[Marxism] Tech Rides Are Focus of Hostility in Bay Area

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
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 
Nazi Germany.

“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: 
“n0traffic.”

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 
the street.”




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