"More than machinery, we need humanity."
There is some bizarre aspect about consumer technology companies that leads many people to look upon them through one-lens-red and one-lens-blue glasses. In an era when distrust of big corporations has been harnessed as a marketing strategy large tech firms have often escaped relatively unscathed from the backlash against corporate control – people may want to buy local or organic or fair trade but drop such considerations when it comes to technology. This dissonance is particularly impressive when one considers that many of these corporations are guilty of the same misdeeds that often rile up anger towards other corporations: histories of tax avoidance, of exploitation of foreign workers, of repeated violations of users privacy, and so forth.
Nevertheless, these tech companies have worked hard to disseminate an image that to work on one of their campuses is a blast. Snack bars, massages, fun (slides!), lots of money, these are the things that are often associated with working (at a certain tier) for companies like Google or Facebook. One amenity these companies do not provide, at least yet, for the staff at their campuses is actual living quarters; however, that has not stopped these companies from taking steps to assist their staff with the drudgery of the daily commute. While it may seem that providing a bus service to employees would be the kind of corporate move seen positively by many (buses are more environmentally friendly than a host of individual cars) these buses have become a visible point of contention in the sacred land of the tech industry: California.
In recent weeks simmering public frustration has grown into genuine anger (largely in San Francisco). Community activists have taken to targeting these tech shuttles, with it appearing that the anger is not simply because the buses have been using the city bus stops without paying but because these buses (and those riding them) have increasingly come to represent the way that these companies have warped San Francisco. The buses and their tech-employed-young riders are taken by community residents and activists to represent the rising cost of living and the push of gentrification made flesh.
It is easy to dismiss of these stories as people simply being frustrated over being priced out of their neighborhoods. And yet it may well be that this isn’t really about the buses, nor for that matter is it really about the rising cost of living, rather the targeting of these buses may be a tale of these tech firms slowly (and maybe not so slowly) losing the popular air that had always insulated them from much criticism.
The last few months have seen the “we’re so cool” façade of tech companies greatly tarnished (if not completely wiped away) as the NSA revelations have made clear the level of complicity many of these corporations have had in the slouch towards a surveillance state. Granted, many of these companies (here Google and Facebook are prime candidates) have been working fastidiously to amass their own individualized dossiers rivaling the NSA for information on you. Some of these tech companies have attempted to argue for surveillance reform and yet this has largely seemed like a selfish attempt to protect their profits. After all, this has also been occurring as these companies try ever harder to break into the remaining private areas of our lives (from Google Cars to Google Glass to your new Google home thermostat). In recent weeks/months Google has shown itself willing and able to buy up numerous David sized companies to make them foot soldiers in this Goliath’s army; however, even as Google buys up Robots and “smart home” companies it seems that they are becoming less successful at buying the fawning acquiescence of consumers. Some of whom (at least in San Francisco) seem to be starting to recognize that these tech firms – despite their friendly propaganda – are not particularly friendly.
It seems as though the Californian Ideology is starting to meet increasing resistance from…well…Californians.
The concept of “the Californian Ideology” was originally developed in the mid 1990s by the media theorists Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, it is an attempt to explain the reigning philosophy one often smells splashed all over the chief propagandists of the tech sector. It is an ideology that is a bizarre mixture of 1960s counter-cultural tenants embracing free-market libertarian tenets in such a way that talk of freedom and personal expression is used to hide an agenda that is classically corporate. It functions as a somewhat ambiguous, and seemingly contradictory ideology, that embraces the language of the 1960s New Left even as it staunchly adopts the economic policies of the New Right. It is how a company like Google can celebrate its motto of “don’t be evil” even as one of its executives acknowledges that companies such as his have supplied would be dictators with unprecedented technological tools for dominance. It is how Apple can proudly declare its devices are designed in California (even as they are assembled under horrible conditions in China) and quietly introduce biometric products into people’s daily lives. It is how Facebook can claim to value and respect your privacy while making it nearly impossible to protect your privacy on Facebook.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the utopian promises of the tech industry were not actually about a utopia to be delivered by technology, but about the money and wonderful campuses that the tech industry would be able to construct for itself. It is a utopia that is only for “you” if you work for one of these companies. As a result, as Barbrook and Cameron wrote:
“members of the virtual class and other professionals can play at being cyberpunks within hyper-reality without having to meet any of their impoverished neighbors.”
What is occurring in California, around these buses, is that members of the “virtual class” are starting to meet the neighbors they are helping to impoverish, and instead of praising their technological wizardry these neighbors are reacting with anger. It is true that in these recent protests actual financial concerns seems to be a major source of outrage, yet lurking behind this one suspects there is not so much an anger over money as a growing sense that these companies no longer even believe the line “don’t be evil” themselves. In the age of a smart phone in every pocket, constant Internet connection, and an omnipresent corporate/state surveillance we are increasingly being forced to recognize what Barbrook and Cameron foretold, that:
“the technologies of freedom are turning into the machines of dominance.”
For years these tech companies have been able to hide the ideological aspect of their conduct behind shiny new products, amusing ad campaigns, and “visionary” CEOS, but these companies are increasingly being revealed to not simply be Goliaths but to be Goliath’s commanding officer. The alluring perfume is beginning to dissipate and behind it we can smell the same old corporate capitalism, albeit in an even more invasive and controlling form. These companies are meticulously run firms whose financial and cultural success speaks to the careful maintenance of their corporate images, but it may well be that the image that once seemed interesting, futuristic and even a bit fun has slowly come to represent just another crappy corporation.
Seeing the protests against the tech buses as simply protests against buses risks missing out on a larger and more important element and this is precisely why these actions may seem somewhat bizarre. Questions such as: “What do they have against buses?” “Aren’t buses better for the environment?” Are bound to result in an unsatisfactory answer because the questions themselves are incorrect.
The buses are a physical representation of an ideology.
The buses are not the problem. The ideology driving the buses is.
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Barbrook, Richard and Cameron, Andy. “The Californian Ideology.”