[Marxism] Tech Rides Are Focus of Hostility in Bay Area
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Sat Feb 1 10:33:31 MST 2014
NY Times, Feb. 1 2014
Tech Rides Are Focus of Hostility in Bay Area
By DAVID STREITFELD and MALIA WOLLAN
SAN FRANCISCO — Like huge lumbering beasts, the luxury buses shuffle
down Valencia Street.
One by one, they stop in front of a hipster coffee shop. Bearded young
techies swipe their IDs as they board, clutching cups of premium coffee.
One fellow carries his dirty laundry. No one talks. The buses take off
for the campuses of Google, Apple, Facebook, Yahoo and eBay.
It seems like a mundane commuting scene. But it is not. A security guard
hovers. There might be trouble.
Even as the tech companies extend their global reach and jostle to own
the future, their hometown is turning from admiration to anger. The
buses, which illegally use city stops, have become an unlikely rallying
point. First, people were priced out of their homes, activists say; now
they are being pushed off the streets.
Demonstrators regularly block the shuttles. Last week, a group of
activists stalked a Google engineer at his East Bay house, urging the
masses to “Fight evil. Join the revolution.” A prominent venture
capitalist struck back, comparing the tech elite with persecuted Jews in
“We’ve never seen anything remotely like this before,” said Gary Kamiya,
author of “San Francisco, Cool Gray City of Love.” “Techies used to seem
endearing geeks, who made money and cute little products but couldn’t
get the girls. Now they’re the lord and masters.”
If the Bay Area is planning to relive the 1960s, it is still only the
dawn of the decade. The protesters are relatively few, fragmented and
uncertain in their tactics. The activists in San Francisco seem a bit
more mainstream, while those in the East Bay are more inclined to
escalate their protest — when they stopped a Google bus in December, a
window got smashed.
The group that stalked Anthony Levandowski, an engineer at Google X, the
company’s clandestine research laboratory, calls itself the
Counterforce, after a Thomas Pynchon novel. About a dozen members, all
dressed in black, gathered outside the Berkeley house where Mr.
Levandowski lives with his partner and two young children.
They unfurled a banner and handed out fliers detailing the engineer’s
work on Google’s driverless car technology, Street View and Google Maps.
The flier read: “Anthony Levandowski is building an unconscionable world
of surveillance, control and automation. He is also your neighbor.”
Google, whose famous motto is “Don’t be evil,” declined to comment.
Several of Mr. Levandowski’s neighbors, who preferred not to give their
names, said that the protesters decamped after about half an hour and
that city police closely monitored the block for a day afterward. One
neighbor speculated that the protesters were associated with the Occupy
Wall Street movement. “It felt like regular old Berkeley behavior, to
tell you the truth,” another said.
In many ways, it was. Mr. Levandowski’s house used to be a part of a
small informal commune in the late 1960s. Tom Hayden, a founding member
of the radical group Students for a Democratic Society, lived there.
Conditions are ripe for another large-scale protest movement, Mr. Hayden
said in an interview.
“These days you have a very large, frustrated younger population
watching the middle class disappear before their eyes just as they
prepare to go into it,” he said. “A rising, serious hostility against
Google and companies like Google is inevitable, part of a class struggle
around the means of producing information.”
If something has started, the outcome still depends on what the
protesters do and how the companies react.
“It’s like one snowflake after another landing on a mountain,” said Paul
Saffo, managing director at Discern Analytics. “If conditions are just
right, there’s an avalanche.”
Mr. Saffo, a longtime tech futurist, said the Bay Area had been sliding
toward an “Occupy Silicon Valley” situation for several years.
“The tech companies are going to discover they are going to have to
become better citizens,” he said, pointing out that the sheen of
corporate coolness is already wearing off. Google, for instance, is
reportedly paying an unnamed midlevel engineer $3 million a year.
“Google is not doing this because they are generous. They are doing it
because that’s what it takes to prevent him from going anywhere else.”
The Counterforce leaflet, which included a photograph of Mr.
Levandowski’s Arts and Crafts house taken from Google Street View, urges
the masses to throw off their chains, or at least their Google Glass,
and “join the revolution.”
Silicon Valley has now come full circle. It used to be where rebels and
dropouts went. One young man from the East Coast with a Harvard M.B.A.,
Tom Perkins, was treated with such suspicion at Hewlett-Packard in 1957
that he was put to work in the machine shop, running a lathe. You
couldn’t get any lower.
Mr. Perkins clawed his way up to being one of the founding financiers of
the valley, funding Tandem, a leading computer maker, and Genentech,
which employs 12,000 people. The firm he co-founded, Kleiner Perkins
Caufield Byers, is still one of the leading venture capital shops, a
backer of Google and Amazon.
In a letter to The Wall Street Journal last week, Mr. Perkins asserted
that the shadow of the Third Reich was falling over the Bay Area. He
said that he was worried about another Kristallnacht, where rampaging
Nazis went after Jews, looting and killing. The 1 percent — Jews in
Germany, the tech elite here — were at risk from the crowds.
Mr. Perkins in an interview with Bloomberg TV.
Mr. Perkins, who retired from Kleiner Perkins in 1986, told Bloomberg TV
that he regretted the Nazi comparison, but stuck by his point. “We have
to be careful that we don’t demonize anybody and that we certainly don’t
demonize the most creative part of our society,” he said.
What is at issue, however, is not Silicon Valley’s creativity but its
wealth, and the sense of entitlement that brings. The tech companies’
position on the buses is this: We’re not driving our own cars, jamming
the roads and polluting the air. We spend our money here in San
Francisco, keeping high-end waiters and baristas and boutiques
salespeople gainfully employed. Be grateful.
The protesters, and increasingly the community, respond: If we parked at
a bus stop for just a moment, we would get a $279 ticket. Tech buses do
it with impunity. And how do you spend your money in San Francisco if
you spend all day 30 miles away?
During a three-hour meeting at City Hall, angry residents complained
that even a low-income San Franciscan has to pay $2 to board a city bus
while the city planned to charge tech shuttles just $1 per stop per day,
regardless of how many workers got on or off.
A San Francisco resident complained about the tech company buses during
the meeting at City Hall earlier this month.
“These companies should pay a handsome sum of money to the city, not
just one dollar,” said a retired social worker, Herbert Weiner, 75.
“They are filthy rich.”
City officials said that the amount they could charge such shuttles was
limited by state law to cost recovery and that charging a steeper fee
would require a citywide vote.
Private shuttles provide service for about 18,000 riders a day, the city
says, a total that includes some non-tech firms. Valencia Street, which
is rapidly shedding its low-income immigrant-Spanish roots to become a
wonderland of boutiques selling organic ice cream, $12 “limited edition”
chocolate bars and $5 cups of Karinga coffee from Kenya, provides a
front-row stage for the conflict.
Many of the buses are unidentified, bearing only notations like “main
campus — Ridgeview,” which means Apple. Facebook’s buses are the most
lavish, the kind rock stars take to their gigs. Their wireless password:
Residents say the tension in the neighborhood is palpable. Matteo
Bittanti, an art teacher, often sees pedestrians make a vulgar gesture
toward the buses. He understands the feeling. “They look like an
occupying force,” he said, “like big, white, pristine tanks rolling down
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