Not until nearly three decades into my life could I begin living as my complete self. My journey out of those early years from shame into pride and defiance evolved the way people often come into our own, through movements for social change.
Posted on Aug 03, 2015
Are we being divided into the apps and the apps not? Recently a friend lent me her car, and not being up on which sides of which streets to park it, got a ticket, $68. Stuck under the ticket on the window was also a card saying “Stop Don’t Pay This Ticket” with a box checked, “Sign not up to code.” Hey, how thoughtful of SFMTA to notice and include this with the ticket. Turning the card over reveals that not paying involves downloading an app from iPhone App store or from Google Play. They will fight it for you plus a charge of 35% if successful, or if not a $1.95 convenience charge. I don’t have a smart phone so this is not an option. Now as an non-app San Franciscan I know if you get a ticket, pay it or have your day in court—decisions rarely go in your favor. Increasing costs for parking meters, often only minutes for lots of quarters, are used by folks who depend on cars. Since rising rents have forced many to move outside the city, more people with jobs in the city must commute in their cars. Yet, all the tech companies provide their techies, now in apartments too expensive for us forced-outs, with free transportation on huge buses to and fro their work place in Silicon Valley. I began to notice how many apps separate us. Starbucks just announced it will give app coupons for customers using Lyft cars. If you want a ride you must have an app. Most of us ride the crowded city buses. We don’t app Taskrabbit to deliver food or run our errand or app Uber for rides. This new economy is often even called, the on-demand economy. We foster a culture of instant gratification; I want what I want and I want it now; I have the app and the money to pay for it.
The tech industry speaks of a commitment to build a sharing economy. Tech companies are given huge tax breaks in exchange for the promise to locate in your city along with their theoretical sharing. By 2011, San Francisco tax breaks for tech company totaled $14.1 million. The city will lose millions in revenue over the years as taxes on stock options from IPO sales are exempt. As of March, 2014, tech companies had taken over more than 2 million square feet of office space in the central area of the city. Venture Capitalists (VC’s) spring forth with bags of money to drop on any techie who purports to create a new indispensable app. Rather than being forced to depend on the largess of the tech industry, San Francisco (and other cities) could have required the many tech companies to pay their taxes like everyone else. San Francisco is the birth place of the so-called sharing economy and home to two of the largest world-wide companies, Uber and Airbnb. Both prowl around the world to expand, but are not always greeted as they were in San Francisco. In Paris, France, thousands of taxi drivers protested Uber’s entry into the streets, and two of its executives were questioned by police about operating illegally. Uber now locates in 58 countries.
In San Francisco, Twitter has an entire building right near Uber’s that offers “sharing” an apartment in their residential tower for $5,500 a month, and a gourmet market in the lobby in which to share a $130 piece of pure, acorn-fed Iberian pig, or a $6 ice cream. That cone can be ordered via an app and delivered right to your door in the sharing economy by Postmates or TaskRabbit drivers. Talk to some of those drivers about their perception of a sharing economy. Most have to monitor several company apps, work anytime they are called, race against traffic and time to deliver items quickly enough to hope for a tip. Often many drivers barely break even on covering expenses.
Uber claims to provide customers with an alternate way of avoiding public transportation or taxi cabs. Unlike Uber and its drivers, taxi cab companies require certain safety requirements, are legally regulated, and drivers who have thorough training and background checks. Cab drivers are also required to transport anyone who calls them or flags them down. This is especially relevant to people with disabilities, in fact there are specific cabs designed for wheel chair accessibility and transporting. Uber rarely mad accommodations for people with disabilities until recently when forced to do so. Uber also had been tracking and retaining data on any customer signed up even if they are not riding in a car.
Uber convinces its under-paid drivers on the notion that lots of money will come their way leaving time to pursue other interests in life. But, drivers tell of 60-hour weeks, while they pay for all expenses incurred and are often told that Uber prefers drivers with newer SUVs. Uber calls workers, who must provide their own cars, “partners” to evoke pride at being part of the sharing economy. Partner is their word for independent contractor, a label allowing these multi-billion dollar corporations to avoid giving healthcare, overtime pay, contributing to social security, pensions, or workman’s disability compensation. It’s your responsibility as an independent contractor. You are not independent when Uber controls and enforces certain conditions. If you were an employee, the company would pay a share of your cost. You would get benefits, maybe even paid vacations, if you had a union. Uber’s worth just hit $50 billion. Drivers are standing up to Uber and fighting to be classified as employees with protection and benefits.
The internet and much that sprang forth promised innovations and opportunities. Social media opened a way for activists to communicate and organize, though we must remain vigilant in protecting true net neutrality. Silicon Valley tech creations may disrupt human existence by affecting how we live. And, that requires us to analyze consequences as this technology creeps into every aspect of our lives; education, food, housing, medicine, media, our form of representative government.
Our governments, local and federal, are fodder for Silicon solicitors. Google’s Larry Page believes “There’s many, many exciting and important things you could do that you just can’t do because they’re illegal or they’re not allowed by regulation.” Under the guise of making it easier for you to shop, Google focuses it’s mobile search to favored websites which dictate where you shop and eat. With millions to spend, tech giants can and do influence elections. Silicon Valley gave more money to presidential and congressional candidates in the last election than all top corporate contributors combined. Sean Parker of Napster pours money into right-wing Republicans and organizations like Restore Transportation Balance which wants to divert funds from public transportation and bike access. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook, spends his millions for TV ads to support bringing engineers into the country rather than hiring and training students here. Google opened an office in Washington. D.C. as large as the White House to direct millions in lobbying, for among others, Exxon Mobil. Early on, Zuckerberg supported the Keystone XL pipeline! Ron Conway, VC, gave hundreds of thousands to get Ed Lee elected mayor of San Francisco. Lee than gave millions in tax breaks to many of the tech companies that Conway invested in, Twitter, Airbnb and others. Bill Gates works with Monsanto to promote GMO crops in Africa. In 2010 he bought 500,000 shares in the company. Tech companies now can use the Citizens United Supreme Court case to buy greater influence using unlimited contributions.
The City of San Francisco, ground zero of tech industry, initiated entrepreneur.sfgov.org. Mayor Ed Lee boasts, “San Francisco is home to the world’s greatest entrepreneurs, the ones who have ‘disrupted’ numerous industries, and we are bringing those same disruptive technologies to improve delivery of City services for our residents. The Entrepreneurship-in-Residence program brings together government and startups to explore ways we can use technology to make government more accountable, efficient and responsive.”
Entrepreneur.sfgov.org promotes technology in the public sector, currently pairing 6 tech companies with 6 city departments, and has direct access to staff expertise in order to capitalize on the public-sector market. The city is given nothing in return, not even a free app. Access includes the Dept. of Public Health, the International Airport, the Police Dept., and the transportation agency, SFMTA. Tech sector disrupting the government processes.
Does the word “disrupted” bother you? In the tech industry, it is defined accordingly, “a disruptive technology is one that displaces an established technology with a ground-breaking product that creates a completely new industry.” Notice the words product and new industry, both emphasize financial, not necessarily beneficial ones for our whole society. Email disrupted letter-writing, disrupted the postal services, and, coherent writing. Texting disrupted email, Amazon disrupted small bookstores ,and with their own delivery service, disrupted the US Postal Service. Cell phones disrupted the telephone land line system that serves mostly low-income people, with mandated TTY/TDD services for people with hearing and/or sight issues. Uber disrupted cab services in cities all over the world. In New York City, Uber disrupted the city’s cabs now outnumbering them with 25,000 Ubers. Netflex disrupted films in movie theaters.
Amazon began with selling books, disrupting local bookstores, now it expands into home improvement, watches, computers, cameras, clothing, wedding registries, even its own private label of foods. It maintains huge warehouse distribution centers to quickly put together orders sending them out in Amazon trucks—perhaps drones in the future—disrupting UPS union paying jobs. For $99 a year, Amazon Prime will deliver anything immediately to your door, including in one instance a lemon wrapped in lots of non-recyclable packaging.
Facebook digs deeper into your privacy. In 2011, Facebook rolled out a face recognition component allowing anyone to post a picture of you. If it resembled you, anyone could flag it for friends to link with your identity. Initially, without warning users, this was tested without a way to opt out.
With facial recognition technology, anyone can find out everything about your life. In this age of data mining, imagine your face linked to one that is not yours. Police departments in New York City and Baltimore use social media, like Facebook and Twitter, to target youth, especially youth of color. The program is called, Operation Crew, named after youth who began posting under Crew to express anger at ongoing murders of people of color by cops. Youth are pulled in, arrested and often charged with conspiracy to commit violence requiring high bails, which they cannot pay. The San Francisco Police have a “Instagram officer” tracking youth who may display behavior deemed worthy of arrest. In 2013, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) gave Amazon a $600 million contract to provide cloud-computing services. What’s that about?
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has made several investigations into the privacy policies of Facebook. Facebook also took part in a study—without users consent— to determine how targeted news could affect the user’s emotions. A study conducted by University of California and Cornell, claim that emotional states can be transferred to others and experienced without their awareness. Facebook now delivers targeted political ads to your face page.
Do we want to give up this much control over our lives? Become a society created by Zuckerbergs, with a few white men controlling all the wealth, and training youth to believe they too are just one step away from an IPO, and may join the few at the top?
There is almost zero percentage of people of color in all of Silicon Valley tech corporations. Google’s overall workforce is 3% Latino and 2% Black; all women counted together fare better at 17%, though few are in leadership. Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Apple mostly check in at less than 10% of overall Black or Latino employees. Google displays ads for high-paying jobs for men more than women. An ad for a $200,000 plus executive job showed up 1,852 times for men and 318 for women. Women in the industry make an average of $16,000 less than men. Ellen Pao was run out of Reddit for instituting an anti-harassment policy and was subjected to a barrage of racist and sexist attacks. The tech industry makes a practice of hiring folks like themselves, white, male, young. The owner of Dirty Water, a new high-end restaurant in San Francisco’s Tech Corridor, revealed the truth of it justifying his aim to please, “People naturally want to migrate together, especially people of the same ilk.”
Facebook recently faced an angry group, #MyName Is, for its real name policy enforcement blocking many or locking out users for using what Facebook called “fake names.” Protesters, including drag queens, Native Americans, domestic violence survivors, and supporters picketed Facebook headquarters. Facebook did slightly modify the policy, but still relies on other users to flag a name that sounds fake to them. If that is done, the flagged user must change the name and submit legal ID to Facebook. Those using another name do so in order to protect themselves, as in a domestic abuse case, or from harassment by cyberbullies.
Disruption in Our Schools?
The San Francisco Unified School District recently created a partnership between Silicon Valley VC, Ron Conway, local libertarians, and the Chamber of Commerce called “Circle the Schools”. In exchange for tech employees volunteering in schools, donations of computers, or high-tech chalk boards, students participate in focus groups—market research for future apps. This amounts to data mining children for profit. Think of the term public-private partnerships as an oxymoron. The goal of any large corporation is to make ultra amounts of money for their themselves and provide big bonuses for their CEOs. Protecting public education is part of preserving the Commons, not private corporate interest over public needs.
Those outside the sharing economy find they are often evicted from apartments by landlords who can double or triple rents. Evictions in San Francisco rose 175% in one year. The thousands of techies who have moved into the city can afford these extreme rents, an average one-bedroom apartment in a desirable area $4,000 or more a month. Many beginning in the tech sector in San Francisco start at $100,000 or more. Some report getting bonuses that average $9,323 a year. The city’s richest households increased as middle and low-income family housing decreased. The city’s Mission District, predominately Latino, has lost over 8,000 families. This housing crisis is not only in San Francisco; it happens in New York City, Stockholm, London, Berlin, as tech giants Apple, Microsoft, Uber, Airbnb, stalk cities around the globe for territory.
Do They Really Mean Sharing Economy?
With the amount of wealth in Silicon Valley, in this country as a whole, we could provide a decent life for everyone. Of course, this means the top 1% must actually share. Former CEO, Michael Farrell, of real estate investment trust Annaly Farrell has an annual salary of $3 million, a 2013 bonus over $29 million. Could he share? Ian Cumming, CEO of Leucadia National Corporation, got a bonus of $27.5 million. Could he share? Leslie Moonves, CEO of CBS, a bonus of $27.5million. These are only the top 3 from Forbes Magazine, 2013. Their bonuses and salaries go up each year. As Thomas Piketty of the Paris School of Economics says, “The system is pretty much out of control in many ways.”
This incredible amount of money and ingenuity could be directed for positive developments to enhance our lives and done in sustainable ways that do not threaten the environment. Hunger is a serious human problem to eliminate, but not through Microsoft with Monsanto’s GMO seeds and crops. Lyft car driver, Jibril Jaha, wanted to communicate with persons riding with him who had hearing issues. Jibril developed an app, I See What You Say, that allows a deaf person with a smart watch to pair with a smartphone wearer. When spoken directly into the smartphone, I See What You Say will display it as text on the screen of the smart watch. Motivated to find a solution for people with sight impairment, Shubham Banerjee, a 13-year-old inventor, created a braille printer using Legos.
The technology of the 3-D printer brought thousands of children less expensive prosthetic replacements for their injured hands. This miracle is done by online volunteers at E-nable, all with kid-friendly designs. Hailey Dawson using one of these inventions threw out the ball to open an Orioles-A’s game in Baltimore this summer. Hailey, five years of age, did so with a now functional hand. These inventions come first from a desire to meet a need for others, and hopefully more young people will come to see this satisfaction as more fulfilling than a life in search of an IPO.
There are other ways to actually share resources. Gravity Payments’, CEO shook and shocked tech industry when he decided to cut his own pay and profits to raise the company’s workers to the minimum wage of $70,000. Many companies previously owned by one person or a few partners are becoming worker-controlled cooperatives. The Moog synthesizer factory of Asheville, N.C. recently was sold to its employees by the owner. The employees stock ownership plan was set up as a trust at no cost to them. The U.S. now has at least 7,000 such plans of ownership.
Dave Eggers’s book, The Circle, available at your local public library, is a prescient tale of the possible path tech entrepreneurs and VC’s can use to reshape our society into their technologicalized image. In this book Eggers presents a fictional google-like internet company, the Circle, in a not-so-impossible future and an alternate view of Silicon Valley. Phrases used by the characters bare an eerie similarity to those of Google, Microsoft, Facebook, et all—“Change the World”, “Sharing is Caring” and “Circle the Schools.” The National Security Agency would salivate over the software developed by the characters, young, naïve, and impressed with their superiors called the “Wise Men” who control them and the company. The software, TruYou, is an efficient end to anonymity, tracks all movements of consumers online with simplicity and stores that information in one data base controlled by the Circle. Every person’s online interaction accomplished with just one button, one account. The goal of the Circle controllers is summed up in their slogans created to make you feel guilty if you do not share your every interaction, even wearing 24/7 body cameras—“ Privacy Is Theft” “ Sharing Is Caring”, “Secrets Are Lies.”
You are either in the circle of you are suspiciously out of it
Next blog: Don’t be Fooled by the Libertarians!