Source: London Review of Books
The young woman at the blockade was worried about the banner the Oaklanders brought, she told me, because she and her co-organisers had tried to be careful about messaging. But the words FUCK OFF GOOGLE in giant letters on a purple sheet held up in front of a blockaded Google bus gladdened the hearts of other San Franciscans. That morning – it was Tuesday, 21 January – about fifty locals were also holding up a Facebook bus: a gleaming luxury coach transporting Facebook employees down the peninsula to Silicon Valley. A tall young black man held one corner of the banner; he was wearing a Ulysses T-shirt, as if analogue itself had come to protest against digital. The Brass Liberation Orchestra played Eurythmics’ ‘Sweet Dreams’ as the television cameras rolled.
The white buses took up most of the four lanes of Eighth Street at Market, and their passengers were barely visible behind the tinted windows, scowling or texting or looking at their laptops for the half-hour they were delayed by the blockade. GET OFF THE BUS! JOIN US, another banner said, and the official-looking signs from the 9 December blockade were put up at either end of the Facebook bus: WARNING: INCOME GAP AHEAD the one at the front said. STOP DISPLACEMENT NOW, read the one at the back. One protester shook a sign on a stick in front of the Google bus; a young Google employee decided to dance with it, as though we were all at the same party.
We weren’t. One of the curious things about the crisis in San Francisco – precipitated by a huge influx of well-paid tech workers driving up housing costs and causing evictions, gentrification and cultural change – is that they seem unable to understand why many locals don’t love them. They’re convinced that they are members of the tribe. Their confusion may issue from Silicon Valley’s own favourite stories about itself. These days in TED talks and tech-world conversation, commerce is described as art and as revolution and huge corporations are portrayed as agents of the counterculture.
That may actually have been the case, briefly, in the popular tech Genesis story according to which Apple emerged from a garage somewhere at the south end of the San Francisco Peninsula, not yet known as Silicon Valley. But Google set itself up with the help of a $4.5 million dollar government subsidy, and Apple became a giant corporation that begat multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns and overseas sweatshops and the rest that you already know. Facebook, Google, eBay and Yahoo (though not Apple) belong to the conservative anti-environmental political action committee Alec (the American Legislative Exchange Council).
The story Silicon Valley less often tells about itself has to do with dollar signs and weapons systems. The industry came out of military contracting, and its alliance with the Pentagon has never ended. The valley’s first major firm, Hewlett-Packard, was a military contractor. One of its co-founders, David Packard, was an undersecretary of defence in the Nixon administration; his signal contribution as a civil servant was a paper about overriding the laws preventing the imposition of martial law. Many defence contractors have flourished in Silicon Valley in the decades since: weapons contractors United Technologies and Lockheed Martin, as well as sundry makers of drone, satellite and spying equipment and military robotics. Silicon Valley made technology for the military, and the military sponsored research that benefited Silicon Valley. The first supercomputer, made by New York’s Remington Rand, was for nuclear weapons research at the Bay Area’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.