One salvo in the fight against driverless cars

by on February 1, 2014 at 12:20 am in Current Affairs, Philosophy, Political Science, Web/Tech | Permalink

The group that stalked Anthony Levandowski, an engineer at Google X, the company’s clandestine research laboratory, calls itself the Counterforce, after a Thomas Pynchon novel. About a dozen members, all dressed in black, gathered outside the Berkeley house where Mr. Levandowski lives with his partner and two young children.

They unfurled a banner and handed out fliers detailing the engineer’s work on Google’s driverless car technology, Street View and Google Maps. The flier read: “Anthony Levandowski is building an unconscionable world of surveillance, control and automation. He is also your neighbor.”

This is still just a small and fragmented movement, as the article makes clear.  I predict it will vanish, but I wouldn’t have predicted its existence in the first place.

1 na February 1, 2014 at 12:31 am

The protest was more about gentrification in SF, and is basically among the same group of people that have been protesting tech company commuter buses. The stuff about surveillance or automation is just random thrashing that they included because it sounds creepy. They’re mainly upset about the high rent in SF and are blaming the people who can afford to pay it (tech employees) rather than insane city policies about new construction and rent control.

2 lambdaphage February 1, 2014 at 1:13 am

Of course, if you claim to speak for the marginalized and dispossessed, naming yourself after a conceit from a Pynchon novel is kind of an own-goal.

3 Peter Gerdes February 1, 2014 at 1:30 am

Ahh, isn’t the bay area great!

Here, instead of flashing your fancy car or platinum card you gain status by flashing your faux concern for the marginalized and dispossessed in the most educationally elite way possible. Also you gain bonus points if you can make the bizarre food restrictions you impose on yourself (raw foodism no GMOs etc..) to oneup the mere vegetarians sound like they are really driven by a concern about sustainability and/or the ability of the poor to have quality good.

If I didn’t know better I would swear that there is some cash prize in the bay area for justifying the most elitist possible thing. How else do you explain the fact that people seriously pose their choice to eat pricy organic food while protesting GMO food and factory farming as being motivated by your concern for the less fortunate….the very people your view ensures won’t be able to buy fresh fruits and vegetables.

So yah that’s just par for the course here.

4 fwiw February 1, 2014 at 10:57 am


5 Sigivald February 3, 2014 at 5:41 pm

Wait, didn’t Counterforce have all those bikes with rocket launchers in the 80s?

No, wait…

(Hell, I’ve read Gravity’s Rainbow twice and I forgot “Counterforce”, primarily because IIRC from the text that’s more of an informal name; it’s more of a description than anything else.

And they’re Trying Way Too Hard by taking that name.)

6 Charles February 1, 2014 at 12:53 am

. . . just a few well-intentioned Byron the Bulbs, fighting against The Grid.

7 Peter Gerdes February 1, 2014 at 1:21 am

Unfortunately it won’t vanish for quite some time.

Right now there are a bunch of people living in the bay area who are both strongly opposed to development (both to protect their exclusivity and to signal they are anti-corporation and keenly sensitive to the harms that market based development can bring). They also don’t earn as much as high tech workers and other top end jobs but because many high earning families moved out to walnut creek and other outlying suburbs they were able to continue to afford housing in an undeveloped SF/berkeley/etc..

This is obviously untenable in the long run. Eventually, economic forces were going to either ensure that the scarce resource of housing in the bay area was going to be allocated to those with the greater resources or that tall apartment buildings would be constructed to increase the supply. However, those people who are being forced to either accept the value of large apartment buildings or move out of the desirable real estate are only going to get more bitter and more vocal until they are either forced out or more apartments are built.

8 Axa February 1, 2014 at 2:53 am

So, the problem is just low income people being outpriced of aspirational real state?

9 david February 1, 2014 at 3:46 am

middle income, really. these are the children of the earlier yuppies, who themselves were fought by previous residents.

also the upsetting of previous political bargains when an area changes. it is really hard for the confrontational style of SF activists to get any traction on tech companies. they could disrupt banks and legal firms in their downtown offices but all these dang engineers have elaborate campuses and preexisting alliances with national leftwing cultural groups, so they are reduced to trying to intimidate individual staff.

10 Axa February 1, 2014 at 8:44 am

I get Tyler’s title now. If middle income people is complaining today, as automation advances (driverless cars and such) they will have even less income to compete for housing.

But, what I still don’t get is why gentrification as a bad thing. For property owners gentrification means more revenue. If cheap rent is really a public service for low and middle income people, perhaps a fraction of rent payments could be tax deductible. Saying simply no to gentrification reduces property owners rights.

So, a question arises, what’s the value of a “community” displaced by gentrification? What is lost?

11 david February 1, 2014 at 9:58 am

It’s not really about the ‘value’, it’s that SF politics has historically involved activists using disruption and passive-aggression to advance their causes. This kind of political confrontation is deeply ingrained and mythologized as the essence of political engagement in SF. But the tech companies are basically immune to this kind of attack because their storefront can’t be picketed and their facilities are hard to sabotage.

12 CD February 1, 2014 at 10:55 am

Have you ever lived in a community?

13 Careless February 1, 2014 at 12:34 pm

There are rules!

14 Dan Weber February 1, 2014 at 9:39 am

The fact that they complain about about the tech company workers taking a bus to work shows how far off the rails they are.

Land policy in SF is totally nuts. The economy of the city demands near-Manhattan levels of density but various local stupidity keeps it from growing to even a fraction of that.

15 david February 1, 2014 at 10:04 am

Money quote:

Annie Gaus, a Fillmore resident, said she favored the new regulations but thought the fee should be higher to penalize the shuttles for illegally using Muni stops for years and for benefiting from public infrastructure.

“These companies are filthy rich,” she said, “and we need to squeeze them for what they’re worth.”

But doing so is surprisingly hard!

16 Keith February 1, 2014 at 10:25 am

Huge chunks of the city are becoming as dense as Manhattan which is troubling to the people in these protests.

17 Rahul February 1, 2014 at 5:22 am

One thing tech companies forgot to learn is how to respond to being hated. Google etc. love to advertise their presence (colorfully) on their campus, buses, real estate, backpacks, tee shirts etc. That was ok during their cute early days. As they grow, it’s hard to stay cute (reminds me of Knut the polar bear). Rubbing your elite presence into the faces of the plebes eventually breeds resentment.

They could learn a lesson or two now from the likes of Monsanto, Exxon, Dow etc. about blending in, keeping facilities low profile, avoiding unnecessary publicity, exuberance etc.

18 david February 1, 2014 at 6:06 am

That doesn’t work. Activists will continue to hound and harm your staff – a low profile just encourages them; ask the animal testing labs. Neighbourhoods who did not know that your facilities were there, will be upset when the activists then follow – they will blame you rather than the activists. The solution is to back groups that will loudly support you, not try to hide, because you can’t.

19 Rahul February 1, 2014 at 6:53 am

Dunno. Do animal test labs loudly & brightly announce their facilities?

20 david February 1, 2014 at 9:14 am

they didn’t, and that didn’t spare them any trouble. Pro-Test is what finally broke the power of animal rights activists in the UK

21 Jacob February 2, 2014 at 2:14 am

The Google shuttles are way more low-key than other corporate buses in the area – no external markings at all, just a plain white bus. Genentech, on the other hand, has “Genenbuses” with the name plastered all over it. Yahoo too if memory serves. Google ends up being the poster child because they were first, but they’re actually pretty downbeat about it.

22 jerseycityjoan February 1, 2014 at 6:32 am

Based on what I see in the New York City area, the building of new residential towers will not make housing affordable for the middle class again.

The new places just cost too much. When not held down by rent regulations, the price for the older housing is going up too. Neighborhoods that used to be just considered ghettos and unthinkable places for whites to rent or buy in are becoming gentrified.

It is both amazing and very sad. Downtown Jersey City will have three residential towers of around 65 stories or more. There’s lots of office buildings in midtown and downtown New York that aren’t that tall. The developers claim they will be smaller in size to be “more affordable.” Ha-Ha.

23 jerseycityjoan February 1, 2014 at 6:38 am

The sentence “It is both amazing and very sad.” should have been the last sentence in Paragraph 2 about gentrification, although it also applies to what’s going on in Jersey City.

I cannot imagine how galling it must be for blacks to be forced out of their marginalized and often ignored neighborhoods with the lousy schools, and to see hipsters and moneyed people from overseas come running in to take their place.

24 JWatts February 3, 2014 at 11:08 am

“to see hipsters and moneyed people from overseas come running in to take their place.”

Damn immigrants! 😉

25 Steve Sailer February 1, 2014 at 2:17 am

San Francisco is a nice place, except for the San Franciscans.

26 david February 1, 2014 at 3:38 am

It’s too bad the incumbents are so good at locking out outsiders, eh?

27 libertarianinchina February 1, 2014 at 7:40 am

David, that was the best Steve Sailor put-down ever.

28 Jason Barnes February 1, 2014 at 9:49 am


29 Rahul February 1, 2014 at 3:46 pm


30 The Anti-Gnostic February 1, 2014 at 7:23 pm

Liberals: watch what they do, not what they say.

31 Rahul February 1, 2014 at 4:52 am

One nagging aspect this re-emphasizes is how vulnerable we all are getting. If all the information that can be collated about us (even lawfully ) was publicly displayed on a billboard next to our house, how many wouldn’t be uncomfortable or embarrassed (devastated?) about it?

Either we accept a brave life with absolutely nothing to hide & willing to have everything about us exposed. The alternative requires countermeasures, subterfuge, secrecy & paranoia that’s almost impossible to comprehend.

32 Dan Weber February 1, 2014 at 9:45 am

If all of us had that information on billboards? We’d get over it pretty quick.

33 Rahul February 1, 2014 at 10:11 am

Yes there’s that.

34 Ivo February 1, 2014 at 6:32 am

Hoe is GoogleX ‘clandestine’?

35 Dave from Boston February 1, 2014 at 6:44 am


With all due respect, your wrong, these kinds of protests are not going to disappear.

A large minority in this and other western countries are extremely uncomfortable with how technology is destroying our privacy.

We’re all human and fallible, we all make mistakes and make bad decisions. In the past most of our human shortcomings would be hidden from the view of others. Now, even our very thoughts (via your browsing activity and metadata) can be easily detailedand used against you.

Some say this is ok, if you not doing anything wrong you have nothing to hide. I say bullsh!t, we all, call it what you like, sin, on a daily basis.

Combine this with a complete lack of tolerance in our society and what have you got? Its not a pretty picture.

36 y81 February 1, 2014 at 7:49 am

I don’t know why anyone thinks this sort of activism will disappear. The Tom Perkinses of the world have fostered a brand of nasty, vituperative left-wing activism, thinking it would always be directed at the yahoos in flyover country. Now it has turned on them. It’s like the Trotskyists expecting Stalin to disappear.

37 Max Factor February 1, 2014 at 12:23 pm

Agreed. People aren’t going to accept the beantopia quietly. There is so much knowledge in the elite financial and techno classes but a stunning lack of wisdom.

38 Your Majesty February 1, 2014 at 9:07 am

Google should punch back twice as hard: hire a mob to protest at the home of the organizer of this mess.

39 Mark Thorson February 1, 2014 at 11:09 am

No, that would destroy their “do no evil” public image. Far better to pour money into ALEC to promote laws restricting protest and hire lobbiests to push government into enforcing those laws. Make the cops do the dirty work, while keeping your own hands clean.

40 Careless February 2, 2014 at 7:35 pm

Google giving money to ALEC wouldn’t destroy their “do no evil” public image? With the people that’s aimed at?

41 Mark Thorson February 3, 2014 at 9:23 am

Only a few people have ever heard of ALEC or know that Google is a big donor to ALEC, so no, that doesn’t ruin Google’s image.

42 Turkey Vulture February 1, 2014 at 10:09 am

If the government were behind Street View a lot more people would be worried. Or if there were no Street View and it leaked out that there is a secret NSA program that sends vans along every street in the country taking many pictures of every viewable inch.

43 Rahul February 1, 2014 at 11:09 am

There was a recent EconoTalk interview where Bruce Schnier made the same point. People don’t worry enough about the power of consolidated information in the hands of private companies. With the attention focused on the Government’s surveillance the natural progression is for the Govt. to get it’s dirty work done indirectly via private firms.

Should there be a legal limit on how much information a private firm might collect, store & data mine?

44 mel February 1, 2014 at 11:18 am

but … but … the 1st amendment is sacrosanct

45 Stormy Dragon February 1, 2014 at 12:45 pm

People don’t worry enough about the power of consolidated information in the hands of private companies

Because we’re not afraid that the Walmart SWAT team is going to bust into our house in the middle of the night and drag us off to their prison camp, or that the Amazon drone is going to launch a missile at our wedding.

46 Turkey Vulture February 1, 2014 at 2:13 pm

But a private company can collect a lot of information that is then easily seized and used by the government.

I think the difference you identify is a relevant one, and I’ve made the same argument for why we’re okay with private companies doing stuff we wouldn’t want the government to do. But there isn’t an unbreakable wall between private companies and the State. Most of what the NSA is doing is piggybacking on private data collection.

47 Turkey Vulture February 1, 2014 at 2:15 pm

Yeah, I think the government letting private companies do its dirty work is the problem here. If we generally expect private companies to be more competent than the government, then it’s even more worrisome that the government is able to outsource data collection and then just come in and take the end result whenever it wants.

I don’t know what the solution is. But this is one more reason I worry about consolidated power, regardless of whether it’s in the public or private sphere.

48 Rahul February 1, 2014 at 2:35 pm

Even more interestingly there doesn’t have to be an element of coercion about it even. The Government may not have to “force” a private firm to do some dirty work for it.

It might be a quid pro quo. It is indeed a pretty unholy alliance. And I don’t see anything in the current legal framework that restricts either actor (govt. nor firm) from entering into voluntary arrangements of this sort.

49 Sigivald February 3, 2014 at 6:03 pm

Should there be a legal limit on how much information a private firm might collect, store & data mine?


(Assuming that the collection itself involves only public or personal-voluntary sources, rather than digital breaking-and-entering, theft, or deceit.)

But as down-thread discussion suggests, there might well be a case for a legal limit on what the State can acquire (by any means) from those private entities.

What the limits should be, and how you could structure them is its own rabbit-hole of a topic, of course.

50 Paul Rene Nichols February 1, 2014 at 11:53 am

I have to assume that many of these protesters are organizing their efforts through Gmail and Facebook, using Apple and Android phones.

51 Mercer February 1, 2014 at 12:42 pm

“forced to either accept the value of large apartment buildings””

Why not also more apartments in San Jose? How much effort do tech companies put into increasing density in Santa Clara County? It should be cheaper then spending money transporting workers over eighty miles every day.

52 Mark Thorson February 1, 2014 at 12:52 pm

There has been a lot of construction in Silicon Valley, but some people want to live in SF for the restaurants, night life, etc. The summers are cool and the winters are mild. I woke up this morning to a frigid 30 degrees here, west of San Jose. In SF, it was 44 degrees. I’d like to have that weather.

53 Jacob February 2, 2014 at 2:17 am

Not going to lie, it was pretty gorgeous today.

54 Stormy Dragon February 1, 2014 at 12:42 pm

an unconscionable world of surveillance, control and automation

You mean like having political activists publicizing where you live so that anonymous mobs can threaten you for not obeying their political agenda?

55 ac February 1, 2014 at 4:03 pm

“This is still just a small and fragmented movement, as the article makes clear. I predict it will vanish, but I wouldn’t have predicted its existence in the first place.”

It’s almost like you’ve never read any cyber/bio-punk book, ever. Which I know is untrue…

People are afraid of change, and the future. That which causes change is terrifying; I don’t see why this is surprising, or even slightly ahistorical.

56 JWatts February 3, 2014 at 11:15 am

More to the point, people are angry about rich yuppies driving the average rent in the area up.

57 Moishe Pipik February 3, 2014 at 11:48 am

Why anyone would live in the totalitarian dystopia of Berkeley when he works in Mountain View is a big mystery. He needs to move down the peninsula and live in peace.

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