A Tale of Zero Cities

The protesters standing in front of Google buses in San Francisco have a point. Rents are rising, and they blame the influx of tech workers for this. The dedicated private buses that whisk them off to their Bay Area companies are a potent symbol of the divide between different kinds of worker. I salute these direct action tactics. But I wonder what could come next.

The Google bus and the tech workers on it seem more like a symptom that a cause to me. I don’t see how pitting different kinds of workers against each other is the solution to anything, even if one kind seems somehow more ‘privileged’. I think its time to take a step back and look at a wider pattern of social development.

The Bay Area is booming. It is home to what are probably mature tech companies such as Apple and Google, but also to a host of smaller firms. Its probably the only region in America that is growing thanks to an industry that actually makes things, as oppose to the real estate and tourism driven growth of Miami or the finance sector growth in New York.

Growth means an influx of workers, and all things being equal, this will drive up the rent. This is particularly so in San Francisco, and partly for geographic reasons. San Francisco is more or less bound by water on three sides. The only way for it to grow is up.

But local political actors have been effective in limiting the physical growth of San Francisco. If tearing down some piece of it and building on a bigger scale is off the table, then the influx of immigrants can only push up the rents.

This would seem like a golden opportunity to develop some other part of the Bay Area. There’s enough new workers coming in to support a quite massive development of a new urban hub. But that would take regional planning, particularly of infrastructure like transport. The Bay Area has been quite allergic to that level of planning intervention. As in much of America, its hard to get public support for high density development which is really the only kind that can support extensive public transport solutions.

In the absence of expanding real estate supply in San Francisco, or the development of a new urban hub elsewhere in the Bay Area, the pressure falls on San Francisco rents. No wonder people are pissed about the Google buses. They seem an obvious symbol of all that’s going wrong with San Francisco.

This overlaps with another kind of tension, between tech and culture. People whose work was in the old culture industries – for which San Francisco is an historic center – are seeing their life chances diminish. Their work is being casualized. This development now clearly includes higher education workers as well.

It is easy to make tech the villain in this story. Those Google engineers are boarding the bus to go work on the very stuff that seems to be making everyone else’s work precarious.

Talk to people on the inside of the bus, and the picture is not so rosy in that world either. It is true that people who work for the big tech companies are usually pretty well rewarded for it. Those who work for the newer start-ups may not enjoy all the apparent perks of the tech workers from the big companies, but are hoping their firm will become the next Google and make them rich in the process. One’s life chances seem a lot better if one codes rather an writes or teaches.

But if the cultural industry workers suffer from under-employment, the problem in the tech sector is over-employment. The reason those buses have wifi is that you are supposed to start work on the bus, before you even get to work. The reason your company might offer free food, a library, a games room and a laundry service is that you are supposed to be working pretty much all the time.

One of the charges against the tech workers is that they are not involved in the San Francisco community. But its in the nature of tech sector over-employment that there’s really no time for any of that. The tech industry eats brains. It eats them whole. It wants the playful and ethical impulses of those brains as well as their mere work-a-day instrumental functions.

So while it may be a fair generalization that tech workers are the more ‘privileged’ strata here, it is not as if their life is utopia. And making the workers themselves the bad guys lets the companies they work for off the hook. If there’s a piece of the picture that is missing here, it’s the question of what the responsibilities of the major tech companies should be to the urban environment from which they want to draw their intellectual labor.

Its not a question here of trying to insist that Apple or Google behave as moral corporate citizens, and go back to their think different don’t be evil slogans of the past. These are now Fortune 500 companies, answerable to stock holders and Wall street analysts, not to mention to their fiduciary duty to make money each quarter above all else. So its not a question of whether such companies should try to do some ‘good.’ It’s a question of making them accountable to the urban environment.

What might do this is a social movement. But it has to be a broader movement than picketing Google buses. It has to be one which targets the companies, and makes them accountable, rather than harassing their workers.

Like most big companies, the tech sector has gotten into a lazy way of thinking about government. It is there to be ignored or to be bought off. The tech sector in particular has shown little patience for working on a regional solution to the Bay Area’s urban problems. But that is what is most needed now. It’s the companies that need to be held to account for this, not their employees. Tech workers, even if better paid than some of those who protest against them, are no more in control of their own labor process than most other workers.

So this is not a tale of two cities, of culture versus tech. It’s a tale of zero cities, of a lack of investment of political capital in building an urban infrastructure for all of the Bay Area’s peoples.

Solutions to such problems make nobody particularly happy.

If workers want to keep rents down and improve public transport, then urban density has to rise. There has to be new construction. The morphology of the city has to change.

If companies want to keep benefiting from an urban infrastructure which feeds, houses, transports and entertains its workers, then they have to roll up their sleeves and get involved in the always-murky business of urban politics.

If residents want the results of that involvement to benefit everyone, then there has to be an urban political force which includes tech workers rather than alienating them. If tech workers want to feel a part of a city rather than mere consumers of it, then they have to make the time to be involved in it.

Rather than target the buses, for example, one could raise the question of why certain ‘classes’ of worker, at Google, for example, are not entitled to ride on them at all. If the buses are to use public transit bus-stops, then besides paying to use this public utility, maybe they should be obliged to pick up all workers, rather than just a select few.

There are not many parts of America where there are actual, growing industries that actually make something. So not surprisingly, the ruling class in most parts of the country has very narrow ambitions for cities. It is an era of disinvestment in pretty much anything but the police. The exception, ironically, is trying to copy the Bay Area and get into tech. The Bay Area has the problems a lot of other cities wish they could have.

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McKenzie Wark

McKenzie Wark

  • shmoo

    why does it all seem so obvious to a carpet bagger?

  • Carolina Franco

    you just can’t have your cake and eat it. Your brain-cake, that is.

    • mckenziewark

      Let them eat brain-cake! ;=)