smug entitlement that I was trying to wear like camouflage among this foreign tribe:

Why can’t these people just wait four more days and see the movie like everyone else?

What is the meaning of the t-shirt that all the SpaceX kids have on that reads OCCUPY MARS?

Then I spotted the middle-aged guy with Kramer hair, normcore glasses, a kids-sized blue backpack, and pajama bottoms.

In this crowd? Jesus Christ, they’re gonna eat him alive.

Seeing a grown-ass man wearing pajamas — in this setting — made my inner poor-kid anxious. Nothing screams I don’t belong quite like being over-dressed. It’s almost as bad as displaying visible poverty among people of wealth and taste. [Full disclosure: I am not poor.]

I tried to shake off my insecurities and hoped another glass of wine would help. I looked the man pouring my drink full in the face, and I smiled. I said thanks for the free drink and found I had only two bills left in my wallet: a ten and a single. With no tip jar in sight, I dropped the ten on the ink-black linen table cloth. The man’s face lit up. There were no other bills on the table.

The drink helped. Everyone in the theater was young and beautiful. Other than the man in pajamas, they were dressed well. When the hired hands began collecting beer cans and tossing out plastic cups, the Valley natives grew restless. It was almost time for the movie. The tables were broken down, the ink-black linen table cloths were folded with care, and the workers marched down the theater’s aisle towards the exit, each carrying a trash bin full of empties: Sierra Nevada, Lagunitas, Corona. Those two words faded from the movie screen. I was a little buzzed from the wine, and I, too, settled down into my seat in the second row.

The man in pajamas is walking toward me!

Then I recognize him. He doesn’t look like Kramer in his picture on Wikipedia, but this man is a Founder! He sits almost right in front of me, in the first row of the theater. He seems happy as he munches popcorn. He’s certainly comfortable.

What do these people think is newsworthy about a group of billionaires and their minions sipping fine wine and eating popcorn and enjoying a sci-fi flick a week earlier than the other half?

The lights went down and The Martian began. Collectively, our eyes gazed upward at the movie. The warm celluloid glow of the unhomely red planet bounced off the screen and reflected on the faces of the man-child billionaires. Perhaps a few of the black and brown security guards and the hired hands stood along the walls near the exits and watched the film too. Four days before everyone else. The wine was talking to me now:

In this moment, we are all the same…

Just 24 hours ago, on Sunday, September 27, I was drunk on Polk Street, not far from the Metreon, and even closer to San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, one of the last pockets of this fabled gold rush town to flatly refuse colonization by Silicon Valley. Don’t worry: I’m not romanticizing the Tenderloin. As comforting as it is to tell yourself that the possibility of a rebel hold-out against the techies in the Great San Francisco Gentrification Wars isn’t that crazy, the reality is, for many familiar with the area, the Tenderloin is fundamentally figured as Other — unassailable even by the boundless, headstrong desire of the boxed water and and Uber Black Car crowd.

While it stands to reason that organized efforts are underway to preserve this one small island of affordable housing for the 99% in a city where median rent just hit a breathtaking $4,225 a month, the real reason the Tenderloin is still possible in Mark Zuckerberg’s San Francisco is that even for the revolutionary thinkers behind apps that allow us to efficiently share cat memes and conveniently find strangers to fuck, it’s still not easy to figure out exactly what to do with that many mentally ill people, homeless crackheads, and sex workers.

Twenty-four hours before I shared the same democratic space with the Founder in PJs, I looked up at the night sky from the streets of San Francisco. Like almost everyone else in the city, both haves and have-nots, I scanned the light-polluted firmament to catch a glimpse of the first blood-red supermoon since 1982. I had read in The New York Times earlier that day that the super blood moon phenomenon was basically looking at “all of the sunrises and sunsets across the world, all at once, being reflected off the surface of the moon.” Dr. Sarah Noble of NASA said that. There’s beauty in that simple explanation, especially for a scientist.

And around the world, the super blood moon did not disappoint. Once again, the inherent human desire to marvel at the universe brought us together. I’m not sure anyone really knows why. Maybe somewhere in our deep cultural unconscious, our species likes to step back every once in awhile and feel small. That’s how I felt looking up at that rare version of our moon, at least. And maybe that’s how every mentally ill person, homeless crackhead, and sex worker six blocks away from me in the Tenderloin felt too. Fuck, maybe the multi-billionaire in pajamas, maybe even Elon Musk himself felt just like the rest of us again for a brief moment while we all stared up at the moon from our various locations around the city? Maybe looking up at the bloody red moon in a sky that no one has exactly figured out how to commodify yet, they remembered that deep down, they too are nothing more than tiny, cosmically insignificant schmucks, fundamentally no different than anyone else…

The world won’t see this convergence of celestial events again until 2033. I wonder who exactly will be occupying Mars by then. And for what reasons.

Frank Cruz is a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley. Of course there’s envy: why isn’t his life like this? Sure he wants their money and clothes and jobs and opinions. And he’d like to have advice on jet lag, but that’s not it. They’re not bad people and Frank is not a class warrior, it’s something else…

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