On Google Buses, Gentrification, and Sustainability

This protest is a flashpoint that indicating a major tension between social justice and environmental sustainability.

A week ago, protesters appeared outside the home of Anthony Levandowski; a Google engineer who has been a prominent figure in their self-driving car project. The protesters’ manifesto, which mentions issues ranging from the NSA and the Military-Industrial complex to gentrification, is clear on the protesters’ radical goals: “All of Google’s employees should be prevented from getting to work. All surveillance infrastructure should be destroyed. No luxury condos should be built. No one should be displaced”. After picketing Levandowski’s house for a while, they moved on to briefly blockade a bus full of commuting Google employees.

These protesters might be amateurish (The Examiner was unable to find any media contacts) and unreasonable, but we shouldn’t dismiss them out of hand: there are a lot of substantive issues on which we can criticize Google. In particular, the protesters bring up an interesting and very difficult point when they discuss gentrification, which has been a major local controversy in the Bay Area, exacerbated by the presence of Google and other high-tech firms nearby. These local clashes in San Francisco are, I think, a microcosm of a much larger relationship between sustainability, technological change, and gentrification that I don’t think is receiving nearly the critical attention it deserves. I’m going to try and briefly outline that tension in this post.

The blockade of the Google Bus that took place a week ago was not the first protest against the cushy, wi-fi equipped buses that tech companies use to shuttle workers between their suburban campuses and downtown. Frankly, I think we should be amazed and encouraged that such a thing exists. The fact that there is a large class of middle-class workers in a major American city that have been persuaded to commute into the suburbs by bus implies that there might be some hope for a more sustainable transportation future. In that sense, it’s rather unfortunate that such a development is meeting with opposition from the left, who should be supporting more sustainable transportation.

On the other hand, however, the protesters have a point. The buses have been driven in a highly inconsiderate manner: idling at public bus stops, blocking in city buses. Obviously this has to change: no private company has any right to disrupt public transport infrastructure for its own convenience. But surely it’s possible to curb these abuses without throwing the sustainable transportation baby out with the bathwater. Indeed, the city has introduced legislation to do just that. But judging from the manifesto linked above, the grievances about the buses go far beyond traffic snarls and link up to bigger concerns about the gentrification of downtown neighbourhoods by wealthy tech employees.

The problem with this line of argument is that it ignores the fact that the present distribution of people between cities and suburbs is the product of, and dependent on, an unsustainable and unjust transportation system based around the ownership of private cars. This system, if allowed to continue, will eventually contribute to massive global environmental destruction and human suffering. Some evidence suggests that it is already doing so. While the ideal of the suburbs existed before the invention of the car, it was private cars that first allowed its large-scale realisation for the middle class. The resulting flight of the privileged away from downtowns has been a major force in the shaping of urban spaces which continued to be inhabited by underprivileged and oppressed classes that the fleeing suburbanites left behind.

Cars are therefore closely wedded to the spatial fabric of every city in the developed world; not just in terms of layout and infrastructure, but also in terms of the human makeup of both urban and communities. And here we run into a problem. Because if we reduce our dependence on cars (as we should), then that spatial fabric is going to change again. And that is going to mean that people get displaced. To put it more bluntly: If we want to wean ourselves off our current horrendously unsustainable transportation sysem, then we are going to have to accept some level of gentrification.

Please don’t mistake me for thinking this is a good thing. Gentrification sucks. I’m too privileged to really understand what it means to be pushed out by gentrification, but a little bit of reading makes it clear that it is a process which causes a great deal of suffering. While that suffering should give us pause, however, it is not sufficient reason for us to abandon the project of re-densifying our urban environments. Road transportation accounts for a full 10% of global carbon emissions, and I don’t think that the farmer in Bangladesh who faces having her land flooded by the ocean will be very sympathetic when we tell her that we wanted to reduce our contribution to climate change, but we were uncomfortable with rich people moving back into cities.

The solution to this tension, I think, lies in an explicit recognition of the disruption that will go along with a transition to more sustainable economic and technological systems. If we recognize this, then we can take action, preferably led by inner-city residents, to cushion the blow. Hopefully then we can re-densify human environments while avoiding haphazard and destructive gentrification. I can’t  offer much in the way of policy suggestions to solve this tension, as I am neither a member of a marginalized urban community nor an urban planner. Undoubtedly such people are already doing much better work on the problem than I could.

But if you look at the bigger picture, it’s important to recognize this as an example of a major trap for progressives when it comes to issues of sustainability. Transitioning to a sustainable economy will  mean massive disruptions to the social, technological, economic, and political status quo, these disruptions will inconvenience people, not all of whom will be oil magantes. It is regrettable but inevitable that some marginalized communities will be caught up in the changes that we need to make. We need to listen to these people and act on their requests, but we also can’t block a transition to sustainability on their account alone. Otherwise we risk letting local injustices take precedence over global ones.


Some Thoughts on Automation and the Future of Labour

In my last post, I alluded to some problematic implications that Amazon PrimeAir might have for workers and the economy. I didn’t have time to give the matter full consideration then, but I think these issues are going to become extremely important in the coming decades, so they deserve a post of their own. My thesis is that while PrimeAir and other automation schemes might appear threatening, they can actually be highly beneficial if we are willing to make dramatic changes in our economic values.

These experiments with driverless trucks could herald big changes to how our economy works.

To illustrate this, I’m going to consider the case self-driving cars, which have a much better shot at widespread commercialization than drone delivery. Google’s self-driving car has an impressive record, and Volvo has just released a huge test fleet of the vehicles onto the roads of Sweden. More and more governmental bodies are legalizing the testing of autonomous vehicles, and a recent study predicts that self-driving cars will overtake manually driven cars by 2050.

This is all a little bit exciting. Self-driving cars are, after all, something that we have been promised in science fiction for decades. But one thing that I don’t think is being adequately considered is the fact that if you can have a self-driving car, then you can have a self-driving truck. The aforementioned study predicts that a self-driving car will cost as little as $3000 more than its manually-driven counterpart by the time such cars become commonplace-a cost that pales in comparison with paying a driver. Self-driving trucks will also be able to make faster deliveries and reduce costs by driving without rest, and may well save trucking firms on insurance payments. Some of the first motor vehicles on the roads were commercial vehicles, and we could see a similar pattern with self-driving vehicles.

You can probably see the problem here. Truckers make up a pretty big chunk of the blue-collar workforce. There are 3.5 million of them in the United States alone. Self-driving vehicle technology, when combined with other forms of automated logistics, will put many of these people out of work. While some vehicles and some roads will probably continue to need human drivers into the foreseeable future, it seems likely that there are going to be a lot fewer jobs available for professional drivers in the second half of the twenty-first century.

This seems pretty scary on first glance, but I think there might be some reason for optimism. The fear of losing jobs is based on an economic ideology originating in the industrial revolution that made jobs essential for well-being. For the last few centuries we have needed people to work to produce essential services, and so we created an economy and a set of economic values that required people to contribute materially to society in order to have access to its material products of that society. The thing is that this set of values becomes completely obsolete in a society where we can rely on robots to provide most of our basic goods and services. In such a society, we will no longer need to make paid labour a prerequisite for material comfort.

Of course, transitioning to such a society will be easier said than done. Labour unions will probably fight to block automation, while those who own the robots will likely fight to keep any of their profits from going to support the workers they have replaced. It’s difficult to predict how these battles will go, but I I don’t think either one of these groups is likely to completely achieve their goals. Labour unions fighting against automation might win a few victories, but automation only has to win out in one area or sector to provide a niche from which it will expand. Displaced workers, meanwhile, will be both numerous and (justifably) angry, and will have to be placated somehow.

One possible outcome would be the imposition of a guaranteed minimum income. This would in effect alter the economic social contract from “You must contribute your labour to the society that helps you survive”, to “You have an absolute right to a share of the products of society”. There would still be jobs, as not every task can be automated and some people would (fortunately) prefer to work, but such people would have to be very well-paid in order to persuade them to give up eight hours of every day. Meanwhile, people without jobs would be free to pursue political action, volunteerism, parenting, or art without worrying about finding a way to monetize these activities. It could also be good for business and innovation, by making it far less personally risk for inventors and entrepreneurs to start companies.

If this sounds utopian, it’s because we don’t yet know what kinds of problems will arise in a society with a guaranteed income. And, of course, my speculation above could be totally wrong and automation could facilitate a whole different set of social changes. The outcome I described above is only one of a number of possibilities. But even if the struggle over automation turns out differently than I have predicted, I think that there’s a wider point to be made here about the relationship between technology, ideology, and culture. Our ideologies and our technological systems are interdependent. Our current set of economic values focus on the moral and economic value of hard work. But such values were crafted at a time when hard work was absolutely necessary. Different systems generate different values. Greek philosophers, for example (who generally had slaves), disparaged any manual work. If we recognize that such values are not absolute, then we can start to seriously consider what it might mean if new technology has made them obsolete..