Thinking of Trying to Make Money Off Airbnb or Uber? Read This First

The so-called ‘sharing economy’ is becoming a booming industry for middlemen, but for you, it’s complicated.

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Joining the sharing economy as a provider of services – accommodation, transportation or whatever else the market calls for – gives you a chance to make money while being part of a “movement”. It sounds tremendously appealing, doesn’t it?

The companies being built around this new zeitgeist have different enough business models for it to be worth discussing them as if they do, indeed, fall into a different category from more traditional bastions of capitalism. To some, the appeal is the ability to feel like part of a community by pooling their resources: helping a neighbor or network member to cut the cost of everything from a pricey textbook to a baby stroller, or a ride from San Francisco to LA and an overnight stay in someone’s spare room. It’s a far cry from shopping on Amazon, and checking for plane fares on JetBlue and shopping around for hotel bargains on Priceline – somehow morepersonal.

But make no mistake: it’s a business. And you forget that at your peril, regardless of how you’re participating in the sharing economy.

Here’s the bottom line: none of the businesses that have sprung up to serve the sharing economy are 501c3 non-profit entities. Rather, they are corporations whose goal is to make a profit out of a much less formal sharing economy that already existed. Long before Airbnb was launched in 2008, a friend of mind traveled across Europe using a couch-surfing style network called Servus. I’ve formed some lasting friendships with people with a free Airbnb-style network, Hospitality Club, that offers hosts and guests the chance to review each other, Airbnb style. Airbnb has just formalized those arrangements, while ride-sharing companies like BlaBla Car have done the same with those old-fashioned ride share boards on walls or online – and build in a profit for the middleman.

But you don’t get to become one of the most valuable venture capital-based businesses in the world, as Airbnb has done, and to be worth an estimated $10bn (more than some hotel chains) if all you are is part of a “movement”. Nope, you have to have found a way to make being the middleman pay off very handsomely indeed – and that’s capitalism 101, not a movement.

All of which means that if you’re doing business with Airbnb – or Uber, or Parking Panda, or Liquid, or any of the other sharing economy enterprises springing up – you need to think of it in those terms, too.

First of all, while you may think of this as just generating a bit of extra income on the side – a way to pay off your student loans, to make your summer vacation pay for itself, to fund your weekends out with friends or to help save up to pay for a wedding or a downpayment for your house or car – the IRS won’t see it that way.

And if you think the IRS won’t ever know, well, let me disabuse you of that right now. You’ll fill out tax forms – and come January, you’ll get a 1099 form. Depending on the figure on it, you may end up kissing your expected refund goodbye, or facing an unexpected tax liability. If that 1099 form doesn’t show up? Don’t heave a sigh of relief and fail to report that income. If you think an unexpected tax liability is bad, getting on the wrong side of the IRS is exponentially worse.

The best idea of all is to talk to your accountant and ask for their input. At what point does sharing economy income change your tax picture by putting you in a higher tax bracket? Are there any additional writeoffs you should be aware of? Sure, this might cost you an hour of her time – but it could save you a lot of money down the road. And remember, you’re thinking of this as a business – just like the Airbnbs, Ubers and others who are quite happy to scoop up a percentage of what you collect.

Before you delve into the sharing economy, consider the regulations governing the micro-business that you’re choosing to enter and how they might affect you. In New York, for instance, it’s illegal to rent out a room in your apartment unless you’re there during the guest’s stay; generally, apartment rentals of under 30 days are illegal. (Depending on who you ask, this is an attempt either to make sure housing stock remains available to people who want to live in it, or a result of fierce lobbying by the hotel industry.) That doesn’t stop people from publicly violating both the law and the terms of their own leases – but Airbnb has made it crystal clear that they are on their own when it comes to sorting out those problems. So if you’ve got a landlord – or neighbors – who you know are just itching to bid you farewell for whatever reason, handing them an ironclad reason to do so might be foolhardy.

(Meanwhile, Airbnb is confronting some of these issues itself: this past week Barcelona slapped a fine on the company for violating laws that require rooms rented to tourists be registered with government authorities.)

What does set this new breed of business apart from its peers and predecessors is the emphasis on collaboration: hence, the alternative moniker of “collaborative consumption”. That’s a reason to assume that it’s less businesslike in nature (just as the Internet startups of yore were no less focused on making millions just because their founders wore khakis instead of suits). What it means for those of us hoping to make a much smaller amount of money alongside the capitalist creators of these businesses is that marketing may matter much more than before. Expectations are pretty low for customer “service” from traditional businesses; they’re higher from your peers in the sharing economy community who will be rating things like the cleanliness of your home and the promptness with which you respond to queries.

The “sharing economy” isn’t going anywhere, and the temptation to become a micro-entrepreneur is only going to grow. But if you’re on the verge of succumbing to temptation, ask yourself whether you’re ready to view this as a business. If not, you’re probably not ready to deal with the risks you’ll be taking onboard along with the much more widely touted rewards.

Wealthy venture capitalist Tom Perkins is nostalgic for the old Silicon Valley

 — whorehouses and all

The venture capitalist was made infamous for warning of a “progressive” Kristallnacht

Wealthy venture capitalist Tom Perkins is nostalgic for the old Silicon Valley -- whorehouses and all
Tom Perkins (Credit: Bloomberg TV)

Tensions between the wealthy tone-deaf tech world and folks being priced out of San Francisco have been mounting — protests, evictions, Google glass altercations — and they’re the subject of a feature in this week’s New Yorker.

In it writer Nathan Heller interviews a man who has spouted infamous and offensive opinions about these issues: venture capitalist Tom Perkins.

Perkins, as you may recall, wrote a letter to the editor published in the Wall Street Journal, saying this:

“Writing from the epicenter of progressive thought, San Francisco, I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its “one percent,” namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the “rich.”

“From the Occupy movement to the demonization of the rich embedded in virtually every word of our local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, I perceive a rising tide of hatred of the successful one percent. There is outraged public reaction to the Google buses carrying technology workers from the city to the peninsula high-tech companies which employ them. We have outrage over the rising real-estate prices which these “techno geeks” can pay. We have, for example, libelous and cruel attacks in the Chronicle on our number-one celebrity, the author Danielle Steel, alleging that she is a “snob” despite the millions she has spent on our city’s homeless and mentally ill over the past decades.

“This is a very dangerous drift in our American thinking. Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendent “progressive” radicalism unthinkable now?”

In the New Yorker piece, titled “California Screaming,” Perkins seems to have changed his tune a bit. He reminisced about the artists, the Beats, the jazz, the spirit, and yes, the whorehouses of the Silicon Valley he first knew. Here it is below via ValleyWag:

“Perkins considers Ron Conway a friend, and admires the pro-business policies that Conway and Sf.Citi have pushed through [in San Francisco]. He also admires the country of Australia, which he believes approaches the free-wheeling, entrepreneurial bliss of Northern California at the time he arrived, in 1957. ‘I was twenty-two, twenty-three,’ he explained. ‘I lived in Sausalito, which back then had a functioning whorehouse—one of the last ones in the Bay Area. It was a loose town where anything went, and I loved it. San Francisco was that way. It was artistic, outrageous. The gays had a lot to do with that.’ Perkins had brought his forehead to rest on his fingertips and closed his eyes, smiling. ‘I knew writers and artists. North Beach. The Beats. The jazz. It’s still a great city, but I think it was better then.’”

While it’s still not a full admission of understanding why people are so outraged by the rising inequality in the city, he does seem to miss some of the aspects that protesters are trying to keep from disappearing in a city known for its beautiful counterculture. ValleyWag points out that both Perkins and the protesters see the importance of “artistsmusicians, and, yes, sex workers” that the tech world is pricing out of the city.

Though he may long for days gone by, Perkins doesn’t think the culture can be saved. (Thus, revealing his bias: He may love the olden days, but still he makes his massive earnings from the tech world):

“I asked Perkins whether he saw a way to preserve communities of writers and artists in town. He sighed and thought for several long moments. ‘I don’t see how,’ he said at last.”

Queer Flight: Does the Success of Gay Rights Mean the End of Gay Culture?

Queer Flight: Does the Success of Gay Rights Mean the End of Gay Culture?

When Lary Abramson moved to San Francisco from Detroit in July 1960, police raids on gay bars were commonplace. Nightlife existed at the decree of morals cops who could be bought off, and patrons of gay establishments who didn’t play along risked serious personal consequences. “The cops would usually come around midnight, so they’d turn on the lights and say, ‘No dancing!’” Abramson says.

One defiant bar was the Tay-Bush, so named because it stood at the corner of Taylor and Bush. “It was raided,” Abramson says, “and that was the raid where everybody’s name got published in the paper. People lost their jobs. That’s what led to the Tavern Guild,” an organization of gay bar owners that was instrumental in the political awakening of LGBT San Francisco.

Almost 50 years later, the idea of “No Dancing” has taken on another meaning. The Deco Lounge, Esta Noche, KOK Bar, Marlena’s, and others have closed their doors in the last few years. There’s even an annotated Lost Gay Bars of San Francisco Google map. But the disappearance of gay bars is a widespread phenomenon. New York has lost several established bars in the past year; at the opposite end of the spectrum, Amarillo has shed two of its three (Whiskers and Sassy’s). For every city in between, a cursory glance at Yelp reveals a similar pattern.

The venerable Eagle Tavern's two-year closure got national attention in the gay press. If San Francisco couldn't sustain an Eagle, what city could?

Dan Schreiber
The venerable Eagle Tavern’s two-year closure got national attention in the gay press. If San Francisco couldn’t sustain an Eagle, what city could?
Erin O'Neill has lived in the Mission Dolores area since 1982.

Courtesy of Erin
Erin O’Neill has lived in the Mission Dolores area since 1982.

The 2009 raid on the Dallas Eagle notwithstanding, these closures aren’t stemming from a renewed wave of vice squad crackdowns, but a fundamental shift in gay culture. Greater acceptance of same-sex love, positive representations of LGBT characters in the media, and the ever-increasing number of openly gay people leading an ordinary existence have meant that LGBT Americans now have less reliance on the bars, clubs, and other places that served as hubs for the counterculture. There’s no longer the same need for exclusively gay spaces in gay neighborhoods in gay-friendly cities.

What was once clandestine and illegal is now almost mainstream. Pushing this change is same-sex marriage, which came to California twice, but now benefits from majority support: The Public Religion Research Institute published a report in February noting that 59 percent of Californians support marriage equality. If a Prop. 8 redux were to come before the electorate, it likely wouldn’t pass.

Beyond California, in May alone, same-sex marriage — or at least court orders to recognize same-sex marriages even if a state isn’t yet obliged to perform them — has been visited upon purple states such as Ohio, Oregon, and Pennsylvania, and even infrared Utah. (The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals is set to rule on that one, but the state must recognize marriages already performed.) There are of course many other thorny issues — employment and housing discrimination, violence, bullying, substance abuse, suicide — but the trends are clear. America is getting more inclusive. Consequently, there is less of an impetus than ever for LGBT people, particularly younger gay men, to flee their conservative hometowns in conservative states and, as Dan Savage once put it, skip toward Gomorrah.

So the gay experience in San Francisco is at a crossroads. Gay people are more “normal” here than arguably anywhere in else in America, but the institutions and spaces they’ve built in the last half-century or more are in a precarious position.

“It’s hard to quantify, but it’s there anecdotally,” says Supervisor David Campos. “There is something real to the anxiety.” The LGBT community faces threats of assimilation, displacement due to the explosive cost of living, and atomization in the face of handheld sex — all of them national trends, to be sure, but felt most acutely here. Gay rights and gay culture exist in tension, with the success of the former foreclosing in no small way upon the need for the latter. A culture premised on outsider status, on the lust for the forbidden, and rooted in peripheral neighborhoods, may not be able to survive fully intact when the forbidden becomes permissible and the periphery becomes the center. San Francisco is experiencing queer flight.

It feels condescending and fatalistic, if not simply rude, to say that Folsom Street is dead and that gay bars are dying. Sure, in absolute numbers, the number of gay bars citywide is a fraction of what it was at its peak. Since memories fade, raids and sudden closures were frequent, and the line between “gay bar” and “straight bar” has always been less than absolute, an accurate count is probably impossible, but 30 years ago, the number was in the dozens. And South of Market’s “decline” is relative, as the lack of elbow room at any Sunday afternoon beer bust will tell you. The drag scene at the Stud is bursting with queens, particularly at “Some Thing” on Fridays. Leather Pride flags still adorn Market Street for the entirety of September, and in the Castro, although LGBT bookstore A Different Light shuttered, Trigger became Beaux, and Lime became Hi-Tops. The Eagle’s abrupt 2011 closure came undone when it reopened last summer, and people still get as drunk there as ever. The owners didn’t even rip out the infamous trough urinal.

Restroom continuity or not, change is happening elsewhere. In 2013, a former old-school leather bar on Folsom called KOK — previously Chaps II, My Place, and Ramrod — became a cocktail bar called Driftwood. It’s a kitschily decorated venue whose owner Chris Milstead describes it, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as “straight-friendly.” Successful or not, an upscale spot with good lighting and $10 drinks that replaced a dank dungeon is going to ruffle feathers. Driftwood is, you might say, a “post-gay” bar, and it’s not the only one.


The Valley is a Trough


Mike Judge, Clovis, and the coming wave of disillusionment

Three short years ago, a little movie called “The Social Network” won a pile of Oscars thanks in part to Sorkinistic mini-monologues like this one:

Mark Zuckerberg: “I think if your clients want to sit on my shoulders and call themselves tall, they have the right to give it a try, but there’s no requirement that I enjoy sitting here listening to people lie. You have part of my attention — you have the minimum amount. The rest of my attention is back at the offices of Facebook, where my colleagues and I are doing things that no one in this room, including and especially your clients, are intellectually or creatively capable of doing. Did I adequately answer your condescending question?

“Take that, Winklevi!” said everybody, simultaneously.

There’s nothing like the perfectly worded tell-off, is there? Especially one delivered on behalf of all the straight-A underdog nerds who were never invited to pledge Skull and Bones.

But that was then. Fast forward a few years and most audiences would gladly join the twins in tying Zuck’s hoodie strings to the nearest passing trolley car for giving such lip.

Of late, the public’s fawning praise for forward-thinking tech companies has turned to annoyed sneers and eye-rolls. Protestors are blocking Google transport buses. Tech luminaries—our Elon Musks and Marc Benioffs—have been outed as run of the mill Gordon Gekkos with Keen shoe-sandles (shandles?) and messiah complexes. Mike Judge has introduced the viewing public to Silicon Valley and, along with it, the special brand of disdain they should have for its deluded inhabitants (honorable mention goes to a recentVeep episode for accomplishing the same feat). It won’t be long before Grandma is using Andressen as a punchline.

In this author’s unqualified opinion, it all makes sense if you look at theHype Cycle, Gartner’s graphical tool. The IT research firm applies it to new technologies (smart glasses, facial recognition software), but I ran across it recently and think it applies to the Silicon Valley contingent pretty well, too.

We seem to have recently crested the hill of Stage 2: The Peak of Inflated Expectations. Scores of failures, few successes, and, obviously, inflated expectations. I don’t know what’s a better sign of that:Twitter’s wildly overvalued stockor companies offering billions to buy start-ups that have no actual way to make money (unless it’s all a tax shelter).

Knocking at our door is Stage 3: The Trough of Disillusionment. Experiments fail. Interest wanes. Producers shake out. Nobody wants to live in San Francisco anymore. Investors get pickier. Someone figures out that only robots and hired teams of Bangladeshis actually click on Facebook ads.

I feel the need to point all this out not because I’d like to watch overvalued tech burn, but because I’m a couple years out of school and am truly worried about my cohort. We’ve had a hard enough time as it is coming out of college jobless and debt-ridden. Now the whole world is telling the poor kids, lured by the sweet stench of VC money, to learn to code right as it’s all about to turn to shit?

It’s like some “Learn to Flip Houses!” huckster ad, except it’s a General Assembly guy in a North Face promising to tear your ticket to Silicon Valhalla for *just* twelve grand. Ping pong tables, yoga ball chairs, 60K starting salaries, kegs at the office—it can all be yours!

Except it won’t. Speculative bubbles aside, if everybody learns javascript, everybody will know javascript, including the experienced Odesk-ers from Lahore who will write it for US $9.73/hr. Companies will need one dev guy onshore for every five offshore, and that one guy is 10x more amazing at all things dev-y than you’ll ever be (sorry).

What you’ll be is a commodity—and you don’t want to be that. Just ask the journalists and lawyers furiously hunting for jobs at your nearest Starbucks. Same as the whole progressive techie company culture is looked upon less fondly by a society over-saturated with them, so too will certain easy(ish)-to-acquire skills be less valued by an over-saturated labor market.

So maybe it is high time for start-ups, and the kids of all ages who work around them, to mature along with the society and market they serve.

It’s scary, I know, but eventually you have to call yourself what you are: a small business. Eventually you have to shelve the ratty hoodie, move out of your Silicon Valley/Beach/Alley bubble, and make friends with people who’ve never taken Glass for a test run. It’s high time to say hello world.

Maybe then we can look ahead to the next phase of the Hype curve, the optimistically named Slope of Enlightenment. Here we find worthy newcomers charging out of the trough, greeted by cautious investors and a reasonable market. For those that have created a business for tried and true reasons—they’ve identified a market need and found a way to fulfill it profitably—this will be the time to shine.

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The truth inside the Google bus lawsuit: gentrification hurts the environment

Stop blaming poor people for pollution. When Silicon Valley’s class war prices out city workers and forces them to the suburbs, they become more eco-evil than Google

google bus
Street protests against the tech companies’ employee shuttles have turned to lawsuits in San Francisco. Photograph: Steven Rhodes / Flickr Vision

A new lawsuit brought by San Francisco activists against the city places blame squarely on Silicon Valley’s now infamous private tech-employee shuttle buses, claiming that they not only spew air pollution across the city and endanger cyclists and pedestrians, but also that they directly displace residents from their homes. But this lawsuit – and the city’s bypassing of a review process, and the buses themselves – isn’t really about the environment. It’s about class, and it could foretell big changes for how California’s cities grow in the future.

Activists filed suit against San Francisco and its transit agency for violation of the 1970 California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), claiming that an environmental review of the tech shuttles’ impact on the city is necessary. (The city had skipped an environmental review of the bus program in its haste to resolve a painful political issue.) A CEQA lawsuit is a powerful procedural weapon in activists’ fight against more than just the buses. They are also appealing the city’s decision on the basis of residential displacement, as research has shown a strong correlation between the tech bus routes and rising housing costs.

But if that sounds like an unusual take on environmental impact, it is – and it’s brand-new.

Last fall, CEQA was updated in an effort to promote more dense, so-called “smart growth” in California’s cities. The old law prohibited the environmental judgment of a project based on socio-economic factors, and only considered “displacement” in any case in which houses would be knocked down and new ones would have to be built. But the new law calls for the state to write a set of review standards by which to judge developments that might destabilize neighborhoods and push out poor and middle-class residents.

This is the first high-profile lawsuit to appeal on the basis of displacement – and those state standards are still on the drawing board and there’s no case law to go on.

Gentrification does have environmental ripple effects. Dense city living is better for the environment, but given private conveniences, it’s becoming the exclusive realm of the rich. So, when San Francisco workers are forced to move out to cheap suburbs without mass transit, they become reluctant urban drivers – by some standards, more eco-evil than Google. The burden and the blame for urban pollution then often falls on the poor, who can’t afford the well-funded environmental measures of Google and Genentech.

But environmental stability in an age of climate change doesn’t just mean running buses instead of driving alone. Building and maintaining a resilient social infrastructure is arguably just as vital to surviving future crises as building flood-proof parks. It’s often neighborhood relationships “that might make the difference between life and death” in disasters, sociologist Eric Klinenberg told NPR.

Located on a volatile fault line and surrounded on three sides by rising sea levels, San Francisco is always planning for crisis. But as high rents and private transit tear up neighborhoods, city disaster networks will have to fill in for those broken relationships.

It’s clear that the buses absolutely play a role in reshaping San Francisco’s neighborhoods. One study found that, without shuttle access, nearly two-thirds of city-dwelling respondents said they would drive instead – and about 40% would move closer to work for convenience. Tech companies and San Francisco transit officials have argued that the buses are needed to take those hypothetical thousands of cars off the road each day. Google in particular promotes its eco-friendly company ethos and clean-running shuttles.

The old CEQA measures impact on roads by looking at traffic congestion, so projects that slow cars down – like bike lanes – often show a “negative” environmental impact. The new CEQA standards measure projects based on vehicle miles traveled. Depending on the details of model used to determine the impact, tech shuttles could be deemed positive under either standard, even if it means more diesel exhaust for San Francisco neighborhoods.

And either way, the law is often used more for political means than environmental ones.

San Francisco tries to scuttle environmental reports all the time, and activists constantly sue them for it, so, in a certain sense, this is business as usual. But if this group can make their case against the company shuttles, they might not just force a city drunk on the promise of technology to take stock of its values – they might impact development across the entire Golden State.

Five Places Where Silicon Valley’s Bubble Could Pop

Soft Spots: Five Places Where Silicon Valley’s Bubble Could Pop

The main premise of J.J. Abrams’ Fringe—unquestionably one of the three best sci-fi shows made for television in this century, alongside Battlestar Galactica and Doctor Who—is that there’s a second, nearly identical universe coterminous with ours. The wall between the parallel worlds remains impenetrable until a grief-stricken scientist, Walter Bishop, figures out how to cross over in order to save his dead son Peter’s doppelgänger; Walter ends up kidnapping the other Peter and bringing him back. This infraction against physics opens up “soft spots” between the two universes, and wherever the spots become too thin, a vortex or micro-black hole arises, leading to untold destruction in both universes.

The soft spots came back to me when I was searching for a way to sum up my picture of Silicon Valley’s perilous state.

Yes, we’re in a tech bubble. Of course we are. When Facebook can use $19 billion in funny money to buy a startup with revenues of $20 million (WhatsApp) or spend $2 billion to buy another startup that doesn’t even have a product on the market (Oculus), that’s a bubble.

When the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in San Francisco is $3,350—enough to pay the mortgage on an $800,000 house in any other city—that’s a bubble.

When investors have so much cash floating around, and keep buying into risky startups at ever-higher valuations because they can’t get a decent return on their money doing anything else, that’s a bubble.

This bubble may not look the same as the last one. But I’m not going to waste space here documenting its existence, which is only challenged by people who enjoy living in it.

The more interesting question, to me, is how the bubble will eventually pop. What are Silicon Valley’s most important flaws and weaknesses? Where is the membrane being stretched so thin that it’s in danger of tearing open and letting the outer reality rush in?

Of course, there isn’t any single, physical place where the bubble’s collapse will begin. Since a bubble is primarily an economic and psychological phenomenon, it can only be burst by a broad shift in attitudes and expectations. But there are plenty of real places where the tensions, imbalances, or injustices that could escalate into a show-stopping crisis are in evidence.

So I invite you to play along with me below as I tour a few locations around the San Francisco Bay Area that could be considered our soft spots. They’re symbolic of larger problems. You don’t want to be standing in one of these places when the vortex opens up.

By the way, that’s not an event I’m looking forward to, or that I would want to hasten in any way. People riding the bubble have been generating all sorts of important new ideas and capabilities that might not have emerged otherwise. But it’s wise to plan ahead. If we can identify the fractures that threaten to destroy the innovation machine, we might be able to patch them up and keep the system going for a while longer—and maybe even point it in a smarter direction.

1. 555 California Street, San Francisco: The Former Bank of America Tower 

This 52-floor skyscraper has a lumpy black granite sculpture at its base. It’s the creation of Nagasaki-born sculptor Masayuki Nagare and its actual name is “Transcendence,” but locals know it as the “Banker’s Heart.”

Bank of America, still a major tenant in this Financial District landmark, repaid the entire $45 billion it received from the federal government through the Troubled Asset Relief Program in 2009, with interest. But it was still the focus of protesters’ ire during the Occupy San Francisco movement in 2011: they stormed a branch office on Market Street, a few blocks away. And even today, the bank is struggling with the consequences of its $4 billion purchase of Countrywide Financial in 2007, which led to $40 billion in settlements and legal costs.

I choose this location because Bank of America’s troubles show how quickly boom can turn to bust. They remind us that a bubble is first and foremost a financial phenomenon fueled by easy money, whether that’s in the form of excess capital or subprime loans.

The former Bank of America Tower in San Francisco. Source: Mike Linksvayer/Flickr.

Because interest rates have been so low for so long and the global economy isn’t expanding very fast, investors are willing to put lots of money into any business that shows signs that it might actually grow. That’s what tech startups do—a small percentage of them, anyway. So there’s still a lot of money being allocated to high-risk venture and private equity funds. But as soon as another plausible investment opportunity comes along—when the Fed finally raises benchmark interest rates again, for example—the capital could flee.

The tech giants still have a lot of cash on hand, so the big acquisitions could continue for a while even after an economic shock. Apple has $160 billion and Google has $57 billion. Facebook has only $12 billion in cash, but has much greater purchasing power thanks to its sky-high $154 billion valuation. But if things really go south, there’s no net large enough to catch all of the late-stage tech companies that have been cashing huge venture checks lately, not because they need the money, but simply because it’s available ($500 million for Airbnb; $250 million for Lyft; $80 million for Quora; $60 million for Nextdoor).

2. Valencia Street and 24th Street, San Francisco: The Google Bus Stop 

This is one of at least 20 places around the city—many of them Muni bus stops—where Google shuttle buses pick up employees early every morning for the ride to the Googleplex in Mountain View. In December, protesters blockaded a Google bus here in a demonstration against what they saw as misuse of public resources by a commercial entity.

The feelings at work behind the Google bus protests are complex. But a key element is the perception that the big Silicon Valley tech companies are subsidizing their employees’ desire to live in San Francisco, one of the nation’s tightest housing markets. Because these well-paid software engineers are able to fork over $4,750 per month for a junior 2-bedroom in Noe Valley, and be chauffeured to work on a cushy Wi-Fi-equipped bus, rents in the city are becoming unaffordable for everyone else, or so the story goes. It doesn’t help matters that more and more San Francisco landlords are taking advantage of a California law, the Ellis Act, that allows owners of rent-controlled buildings to “go out of business,” evict their tenants, and sell their properties to developers, who replace them with more expensive units or condos.

Protesters blockade a Google bus near the corner of 24th and Valencia in San Francisco. Source: Chris Martin/Flickr

To my mind, Google employees are driving up rents, but no more than anyone else. At bottom, it’s a problem of supply and demand. The housing supply in San Francisco is extremely limited and unlikely to grow much in the near future, for reasons explained in an in an epic, masterful piece last month by TechCrunch writer Kim-Mai Cutler. Prominent angel investor Ron Conway is leading an effort to repeal the Ellis Act, but even if it works, it wouldn’t solve the problem. The truth is that as long as more people have their heart set on moving to San Francisco to seek their fortunes in the technology industry, rents will keep going up.

But there could come a time—possibly soon—when the entry-level or service workers every company needs are completely priced out of the region; or employers stop being so happy to subsidize their senior employees’ high rents through high salaries and bonuses; or young workers in San Francisco realize that there are perfectly pleasant cities, like Sacramento, where they could live for a fraction of the rent. Then the housing crunch will become a drag on the labor supply, and companies won’t be able to keep growing.

3. 3000 Hanover Street, Palo Alto: Hewlett-Packard Headquarters

The average age of employees at Hewlett-Packard is 39, according to PayScale, the salary database provider. At IBM and Oracle, it’s 38. The average employee at Google, Facebook, or Zynga, by contrast, is about 10 years younger.

It isn’t possible to explain this difference using factors like geography or training: all of these companies draw on the same population of highly educated Bay Area software engineers. The truth is that Silicon Valley has an ageism problem. The hot young companies are afraid that if they hire people older than 30 or 35, it’ll slow down the pace of innovation—the “move fast and break things” ethic espoused by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who also famously remarked in 2007 that “young people are just smarter.”

As several excellent journalistic reports have documented lately, interviewers at younger companies systematically weed out mid-career professionals, despite their years of experience, using excuses like “cultural mismatch.” What they’re really saying is that having a few grownups around might dampen the frat-house, brogrammer atmosphere they’ve brought with them from college.

Perhaps there’s an infinite supply of young rock-star engineers finishing their CS degrees at Stanford—or perhaps the big tech firms are shooting themselves in the foot by devaluing a huge group of valuable middle-aged workers. For a culture that claims to prize “pattern recognition” skills, it’s an odd omission. If you’ve been in the business for more than 10 or 15 years, you’ve probably seen everything before, and you know what to do about it—which will be an especially useful skill when the shiitake hits the fan.

I could go on and talk about the other poisonous forms of exclusion in Silicon Valley, namely racism and sexism. But you get my point. The putative hero in today’s Valley is the “full stack engineer”: someone familiar with server, data, networking, logic, UI, and UX tools. Whether someone has mastered those tools has absolutely nothing to do with their age, gender, or ethnic background. To keep innovating and growing, the technology industry will need to tap the full range of talent available to it.

4. 1757 Mountain Blvd., Oakland: Montclair Elementary School

This public school in Oakland, dating from 1925, has the distinction of sitting directly on the most dangerous seismic feature in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Hayward Fault. (The fault actually runs beneath the school’s baseball field, not the school building itself.) In 1868, the western side of this fault jumped six feet to the north, unleashing a magnitude-7 earthquake that, if it were repeated today, would leave 100,000 people homeless and cause $1 trillion in property damage, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. And such a quake is actually overdue: major temblors on the Hayward Fault occur every 140 years or so.

It’s been so long since the 1989 Loma Prieta quake hit the region that few people working in the tech industry today remember how deadly and disruptive an earthquake can be, and that one was just a 6.9. The fact is that if a major natural disaster were to strike, the boom times in Silicon Valley could come to a quick end. It could be an earthquake, but the Bay Area is also prone to drought, fires, storms, flooding, and tsunamis.

Then there’s the more gradual, but also more predictable, disaster of sea level rise due to global warming, which will likely inundate the land now occupied by several of Silicon Valley’s largest tech companies, including Facebook. This is a particularly insidious threat, because few people are yet willing to talk about it or deal with it.

Because so much commerce and communication now takes place in “the cloud” and on social networks, it’s easy to forget that the big institutions in Silicon Valley—not to mention their data centers—are rooted in the physical world. One good shake could provide a reminder.

5. 7th Street and Market Street, San Francisco: United Nations Plaza

The pedestrian mall and fountain at UN Plaza have been labeled “San Francisco’s most public theater of squalor, misery, and sickness” by one documentarian. Designed by famed architect Lawrence Halprin in 1975, the plaza was supposed to function as a grand formal entrance to Civic Center Plaza and City Hall, and it was originally hoped that its construction would lead to the rejuvenation of a down-at-the-heels section of Market Street. But that never happened, and by the late 1970s the plaza had become the seedy front porch to the Tenderloin, a six-block-by-10-block area that’s been preserved by the city as a haven of low-cost, SRO hotels and rooming houses for the city’s poorest residents. co-founder Gary Kamiya, pulling no punches, calls the Tenderloin San Francisco’s “last human wilderness,” a “radioactive core of junkies, drunks, transvestites, dealers, thugs, madmen, hustlers, derelicts, prostitutes, and lowlifes.” And while UN Plaza has been beautified in recent years—the fence that kept children from going too close to the needle- and feces-ridden fountain has been removed—it’s still a thoroughfare and gathering place for San Francisco’s poor and homeless population. That creates a striking contrast, now that the long stretch of Market Street passing the plaza, known as Mid-Market, is finally being gentrified. In June 2012, Twitter moved into a building two blocks away from the Plaza. Just over a year later, it went public, raising $1.8 billion and minting an estimated 1,600 new millionaires. Some of San Francisco’s richest citizens now work in close proximity to its poorest.

The Lawrence Halprin-designed fountain at UN Plaza. Source: Loren Javier/Flicrk.

And that’s by design. The city’s hope is that the generous payroll tax breaks it gave Twitter and other companies as an inducement to settle in Mid-Market will pay off in the form of increased traffic to other local businesses, volunteerism by company employees, and other community benefits, all of which is starting to happen. But the number of San Franciscans living on the street or in emergency shelters hasn’t budged in years, and the gulf of wealth and opportunity that separate neighborhoods like the Tenderloin from the rest of San Francisco is, if anything, growing wider. The question posed by places like UN Plaza is whether technology-driven economic growth can continue indefinitely when such a large portion of the citizenry is being left behind.

Obviously, inequality is the issue of the day. Economist Thomas Piketty’s finding that capitalism, in the absence of progressive taxation, tends toward oligarchy, is now cocktail-party conversation around the world. That’s a good thing—it’s far more useful than debating whether the big banks deserved to be bailed out in 2008-2009. What I’m saying is that technology isn’t necessarily a leveling force, as many of its successful purveyors would like us to believe; in fact, it probably contributes to inequality by undermining wage growth for less-skilled workers.

Without major social programs to provide lower-income, less-educated workers with skills and resources they need to participate in the workforce and act as consumers, our technology-driven economic boom probably isn’t sustainable. And in any case, it isn’t leading us somewhere we want to go. Sharply unequal societies end up either moribund, or riven by revolution and chaos.

*  *  *

The five soft spots visited here aren’t the only ones where circumstances could turn against Silicon Valley’s current success. When the bubble pops, it might be due to some other cause, or several at once. But if we know where the innovation system is weakest, we can work to make it stronger. And we can think ahead about how to handle the next downturn—a message we’ve been hearing lately from no less than California Governor Jerry Brown, who’s proposing a constitutional amendment that would create a rainy-day fund for the state.

“While there are few signs of immediate contraction, we know from history that another recession is inevitable,” Brown’s proposal sensibly observes. So let’s be grownups about it.

The Rise of the Digital Proletariat

In open systems, discrimination and barriers can become invisibilized,’ says author and activist Astra Taylor. (Deborah DeGraffenreid.)

Astra Taylor reminds us that the Internet cannot magically produce revolution.

BY Sarah Jaffe

It really challenges the notion that we’re all on these social media platforms purely by choice, because there’s a real obligatory dimension to so much of this.

The conversation about the impact of technology tends to be binary: Either it will save us, or it will destroy us. The Internet is an opportunity for revolution; our old society is being “disrupted”; tech-savvy college dropouts are rendering the staid elite obsolete. Or else our jobs are being lost to automation and computers; drones wipe out families on their wedding day; newly minted millionaires flush with tech dollars are gentrifying San Francisco at lightning speed.

Neither story is completely true, of course. In her new book, The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, out now from Metropolitan Books, Astra Taylor takes on both the techno-utopians and the techno-skeptics, reminding us that the Internet was created by the society we live in and thus is more likely to reflect its problems than transcend them. She delves into questions of labor, culture and, especially, money, reminding us who profits from our supposedly free products. She builds a strong case that in order to understand the problems and potentials of technology, we have to look critically at the market-based society that produced it.

Old power dynamics don’t just fade away, she points out—they have to be destroyed. That will require political action, struggle, and a vision of how we want the Internet (and the rest of our society) to be. I spoke with Taylor about culture, creativity, the possibility of nationalizing Facebook and more.

Many people know you as a filmmaker or as an activist with Occupy and Strike Debt. How do you see this book fitting in with the other work you’ve done?

Initially I saw it as a real departure, and now that it’s done, I recognize the continuity. I felt that the voices of culture makers were left out of the debate about the consequences of Internet technology. There are lots of grandiose statements being made about social change and organizing and about how social media tools are going to make it even easier for us to aggregate and transform the world. I felt there was a role I could play rooted in my experiences of being a culture maker and an activist. It was important for somebody grounded in those areas to make a sustained effort to be part of the conversation. I was really troubled that people on all sides of the political spectrum were using Silicon Valley rhetoric to describe our new media landscape. Using terms like “open” and “transparent” and saying things were “democratizing” without really analyzing those terms. A big part of the book was just trying to think through the language we’re using and to look at the ideology underpinning the terminology that’s now so commonplace.

You make the point in the book that the Internet and the offline world aren’t two separate worlds. Can you talk about that a bit more?

It’s amazing that these arguments even need to be made. That you need to point out that these technologies cannot just magically overcome the structures and material conditions that shape regular life.

It harkens back to previous waves of technological optimism. People have always invested a lot of hope in their tools. I talk about the way that we often imbue our machines with the power to liberate us. There was lots of hope that machines would be doing all of our labor and that we would have, as a society, much more free time, and that we would have this economy of abundance because machines would be so dramatically improved over time. The reasons that those predictions never came to pass is because machines are embedded in a social context and the rewards are siphoned off by the elite.

The rise of the Internet really fits that pattern. We can see that there is this massive shifting of wealth [to corporations]. These gigantic digital companies are emerging that can track and profit from not just our online interactions, but increasingly things that we’re doing away from the keyboard. As we move towards the “Internet-of-things,” more and more of the devices around us are going to have IP addresses and be leaking data. These are avenues for these companies that are garnering enormous power to increase their wealth.

The rhetoric a few years ago was that these companies are going to vanquish the old media dinosaurs. If you read the tech books from a few years ago, it’s just like “Disney and these companies are so horrible. Google is going to overthrow them and create a participatory culture.” But Google is going to be way more invasive than Mickey Mouse ever was.

Google’s buying drone companies.

Google’s in your car, Google’s in your thermostat, it’s in your email box. But then there’s the psychological element. There was this hope that you could be anyone you wanted to be online. That you could pick an avatar and be totally liberated from your offline self. That was a real animating fantasy. That, too, was really misleading. Minority groups and women are often forced back into their real bodies, so to speak. They’re not given equal access to the supposedly open space of the Internet.

This is one of the conversations that I think your book is incredibly relevant to right now. Even supposedly progressive spaces are still dominated by white people, mostly men, and there’s a real pushback against women and people of color who are using social media.

It’s been amazing how much outrage can get heaped on one person who’s making critical observations about an institution with such disproportionate power and reach.

The new media elites end up looking a whole lot like the old ones. The other conversations about race and gender and the Internet recently has been about these new media websites that are launched with a lot of fanfare, that have been funded in many cases by Silicon Valley venture capital, that are selling themselves as new and rebellious and exciting and a challenge to the old media—the faces of them are still white men.

The economic rewards flow through the usual suspects. Larry Lessig has done a lot of interesting work around copyright. But he wrote basically that we need to cheer on the Facebooks of the world because they’re new and not the old media dinosaurs. He has this line about “Stanford is vanquishing Harvard.” We need something so much more profound than that.

This is why I really take on the concept of “openness.” Because open is not equal. In open systems, discrimination and barriers can become invisibilized. It’s harder to get your mind around how inequitable things actually are. I myself follow a diverse group of people and feel like Twitter is full of people of color or radicals. But that’s because I’m getting a very distorted view of the overall picture.

I think it’s helpful to look at the handful of examples of these supposedly open systems in action. Like Wikipedia, which everyone can contribute to. Nonetheless, only like 15 percent of the editors are women. Even the organizations that are held up as exemplars of digital democracy, there’s still such structural inequality. By the time you get to the level of these new media ventures that you’re talking about, it’s completely predictable.

We really need to think through these issues on a social level. I tried to steer the debate away from our addiction to our devices or to crappy content on the Internet, and really take a structural view. It’s challenging because ultimately it comes down to money and power and who has it and how do you wrest it away and how do you funnel some of it to build structures that will support other types of voices. That’s far more difficult than waiting around for some new technology to come around and do it for you.

You write about this tension between professional work from the amateurs who are working for free and the way the idea of doing work for the love of it has crept in everywhere. Except people are working longer hours than ever and they’re making less money than ever, and who has time to come home at the end of your two minimum wage jobs and make art?

It would be nice to come out and say follow your heart, do everything for the love of it, and things’ll work out. Artists are told not to think about money. They’re actively encouraged to deny the economic sphere. What that does though is it obscures the way privilege operates—the way that having a trust fund can sure be handy if you want to be a full time sculptor or digital video maker.

I think it’s important that we tackle these issues. That’s where I look at these beautiful predictions about the way these labor-saving devices would free us all and the idea that the fruits of technological advancement would be evenly shared. It’s really interesting how today’s leading tech pundits don’t pretend that [the sharing is] going to be even at all. Our social imagination is so diminished.

There’s something really off about celebrating amateurism in an economy where people are un- and under-employed, and where young people are graduating with an average of $30,000 of student debt. It doesn’t acknowledge the way that this figure of the artist—[as] the person who loves their work so much that they’ll do it for nothing—is increasingly central to this precarious labor force.

I quote this example of people at an Apple store asking for a raise and the response was “When you’re working for Apple, money shouldn’t be a consideration.” You’re supposed to just love your work so much you’ll exploit yourself. That’s what interning is. That’s what writing for free is when you’re hoping to get a foot in the door as a journalist. There are major social implications if that’s the road we go down. It exacerbates inequality, because who can afford to do this kind of work?

Of course, unpaid internships are really prevalent in creative fields.

Ultimately, it’s a corporate subsidy. People are sometimes not just working for free but then also going into debt for college credit to do it. In a way, all of the unpaid labor online is also a corporate subsidy. I agree that calling our participation online “labor” is problematic because it’s not clear exactly how we’re being exploited, but the point is the value being extracted. We need to talk about that value extraction and the way that people’s free participation feeds into it.

Of course we enjoy so much of what we do online. People enjoy creating art and culture and doing journalism too. The idea that work should only be well-compensated and secure if it makes you miserable ultimately leads to a world where the people who feel like they should make a lot of money are the guys on Wall Street working 80 hours a week. It’s a bleak, bleak view.

In many ways the problem with social media is it does break down this barrier between home and work. You point this out in the book–it’s everywhere, you can’t avoid it, especially if you are an independent creative person where you have to constantly promote your own work, or it is part of your job. There’s now the Wages for Facebook conversation—people are starting to talk about the way we are creating value for these companies.

It really challenges the notion that we’re all on these social media platforms purely by choice, because there’s a real obligatory dimension to so much of this. Look also at the way we talk to young people. “Do you want a college recruiter to see that on your Facebook profile?” What we’re really demanding is that they create a Facebook profile that appeals to college recruiters, that they manage a self that will help them get ahead.

I was at a recent talk about automation and the “end of jobs,” and one researcher said that the jobs that would be hardest to automate away would be ones that required creativity or social intelligence—skills that have been incredibly devalued in today’s economy, only in part because of technology.

Those skills are being pushed out of the economy because they’re supposed to be things you just choose to do because they’re pleasurable. There is a paradox there. Certain types of jobs will be automated away, that can be not just deskilled but done better by machines, and meanwhile all the creative jobs that can’t be automated away are actually considered almost superfluous to the economy.

The thing about the jobs conversation is that it’s a political question and a policy question as well as a technological question. There can be lots of different types of jobs in the world if we invest in them. This question of what kind of jobs we’re going to have in the future. So much of it is actually comes down to these social decisions that we’re making. The technological aspect has always been overhyped.

You do bring up ideas like a basic income and shorter working hours as ways to allow people to have time and money for culture creation.

The question is, how do you get there? You’d have to have a political movement, you’d have to challenge power. They’re not just going to throw the poor people who’ve had their jobs automated away a bone and suddenly provide a basic income. People would really have to organize and fight for it. It’s that fight, that element of antagonism and struggle that isn’t faced when we just think tools are evolving rapidly and we’ll catch up with them.

The more romantic predictions about rising prosperity and the inevitable increase in free time were made against the backdrop of the post-war consensus of the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. There was a social safety net, there were structures in place that redistributed wealth, and so people made predictions colored by that social fabric, that if there were advancements in our tools that they would be shared by people. It just shows the way that the political reality shapes what we can collectively imagine.

Finally, you make the case for state-subsidized media as well as regulations—for ensuring that people have the ability to make culture as well as consume it. You note that major web companies like Google and Facebook operate like public utilities, and that nationalizing them would be a really hard sell, and yet if these things are being founded with government subsidies and our work, they are in a sense already ours.

The invisible subsidy is the thing that we really have to keep in mind. People say, “Where’s the money going to come from?” We’re already spending it. So much innovation is the consequence of state investment. Touchscreens, the microchip, the Internet itself, GPS, all of these things would not exist if the government had not invested in them, and the good thing about state investment is it takes a much longer view than short-term private-market investment. It can have tremendous, socially valuable breakthroughs. But all the credit for these innovations and the financial rewards is going to private companies, not back to us, the people, whose tax dollars actually paid for them.

You raise a moral question: If we’re paying for these things already, then shouldn’t they in some sense be ours? I think the answer is yes. There are some leverage points in the sense that these companies like to talk about themselves as though they actually are public utilities. There’s this public-spiritedness in their rhetoric but it doesn’t go deep enough—it doesn’t go into the way they’re actually run. That’s the gap we need to bridge. Despite Silicon Valley’s hostility to the government and the state, and the idea that the Internet is sort of this magic place where regulation should not touch, the government’s already there. We just need it to be benefiting people, not private corporations.

Sarah Jaffe is a staff writer at In These Times and the co-host of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast. Her writings on labor, social movements, gender, media, and student debt have been published in The Atlantic, The Nation, The American Prospect, AlterNet, and many other publications, and she is a regular commentator for radio and television. You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.

Google Glass, techno-rage and the battle for San Francisco’s soul

The Bay is burning!

The advent of Google Glass has started an incendiary new chapter in tech’s culture wars. Here’s what’s at stake

The Bay is burning! Google Glass, techno-rage and the battle for San Francisco's soul
Sergey Brin (Credit: Reuters/Stephen Lam/Ilya Andriyanov via Shutterstock/Salon)

In San Francisco, the tech culture wars continue to rage. On April 15, Google opened up purchases of its Google Glass headgear to the general public for 24 hours. The sale was marked by mockery, theft and the continuing fallout from an incident a few days earlier, when a Business Insider reporter covering an anti-eviction protest had his Glass snatched and smashed.

That same day, protesters organized by San Francisco’s most powerful union marched to Twitter’s headquarters — a major San Francisco gentrification battleground — and presented the company with a symbolic tax bill, designed to recoup the “millions” that some San Franciscans believe the city squandered by bribing Twitter with a huge tax break to stay in the city.

We learned two things on April 15. First, Google isn’t about to give up on its plans to make Glass the second coming of the iPhone, even if it’s clear that a significant number of people consider Google Glass to be a despicable symbol of the surveillance society and a pricey calling card of the techno-elite. Second, judging by the march on Twitter, the tide of anti-tech protest sentiment has yet to crest in the San Francisco Bay Area. The two points turn out to be inseparable. Scratch an anti-tech protester and you are unlikely to find a fan of Google Glass.

What’s it all mean? Earlier this week, after I promoted an article on Twitter that attempted to explore reasons for anti-Glass hatred, I received a one-word tweet in response: “Neoluddism.”

The Luddites of the early 19th century are famous for smashing weaving machinery in a fruitless attempt to resist the reshaping of society and the economy by the Industrial Revolution. They took their name from Ned Ludd, a possibly apocryphal character who is said to have smashed two stocking frames in a fit of rage — thus inspiring a rebellion. While I can’t be certain, I suspect that my correspondent was deploying the term in the sense most familiar to pop culture — the Luddite as barbarian goon, futilely standing against the relentless march of progress.

But the story isn’t quite that simple.Yes, the Luddite movement may have been smashed by the forces of the state and the newly ascendant industrialist bourgeoisie. Yes, the Luddites may never have had the remotest chance of maintaining their pre-industrial way of life in the face of the steam engine. But there is a version of history in which the Luddites were far from unthinking goons. Instead, they were acute critics of their changing times, grasping the first glimpse of the increasingly potent ways in which capital was learning to exploit labor. In this view, the Luddites were actually the avante garde for the formation of working-class consciousness, and paved the way for the rise of organized labor and trade unions. It’s no accident that Ned Ludd hailed from Nottingham, right up against Sherwood Forest.

Economic inequality and technologically induced dislocation? Ned Ludd, that infamous wrecker of weaving machinery, would recognize a clear echo of his own time in present-day San Francisco. But there’s more to see here than just the challenge of a new technological revolution. Just as the Luddites, despite their failure, spurred the creation of worker-class consciousness, the current Bay Area tech protests have had a pronounced political effect. While the tactics range from savvy, well-organized protest marches to juvenile acts of violence, the impact is clear. The attention of political leaders and the media has been engaged. Everyone is paying attention.



* * *

If you live in San Francisco, you may have seen them around town: Decals on bar windows that state “Google Glass is barred on these premises.” They are the work of an outfit called, a group of scientists and engineers who have articulated a critique of Google Glass that steers cagily away from the half-baked nonsense of Counterforce.

I contacted StopTheCyborgs by email and asked them how they responded to being called “neoluddites.”

“If ‘neoluddism’ means blindly being anti-technology then we refute the charge,” said Jack Winters, who described himself as a Scala and Java developer. If ‘neoluddism’ means not being blindly pro-technology then guilty as charged.”

“We are technologically sophisticated enough to realize that technology is politics and code is law,” continued Winters. “Technology isn’t some external force of nature. It is created and used by people. It has an effect on power relations. It can be good, it can be bad. We can choose what kind of society we want rather than passively accepting that ‘the future’ is whatever data-mining corporations want.”

“Basically anyone who views critics of particular technologies as ‘luddites’ fundamentally misunderstands what technology is. There is no such thing as ‘technology.’ Rather there are specific technologies, produced by specific economic and political actors, and deployed in specific economic and social contexts. You can be anti-nukes without being anti-antibiotics. You can be pro-surveillance of powerful institutions without being pro-surveillance of individual people. You can work on machine vision for medical applications while campaigning against the use of the same technology for automatically identifying and tracking people. How? Because you take a moral view of the likely consequences of a technology in a particular context.” [Emphasis added.]

The argument made by StopTheCyborgs resonates with one of the core observations that revisionist historians have made about the original Luddites: They were not indiscriminate in their assaults on technology. (At least not at first.) They chose to destroy machines that were owned by employers who were acting in ways they believed were particularly economically harmful while leaving other machines undamaged. To translate that to a present-day stance: It is not hypocritical for protesters to argue that Glass embodies surveillance in a way that iPhones don’t, or that it is hypocritical to critique technology’s impact on inequality via Twitter or Facebook. Every mode of technology needs to be evaluated on its own merits. Some start-up entrepreneurs might legitimately be using technology to achieve a social good. Some tech tycoons might be genuinely committed to a higher standard of life for all San Franciscans. Some might just be tools. So Jack Winters of StopTheCyborgs is correct: The deployment of different technologies have different consequences. These consequences require a social and political response.

This is not to say that ripping Google Glass from the face of a young reporter, or otherwise demonizing individuals just because they happen to be employed by a particular company, is comparable to Ned Ludd’s destruction of two stocking frames. But Glass is just as embedded in the larger transformations we are going through as the spinning jenny was to the Industrial Revolution. By taking it seriously, we are giving “the second machine age” the respect it deserves.

The question is: Is Google?

* * *

I tried to find out from Google how many units of Google Glass had been sold during the one-day special promotion. I received a statement that read, “We were getting through our stock faster than we expected, so we decided to shut the store down. While you can still access the site, Glass will be marked as sold out.”

I followed up by asking how Google was coping with the fact that its signature device had become a symbol of tech-economy driven gentrification.

“It’s early days and we are thinking very carefully about how we design Glass because new technology always raises new issues,” said a Google spokesperson. “Our Glass Explorers come from all walks of life. They are firefighters, gardeners, athletes, moms, dads and doctors. No one should be targeted simply because of the technology they choose. We find that when people actually try Glass firsthand, they understand the philosophy that underpins it: Glass let’s you look up and engage with the world around you, rather than looking down and being distracted by your technology.”

You can hear an echo here of Ned Ludd in the statement that “new technology raises new issues.” But the rest is just marketing zombie chatter, about as useless in its own way as some of the more overheated and unhinged rhetoric from the more extreme dissident wings of Bay Area protest. When a group styling itself “Counterforce” shows ups at the home of a Google executive, demands $3 billion to build “anarchist colonies” and declares, as Adrianne Jeffries documented in Verge, that their goal is to “to destroy the capitalist system … [and] … create a new world without an economy,” well, good luck with that. We are a long way from “the precipice of a complete anarcho-primitivist rebellion against the technocracy.”

One thing seems reasonably clear: Moms and firefighters might be wearing Google Glass, but if Ned Ludd were around today, he’d probably be looking for different accessories.

Apparently you can’t be empathetic, or help the homeless, without a GoPro

Today in bad ideas: Strapping video cameras to homeless

people to capture “extreme living”

Today in bad ideas: Strapping video cameras to homeless people to capture "extreme living"

GoPro cameras are branded as recording devices for extreme sports, but a San Francisco-based entrepreneur had a different idea of what to do with the camera: Strap it to a homeless man and capture “extreme living.”

The project is called Homeless GoPro, and it involves learning the first-person perspective of homeless people on the streets of San Francisco. The website explains:

“With a donated HERO3+ Silver Edition from GoPro and a small team of committed volunteers in San Francisco, Homeless GoPro explores how a camera normally associated with extreme sports and other ’hardcore’ activities can showcase courage, challenge, and humanity of a different sort - extreme living.”

The intentions of the founder, Kevin Adler, seem altruistic. His uncle was homeless for 30 years, and after visiting his gravesite he decided to start the organization and help others who are homeless.

The first volunteer to film his life is a man named Adam, who has been homeless for 30 years, six of those in San Francisco. There are several edited videos of him on the organization’s site.

In one of the videos, titled “Needs,” Adam says, “I notice every day that people are losing their compassion and empathy — not just for homeless people — but for society in general. I feel like technology has changed so much — where people are emailing and don’t talk face to face anymore.”

Without knowing it Adam has critiqued the the entire project, which is attempting to use technology (a GoPro) to garner empathy and compassion. It is a sad reminder that humanity can ignore the homeless population in person on a day-to-day basis, and needs a video to build empathy. Viewers may feel a twinge of guilt as they sit removed from the situation, watching a screen.

According to San Francisco’s Department of Human Services‘ biennial count there were 6,436 homeless people living in San Francisco (county and city). “Of the 6,436 homeless counted,” a press release stated, “more than half (3,401) were on the streets without shelter, the remaining 3,035 were residing in shelters, transitional housing, resource centers, residential treatment, jail or hospitals.” The homeless population is subject to hunger, illness, violence, extreme weather conditions, fear and other physical and emotional ailments.

Empathy — and the experience of “walking a mile in somebody’s shoes” — are important elements of social change, and these documentary-style videos do give Adam a medium and platform to be a voice for the homeless population. (One hopes that the organization also helped Adam in other ways — shelter, food, a place to stay on his birthday — and isn’t just using him as a human tool in its project.) But something about the project still seems off.

It is in part because of the product placement. GoPro donated a $300 camera for the cause, which sounds great until you remember that it is a billion-dollar company owned by billionaire Nick Woodman. If GoPro wants to do something to help the Bay Area homeless population there are better ways to go about it than donate a camera.

As ValleyWag‘s Sam Biddle put it, “Stop thinking we can innovate our way out of one of civilization’s oldest ailments. Poverty, homelessness, and inequality are bigger than any app …”

What happens when you google the word “eviction”?

Is capitalism evil? Ask the San Francisco teacher evicted from her Mission apartment by a Google employee

What happens when you google the word "eviction"?
(Credit: Mission Local)

Is it “evil” when a wealthy Google lawyer buys a seven-unit apartment building in San Francisco’s Mission District, and then proceeds to evict all the existing renters, including at least one San Francisco elementary school teacher? The answer to that question probably depends on whether you think the normal practice of capitalism is evil, or just, well, normal.

Friday marks the third time in the last three months that protesters against tech-economy driven gentrification have targeted individual Google employees at their homes. Whatever one might think of that tactic, it’s hard to argue with the made-for-YouTube poignancy of this particular action. We don’t know exactly what Jack Halprin plans to do with his Dolores Avenue mansion, but the optics of this mess aren’t good. Evicting public school teachers from their apartments never looks good. If, as Halprin appeared to suggest to Mission Local he might end up simply occupying the entire building himself, well, that looks outright terrible.

For the activists, Jack Halprin connects all the dots. Google to evictions to San Francisco housing crisis to runaway gentrification. See what the tech economy has wrought! But there’s nothing intrinsically technological about what Halprin is doing. This is what rich people do — whether they’ve made their money from oil or steel or railroads or high frequency trading. They build or buy themselves mansions in nice places. San Francisco’s traditionally strong left-wing politics mean there will be more squealing and more resistance when rich people do what rich people are wont to do, but it doesn’t make what’s happening in any way unusual.

Except for the rhetoric. Any reasonably vigorous defender of capitalism will tell you that free markets and self-interested entrepreneurs are supposed to guarantee more prosperity and abundance than any other system of economic organization so far invented. But Silicon Valley’s strain of capitalist rhetoric takes this notion to peculiar extremes. If we’ve heard it once, we’ve heard it a million times before, this smart-watch fitness-tracker note-organizing app is going change the world for the better.

Google itself added some extra zest to the Valley’s long-standing penchant for self-puffery with its declaration in its IPO prospectus that the company would guide itself according to a “don’t be evil” credo. I always understood this to mean that Google would eschew acting like Microsoft, constantly abusing its monopoly power to crush competitors and forcibly extract wealth from consumers, and not necessarily to mean “don’t evict public school teachers from their San Francisco homes.” It was “don’t be evil” as business tactic, not “don’t be evil” as in “we intend to act like Boddhisattvas leading humanity to nirvana.” But whatever the intentions originally were, the reality is that Google’s wealth appears to be resulting in the eviction of teachers from the Mission. It might be legal; and it might not even be technically “evil.” But it definitely sucks.