Op-Ed

Silicon Valley company towns: Utopia or Big Brother?

Facebook, photographed on Friday, Dec. 11, 2015 in Menlo Park, Calif.
Facebook, photographed on Friday, Dec. 11, 2015 in Menlo Park, Calif. Bay Area News Group/TNS

Willow Village is a community planned for a 59-acre site in California’s Silicon Valley, between Menlo Park and East Palo Alto.

It will have housing, offices, a grocery store, a pharmacy, and its developers say, maybe even its own cultural center.

There’s one notable thing about Willow Village that makes it different from other new communities in America: It is being developed by Facebook.

Willow Village evokes “company towns” of the past, once built by corporations to both house and keep tabs on employees. And projects like Willow Village also follow the legacy of utopian communities in the United States.

But those earlier utopian communities and company towns foundered, either from labor strife or lack of leadership. Will the same thing happen to Facebook’s experiment in designing and building a community?

And considering the many recent controversies Facebook has had with its social network, do we want them controlling our physical environments, too?

Improving on human nature

I am a scholar who has researched digital culture. As I’ve argued elsewhere, social media companies often position their projects as socially beneficial, as if human nature could be perfected through engineering and planning.

Juan Salazar, a Facebook public policy manager, claims that Facebook’s goal for Willow Village “is to strengthen the community”: “We want a more permeable relationship, where we engage more. The parks, the grocery store, are places to congregate together, to build a sense of place.”

Salazar’s comment implies that, without Facebook’s corporate engineering, these spaces for community would not exist on their own, or at least can be improved by corporate intervention. Planning, policy and even some government functions, then, would be transferred from democratically elected officials to private corporations.

Willow Village is one of a number of planned communities that tech firms want to build to provide housing, primarily for their own employees. Google plans to build between 5,000 and 9,850 homes on its property in Mountain View, near Menlo Park.

Consequences questioned

There are many criticisms of these plans.

As The New York Times has reported, Willow Village will most likely displace a largely Hispanic community, one of the poorest in Silicon Valley.

Plans like Facebook’s and Google’s evoke cities and neighborhoods built by, for instance, railroad magnate George Pullman or chocolate tycoon Milton Hershey. While envisioned as communities with “no poverty, no nuisances, no evil,” in Hershey’s words, these cities in fact were characterized by strikes, private police forces and bloody clashes between workers and management.

Silicon Valley has long been hostile toward organized labor. This leads to concerns that Google and Facebook’s new communities could engage in versions of the anti-labor practices of company towns throughout history, updated to include digital surveillance and technological means of control.

Will connecting solve problems?

Company towns have never lived up to their mission of social perfection.

Yet Facebook and Google, like many tech companies, say their purpose is socially beneficial. John Tenanes, Facebook’s vice president for real estate, told The New York Times, the apartments in Willow Village “are a starting point.” He added, “I would hope we could do more. We’re solving a problem here.”

While this quote seems innocuous, it reflects what critic Evgeny Morozov has termed “solutionism.” The goal of solving problems isn’t the problem. Rather, it’s that technological solutions circumvent governmental institutions.

The modern utopian community

Being connected to Facebook at all times, not just via their platforms, is imagined by those in Silicon Valley – sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly – to have an intrinsic social benefit.

Given how these visions are now shaping the planning of actual communities, this can be thought of as a reinvention of citizenship – and not metaphorically.

Facebook and Google are proposing, and occasionally entering into, partnerships with local governments, taking over numerous tasks once the responsibility of elected officials. Social media corporations are working to act in the roles once held by the state and government.

The threat is not that this is new. The legacy of company towns, for instance, tells us that corporations have often tried to subvert democracy with their own “governmental” agencies.

The problem is that this model now reflects a view popular in Silicon Valley that sees tech companies as progressive agents solving problems beyond governmental oversight.

We will most likely see more of these projects and partnerships. But here’s the catch, and the threat: When they do this, elected officials cede power to companies that are not, like them, democratically accountable.

Grant Bollmer is an Assistant Professor of Communication at North Carolina State University.
  Comments