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Schroeder's Is the Pleasure Dome 

Wednesday, Dec 25 2013

I'm sitting in the vast beer hall Schroeder's, drinking an absurd amount of dark German ale from a glass boot, the way San Franciscans have done since the place opened in 1893. I'm not here to describe it to you; I'm here to say goodbye. Schroeder's is closing Jan. 1.

That, too, is nothing new. The bar has had a number of owners — and locations — in its 120 years, and will be reopening this spring under new management. A lot of San Francisco institutions are doing that these days, changing hands to become less like the San Francisco that was and more like the San Francisco we're becoming: a hedonism economy.

That's my name for what happens when a society organizes itself so that a large urban population lives by trying to entertain its small moneyed elite. I first saw it in 1999 when I was clubbing in Moscow.

Since then I've seen several other such cultures, all of them in oligarchies and dictatorships. That's because a hedonism economy doesn't just occur when there's a sufficient concentration of wealth; we've got that now. It also requires an absence of regulation to keep that money in check, and a lack of respect for individual rights and personhood.

We're getting there, though. The number of bright, white young men with money and Klout who have recently made remarks about how only the "productive" belong here and the rest of us "human garbage" should get out of the way is a pretty convincing footprint in the track I fear we're following. They come from an industry that disdains outsiders, whose members have made no secret of their desire to automate troublesome unions away — and is notoriously full of glass ceilings. The shredding of our social fabric, of the understanding that a barista and a bar back are as deserving of dignity as nouveau millionaires, will have far more impact on tomorrow's watering holes than a craze for Sriracha-infused cocktails.

But it's a good news/bad news situation: Because if you are a man (always a man) with a little status and a lot of disposable income, a hedonism economy is some of the most fun on earth. Talleyrand said that whoever had not been an aristocrat before the Revolution did not know what living really was. That's the spirit.

San Francisco, of course, will be unlike Moscow or Havana. In those cultures, high status is always "high touch" — having people who know your name and can get the things you want without needing to be asked. A tech-driven hedonism economy will prefer machines that mix drinks and iPads that replace waiters and driverless cars to take you to-and-from algorithmically rated top clubs, where a seat will be automatically reserved for you and absolutely spectacular light shows will perform to Spotify playlists as incredible molecular mixology is served by drones to people who still ... still ... can't be pulled away from their phones.

San Francisco's unique contribution to hedonism may be to depopulate it. We hardly even need to be here.

Expect a lot more velvet eRopes — a lot more ways of signifying that customers have to be high status to drink here. Expect a burgeoning culture of prostitution — all major hedonism economies have it. But not in the way sex-worker advocates want. Pleasure at the push of a button is the order of the day, and if they can do away with women altogether in favor of really sexy polymers with a good interface, they probably will.

Dystopian? Sure. But the architecture will be stunning and the surfaces will be interactive and the drinks will be incredible: Globalization has made the very best spirits more accessible than ever as we enter a golden age of mixology. Tourists will gape and gasp even as they shiver.

I'm not guaranteeing this will happen. I don't predict the future; I just drink here. But our region's biggest industries are spending billions of dollars to make it possible.

It starts small. It starts with the new owners of Schroeder's — now a classic German beer hall where everyone sits in the common area — shrinking the common space to create a more "premium" area for people who pay for exclusivity.

But the joke's on them. Even in a hedonism economy, the VIP areas are almost always the most boring parts of a bar. We don't go to bars to drink alone — and so exclusivity defeats the point.

Here's to you, San Francisco: The joke's on us all.

About The Author

Benjamin Wachs

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