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.

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.