This year, the notion of accountability floundered when it came to world leaders and high-profile CEOs: Mark Zuckerberg’s hearing before the US Senate effectively sparked the biggest rise in the company’s stock in two years. A glimmer of hope, though, came from the residents of Berlin, Germany, my adopted home of nearly 20 years. A sense of communal responsibility, engagement and self-organization exemplifies Berlin far more than, say, cheap rents – in fact, cheap rents are in no small part indebted to residents who often take to the streets and fight for their rights. In 2018 this well-trained muscle dealt a blow to one of the world’s most powerful tech giants, Google.
In late 2016, Google announced plans for its new start-up incubator in Kreuzberg’s Umspannwerk, a 1920s red-brick power transformer station boasting nearly 3000 square metres of prime real estate. Berlin has long cashed in on its rebranding strategy as a tech-friendly city (prior to that, it billed itself as an international hub for ‘creatives’, but that didn’t bring quite the expected rainfall). Meanwhile, US cities vied for Amazon’s HQ2 in a grotesque display of corporate’s power over government that felt straight out of dystopian prophet Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam (2013) trilogy. Google’s alighting in the heart of historically non-conformist Kreuzberg seemed like a done deal.
But in Berlin, Kreuzberg residents and activists staged an effusive opposition. Numerous local initiatives and alliances popped up, campaigning against the tech leviathan under the combatively named coalition Fuck Off Google, or the more printable Google ist kein guter Nachbar (‘Google Is No Good Neighbour’). The bruising backlash was not only against gentrification, but also Google’s data-collection practices, blatant tax avoidance and disregard for human rights violations in its courting of the Chinese market.
Finally, in late October 2018, after footing the bill for a multi-million-dollar renovation of the former power station, Google announced its decision to hand over the site to two not-for-profits for social change: Betterplace.org and Karuna, an organization battling child homelessness and drug abuse. The Berlin senate doubled down and took the opportunity to show its teeth, stating that the renovation had only been approved by the local authorities after floor space designated as a co-working area was scrapped in favour of a communal meeting place for local residents. And Berliners haven’t rested on their laurels: Kalabal!k, a local anarchist literature bastion, continues to host bi-monthly anti-Google meetings, while other groups question tech-urbanism and gentrification and remain ‘suspicious’ of Google’s new humanitarian tenants. As they should, if past experience taught us anything.
Bitterly, in the last couple of years, the city has signed off acquisitions of several former industrial complexes by both start-ups and real-estate speculators: Factory Berlin, a tech and innovation campus, building on the success of its first campus in Mitte, has swiped up two such locations in the Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain district, kicking out dozens of artists and musicians from their studios and practice spaces. But rather than fostering the next Soundcloud or even pretending to chase tech unicorns, one of the venues reinvented itself as a ‘business club for start-ups’ – read: uninspired co-working space. A further venue was planned in a former GDR post office that, since 2003, has been rented out to a co-op of artists and musicians called Post Ost.
Post Ost has been victim to a canny scheme. Only after being publicly shamed by members of the artist co-op did Factory founder Udo Schlömer promise – publicly and to local officials – to investigate ways for start-ups and artists to co-exist. However, Factory soon opted instead to have a company subdivision purchase the building under a different name, kick the artists to the curb and embrace gentrification, claiming that since Factory is no longer the main occupant, a prior agreement was moot.
Opponents of Google’s Kreuzberg campus must stay vigilant – as should politicians who, in the past, have been too willingly duped by the tech bubble’s lofty allure and rushed to sell off desirable locations around the city. Now, Berlin is buying some of those back, at a mark-up, in an effort to maintain the city’s cultural diversity.
Less than a month ago, Google CEO Sundar Pichai was again in the hot seat, testifying before the House Judiciary Committee for the second time since April. The investigation, which also probes the Republican-controlled US House’s (unfounded) claim that Google search rankings show a democratic bias, produced marvelous headlines such as The Verge’s ‘Sundar Pichai had to explain to Congress why Googling ‘idiot’ turns up pictures of Trump’. Alarmingly, such inquiries demonstrate just how poorly politicians understand the digital sphere they’re supposed to regulate. As Berliners showed us this year, it’s our responsibility to remain critically informed and take action.
Main image: Logo from the ‘Anti Google Campaign’, 2018. Courtesy: Google ist kein guter Nachbar