Sideways (2022) highlights how Google tried and failed to get a foothold in land use in Berlin and Toronto

This post is dedicated to Sideways: The City Google Couldn’t Buy (2022); a blurb for the book (I have added paragraph breaks) reads:

From the Globe and Mail tech reporter who revealed countless controversies while following the Sidewalk Labs fiasco in Toronto, an uncompromising investigation into the bigger story and what the Google sister company’s failure there reveals about Big Tech, data privacy and the monetization of everything.

When former New York deputy mayor Dan Doctoroff landed in Toronto, promising a revolution in better living through technology, the locals were starstruck. In 2017 a small parcel of land on the city’s woefully underdeveloped lakeshore was available for development, and with Google co-founder Larry Page and his trusted chairman Eric Schmidt leaning into Sidewalk Labs’ pitch for the long-forsaken property – with Doctoroff as the urban-planning company’s CEO – Sidewalk’s bid crushed the competition.

But as soon as the bid was won, cracks appeared in the partnership between Doctoroff’s team and Waterfront Toronto, the government-sponsored organization behind the contest. There were hundreds more acres of undeveloped former port lands nearby that kept creeping into conversation with Sidewalk, and more questions were emerging than answers about how much the public would actually benefit from the Alphabet-owned company’s vision for the high-tech neighbourhood – and the data it could harvest from the people living there. Alarm bells began ringing in the city’s corridors of power and activism. To Torontonians accustomed to big promises with little follow-through, the fiasco that unfolded seemed at first like just another city-building sideshow.

But the pained battle to reel in the power of Sidewalk Labs became a crucible moment in the worldwide battle for privacy rights and against the extension of Big Tech’s digital might into the physical world around us. With extensive contacts on all sides of the debacle, O’Kane tells a story of global consequence fought over a small, forgotten parcel of mud and pavement, taking readers from California to New York to Toronto to Berlin and back again. In the tradition of extraordinary boardroom dramas like Bad Blood and Super Pumped, Sideways vividly recreates the corporate drama and epic personalities in this David-and-Goliath battle that signalled to the world that all may not be lost in the effort to contain the rapidly growing power of Big Tech.

Page 207, Sideways (2022)

The first reference in the following quote from Sideways (2022) – to the cancellation by Google of a plan to make its presence felt in a lively, moderate-income Berlin neighbourhood – speaks of how local residents in Berlin kept Google from moving in and taking over. At the end of the quote there’s a reference to Google’s (also thwarted) attempt to take over a section of the Toronto waterfront.

The quote (p. 207) reads:

A little more than a month after demonstrators occupied the Kreuzberg building – just days after privacy expert Ann Cavoukian made global headlines for quitting Toronto’s Sidewalk Labs project – Google can­celled the Berlin start-up campus. Instead, the company would spend €14 million to kit out a new “House for Social Engagement” and cover overhead costs, letting two organizations run it like a campus of their own for charities and social issues organizations.

“We won against Google,” Klein told me. “It was incredible – for the moment.”

For the moment?

“We are aware we have to stay alert,” he added.

The non-profits would get support from Google for five years, but the company’s lease was for fifteen years. It could return and try some­ thing else. Other tech companies were encroaching, too. The family behind the Rocket Internet start-up investment hub had property a fifteen-minute walk south in Neukolln; neighbours saw that as a threat. And a thirty-five-storey tower being built to the north in Freidrichshain, past the Spree river and the stretch of the Berlin Wall that had been turned into the East Side Gallery, was expected to make Amazon its chief tenant. There was more work to be done to protect the creative, immigrant-friendly enclaves to the east of Berlin’s core.

“Change is a normal process,” Klein said. “But what you can stop is speculation. People coming here, trying to get a few million in a few years – after a few rounds of speculation, the houses are no longer places for living. They’re assets.”

Some local politicians lamented the sudden death of Google’s campus, fearing it might cast the city as anti-business. But, Klein pointed out, politicians often jump for joy when a private company does their city-building for them. “You see it in Toronto, where the government was happy to offer all the seaside space,” he said.

Land use

Sideways (2022) is a classic study of land use decision making, a topic I’ve been writing posts about for a dozen years. The concept of land use as a framework for thinking about things covers many subject areas including the creation of the universe, the creation of Planet Earth and its moon, climate change, the building of safer communities [1], the history of settler colonialism [2], as well as the history of totalitarianism and eugenics.

With regard to the creation of the universe my favourite source is a book entitled Elusive: How Peter Higgs Solved the Mystery of Mass (2022).

An excerpt from a blurb at the Toronto Public Library website reads:

On July 4, 2012, scientists at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN gathered to make a momentous announcement: after nearly a half century of speculation and work, the Higgs boson had been found, and the mystery of mass solved. Not far offstage was the man for whom the particle had been named: Peter Higgs. The Higgs boson is an anomaly. No other basic particle of physics is named after a person. And in a point of almost supreme irony, it is named after a man whom most physicists would call one of the most retiring people ever to join the field – indeed, on the day the Nobel committee called him to tell him he had won, Higgs had fled to a fish-and-chip shop by the sea, and ended up learning of his prize from a stranger who, recognizing him, stopped him the street to tell him the news. Or at least that’s one way to tell the story.

I conclude this post with an excerpt from a Dec. 13, 2022 CBC article about land use entitled: “What you need to know about Toronto’s new housing plan – and how it might affect your options: Motion calling on staff to draft 2023 ‘housing action plan’ goes to city council Wednesday.”

An excerpt reads:

[Rocky] Petkov [a volunteer with More Neighbours Toronto] said while the plan addresses other issues related to unaffordable housing in the city, it fails to mention emergency, transition or supportive housing.

“It’s all well and good to work on these market-side reforms, but a housing plan also needs to address the needs of our most vulnerable residents, our unhoused,” he said.

“This is the sort of thing that if not in this push, we need to see in another push because if middle class folks might find it hard to wait five years for this to have an impact, the unhoused certainly cannot.”

2 replies
  1. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    Note 1

    Safer communities

    A Dec. 12, 2022 New York Times article is entitled: “The Root Cause of Violent Crime Is Not What We Think It Is.”

    An excerpt (I have omitted embedded links) reads:

    Communities that have adopted these approaches have not done away with enforcement; they have just required less of it. In Denver, a five-year randomized control trial of a program that provides housing subsidies to those at risk of being unhoused found a 40 percent reduction in arrests among participants. These kinds of results are why localities from New Jersey to New Mexico are restructuring their local governments to invest in the social determinants of health and safety.

    And yet, as I have learned over more than two decades of work in this field, the black hole narrative cannot be changed by statistics alone. If you want policies that actually work, you have to change the political conversation from “tough candidates punishing bad people” to “strong communities keeping everyone safe.” Candidates who care about solving a problem pay attention to what caused it. Imagine a plumber who tells you to get more absorbent flooring but does not look for the leak.

  2. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    Note 2

    Settler colonialism

    A Dec. 12, 2022 New York Times article is entitled: “When Freedom Meant the Freedom to Oppress Others: Jefferson Cowie’s powerful and sobering new history, ‘Freedom’s Dominion,’ traces the close association between the rhetoric of liberty in an Alabama county and the politics of white supremacy.”

    An excerpt reads:

    The pattern of federal engagement and withdrawal took hold in the early 1830s, when President Jackson resolved to bring order to the settlement of Alabama. The surge of whites westward into the new state had become, Cowie writes, “one of the fiercest tides of human migration in human history,” but even this puts it mildly. “Alabama Fever” was a wholesale invasion. Creek homes and crops were burned; Creek families were swindled, beaten, driven out, killed. Jackson, whose own inhumanity toward Native Americans is well established, was an unlikely defender of their rights. And land, as Jacksonians understood it, was the bedrock of opportunity — another white entitlement, like freedom itself.

    Yet the chaos in Alabama offended Jackson’s sense of discipline and made a mockery of his treaties with the Creeks. Beginning in 1832, and in fits and starts over the following year, federal troops looked to turn back or at least contain the white wave. Instead, their presence touched off a series of violent reprisals, created a cast of martyrs and folk heroes, and gave rise to the mythology of white victimization. Self-rule and local authority — rhetorical wrapping for this will to power — had become articles of faith, fervid as any religious belief. Alabama, a historian of the state wrote in 1839, had been “wrought and consecrated through a bitter sacrament of blood.”


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