“Robber barons would have loved Facebook’s employee housing”

Facebook’s new campus includes more residential units. This leads one writer to compare the development to a company town:

Company towns of this era had a barely-hidden paternalistic agenda. Wealthy businessmen saw their workers as family, sort of, and they wanted to provide their wards with safe, modern housing. But many were strict fathers, dictating the minutiae of their grown employees’ lives, from picking the books in the library to restricting the availability of alcohol. It’s hard to imagine Facebook going that far, though the company does try to subtly influence its employees lives by offering such healthy freebies as on-site gyms, bike repair, and walking desks. It’s a strategy that mimics what happened with some later company towns, which employed paternalism to better the company, not just employees’ lives. “Company welfare was seen as an important strategy to promote company loyalty and peaceful relations,” Borges says.

Of course, Facebook isn’t exactly like the Pullmans, Hersheys, and Kohlers of olden times. For one, those were all built on what developers call greenfields, or land which hadn’t been previously developed for housing or commercial uses. Borges also points out that they didn’t have to deal with any existing municipal governments, either. Such greenfield freedom allowed industrialists to maintain a level of autonomy that would make even the most libertarian techies blush. Today, in Silicon Valley, there’s not much of undeveloped land left, so Facebook will have to renovate or demolish to accommodate its plans.

Those discrepancies means Facebook won’t be creating a company town from whole cloth, but slowly taking over the existing city of Menlo Park and re-envisioning it for their employees. The Facebook-backed Anton Menlo development, for example, will consist of 394 units when it opens next year. Just 15 of those are reportedly available for non-Facebook employees…

So maybe Facebookville is an arcology—a political one. What Facebook is building is both entirely similar and completely different from Pullman, Illinois, and its turn-of-the-last-century brethren. It’s a 21st century company town—built by slowly, occasionally unintentionally, taking over a public entity, and building a juggernaut of a private institution in its place.

As noted in an earlier post, this isn’t the first time the concern has been raised that Facebook employees or the company could wield political power over the official municipality in which it is located. Does it matter here if the company is perceived differently than previous company towns from manufacturers like Pullman? Does Facebook exploit its workers in the way that some thought manufacturers and robber baron era corporations exploited their workers? What if the tech employees of today don’t mind this arrangement? Perhaps the pricing on these units is a lot more reasonable than the rest of the Bay Area. In the end, are we sure that company towns are doomed to fail or that it represents an inappropriate mingling of corporate and civic interests? It is not as if Facebook or Google or other major corporations don’t have political power through other channels…

 

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