Posted on 27-6-13
Go Ogle's You
By Rebecca Solnit, 25 June 2013, TomDispatch
Finally, journalists have started criticizing in earnest the leviathans of
Silicon Valley, notably Google, now the world's third-largest company in
market value. The new round of discussion began even before the revelations
that the tech giants were routinely sharing our data with the National
Security Agency, or maybe merging with it. Simultaneously another set of
journalists, apparently unaware that the weather has changed, is still
sneering at San Francisco, my hometown, for not lying down and loving
Silicon Valley's looming presence.
The criticism of Silicon Valley is long overdue and some of the critiques
are both thoughtful and scathing. The New Yorker, for example, has explored
how start-ups are undermining the purpose of education at Stanford
University,addressed the Valley's messianic delusions and political
meddling, and considered Apple's massive tax avoidance.
The New York Times recently published an opinion piece that startled me,
especially when I checked the byline. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the
fugitive in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, focused on The New Digital
Age, a book by top Google executives Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen that to
him exemplifies the melding of the technology corporation and the state. It
is, he claimed, a startlingly clear and provocative blueprint for
technocratic imperialism, from two of our leading "witch doctors who
construct a new idiom for United States global power in the twenty-first
century." He added, "This idiom reflects the ever closer union between the
State Department and Silicon Valley."
What do the U.S. government and Silicon Valley already have in common?
Above all, they want to remain opaque while making the rest of us entirely
transparent through the capture of our data. What is arising is simply a new
form of government, involving vast entities with the reach and power of
government and little accountability to anyone.
Google, the company with the motto "Don't be evil," is rapidly becoming an
empire. Not an empire of territory, as was Rome or the Soviet Union, but an
empire controlling our access to data and our data itself. Antitrust
lawsuits proliferating around the company demonstrate its quest for monopoly
control over information in the information age. Its search engine has
become indispensable for most of us, and as Google critic and media
professor Siva Vaidhyanathan puts it in his 2012 book The Googlization of
Everything, "[W]e now allow Google to determine what is important, relevant,
and true on the Web and in the world. We trust and believe that Google acts
in our best interest. But we have surrendered control over the values,
methods, and processes that make sense of our information ecosystem." And
that's just the search engine.
About three-quarters of a billion people use Gmail, which conveniently gives
Google access to the content of their communications (scanned in such a way
that they can target ads at you). Google tried and failed to claim
proprietary control of digital versions of every book ever published;
librarians and publishers fought back on that one. As the New York Times
reported last fall, Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild,
summed the situation up this way: "Google continues to profit from its use
of millions of copyright-protected books without regard to authors' rights,
and our class-action lawsuit on behalf of U.S.
The nonprofit Consumer Watchdog wrote to the attorney general on June 12th
urging him "to block Google's just announced $1 billion acquisition of Waze,
developers of a mobile mapping application, on antitrust grounds...
Google already dominates the online mapping business with Google Maps. The
Internet giant was able to muscle its way to dominance by unfairly favoring
its own service ahead of such competitors as Mapquest in its online search
results. Now with the proposed Waze acquisition, the Internet giant would
remove the most viable competitor to Google Maps in the mobile space.
Moreover it will allow Google access to even more data about online activity
in a way that will increase its dominant position on the Internet."
The company seems to be cornering the online mapping business, seems in fact
to be cornering so many things that eventually they may have us cornered.
In Europe, there's an antitrust lawsuit over Google's Android phone apps.
In many ways, you can map Google's rise by the litter of antitrust lawsuits
it crushed en route. By the way, Google bought Motorola. You know it owns
YouTube, right? That makes Google possessor of the second and third most
visited Websites on earth. (Facebook is first, and two more of the top six
are also in Silicon Valley.)
Imagine that it's 1913 and the post office, the phone company, the public
library, printing houses, the U.S. Geological Survey mapping operations,
movie houses, and all atlases are largely controlled by a secretive
corporation unaccountable to the public. Jump a century and see that in the
online world that's more or less where we are. A New York venture capitalist
wrote that Google is trying to take over "the entire fucking Internet" and
asked the question of the day: "Who will stop Google?"
The Tipping Point
We ask that question all the time in San Francisco, because here Google
isn't just on our computers, it's on our streets. I wrote earlier this year
about "the Google bus" -- the armadas of private Wi-Fi-equipped luxury buses
that run through our streets and use our public bus stops, often blocking
city buses and public transit passengers while they load or unload the
employees taking the long ride down the peninsula to their corporation of
choice. Google, Apple, Facebook, and Genentech run some of the bigger
fleets, and those mostly unmarked white buses have become a symbol of the
transformation of the city.
Carl Nolte, the old native son who writes a column for the (dying) San
Francisco Chronicle, said this month of the future inhabitants of 22,000
high-priced apartments under construction, "These new apartment dwellers
will all be new San Franciscans, with different values. In a couple of years
we'll think of the progressive politicians, circa 2012, as quaint antiques,
like the old waterfront Commies your grandfather used to worry about. This
is already a high-tech city, an expensive city, a city where middle-class
families can't afford to live. It is a city where the African American
population has dropped precipitously, where the Latino Mission District is
gentrifying more every day. You think it's expensive here now?
Just you wait. These are the good old days, but it won't last. We are at a
Mr. Nolte, you can tell, doesn't particularly like this. A guy named Ilan
Greenberg at the New Republic popped up to tell us that we must like it --
or face his ridicule. He writes, "Ironically, the anti-gentrifiers
themselves undermine San Francisco's liberal ethos. Opposed to newcomers?
Wary of people whose values you don't understand? Critical of young people
for not living up to an older generation's ideals? It all sounds very
reactionary and close-minded." The problem is that we understand Silicon
Valley's values all too well, and a lot of us don't like them.
Adding newcomers might not be so bad if it didn't mean subtracting a lot of
those of us who are already here. By us I mean everyone who doesn't work for
a gigantic technology corporation or one of the smaller companies hoping to
become a global monolith. Greenberg (who is, incidentally, writing for a
publication quietly bought up by a Facebook billionaire) sneers at us for
defending middle-class people, but "middle class" is just a word for those
of us who get paid decently for our work. People at various income levels in
a diversity of fields here in San Francisco are being replaced by those who
work in one field and get paid extremely well.
Small, alternative, and nonprofit institutions are also struggling and
going down. It's like watching a meadow being plowed under for, say,
Monsanto genetically modified soybeans.
Speaking of meadows, one of Silicon Valley's billionaires, Napster founder
and Spotify billionaire Sean Parker, just threw himself a $10 million
wedding on environmentally sensitive land in Big Sur. In the course of
building a massive fantasy set for the event, "including grading, change in
use from campground to private event, construction of multiple structures
including a gateway and arch, an artificial pond, a stone bridge, multiple
event platforms with elevated floors, rock walls, artificially created ruins
of cottages and castle walls," he reportedly did significant environmental
damage and violated regulations.
Apparently paying $2.5 million in fines after the fact didn't bother him.
Napster and Spotify are, incidentally, online technologies that have reduced
musicians' profits from their recordings to almost nothing. There are
tremendously wealthy musicians, of course, but a lot of them are at best,
yes, middle class. Thanks to Parker, maybe a little less so.
Teachers, civil servants, bus drivers, librarians, firefighters -- consider
them representatives of the middle class under siege, as well as the people
who keep a city viable and diverse. Friends of mine -- a painter, a poet, a
filmmaker, a photographer, all of whom have contributed to San Francisco's
culture -- have been evicted so that more affluent people may replace them.
There's a widespread tendency to think that defending culture means
defending privileged white people, but that assumes that people of color and
poor people aren't artists. Here, they are.
Everyone here understands that if a musician -- hip-hop or symphony -- can't
afford a home, neither can a janitor and her family. And competition for
those apartments is fierce, so fierce that these days no one I know can find
a rental on the open market. I couldn't when I moved in 2011; neither could
a physician friend earlier this year. The tech kids come in and offer a year
in cash up front or raise the asking price or both, and the housing supply
continues to wither, while rents skyrocket. So while Greenberg might like
you to think that we're selfishly not offering a seat at the table, it's
more like old people and working families and people whose careers were
shaped by idealism are objecting to being thrown under the, well, bus.
Like Gandhi, Only With Guns
Enough minions of Silicon Valley's mighty corporations could arrive to
create a monoculture. In some parts of town, it already is the dominant
culture. A guy who made a fortune in the dot-com boom and moved to the
Mission District (the partly Latino, formerly blue-collar eye of the housing
hurricane) got locals' attention recently with a blog post titled
"Douchebags Like You are Ruining San Francisco." In it, he described the
churlish and sometimes predatory behavior of the very young and very wealthy
toward the elderly, the poor, and the nonwhite.
He wrote, "You're on MUNI [the city bus system] and watch a 20-something guy
reluctantly give up his seat to an elderly woman and then say loudly to his
friends, 'I don't know why old people ride MUNI. If I were old I'd just take
Uber.'" Yeah, I had to look it up, too: Uber.com, a limousine taxi service
you access via a smartphone app. A friend of mine overheard a young techie
in line to buy coffee say to someone on his phone that he was working on an
app that would be "like Food Not Bombs, to distribute food, only for
profit." Saying you're going to be like a group dedicated to free food, only
for profit, is about as deranged as saying you're going to be like Gandhi,
only with guns.
"An influx of techies will mean more patrons for the arts," trilled an
article at the Silicon Valley news site Pando, but as of yet those notable
patrons have not made an appearance. As a local alternative weekly reported,
"The tech world in general is notoriously uncharitable:
According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, only four of 2011's 50 most
generous U.S. donors worked in tech, despite the fact that 13 of Forbes 50
Richest Americans in 2012 had made some or all of their fortunes in tech."
Medici in their machinations, they are not Medici-style patrons. There is no
noticeable trickle-down in the Bay Area, no significant benevolence toward
the needy or good causes or culture from the new tech fortunes.
Instead, we get San Francisco newcomer, Facebook CEO, and billionaire Mark
Zuckerberg pursuing his own interest with ruthless disregard for life on
Earth. This year, Zuckerberg formed a politically active nonprofit, FWD.us,
that sought to influence the immigration debate to make it easier for
Silicon Valley corporations to import tech workers. There has been no
ideology involved, only expediency, in how FWD.us pursued its ends. It
decided to put its massive financial clout to work giving politicians
whatever they wanted in hopes that this would lead to an advantageous quid
pro quo arrangement. Toward that end, the group began running ads in favor
of the Keystone XL pipeline (that will bring particularly carbon-dirty tar
sands from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast) to support a Republican senator
and other ads in favor of drilling in Alaska's pristine Arctic National
Wildlife Refuge to support an Alaskan Democrat.
The takeaway message seemed to be that nothing is off limits in pursuing
self-interest, and that the actual meaning and consequences of these
climate-impacting projects was not of concern at least to that 29-year-old
who's also the 25th richest person in the United States. (To give credit
where it's due: Silicon Valley billionaire Elon Musk, Paypal cofounder and
electric car mogul, quit FWD.us.) Zuckerberg and his Valley associates were
pushing things they didn't care about and demonstrating that they didn't
care about much except what makes their corporations run and their profits
rise. Here, where the Sierra Club was founded in 1892 and many are
environmentally minded, this didn't go over well. Protests ensued at
Facebook headquarters and on Facebook itself.
Rising hostility to the tech surge in San Francisco is met with fury and
bewilderment by many Silicon Valley employees. They tend to sound like
Bush-era strategists dumbfounded that the Iraqis didn't welcome their
invasion with flowers.
Here's something else you should know about Silicon Valley: according to
Mother Jones, 89% of the founding teams of these companies are all male; 82%
are all white (the other 18% Asian/Pacific Islander); and women there make
49 cents to the male dollar. Silicon Valley female powerhouses like Facebook
CEO Sheryl Sandberg get a lot of attention because they're unusual, black
swans in a lake full of white swans. As Catherine Bracy, on whose research
Mother Jones based its charts, put it, "The current research I've seen shows
that wealth creation from the tech industry is extremely unequally
distributed, and current venture capital is going overwhelmingly to a small,
homogeneous elite." That's what's encroaching on San Francisco.
The Pando article chastises us this way: "San Francisco can become a world
capital. First it needs to get over itself." But maybe we don't want to be
a world capital or more like New York and Tokyo. The logic of more-is-better
seems unassailable to San Francisco's detractors, but inside their more is a
lot of less: less diversity, less affordability, less culture, less
continuity, less community, less equitable distribution of wealth. What's
called wealth in these calculations is for the few; for the many, it's
The Armada of the .0001%
If Google represents the global menace of Silicon Valley, and Zuckerberg
represents its amorality, then Oracle CEO Larry Ellison might best represent
its crassness. The fifth richest man in the world, he spent hundreds of
millions of dollars to win the America's Cup yacht race a few years back.
The winner gets to choose the next venue for the race and the type of boat
to be used. So for this summer's races, Ellison chose San Francisco Bay and
a giant catamaran that appears to be exceptionally unstable. Last month, an
Olympic-medal-winning sailor drowned when a boat he was training on capsized
in San Francisco Bay, pinning him under its sail.
Part of Ellison's strategy for winning again evidently involves making the
boats so expensive that almost no one can compete. A race that once had
seven to 15 competitors now has four, and one may drop out. Business Insider
headlined a piece, "Larry Ellison Has Completely Screwed Up The America's
Cup." It went on to say, "Each team, with the exception of New Zealand's, is
backed by an individual billionaire, and each has spent between $65 million
and $100 million so far." In typical Silicon Valley-fashion, Ellison also
figured out how to stick San Francisco for a significant part of the tab and
in the process even caused the eviction of a few dozen small businesses,
though in the end the city did not give him a valuable stretch of waterfront
Here's what San Francisco is now: a front row seat on the most powerful
corporations on Earth and the people who run them. So we know what you may
not yet: they are not your friends and their vision is not your vision, but
your data is their data, and your communications are in their hands, and
they seem to be rising to become an arm of or a part-owner of the government
or a law unto themselves, and no one has yet figured out what we can do