In the Bay Area and across the country, Google’s private buses have become the proxy for important conversations about affordable housing, public transportation, and income inequality.
And whether we like it or not, the tech community has become the face of a city where so many workers cannot afford to live where they work.
It’s important that here in San Francisco we have hard conversations about the city’s future, and at the same time are careful not to demonize the people who ride the Google buses (and Facebook buses and Apple buses and Genentech buses); they are the young engineers and future entrepreneurs who are going to be best equipped to fix our problems. Right now, I fear we are turning them into the enemy.
As workers without high-tech skills are forced out of the job market, and traditional manufacturing jobs continue to evaporate, the entire country will need to confront the hard realities that San Francisco faces right now. And there is no one I would prefer to be leading us as we attack these issues than the type of engineers who invented the internet, came up with the algorithms that bring you search, learned how to 3D-print human organs, and created a single product that’s used by more than 500 million people worldwide to connect with each other.
Many of these entrepreneurs and engineers began their careers at large tech companies and went on build important products and tools. Roy Gilbert, for example, left Google to run Grockit, an online collaborative educational tool to help students prepare for standardized exams. Or Jack Dorsey, who left Twitter to build Square, a tool that enables small businesses across the country to process credit cards at far lower costs than the traditional services. Or Sebastian Thrun, who left the top-secret Google X project (where he built self-driving cars) to start the online education service Udacity. And of course we cannot forget the individuals who left Apple to make movies that have entertained millions at Pixar.
Here’s the thing: Entrepreneurs like these are the most optimistic group of people I’ve ever met. They believe that by creating, distributing, and sharing, they can make the world a better place. I think they can too. We have just seen the beginning of the promise of technology: its power to connect the world, harness information, and empower individuals still exists beyond what many of us can comprehend.
But when we lay the blame on Google buses, we take young engineers and future entrepreneurs and hold them responsible. We, as a society, make them “others” and not “us.” We teach them that they are the problem, instead of the solution.
This is not to let the tech community off the hook. Tech workers need to plug in and get involved with local politics and community efforts. They should volunteer their time and expertise to improve where they live, and join groups like sf.citi. They should organize and join hackathons that solve local problems. They should invest in the community’s interests, like public schools.
At a company level, more businesses should join Google and Linkedin to offer their employees paid time to volunteer, and they should encourage those employees to use that time locally.
In San Francisco, there’s talk of doubling the size of subsidized housing, legalizing currently illegal in-law units, improving light rail service, and making much-needed improvement to local municipal public transportation. Some of these ideas are better than others. But if we’re going to achieve anything, we need to get off the Google bus and start talking about the kind of solutions that will really fix the serious problems our city–and the nation–faces.
Julie Samuels is the Executive Director of Engine, a research foundation and advocacy organization for tech entrepreneurs. Previously she was a Senior Staff Attorney and the Mark Cuban Chair to Eliminate Stupid Patents at EFF. Before becoming a lawyer, Julie was an assistant editor at the National Journal Group in D.C.