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A Retreat from the World They’re Disrupting

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A sign prohibiting photography and electronics upon entering the clothing optional hot baths at Esalen. Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times

SAN FRANCISCO — Growing up in San Francisco, I’d heard about the Esalen Institute, a storied hippie hotel in Big Sur, Calif., for years. The retreat center was where my parents’ friends would hang out; it was also where the cool older kids would go at 1 a.m., when the hot springs were free to anyone who made the trek.

Now I’m a tech reporter, roving my old hometown. I was at the launch dinner for a cryptocurrency investment vehicle the other night when someone mentioned Esalen had a new director (a young former Googler) and a new mission (find a soul for Silicon Valley). So I signed up for a weekend there and joined a class about finding one’s “inner-net” led by a tech branding executive. The guests were young. Clothing was now required in most places. Many came from Silicon Valley because they felt anxious about what they were building and needed a place to talk and think through it.

I liked the story for a couple of reasons: It captures murky social changes happening here in a contained, physical space. And it shows how anxious the people who work in technology are right now.

Writing it, I knew I would tap into the narrative that San Francisco has been ruined by tech. (The hippies are gone! There are Tesla chargers! Tech!) I’ve gotten a half-dozen texts to that effect, as well as tweets asking tech to “please give California back to the natives” and lamenting that “tech eats counterculture for breakfast, I guess.” People like this narrative because it imagines a glowing era of San Francisco tie-dyed perfection and equality that I am doubtful ever existed. Even so, this city’s hippie days are long gone, as anyone who’s walked through the Marina looking for a flower child anytime in the past 30 years can tell you.

The work now is to understand who’s at Esalen these days, why, and what it means.

And that’s my job. I’m a new correspondent for The Times, brought on to do tech and internet culture. I grew up here (sixth-generation San Franciscan, my dad will want me to add). After school and a Fulbright in Swaziland, I came home and took a job at The San Francisco Chronicle in 2012. And I haven’t been able to pry myself from this town since.

I started as essentially a party reporter, covering culture, characters, galas and night life when the most recent tech boom was hitting its stride. , and young people were flooding into the city. I covered a cooking store owner grappling with the new generation, I profiled the runaway teens coming to strike it rich, and I went to start-up parties and desert festivals with tech executives.

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