When the city of San Francisco reached an agreement last week with the big tech companies operating private shuttles at public bus stops (a deal with some fascinating implications), city Supervisor Scott Wiener made a succinct plea for peace between the Googles and Facebooks and their increasingly antagonized neighbors to the north.
"We need to stop politicizing people's ability to get to work," he said. Meaning: Protesters need to stop taking out their grievances over widening inequality in San Francisco on the Google Bus.
This is a fair way to characterize the bizarre scene of activists blockading a shuttle of computer programmers on their way to the office (imagine if you had no context for this devolving saga: How would that episode look?). But since last week, Google itself seems to have only made the matter worse, attaching yet more messy symbolism to the company bus.
According to Reuters, Google now appears to be monitoring its bus stops with private security guards. And not just your standard-issue security guards: cagey men in plainclothes sporting the kind of earpieces more often seen on the Secret Service. Here's how Reuters describes the odd development:
On two successive days this week, a pair of young men stood on a San Francisco street waiting for the special "Gbus" that ferries Google staffers to the Internet company's Mountain View headquarters 34 miles to the South.
Dressed casually in jeans and wearing black ski hats or hoods, the two men did not stand out from the dozens of other young tech workers waiting for the Google bus. On close inspection, each sported the curly wire of an earpiece, and one occasionally jotted notes down on a yellow stick-it pad.
...Asked if they were security guards for Google buses, one of the men replied "Can I see your badge?" likely referring to the Google identification badges that employees of the company use to board the bus and enter buildings on the Google campus. The other man denied working as a security guard for Google, but declined to provide any information about his identity or his employer.
The optics here are just so bad: not only do Google's employees need to be transported away from San Francisco, they need to be protected from it. Not only does the company need its own transportation, it needs its own security, too – even on public sidewalks already patrolled by the San Francisco Police Department.
It seems highly unlikely that Google's employees actually need such a precaution. But if Google thinks that they do, well, that's just one more glaring disconnect between how the company sees the city and how the city perceives itself.
MIT's Erik Brynjolfsson hits on what's off about this picture:
Secession is not a viable long term strategy: "Latest Perk on Google Buses: Security Guards" http://t.co/r2Afy3RI7N— Erik Brynjolfsson (@erikbryn) January 17, 2014
Google has a perception problem in San Francisco that it's driving some of the city's problems (like its rising rent) even as it holds itself apart from the community there. The worst thing it can do at this point is to further confirm those suspicions.