Some San Franciscans define themselves by what they oppose. In recent years, these no-it-alls have waged mini-jihads against junk food, chain stores, anti-nudity laws, and the America’s Cup races. This spring they found a new focus for their outrage: the Google (GOOG) bus. Since 2007 the company has been using big, Wi-Fi-equipped, white-and-black coaches to collect employees around the Bay Area and bring them to the Mountain View Googleplex, 45 minutes south of the city. In early May there was a public protest against them at a Mission District transit stop. More than 20 cops were on hand—roughly a 1:1 ratio with protesters. The high point? Two slackers smashing a Google bus piñata.
The event followed recent screeds by journalists and social critics determined to cast the Google bus as a symbol of everything that’s wrong with the high-tech economy. These are not just buses, but “yachts on wheels,” a form of “invasive species.” As for the passengers, Sven Eberlein, writing on liberal blog Daily Kos, described them as oblivious, “headset-clad twentysomethings staring into their gadgets.” Rebecca Solnit, in the London Review of Books, called the buses “spaceships on which our alien overlords have landed to rule over us.” Economic booms have victims, Solnit reminds us. That rents and home prices in the San Francisco area have risen dramatically—notably near where the Google bus and similar private coaches pick up employees—isn’t troubling enough. She points out that other booms in California’s history, such as the Gold Rush, led to massacres of native populations. Google declined to comment on the bus service; whether its employees have any genocidal inclinations is unclear.
Riders don’t understand all the fuss. One Google employee acknowledges that it’s nicer than taking the city bus, but points out that by using transportation provided by his employer, he’s expected to work during his commute. Tough life for an alien overlord.
Overlooked in these diatribes are the thousands of cars the coaches keep off the highways at rush hour. Or the approximately 5,000 metric tons of carbon not put into the atmosphere. In their eagerness to inveigh against evil corporations, Google bus haters also like to complain, as Eberlein does, that wealthy tech companies “invest nothing in any kind of public infrastructure to support civic life beyond their own corporate interests.” Yet last year, Google was ranked the No. 1 corporation in charitable contributions in the Bay Area, doling out $23 million to regional causes. Is it worth mentioning that Google wants to make all human knowledge available to everyone on the planet? No, it’s too much fun being outraged. Let’s make another piñata to flail at.