Golden States

The Editors

Does anybody really doubt that California is the most interesting place on earth? Certainly not us. Whether the field is technological innovation or bureaucratic obstructionism, agricultural productivity or environmental catastrophe, new states of consciousness or new ways of wasting your youth, the pioneers probably live here — as do the editors of your favorite little magazine.

When journalists talk about California, certain themes recur: Silicon Valley. Wildfires. Joan Didion. Being stuck in traffic. And, of course, the idea that California is a place of unique contradictions, constantly pulled between opposite poles — old and new, rich and poor, individualist and collectivist, floods and droughts. In their classic 1995 essay “The Californian Ideology,” Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron (neither, through no fault of their own, from California) defined the state’s ethos as “an amalgamation of opposites,” combining “the free-wheeling spirit of the hippies and the entrepreneurial zeal of the yuppies.” In last summer’s California Issue, The New York Times Magazine noted the “longstanding friction here between an idealistic push for progress and a nostalgic pull toward the past.” Or as the inevitable Joan put it: “A good deal about California does not, on its own preferred terms, add up.”

Is there really something inherently contradictory about the nature of the golden state? Or is the state simply too big, too varied, and too important to be captured by a single narrative? We don't know, and in any case, we haven’t tried. The stories in this issue are a glimpse into our California.

Geologist Susan Hough warns us of the pitfalls of a favorite Southern California pasttime: predicting the next major earthquake on the San Andreas fault. We talked to Jan Sramek about his plans to build the biggest new city in California — and America — in over five decades, and to Dave Guarino about his experience designing better tools to help people navigate the state’s impressively byzantine public benefits bureaucracy. Scott Kaplan explains the national import of Berkeley’s battle against Big Soda, while Timothy B. Lee explains why the people writing about California's tech industry today have such a hard time getting it right. Devon Zuegel takes us back to California housing policy's original sin: the ruinous urban renewal programs of the 1950s and the civic backlash against them.

Peter Westwick traces the history of California’s high-tech communities of practice, and how mining engineers of the Gold Rush era laid the foundations for California’s technological dominance in the next century. Pradyumna Prasad and Jordan Schneider examine the rise (and arguable fall) of one of California’s preeminent intellectual institutions: RAND. Nearly a century after the Hoover Dam tapped the Colorado River to satisfy California’s rapid growth, Casey Handmer lays out his plans for an ambitious modern engineering project: desalinating the Salton Sea and revitalizing the moribund Imperial County.

Then, things take an interior turn — this is California, after all. Nadia Asparouhova explores an old meditation tradition making new inroads among California techies. Ozy Brennan explains why Émile Torres is wrong on the internet. And Clara Collier and Jason Crawford talk through some of the differences and similarities between two contemporary Californian ideologies: effective altruism and progress studies.

We can’t say that these pieces, on their own terms, add up. Asterisk comes to you from a state that resists easy conclusions. What we can promise is that all of them offer a fascinating glance through the prism that is California — wherever in the world you live.

Published April 2024

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