Thursday, January 09, 2014

Let Them Ride Ferries!

As the legend goes, at a time when France was in the midst of a famine, Queen Marie Antoinette continued to spend lavishly on her extravagant lifestyle. When somebody pointed out that she was doing this while the peasants had no bread, she deadpanned, "No bread? Let them eat cake!" ("Qu'ils mangent de la brioche!")

While Old Marie A likely never really said those words, the phrase has come to represent pompous, pampered, out-of-touch aristocracy, who have no concern for the poor, not so much out of evil, but out of willful ignorance. An aristocracy that is so isolated from the problems of the average person that they imagine what they'd do if they ran out of plain bread; simply switch to brioche.

Let's jump forward a couple hundred years and change the location to the San Francisco Bay Area. Specifically, Highway 101 between San Francisco and Mountain View, where a little kingdom called "Google" has its headquarters.

For years now, Google, along with other tech giants like Apple, etc., have provided their employees (or "Googlers," yes, really) with luxury coach buses that pick them up from various locations and bring them to work without having to deal with traffic, etc.

Quite a nice perk, and one that could be said to be an environmentally sound policy of getting private cars off the road (without making their employees use, iiiiccck!, public transportation). I'm fine with that. Personally, I prefer to be cut off by one or two massive gray buses than have to deal with fifty separate Tesla's darting in and out of traffic.

The problem that many of us have had is not with the buses themselves, but what they have come to represent.

That the Valley of Heart's Delight has been re-christened Silicon Valley brought many advantages and great wealth to this region. But it has not been all-inclusive, and those left-behind have fallen further below the economic divide. We have a greater division of wealth here than in most other regions, and are divided into the privileged tech few, and the invisible poor who serve them.

And it's the invisibility of the poor that the buses represent.

The tech crew moves from their home enclaves to private buses where their commute is protected from sharing a seat with "ordinary" people. The buses deposit them at massive campuses where their meals are provided in wonderfully equipped and staffed cafes. Then they are brought home again in the private buses.

Meanwhile, poverty in Silicon Valley is very real, and very hidden.

It's not all Google's fault! Really. I like Google. I use gmail. I use YouTube. This blog is hosted by Google's Blogspot But over-all, the major tech companies have been unable to successfully address whether or not they have any responsibility as corporate citizens to do anything about the poverty their employees get to ignore.

In the last few weeks, however, the media has finally taken notice of this. Not because the media finally cares about the homeless sleeping along the banks of the Guadalupe River in San Jose. No. Because middle-class, non-tech yuppies in San Francisco got tired of rising rents and decided to protest.

The SF group noticed that the tech buses were picking up their passengers at public bus stops, where if anybody else were to stop, they'd get a ticket. This became the focus of the protests. Long-story-short, the city reached a deal with the companies to pay for their use of public bus stops.

This "solution" is supposed to result in a truce. It doesn't do anything about gentrification in San Francisco, or homelessness all along the Peninsula, or income disparity, or anything else really, but it brings in some civic revenue, so everybody's happy. Right? ... Right?

And now, Google has done one better. Completely missing the original point of the recent SF protests, or the years of resentment building around their Mountain View Googleplex, Google has announced they will provide free ferry service to their employees, saying in a statement to the press, "We certainly don't want to cause any inconvenience to SF residents and we're trying alternative ways to get Googlers to work."

For years advocates for the poor have talked about the buses being a symbol for the isolation and divide between the tech community and the rest of the Valley around them. So now, they are further removing and isolating their "Googlers" by letting them commute on the Bay, where they don't even have to notice an older model Chevrolet breaking down by the side of the road.

In Silicon Valley, Google was told that the peasants have no bread. And Google's answer was to move the brioche onto a ferry.

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