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Google Glass, Techno-Rage and the Battle For San Francisco's Soul

The advent of Google Glass has started an incendiary new chapter in tech's culture wars. Here's what's at stake.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Joe Seer / Shutterstock

 

In San Francisco, the tech culture wars continue to rage. On April 15, Google opened up purchases of its Google Glass headgear to the general public for 24 hours. The sale was marked by  mockery, theft and the continuing fallout from an incident a few days earlier, when a Business Insider reporter covering an anti-eviction protest had his  Glass snatched and smashed.

That same day, protesters organized by San Francisco’s most powerful union  marched to Twitter’s headquarters — a major San Francisco gentrification battleground — and presented the company with a symbolic tax bill, designed to recoup the “millions” that some San Franciscans believe the city squandered by bribing Twitter with a huge tax break to stay in the city.

We learned two things on April 15. First, Google isn’t about to give up on its plans to make Glass the second coming of the iPhone, even if it’s clear that a significant number of people consider Google Glass to be a despicable symbol of the surveillance society and a pricey calling card of the techno-elite. Second, judging by the march on Twitter, the tide of anti-tech protest sentiment has yet to crest in the San Francisco Bay Area. The two points turn out to be inseparable. Scratch an anti-tech protester and you are unlikely to find a fan of Google Glass.

What’s it all mean? Earlier this week, after I promoted an article on Twitter  that attempted to explore reasons for anti-Glass hatred, I received a one-word tweet in response: “ Neoluddism.

The Luddites of the early 19th century are famous for smashing weaving machinery in a fruitless attempt to resist the reshaping of society and the economy by the Industrial Revolution. They took their name from  Ned Ludd, a possibly apocryphal character who is said to have smashed two  stocking frames in a fit of rage — thus inspiring a rebellion. While I can’t be certain, I suspect that my correspondent was deploying the term in the sense most familiar to pop culture — the Luddite as barbarian goon, futilely standing against the relentless march of progress.

But the story isn’t quite that simple.Yes, the Luddite movement may have been smashed by the forces of the state and the newly ascendant industrialist bourgeoisie. Yes, the Luddites may never have had the remotest chance of maintaining their pre-industrial way of life in the face of the steam engine. But there is a version of history in which the Luddites were far from unthinking goons. Instead, they were acute critics of their changing times, grasping the first glimpse of the increasingly potent ways in which capital was learning to exploit labor. In this view, the Luddites were actually the  avante garde for the formation of working-class consciousness, and paved the way for the rise of organized labor and trade unions. It’s no accident that Ned Ludd hailed from Nottingham, right up against Sherwood Forest.

Economic inequality and technologically induced dislocation? Ned Ludd,  that infamous wrecker of weaving machinery, would recognize a clear echo of his own time in present-day San Francisco. But there’s more to see here than just the challenge of a new technological revolution. Just as the Luddites, despite their failure, spurred the creation of worker-class consciousness, the current Bay Area tech protests have had a pronounced political effect. While the tactics range from savvy, well-organized protest marches to juvenile acts of violence, the impact is clear. The attention of political leaders and the media has been engaged. Everyone is paying attention.

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If you live in San Francisco, you may have seen them around town: Decals on bar windows that state  “Google Glass is barred on these premises.” They are the work of an outfit called StopTheCyborgs.org, a group of scientists and engineers who have articulated a critique of Google Glass that steers cagily away from the half-baked nonsense of Counterforce.

 
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