On Miami: Meditations on movements during crisis

A U.S. Marine carries a child off a boat in Key West. May 1980. (FERNANDO YOVERA / AP)

By Guest Writer

Katherine Boyle

Six months into our perpetual lockdown, an old editor friend emailed me to see if I would write a piece on the state of technology in America. The next day, the sky turned orange in what can only be described as a blow to an already wounded San Francisco. At the time, I was pregnant with my son, and my husband, acting as the primary witness to my existence, still describes my reaction to nature’s chaos as primal: “You were howling at the moon,” he says.

I don’t remember the howling, but I do remember the day as one of those fateful markers in crisis when the things you’ve been evaluating—those consequential questions of why and what if?— start to bubble up like a chemical experiment gone awry. While reading my editor friend’s email prompt “What is the state of technology today?” I couldn’t help but reframe the question:

What if the state of technology today doesn’t even matter? What if this changes everything?

This being one of those once-in-a-generation shifts that distorts and creates something wholly new from nothing. With black swan events such as a pandemic, the deck is reshuffled. Geopolitics re-ordered. Some people run to the front while others burrow behind their furniture. And the reshuffling—as I saw it— was manifesting itself in U-Hauls leaving California in one-way exits headed anywhere but west, a striking exodus for a state that people used to run to for a clean start at life. I remember the great Don Draper of the historical drama Mad Men returning from a business trip and saying: “I was just in California. Everything is new, and it's clean. The people are filled with hope.” Fifty-some years later, California feels a bit different.

But these once-in-a-generation moments don’t really change the place. They change the people. They show the wrinkles in the facades we’ve built for ourselves before everything becomes mundane, buttoned-up and tight again. I’m assuming most people experience these mass unravelings a few times in life, with the last one being the Great Recession that shook my millennial cohort to its core. We were the promise of a new generation at the turn of not only a new century, but a new thousand-year reign; yet we graduated into financial decay that even the experts couldn’t explain. From golden children to a collection of credentials with no purpose, the most educated generation in American history found that their survey course on Hegel hadn’t truly prepared them for a stagnant society adrift. For me, the eyes-wide-open moment of the last catastrophic event was hanging laundry on a clothesline in Austria. Turns out when the only job you can find is au pair, no one cares that much about your political philosophy degree.

Katherine Boyle

But back to the orange skies. I’d felt that before. And I knew that last time I saw the cards being shuffled, I didn’t run fast enough towards the new. I returned to the familiar past, choosing Wagner operas over the iPhone. And if that choice taught me anything, it’s that the people who see the re-ordering and run towards the front have the best shot at not only emerging unscathed, but building the new world.

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One of the few social gatherings I attended during the California lockdown was with a group of friends who know a ton about history. And after a few hours we landed on the Mariel Boatlift, a blip in the American memory that for some reason, even as a native Floridian, isn’t something I knew much about. One of my historian friends, a proud Cuban who knows his stuff, regaled us with the stories of family members taking fishing boats out of the Miami harbor to pick up friends, neighbors, and mere acquaintances in Cuba who were desperate to leave the repressive communist state. This was 1980, and most Cubans were newly-arrived Americans themselves. That a bunch of immigrants sailed back home to a harbor— not knowing if or when Castro would shut the operation down— to bring strangers to a free city one hundred miles away is one of the most hopeful American stories of our era. And yet, unless you’re in it, unless you breathe it, it’s largely a forgotten event.

That spirit, though, is still alive in Miami, and it’s what much of the Florida story has been: a story of desperate and daring people running towards something grander. Whether it was the fabled fountain of youth, never found by Juan Ponce de Leon; the orange groves transformed by a man and his mouse; or the streaming American banner waving just over the horizon, as was the case for so many immigrants. The story of much of Florida is one of leaving everything behind to reach a humid swamp that looks unlivable to normal people.

Born and raised. Native Floridian. Those words were scoffed at when I headed to the Northeast for college. Yes, I listen to country music. No, you’ve never heard of my high school. I know, HAHA! HANGING! CHADS! Thank God I got out, I used to think. The shelves of libraries are littered with novels about young girls desperate to get to the big city and live, and that was me: boring, desperate, striving. But the late 20th-century narrative that so many of us were sold—telling us to leave home, leave family, take on debt, get educated and move to the big city to experiment, explore and occupy a 600-square foot box only to compete to try to get out of it… well. That narrative feels less true now. After a year of solitary confinement, it’s clear that those who return to this 20th century mindset are bound to be left out of whatever glorious new world dominates our post-pandemic future. And those worlds are waiting to be built someplace else.

The state of technology today is marked by acceleration and speed. By flashing lights, big numbers, and supersized dreams. It’s meme stocks and dog money. Reusable rockets leaving the Space Coast. It’s desperation. Hustle. A world in hyperdrive. There’s a sense that we don’t have much time left, and anyone dallying along the banks is bound to be left behind. For those of us who see technology as the great font of American renewal, we approach it with heightened urgency. 

Miami may be the only city in America that encapsulates this feeling. It is unapologetically zealous, serious, misunderstood. Built by people who know what it feels like to have the rug pulled out from under their legs. “Havana vanities come to dust in Miami,” Joan Didion wrote, and for a long time, that’s all Miami was to the rest of the country, a singular city with no political or social precedent. But drive into the city and it now looks like something else. Growth. Movement. Sun and cranes. A rising city built for people who choose not to cower, but to run towards the neon lights, and even aid those who can’t get there on their own. “How Can I Help?” isn’t just a catch phrase from the Internet’s favorite mayor. It’s the ethos of a city that’s still bringing people in, that still has its arms extended to those who need a lift because it believes —with all the earnestness we attribute to children and immigrants— that the promise of America is real.

Silicon Valley is filled with people who say technology is a democratizing force that will build a shining city in the cloud, but it’s easy to spout that soundbite from penthouses in New York or San Francisco. And if we’re not careful, we’ll become the establishment we mock. We’ll meld with the very thing we’re rebelling against. 

I’m early stage investor who often gets the target wrong, but rarely misreads the sentiment. And I’m betting on movement. Not only a Miami movement, but a belief that those moving are not running from the past but towards something grander, truer, and more beautiful than we’ve ever known.*

*All this was to say that I’m back from maternity leave and a Florida resident once again. Hit me up if you’re ever in Miami.

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Originally posted on Katherine's Substack account, The Rambler. Read more of her work and subscribe here

Photo credit: A U.S. Marine carries a child off a boat in Key West. May 1980. (FERNANDO YOVERA / AP)

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