Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

Moving On

In November 2006, I moved to San Francisco because I had to: my company got acquired and us moving out was a condition of the agreement. It was the first time I’d ever actually lived in San Francisco, as opposed to just visiting, and I quickly realized that although it was a fun place to visit, I couldn’t stand living here.

Even after all this time, I can’t really put my finger on what it is I don’t like — in fact, I suspect it’s probably harder for me now to explain it than it was when I first came here. The first thing that comes to mind is how loud the city is. I want a place where I can live quietly and focus on my work; but San Francisco is filled with distractions. There are always crews tearing up the street, trains that are delayed, buses that have broken down, homeless people begging, friends having parties, and so on. It’s impossible to concentrate and without my concentration, I feel less like me.

The other big problem is that San Francisco is fairly shallow. When I go to coffee shops or restaurants I can’t avoid people talking about load balancers or databases. The conversations are boring and obsessed with technical trivia, or worse, business antics. I don’t see people reading books — even at the library, all the people are in line for the computer terminals or the DVD rack — and people at parties seem uninterested in intellectual conversation.

And so I’m moving back to Cambridge, Massachusetts — Harvard Square in particular, the one place I’ve ever been to that brings a special delight to my eyes, that warms my heart just to see. Surrounded by Harvard and MIT and Tufts and BC and BU and on and on it’s a city of thinking and of books, of quiet contemplation and peaceful concentration. And it has actual weather, with real snow and seasons and everything, not this time-stands-still sun that San Francisco insists upon.

I miss Boston; I’m excited to go back.

But I’m also sad to leave my responsibilities in San Francisco. One of which I’d particularly like your help with. I’ve been honored and overjoyed to help Lawrence Lessig get his Change Congress project off the ground. If you haven’t heard, he’s trying to build a national movement to get the corruption out of Congress; to pass public financing of public elections, earmark reform, and other pressing concerns.

But they need a full-time day-to-day tech organizer. Someone who knows how to blog and who the bloggers are and can keep them in touch with the community. Someone who knows enough about technology to know the tools that can be built and should be. And someone with enough drive and talent to make sure those things get built. It’s a dreamy job and I hope there’s someone out there who will take it from me. A more formal write-up is on the Change Congress blog.

Thanks for everything.

You should follow me on twitter here.

June 16, 2008


Congrats on your move. I was just in Harvard Square a few days ago and enjoyed my short time walking around the area.

I will say, though, that while I was there, my ride on the T was delayed, some street musicians were playing loud Bob Dylan covers and, yes, I even witnessed some “homeless people begging.” I guess some things about city life are the same wherever you go.

posted by Adrian Holovaty on June 16, 2008 #

Aaron—no offense, but lighten up, man! Cities everywhere, even Cambridge, are loud and annoying and have beggars; people will always, even in Cambridge, disappoint and be lower-brow than you wish. I find aspects of San Francisco a bit tedious myself, but your analysis is superficial. Holing yourself up in an academic cocoon is just as selfish and self-enthralled as the database load balancers you mock. Can’t you see the contradiction in your engagement through Change Congress and your, frankly, whiny rejectionism? And in your yearning for the “real” seasons of Boston while at the same time seeking some notion urban purity?

posted by Paul Smith on June 16, 2008 #

In my defense, my sense of San Francisco’s annoyances may be slightly skewed by the fact that I presently have A FRIGGIN JACKHAMMER OUTSIDE MY WINDOW THAT WILL NOT STOP GORRAMIT.

Sorry, just had to get that off my chest.

posted by Aaron Swartz on June 16, 2008 #

You & I established within 5 minutes of meeting that we have opposite city preferences. You were interested in Philly and I hated every minute there, and I even hated the parts that you liked. I’m happily in SF, and you were not so.

I am pretty sure, in retrospect, that my problem with Philly was that I didn’t figure it out. That is not to say that I should have stayed in Philly & figured it out. If I had, I may have loved it there. But leaving was a much quicker route to the things I wanted.

I think I am trying to say “Yes, dot-commers can be irritating, but please don’t insult my city.”

posted by Ben Donley on June 16, 2008 #

Interesting post, Aaron. I’ve lived in both places, San Francisco now for almost 5 years, and Cambridge (in various places around Harvard Square) for several years previously. I do miss Cambridge a little bit…and can relate to your experiences in both places. That being said, though, I do have some thoughts…

I think that you can surround yourself with the things you like to be around wherever you live-well, at least specifically in these two places. It can more or less difficult in some areas, but it can be done. It’s taken me a long time to find my niche in SF- people I can relate to, and friends-rather than acquaintances. I think I fell into the trap of passively looking for the things I craved, instead of proactively finding them & taking a leap of faith every now and then.

I think SF is full of a lot of people that are searching for this niche, in fact, I think that’s part of the attraction-you can find whatever you’re looking for here. But, it can sometimes take some time. It’s not a college town, like Cambridge/Boston-it’s a post college playpen.

And-no comment on the weather.

posted by Scot Federman on June 17, 2008 #


Yay! We will be glad to have you back! And while I have never been to SF, my wife has and, much to her consternation, found she greatly disliked it, and for much the same reasons you stated.

posted by Reg Aubry on June 17, 2008 #


Welcome back to Cambridge. I definitely understand the contrast between San Francisco and Cambridge; I find it really hard to explain to my fellow students that I actually enjoy New England and that I can’t stand spending long periods of time in California.

With your move back to Cambridge, what are you going to be focusing your energy on? I’m curious to hear about the latest-and-greatest that you have planned, though I’m sure it will be documented here on your blog in due time.

I don’t know if you remember, but we sat down for lunch back in the summer of 2005 in Cambridge - perhaps it would be interesting to have lunch together again now, 3 years and two cities later?


posted by Quentin Smith on June 17, 2008 #

The shallowness is an intriguing point. Doesn’t this feeling mostly arise with things that can be considered mainstream, or in places that are much-hyped?

Love SF with all of my heart, though. And now feel I might want to visit Boston at some point too.

posted by Tommi on June 17, 2008 #

Hey Aaron! Too bad to hear that you’re leaving San Francisco.. I hear your criticism though, and I grew up in this city. I think SF can be very shallow, but it depends on who you know and where you spend your time. The male dominated, startup-filled cafes in the Mission are definitely annoying at times.. it’s ironic that this incredible place with such diverse projects and brilliance living within it can produce such a predictable overall, wonky culture sometimes.

Anyway, good for you for following your gut. Your post sounds like Paul Graham’s post about what cities tell you: http://www.paulgraham.com/cities.html

When are you leaving? We should get dinner again before you head off…

posted by Tristan on June 17, 2008 #

Have you considered a shorter move and a change of crowd? The people to who read books and care about things seem to live in Oakland.

posted by Michal Migurski on June 17, 2008 #


It’ll be good to have you back ‘round here.

posted by Mark Bernstein on June 17, 2008 #

I have also lived in both Cambridge (Porter Sq… Harvard Sq was too loud ;) and the Bay Area. I find that there are certainly pros and cons:


I liked the history, and the ability to get to places like Maine in an hour…. and NYC in 3+. I liked the crazy road system as I am from London so I felt at home. I liked the people. I did find it a pain in the arse to do simple things though, and the winter…. ergh.


It feels more like a town than a city. You have to find your niche within. It has taken me awhile to get into it. Being around so much tech can start to be a drain. Sometimes I long for the time when I was living in Madison and noone had a clue what I did ;)

And the end of this all, I long for Boulder ;)

Here’s to you finding your dream location.



posted by Dion Almaer on June 18, 2008 #

I’ve done the Cambridge thing, and am currently doing the Bay Area thing, so I sympathize a bit. Personally, I suggest traveling a bit, and trying out cities around the world. Have some fun. :-)

posted by Andrew Wooster on June 18, 2008 #

Well Aaron, you sound like a typical dotcommer, that came, saw, got kicked, and sent back in a body bag. San Francisco is one of the greatest cultural melting pots, and epicenters of pop culture by far and way behind the likes of Harvard Square…full of dull bookworms, and..well, squares. Two-dimensionals. Enjoy. :)

posted by Leaving Las Vegas on June 18, 2008 #

Your post reminds me of the (famously Bostonian) Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ song, ‘Almost Anything Goes’, which - if I’m not mistaken - is largely about nostalgia for Boston over other another city (NYC in that case, but substitute SF and the sentiment’s the same).

posted by Sam Pablo Kuper on June 18, 2008 #

Having to hear jackhammers (and noise in general) is what pushed me away from living in a city environment and into the suburbs. Peace & quiet has been absolutely wonderful for my health, stress level, happiness, and ability to work on projects.

posted by Amit Patel on June 18, 2008 #

I live in Berkeley (across the bay from SF for those who don’t know the area), and I also believe that SF is kind of superficial. Berkeley has issues too, but they’re not of the same variety.

What I personally don’t like about SF is the suffocating trendiness of all the wannabe hipsters with babies on their shoulders, attired in 70s retro-chic t-shirts with carefully made-up hair (made to look not made up) and some kind of wolf-chihuahua or shi-tzu-lhasa-apso flavor-of-the-month hybrid dog in tow.

Lots of good stuff comes through town in the way of music though, and the variety and quality of food (for reasonable prices) in restaurants is hard to beat.

People are pretty superficial everywhere though, especially the kind of people that think partying and dinner partying with a bunch of different people every week is the peak of existence.

I may be wrong, and it may be the case that Cambridge is actually an intellectual’s Shangri La that is unlike every other city on the planet (of SF at least), but I suspect that it may be the case that Aaron found a bunch of compatible souls over a relatively long period of time (not by going to parties or quick visits to the library) and that if he went back to Cambridge with a different body and a different name, with the persona he has now (as opposed to that he had when he formed those relationships), and did the things he has talked about doing in SF (going to the library and parties) that his experience would be much the same.

posted by JK on June 18, 2008 #

Aaron, I am sorry about your decision. I myself decided to move to the Bay Area (right now I live in New Orleans, which is definitely not the geek or intellectual capital of the USA). Concerning East Coast intellectual dreams: I suggest to move to the real Cambridge, in UK, Eropes (I lived there for 3 months) and I guarantee that your high-browness will be satisfied, although you might still have issues with the weather. You are a very scarce type: a coder/engineer turned philosopher/human intellectual in the US. You have the analytical talent to be successful in philosophy and thereby help a discipline that is not too successful in giving people explanations overall. A lost battle I think. I myself started as a biologist, then studied analytical philosophy for 5 years and now I am finally back in science and technology (a reverse direction comparing to yours) so my advice is not advice for you. Good luck and maybe we can meet at the SciFoo Camp again, Attila PS: Oh yeah, and if some day you go to Budapest, where I was born and raised, that’s in Hungary, Central Europe, I’ll be happy to guide you through the intellectual scenes.

posted by Attila Csordas on June 18, 2008 #

San Francisco is well known as a hard place to relate to — despite all that’s going on and all the people seeking something. No one seems to know why. I lived in the city and surrounding areas for about 15 years, then moved to Philadelphia for work. West Philadelphia is fine, except that the whole city is gentrifying, becoming considerably more expensive and driving out good people.

I love Harvard Square; went to college there in the 60s and will be visiting at the end of this month. Good Wi-Fi cafes have been scarce right around the Square, but they could be found. There were at least a couple in Central Square. And there’s always Somerville.

I’m working on allowing online financial accounts to actually reproduce “children” accounts, inherit services, and evolve autonomously through community use — in an open-source project for public benefit. Email me if you’re interested. I could meet in Cambridge in the three days or so after June 28, or on a later visit.

posted by John S. Jamers on June 18, 2008 #

“And it has actual weather, with real snow and seasons and everything, not this time-stands-still sun that San Francisco insists upon.”

No! No! This is like “It has misery, with cold and wet and everything, not like pleasant sunshine …”

Buy a pair of sound-deadening ear-protectors to deal with the jackhammers. How anyone could consider that worth exchanging for the slushdrifted streets of Boston in winter, is beyond me.

posted by Seth Finkelstein on June 18, 2008 #

Welcome back, Aaron. Come hang out at Berkman!

posted by Amar on June 20, 2008 #

awww shite i just moved to sf to meet you

posted by marius on June 23, 2008 #

Let’s see. You don’t like traffic delays or construction so you’re moving back to live under the Big Dig? I understand not being from here and missing the place that you miss. But your SF trashing is pretty hollow. Maybe you just tend to hang out with shallow people. People don’t read books in SF? Give me a break… But, hey, glad to see you go.

posted by "Dave" on June 30, 2008 #

I jumped in on this thread b/c although my partner and I live in SF, we often discuss if another city might be better. Interestingly, one city that’s proposed as better is LA, which is stereotypically more shallow — yet not in our experience. I think the general stereotypes don’t apply and a circle of good friends creates it’s own microcosm effect.

JK - I noticed your anti-dinner party comment, and wondered if you would elaborate? One of the things we most enjoy are dinner parties - and having new people to each one can be a good thing.

posted by david on September 10, 2008 #

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