Facebook is building its own town in Silicon Valley. It won’t be the first

Oh, god: Menlo Park, California. Image: Getty.

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 centre.

But 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. American history is filled with towns conceived and built to realise specific theological worldviews, at times linked with faith in capitalism and the power of technology. Like these utopian communities, Willow Village speaks of its founders’ desire to correct imagined social problems by reinventing social life.

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 the company’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 that they can be improved by corporate intervention. Planning, policy and even some government functions, then, would be transferred from democratically elected officials to private corporations.

Facebook proposed Willow Village in 2017 as a redevelopment of the former Menlo Science & Technology Park. Initially named the “Willow Campus,” Facebook’s community, which will include 1,500 apartments, is a response to the exorbitant cost of living in Silicon Valley. The median home price in the San Jose metro region in 2017 was $1,128,300.

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. Google’s community will include retail stores and entertainment.

Consequences questioned

But 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.

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Pullman strike in 1894, which was mounted after the railcar manufacturer cut wages but not rents for workers living in its company town. Image: Newberry Library/creative commons.

Plans like Facebook’s and Google’s evoke cities and neighbourhoods 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 characterised by strikes, private police forces and bloody clashes between workers and management. Similar stories can be told of other company towns, such as Gary, Indiana, or Lowell, Massachusetts.

Silicon Valley has long been hostile toward organised labour. This leads to concerns that Google and Facebook’s new communities could engage in versions of the anti-labour 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.

Says Morozov: “We are abandoning all the checks and balances we have built to keep our public officials in check for these cleaner, neater, more efficient technological solutions.”

Specifically, social media companies often frame social problems as a lack of connectivity, which can be solved with technologies designed to foster social interconnection. In my research, I’ve followed how attitudes toward social connection have changed over time in American history.

As I charted this history, I found that this perspective draws on beliefs that emerged in the wake of the Great Depression. Prior to the Depression, social, technological and economic connectivity were feared by many Americans as a socialist means for restricting individual freedom. In a nutshell, connection meant organising, which meant socialism. It was only after the Depression that networked connection became widely imagined as a solution to a range of social ills.

But social connectivity was not always feared. Willow Village shares an outlook with other, much earlier, planned communities. A utopian worldview has been central for countless communities and towns founded across America in the 1800s. These towns were precursors of the larger, post-Depression embrace of connectivity. Many of these communities were isolated reactions against capitalism, founded with socialist guiding principles.

This isn’t to suggest that all of these communities were socialistic, however. A community closer to Willow Village can be seen in the model of the Oneida community in upstate New York, where capitalism was central to its utopia and was a way of distributing Christ’s energy to others, via the market.

Most of these utopian communities failed. Whether because of internal disputes over religious orthodoxy or money, few managed to last longer than a few years. Most that did endure only did so until their founder’s death. Without an authoritative social vision, the community fell apart.

So there’s been a long history in which social vision is shaped into ways of planning and living in America. The actual existence of these communities, however, has been marked by struggle and conflict.


The modern utopian community

In my research, I’ve argued that connecting via social media and circulating personal information is imagined as a means to achieve a kind of spiritual perfection today. 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. This includes not only dictating housing policy, but also, for example, funding the police. 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. This worldview, in part, descends from the long history of utopian communities.

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, Assistant Professor of Communication, North Carolina State University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.