Around 7AM on January 21st, 2014, a small group of protesters gathered in the driveway of an understated $1 million four bedroom family home in Berkeley and unfurled a hand-painted banner that read "GOOGLE’S FUTURE STOPS HERE."
The house belonged to Anthony Levandowski, a Google engineer best known for leading the self-driving car project. The protesters claim Levandowski left his house on a previous day wearing Google Glass, carrying a baby and a tablet, but only paying attention to the tablet. Today, however, Levandowski did not emerge. The protesters passed out a two-page flyer to Levandowski’s neighbors and loitered. After about 45 minutes, they left to go block the path of a private Google shuttle bus.
"People like Levandowski are gentrifying neighborhoods, flooding the market with noxious commodities, and creating the infrastructure for an unimaginable totalitarianism," the flyer said. It encouraged people to block buses, steal from the techies they babysit for, and take down surveillance cameras.
The flyer is signed, "the Counterforce."
The Counterforce objects to the tech industry altogether
The rent has long been high in San Francisco. Aggressive land-use policies restrict the amount of new housing that gets built, while greedy landlords have started evicting long-time tenants on flimsy pretenses in order to shake off rent control. But in recent months, rapidly rising prices have stoked resentment toward tech workers who are seen as gentrifiers.
Some activists have zeroed in on the private company shuttles that stop at city bus stops but only pick up their own employees. Others are shaming developers and landlords, attempting to pressure them into letting tenants stay.
The Counterforce is more ambitious. Named after a resistance group in the Thomas Pynchon novel Gravity’s Rainbow, the group objects to the tech industry altogether. "We want to destroy the capitalist system, create a new world without an economy, and push back against the alienating technologies that are coming to dominate the cultural and physical landscape," a representative tells The Verge in an email.
It’s easy to criticize the tech sector for things like its lust for personal data, zealous belief in its vision for the world, and enthusiasm for throwing insane amounts of money after inane levels of convenience. There’s also the timely argument that the internet has led to the surveillance state under the National Security Agency. There is even a case to be made, despite its overwhelmingly popularity, that the internet itself is bad (see Pynchon’s most recent book, or the active debate in the Orthodox Jewish community). What if we were to give up the productivity gains of the Industrial Revolution and stick with musical instruments, printing presses, and windmills, as the Counterforce suggests? What if we were no longer obsessed by the desire to, as one of Pynchon’s anarchists put it, "Draw ever more complex patterns on the blank sheet"?
The Counterforce wants to start that debate. But despite the sexy name, it’s not the group to argue for it.
"Sorry about the rent stuff."
Four protesters visited the San Francisco home of Kevin Rose, founder of Digg, former Silicon Valley poster boy, and now a partner at Google Ventures, at around 10:00AM on Sunday, April 6th. Rose’s wife Darya came to the door, where they handed her a flyer and started chanting, "Your bubble’s about to bust, your Google belongs to us" and "demanding interface" with her husband. Shaken, she shut the door and called Rose, who was down the street building a skate ramp for a nonprofit organization.
Compared to the rhetoric, the actual confrontation was mild. A representative for the Counterforce sent a short video from the encounter to The Verge for publication, adding that, "We think the video would add something to the conversation, as it makes it all very human, mundane, and awkward."
The video shows a girl who looks to be in her 20s and features the voices of another young-sounding woman and two men. They accuse Rose, who is sitting on a garden wall on the sidewalk, of driving rents up by funding startups through Google Ventures.
"Sorry about the rent stuff," he says. "It’s mostly landlords though, right?"
"No, it’s people like you," one of the girls says. "You’re creating five jobs for some guys who are sitting around in a rompus room [sic], you know, doing yoga," a man’s voice says. "And then we’re serving you guys coffee."
"You’re creating five jobs for some guys who are sitting around in a ... room, you know, doing yoga."
Rose tries to score a few points by noting that the group is filming video that they plan to post on YouTube using an Android phone, both owned by Google. (The Counterforce says it is not hypocrisy to use free technology. "Our group is diverse and we spend our lives mostly offline," they say in an email. "Some of us use smartphones more than others. Nearly all of us agree that technology and information are addictive for various reasons.") The video ends anticlimactically after the group confronts Rose with a joke he made in 2008 on a podcast about stabbing women in the chest with scissors.
Afterward, the Counterforce released a statement demanding that Google donate $3 billion to build anarchist colonies around Northern California where people could live for free, thereby solving the housing crisis. Meanwhile, another group or groups using the name the Counterforce have claimed responsibility for blocking shuttles that transport Amazon workers in Seattle.
Andrew Leonard wrote in Salon that the Counterforce was taking the San Francisco protests to a "new, absurd and potentially dangerous level." "What is wrong with these people?" echoed Leo Laporte, the host of the popular tech podcast This Week in Tech, who interviewed Rose after his encounter. "This is so ridiculous!" tweeted Gary Shapiro, the head of the Consumer Electronics Association. "Tech being vilified in San Francisco again."
"I find it ethically questionable, singling out individual people," says Enrico Moretti, a professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley and the author of a book that estimates that every new tech job creates five additional jobs outside the tech sector. "I don’t think it’s representative of how people feel about this. That said, I think it’s working."
The more obnoxious tactics do seem to be getting attention. In December, Max Bell Alper, a union organizer, pretended to be a Google employee yelling at protesters. He was initially condemned by other organizers, but some changed their minds after the video went viral. Protesters have continued to block buses on their way to work, but they most often grab headlines when there’s a twist. In Oakland, one group slashed a Google bus’ tires and threw a rock through its window, while another protester vomited on the windshield of a Yahoo shuttle.
On Friday, a third Google employee was personally targeted by another protest led by a group called Eviction-Free San Francisco. Jack Halprin, an attorney at Google, attracted a small crowd of protesters to his home angry about his attempt to evict seven tenants, possibly so he can occupy the entire building himself.
"I don’t think it’s representative of how people feel about this. That said, I think it’s working."
"I would draw the line around, if anybody was to get hurt," Erin McElroy of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, who was at the Halprin protest, says when asked which protest methods cross the line. "I’m not opposed to pointing out certain higher-ups for what they’re doing by any means. I think that is effective." Companies have started to respond to the unrest; Google made a donation to provide free public transportation for low-income youth.
A growing class gap exists in San Francisco and, as with the Occupy Wall Street movement, the have-nots have found a target. The more extreme protests reflect a growing dissatisfaction that is reinforced every time the disenfranchised see a tech shuttle make its daily rounds or read about school teachers and disabled children being given a 90-day notice to leave their homes. The Counterforce is definitely a fringe element. The question is whether it could be an indication of what’s to come if the class gap persists or gets worse. The group is confident it is at the precipice of a complete anarcho-primitivist rebellion against the technocracy.
"Get ready for a revolution neither you nor we can control, a revolution that will spread to all of the poor, exploited, and degraded members of this new tech society and be directed towards you for your bad decisions and irresponsible activities," the group wrote in an open letter to Google. "We advise you to take us seriously."