Jack Halprin. Kevin Rose. Greg Gopman. Peter Shih.
These names all have one thing in common. Protesters in San Francisco have picked them out personally, blaming them for the gentrification that is driving non-tech workers into less desirable neighborhoods.
They are all tech execs.
On Friday, Jack Halprin, a lawyer for Google, discovered a bunch of people waving banners outside an apartment building he owns, claiming he had evicted six tenants from the building under the Ellis Act, which allows landlords to kick people out if they want to sell or renovate the building.
Dozens of activists invaded his neighbourhood [photos].
The week before, protesters showed up outside the house of Digg founder Kevin Rose, singling him out as “a meta-leech funding and profiting off the gentrification of San Francisco, [so] we chose to bring the class war to his doorstep on our own terms.”
AngelHack CEO Greg Gopman was forced to apologise on Facebook after he called homeless people in the city “trash.”
Prior to that, posters went up around San Francisco demanding that Peter Shih, founder of payments app Celery, leave the city because of comments he made on Medium criticising the poor and unattractive people who live there.
The protestors on any given day are few in number. Many San Franciscans may sympathize with them, but they are by no means a mass movement. They are a minority.
However, as strategists for getting attention, they are geniuses.
If you’re a prominent — or even not-so-prominent — tech exec in San Francisco, it’s a nightmare.
Who will the anarchists come for next?
The new trend in anti-tech activism has moved on from vague accusations about tech workers making life harder for the working poor of San Francisco. Now, it’s personal.
It is your Google bus that is to blame. (That’s why protesters smashed the windows of this commuter shuttle.) It is your Yahoo bus that is to blame. (That’s why one activist vomited on the vehicle.) It is yourposts on Medium, the super-trendy blogging platform, that create a toxic environment for your neighbours. (That’s where those public apologies come from.)
That is the justification for this new wave of vitriol against individually named tech executives.
It makes traditional class war look palatable by comparison. Back in the old days, protestors marched against nameless enemies: the “bosses,” the “politicians,” the “plutocrats,” the “ruling class.” But the post-1999 digital revolution has taught everyone that “personally identifiable information” has value, and not just as a target for advertisers seeking an audience. Now, activists are using PII against the same tech entrepreneurs who previously regarded hyper-local targeting as merely a smart business strategy.
Of course, we’re painting with a broad brush here.
Using anonymous, hashed ID data in aggregate to target someone with a banner ad is not the same as standing outside their house accusing them (falsely) of advocating sexual assault, as happened to Kevin Rose recently.
But there is something to be learned about the limits to success here. The narrative in tech, generally, at this time is mostly Randian: The talented rise to the top. The Devil takes the hindmost. Everyone else deserves their lot as a punishment for lacking ambition.
The counter-lesson from the protestors is that tech turns out to be value- and ethics-neutral. Tech is neither conservative nor leftist. It can be used to leverage the information of the poor into aggregate data that has “value-add” for clients and social media apps. And it can then be used to track down rich people who think everyone loves them in order to stage an angry demonstration against teachers being kicked out of their rented apartments.
The central irony of this battle against technocracy in San Francisco can be found as a footnote on the official statement of the anarchists who protested outside Digg founder Rose’s house last week: “The following devices and programs were used in this action: Microsoft Word (for Mac), MacBook, Samsung Nexus (powered by Google), Gmail, YouTube, Electrical Socket.”
On its face, that sounds like hypocrisy. The anti-tech people are using tech to make their protests!
But this isn’t Luddite-ism. It’s class war. And you don’t need to read much Karl Marx to know that in class war, the workers turn the means of production against their owners. Everything that capitalism makes can be used against capitalists, too.
Which seems to be what’s happening right now in San Francisco.
Below: A Google commuter bus is blocked by protestors.
Below, protestors on the steps of a property owned by Google lawyer Jack Halprin.