(art by Kill Joy)
No matter how we approach it, we can all see the way the future is shaping up. We are forced to admit it will be shaped by better bandwidth and higher processing speeds. Our phones now speak back; the cars have begun to drive themselves. Tech appears to be the next frontier, ready to shape the future, for better or for worse.
It seems almost inevitable that what happens next will be largely determined by breakthroughs in automation, artificial intelligence, and social media. Given the social impact of the internet on politics, economics, and culture in these first few years of its existence, this isn’t unreasonable. But the sense that tech moguls and software engineers are heralding the world of tomorrow is the result of a concerted ideological project, one that happens to benefit some of the wealthiest men on the planet.
While the dreams of Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs pervade our minds, working people in Silicon Valley are going without sleep, their own dreams of stability and flourishing cut short as their labor and impoverishment facilitate tech moguls’ fantasies. Fighting for land and freedom in the Silicon Valley has required a struggle not only on the level of power and economics, but imagination as well.
As we think through the construction and dismantling of tech-funded imaginations about what the future is to hold, we would do well to remember that ideas about the natural direction of human progress, and humanity’s inevitable next steps, have proven quite liable to change.
During the height of the Space Race in the 1960s, visionaries imagined a fittingly Space Age future. Contemporary magazines and television programs showed consumers the robotic kitchens, flying cars, and space colonies they were to see within their lifetimes. In 1968, Pan American Airlines began processing tens of thousands of reservations for the first commercial trip to the moon, estimated to occur around the year 2000.
These predictions seem absurd from today’s perspective, but at the time they weren’t limited to comic books and science fiction conventions. David Graeber remembers this time as one in which “all the authoritative voices who told us what the universe was like and why the sky was blue, who explained the periodic table of elements, also assured us that the future was indeed going to involve colonies on other planets, robots, matter transformation devices, and a world much closer to Star Trek than to our own.” (1)
These predictions of the future ended up being spectacularly wrong, but wrong for significant reasons. At the time they were popularized, they were fundamentally aligned with the interests of powerful organizations who supported them—specifically, the United States government.
In May 1961, President Kennedy announced the quest to put an American on the moon. The preceding month featured two noteworthy events: first, the Soviet Union’s successful placement of the first person in outer space; and secondly, the humiliating failed US invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. In a widely publicized address before Congress, Kennedy announced a heroic national mission, one that also deflected attention away from apparent US military and technological weaknesses. It didn’t hurt that this national mission would also spur the virtually indistinguishable field of intercontinental ballistic missile development. As Apollo 8 astronaut George Low said, “After all, the Apollo program was just a battle in the Cold War.” (2) A Jetson’s future and a missile crisis reality were two sides of the same coin.
With the end of the Cold War, technologies such as GPS, originally designed to help submarines launch nuclear weapons, found new life in consumer applications. Since the biggest advancements since then have not been in aerospace but rather information technology, the 1950’s predictions of the world of today now look rather quaint. Power has now shifted to tech firms, which have become some of the richest companies ever to exist.
Now, it’s Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who imagine the future. But while Raytheon preferred that we talk about spaceships instead of the city-obliterating weapons they actually made, today’s big tech companies promote their financial interest in a more explicit way, if couched in the language of “being connected” and “sharing.” The trick is that if this is repeated enough, by enough different voices, it becomes commonsensical to expect that a better connected, more (privately) profitable tomorrow is the only thing that could come next. At that point, anyone inhibiting such a natural progression is, at best, swimming against the tide.
Opinions on the future impacts of social media are diverse: will it create mindless drones or a new architecture for resistance? Will mass automation free us from work and scarcity to construct a “luxury communist” utopia, or will it instead usher in an era of generalized misery? Yet even skeptics and primitivists alike are forced to admit that the danger grows. True, being connected to insidious Russian meddling hasn’t been great for Facebook’s short-term profits, but it’s hard to imagine that things will get bad for the industry when even its critics believe its products are socially powerful enough to influence elections. Tech’s power isn’t denied by the push for disclaimers on political advertisements and duplicitous stories—in fact, it’s their cause.
So we are left with a rough contemporary consensus that the fruits of modern information technology, good or bad, will inevitably grow more powerful and more socially important, and that we are inexorably trending to a more automated and connected future, just as the future imagined by the sixties involved progressively larger and grander versions of the Apollo space program.
But just like in the midcentury, predictions are just that, and the adoption of certain imaginations as opposed to others may only be beneficial for a select few. In the sixties, ideas about imminent robot maids and rocket ships had the aura of objective scientific assessment and historical inevitability, though the mythology of a tomorrow among the stars actually brought us closer to Armageddon by allowing nation-states to shore up nuclear weapons delivery systems. But while an imagination of the future that benefitted Cold Warriors and missile designers became universally accepted, there was no such sense of objective historical necessity concerning the Civil Rights movement of the same years. Politically contentious and violently repressed in a country in which millions disagreed with Dr. King’s declaration that the “moral arc of the universe” was on the side of oppressed, the Black freedom struggle had none of the feeling of inevitability that American liberals now try to retroactively assign to it. The ability to imagine and write the future, whether accurately or inaccurately, depends a great deal on power, power that Raytheon and the Pentagon possessed and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committees did not. And a great deal of power today is wielded by the multinational tech corporations that call Northern California their home.
Today, Silicon Valley dreams are built on the backs of hundreds of thousands of people living in the actual geographic Silicon Valley, where gentrification and skyrocketing income inequality are said to be the price of constructing the world to come. The most powerful multinational corporations of the modern era have created an ideological space, in which housing for all seems far more like science fiction than sober predictions of robot servants en route to a private colony on Mars.
Whose Dreams? Our Dreams!
For almost an hour on a December evening, we watched as San José City Council struggled to deliberate through a series of repeated disruptions. One group after another rose from their seats in City Hall, shouting that San José is not for sale. One after another, they chanted until the police removed them from the room.
In the preceding hours, public comment before City Council had been split. Developers celebrated the profits they could make if the city sold public land for a new Google campus. Non-profit leaders spoke about their unconditional support for the campus development, while making sure to mention the generous and quite strategic grants Google had given their non-profits in the preceding weeks. In between, residents already living with the displacement and houselessness and violence created by Silicon Valley inequality decried the fact that instead of creating much-needed housing, San José’s municipal government was falling over itself to welcome a 20,000-employee tech campus sure to be a nail in the coffin for thousands of people barely making ends meet.
The public comment had been of little interest to the members of council, whose minds were made up long before. So the politicians checked their phones, or joked with each other, or left the dais entirely. Unimpressed by pleas for housing in the rapidly gentrifying city, the council was similarly uninterested in a three-day hunger strike right on their doorstep. Fifty religious leaders and community members had been starving themselves in front of city hall to oppose the land sale. The city made no response, save for attempts to prohibit the unauthorized use of a small canopy for the vigil.
But the council was awake now that wave after wave of people were ruining the city’s narrative in front of a small crowd of news journalists. It was an embarrassment for politicians who thought the parade of self-interested NGOs during public comment would herald a smooth start for the development, after which San José would have the recognition—and tax revenue—of neighbors like San Francisco, to the north.
As one last group of community members began to chant, police attempted to evict us, only to find that that we had locked ourselves down to the chairs with metal chains. Unable to stop our chanting, police cleared all of the packed council chambers as they prepared for arrests.
As city council fled their seats and the rest of the audience was forced out of the room, a raucous protest erupted outside the doors until police finally closed the whole building. City council only returned to their seats when City Hall was altogether cleared of potentially unruly spectators. Finally, after midnight, behind locked doors guarded by police, city government spent a few minutes holding forth to a deserted room before voting unanimously to approve the sale of municipal land for Google’s mega campus.
Who Envisions the Future?
At stake in the fight over the development is the question of who has the right to envision and construct the future of a city, especially when its present condition is so dire. For those unaware of the depths of the crisis, Silicon Valley is synonymous with new money, a utopia of daring innovation and young billionaires. For those living in the actual Valley, without the benefit of a computer science degree from a top-tier university (or a few spare properties to rent out to tenants), the tech economy is capitalist exploitation on steroids.
The so-called “capitol of Silicon Valley,” San José currently operates in part as a labor reserve for the area, with housing prices marginally lower than the epicenters of displacement in Menlo Park, Cupertino, or San Francisco, to the north. Still, it is common to find extended families squeezing into miniscule apartments, if not sleeping on the banks of the Guadalupe River or in the city’s parks. The housing problem is so severe that in the past year, 157 unhoused people died in the streets of San José’s home county of Santa Clara. (3)
For many, there has always been the stench of inevitability around the project. The sense that tech is the future and that, at best, we should hope that a few kids from working class communities of color will get to fight for their jobs, is ultimately the imagination of tech firms, promoted for their own benefit. It pushes states to increase STEM and coding programs in schools, increasing the pool of potential employees and pushing down labor costs. It drives tech companies’ client bases, for why should consumers resist adopting a new product or service if it’s just a taste of what the future holds? And it pushes down the subterranean strivings for stable housing and a real future by the residents of the actual Silicon Valley, the vast majority of whom do not work in tech and have no place in a Silicon Valley-imagined future, regardless of their zip code.
Big tech’s dream of the future is enhanced by those local “community” organizations that tout tech’s financial support. Tech companies are then growing not only in economic but moral clout, bankrolling every feel-good project they can find—including, perversely, initiatives on housing and displacement, the very problems these companies create by hoarding wealth and driving inequality. The idea that tech companies are creating what is to come is not merely a prediction, but a conscious ideological project.
An immediate effect of tech’s self-serving mythology—what a banner at an area protest called the “tech-savior industrial complex”—is to close opportunities for resistance. If tech’s ascendance is predetermined, even demands for dignified housing for people dying in the streets seem futile in comparison.
San José No Se Vende
Some of the most significant obstacles faced by popular opposition to Google’s San José development have been constraints on popular imagination. Years of worsening conditions can inspire resignation as easily as revolt. The growing wealth of the tech industry has only created skyrocketing rent prices and displacement for most, but the mythology that this industry is engineering the future makes any resistance seem naïve or Luddite at best, quixotic at worst.
A key part of making anti-gentrification work feasible in San José has been to foster popular imagination about the region’s future, above and beyond big tech’s monolithic narrative of progress. CHAM Deliverance Ministries, (4) which organized the hunger strike leading up to the vote, replaced the technocratic framing with an ethical one, with Pastor Scott Wagers announcing, ¨We disagree spiritually on the direction of our city. San José’s got a vision. It doesn’t include everybody.” (5) At local forums, members of Serve the People San José, an independent, multi-tendency formation, have asked residents to envision their desires for the land in question, incorporating them into the community campaign. And a South Bay Community Land Trust has recently formed, creating the organizational structure necessary to ensure the long-term community control of actually affordable housing that activists are able to remove from the speculative market.
Fostering new dreams for San José also involves connecting residents to present-day realities around the globe. Local groups are building connections with community land trusts around the country, gaining advice and resources necessary to construct sustainable community ownership models for common land. Organizations like the Oakland Community Land Trust prove that community-controlled housing is possible, even under the economic conditions of the Bay Area. (6) And organizers are sharing the story of Google’s failed plan to build a campus in the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin, Germany, where a broad, militant campaign forced the company to abandon its development and instead announce it was leasing its land to community organizations.
In all of these efforts, people come together to show each other that different dreams, imaginations not shared by the tech elite, are possible if we fight alongside each other to make them a reality. We are shifting the conversation away from reacting to corporate and governmental maneuvers, instead moving community towards participating as agents in a process of imagining and fighting for different futures. In this struggle, there are no predetermined answers. While many see something like a community land trust as a viable alternative for the Google development, even the question of what exactly would be on the site in a land trust model would depend primarily on the people who would live there. Activists remain committed to a messy, on-going process of investigation and directly democratic decision-making, realizing that it is the people most directly affected who will have the most crucial insights—a lesson that city planners and corporate executives will never learn.
After the hunger strike, protests, and arrests, San José city government was able to sell its land to Google, as many activists long suspected it would. However, it did so under the worst possible conditions for the development: with heavily publicized opposition, behind locked doors after midnight, following several arrests, in a way that made the development look undemocratic and weak. While the community actions were unable to sway the votes of corrupt council members, they achieved a deeper objective: to let the broader community know that resistance is not only feasible but real, to announce to the company that opposition will only grow, and to foster collective imagination about the future of the city beyond the narratives of gentrifiers and technocrats.
In the wake of this highly publicized protest, local groups have connected with numerous individuals who had thought they were alone in their opposition to the development. While expanding how we talk about possible futures for the city has helped motivate more people to action, popular action likewise broadens popular vision.
Google has said it would take up to ten years to complete the campus, and we have pledged to continue our campaign against the company until we win. Mobilizing opposition to the campus will continue to require enlarging popular imagination about the possibilities for so-called Silicon Valley, and escalating actions will continue to push popular visions of what’s possible.
At risk of a caricature, we can identify two opposing paradigms for Left thinking about imagination, vision, and dreams.
On one hand, there is a prefigurative wing that emphasizes the modeling and refining of non-oppressive organizing techniques and interpersonal practices, the perfection of a vision for a nonhierarchical world. The problem is that it can remain in small collectives or isolated milieus, without a clear strategy for its enlargement to the scale of cities or regions. And by virtue of their small scale, these practices run the risk of solidifying into arcane sets of in-group social codes that end up pushing away rather than drawing in sympathetic outsiders. In the worst case, a purely prefigurative politic substitutes the perfection of political imagination for a concrete plan for ensuring it can flourish and grow into a larger liberatory reality. But the energy, time, and money spent in our examples by government or industry to popularize their own interests show that the construction of imagination requires the strategic application of resources and power.
The opposing wing of the Left condemns all forms of positive imagination as counterrevolutionary. This can take the form of Marxist denunciations of thinking about the future as liberal idealism, or an insurrectionist emphasis on the destruction of institutional power, to the exclusion of any emancipatory replacement. From an anarchist perspective, Buenaventura Durruti’s proclamation that “we are not in the least afraid of ruins” is here uncoupled from the preceding sentences, that this is only because “it is [the working class] who built these palaces and cities… We can build others to take their place. And better ones.” (7)
A position that denies any revolutionary use of vision is just as untenable as one that focuses on imagination alone. In a world in which nation-states and corporations spend untold resources in promoting their visions for the future, the Left requires a better response than dreams of flames. Identifying oppressive institutions as worthy of destruction is commendable, as is ensuring that our organizations and social spaces demand nonhierarchical behavior. In fact, both are essential to creating a militant movement with anarchist qualities. But mobilizing our communities for power requires creating positive vision. And the construction of a positive vision, as a political project, also requires the mobilization of our communities. Thinking about imagination as an evolving component of a political process is critical.
This is especially true for antiauthoritarian organizing, as we seek to draw out a diversity of imaginations about popular futures in the course of our efforts. We aren’t just mobilizing behind predefined doctrines or the pronouncements of a political messiah. In fact, our example shows that we must often combat the singular, totalizing narratives of powerful interests in favor of allowing everyday people to begin envisioning and enacting many different futures, inspiring faith in their plausibility with our actions today. Such a strategy may well prove imperative if we are to build to a revolutionary moment in a society as ethnically diverse, socially fragmented, and economically dislocated as the contemporary United States. Lacking the positive inertia of a growing industrial proletariat, how could we create a revolutionary subject save by walking the road to create a world, in the words of the Zapatista National Liberation Army, where many worlds are possible.
“En el mundo del poderoso no caben más que los grandes y sus servidores. En el mundo que queremos nosotros caben todos. El mundo que queremos es uno donde quepan muchos mundos.” (8) “The world of the powerful only has room for the mighty and their servants. The world we want has room for all. We want a world that can fit many worlds.”
As vision inspires resistance, and resistance inspires vision, we must use and combine a multiplicity of imaginations in the arsenal of liberation.
Andrew Lee is a restaurant worker organizing within the popular struggles in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a member of Serve the People San José and the South Bay Community Land Trust and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Graeber, David. 2016.The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy. Brooklyn, New York: Melville House Publishing.
- Klesius, Mike. 2008. “To Boldly Go.” Air & Space Magazine. Air & Space Magazine. December 19, 2008. https://www.airspacemag.com/space/to-boldly-go-133005480/.
- Yelimeli, Supriya. 2018. “Activists Mourn 157 Homeless Deaths in Santa Clara County.” Sfbay.Ca. Bay City News. December 28, 2018. https://sfbay.ca/2018/12/26/activists-mourn-157-homeless-deaths-in-santa-clara-county/.
- Founded in 1997, CHAM Deliverance Ministry provides direct service to the unhoused in San Jose while also working alongside them on policy and advocacy initiatives. chamministry.com
- Ramirez, Len. 2018. “Protesters Launch Hunger Strike Over San Jose-Google Land Deal.” Cbslocal.Com. CBS San Francisco. December 3, 2018. https://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/2018/12/03/protesters-launch-hunger-strike-over-san-jose-google-land-deal/.
- Oakland Community Land Trust emerged as a response to the 2008 financial crisis and today stewards over 30 properties successfully removed from the speculative market, including cooperatively-managed residential complexes, single-family homes, and urban farms. oakclt.org
- Paz, Abel. 1976.Durruti : The People Armed. Montreal: Black Rose Books.
- Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional. 1996. “Cuarta Declaración de La Selva Lacandona.” Enlace Zapatista. January 1, 1996. http://enlacezapatista.ezln.org.mx/1996/01/01/cuarta-declaracion-de-la-selva-lacandona.