Living inside and outside Facebook and Google’s new developments

Online and physical realms will collide even more in new developments Facebook and Google are planning:

Willow Village will be wedged between the Menlo Park neighborhood of Belle Haven and the city of East Palo Alto, both heavily Hispanic communities that are among Silicon Valley’s poorest. Facebook is planning 1,500 apartments, and has agreed with Menlo Park to offer 225 of them at below-market rates. The most likely tenants of the full-price units are Facebook employees, who already receive a five-figure bonus if they live near the office.

The community will have eight acres of parks, plazas and bike-pedestrian paths open to the public. Facebook wants to revitalize the railway running alongside the property and will finish next year a pedestrian bridge over the expressway. The bridge will provide access to the trail that rings San Francisco Bay, a boon for birders and bikers…

Facebook is testing the proposition: Do people love tech companies so much they will live inside of them? When the project was announced last summer, critics dubbed it Facebookville or, in tribute to company co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, Zucktown

Google will build 5,000 homes on its property under an agreement brokered with Mountain View in December. Call it Alphabet City as a nod to Alphabet, Google’s corporate parent. The company said it was still figuring out its future as a landlord, and declined further comment.

Throw Apple in the mix – as this article does – and these tech companies are doing something unique in Silicon Valley: looking to develop campuses that are around-the-clock and provide housing for employees. Few companies would even think of such a plan and I could imagine many workers would have serious reservations regarding living in facilities provided by their company.

But, there is one distinguishing feature of these new developments that complicate this already-unique story: the particular geographic context in which these physical developments are located. This is an area that already has a tremendous level of inequality with limited affordable housing and some of the poorest and richest living near each other. Tech companies like these three have brought tremendous wealth and notoriety to the area and have also exacerbated issues. What responsibility do these large companies have to the local area? The article mentions Steve Jobs’ claim in front of a local government that a good company is only required to pay taxes.

I suspect physical developments from these companies would be treated differently elsewhere, particularly in places that are desperate for jobs or economic energy. The case of a Google development in Toronto will offer an interesting contrast in how local residents and officials respond. Or, we see what cities are willing to offer to Amazon for a large facility.

Additionally, the idea that corporate campuses or facilities should be open to or available to the public is an interesting one to consider. There are already numerous areas that are actually private spaces that function more like public spaces (think of shopping malls or some of the urban parks that Occupy Wall Street found out were actually private land). But, it is different to ask that an office building or housing for employees also be available to the public. I wonder if there is a company that will lead the way in this and tout the benefits of having employees and the public interact as well as share their corporate benefits with others.

Apple stores are not new town squares

American communities often lack vibrant public spaces but Apple stores may not be the answer:

The stores have good vibes. Everything is clean. There are no sounds of commerce. No clanging till. No specials on an aisle. No mechanical belt sliding products toward a beeping scanner. People will tell you they like your new shoes. I love Apple Stores.

But there is one problem with calling an Apple Store an Apple “Town Square”—which the company announced it’s now doing at Tuesday’s iPhone event. Namely, the Apple Store is a store and not a town square…

And most surreally, a dominant problem for democracy at this moment is that truly public space doesn’t exist on the internet you access through your phone.

Internet platforms, as John Herrman has argued, merely masquerade as democratic spaces. But they are not. They are private, as private as an Apple Store.

This is a regular issue that pops up: private retail or office space that often functions as public space is not truly public space. If you conduct activities that are not conducive to business, whether in an Apple store, a McDonald’s, the cavernous lobby of a hotel, a shopping mall, or even a landscaped area outside a business but that it is on private land, you can be removed from that space. These private spaces that allow people of different backgrounds to gather and interact can still be very valuable – see the concept of “third places,” an idea that Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has discussed. Granted, there are restrictions on what you can do in public spaces as well but your activities are much more limited in private spaces.

Sociologists and others have asked for decades how American communities might develop more public spaces. The Internet was one space that offered new opportunities for democracy and public interaction. Alas, much of that early fervor has decreased as the Internet is dominated by major corporations and online discourse is often not very enlightening or civil.

The nuisance of Apple’s new HQ vs. it can help double your property values

This article details the complaints of neighbors of the new Apple headquarters facility in Sunnyvale yet ends with this tidbit about property values:

Some worry that the neighborhood of mostly single-story homes built in the 1950s and ’60s is living on borrowed time as long-time residents sell their homes to newcomers.

Housing values in the neighborhood have doubled since 2011, according to Art Maryon of Intero Real Estate Services. And in the first six months of 2017, 24 houses in Birdland sold on average at $1,690,350, according to Maryon.

The increase in property values mirrors what has happened in the rest of Sunnyvale, and across the Bay Area, but Birdland’s proximity to Apple Park makes it even more desirable.

“Many say we should just be happy that Apple is raising our property values,” said Birdland resident Debby MacDonald. “This doesn’t do me much good unless I plan to sell. And I am not sure what we have had to put up with and will continue to put up with is worth the money.”

This presents suburban residents with quite the dilemma: will NIMBYism or raised property values win out? Both are goals for the average suburbanite. They resist significant changes to the character of their community as this can disturb their quality of life through altered scenery, increased traffic, and a change in neighborhood activities. Ultimately, the changes may lower property values. Yet, this massive headquarters may change their neighborhood and significantly raise property values since it houses many employees and is home to one of the most desirable brands in the world.

Someone needs to make sure to follow up on this in a few years or ten years and find out how many residents are left. And even if they cash out – some because they want to and others because they have to (increased housing values can also lead to other increased costs) – those who leave might feel a real sense of loss.

Argument: Apple’s new HQ is anti-city

Build a massive new headquarters in the suburbs surrounded by artificial berms and you may just open yourself to charges that you are anti-city:

You can’t understand a building without looking at what’s around it—its site, as the architects say. From that angle, Apple’s new HQ is a retrograde, literally inward-looking building with contempt for the city where it lives and cities in general. People rightly credit Apple for defining the look and feel of the future; its computers and phones seem like science fiction. But by building a mega-headquarters straight out of the middle of the last century, Apple has exacerbated the already serious problems endemic to 21st-century suburbs like Cupertino—transportation, housing, and economics. Apple Park is an anachronism wrapped in glass, tucked into a neighborhood…

Except when you have a statement building like the Spaceship, the circuit can’t complete. If Apple ever goes out of business, what would happen to the building? The same thing that happened to Union Carbide’s. That’s why nobody builds these things anymore. Successful buildings engage with their surroundings—and to be clear, Apple isn’t in some suburban arcadia. It’s in a real live city, across the street from houses and retail, near two freeway onramps….

In the early days of the project, reports suggest Apple wasn’t willing to participate in “community benefits,” financial or otherwise, and Cupertino’s city council didn’t seem too willing to push one of the city’s biggest employers and taxpayers. The mayor at the time tried to propose higher taxes on the company, but the city council didn’t support the move.

Over time, though, Apple committed to giving the city some money to help with traffic and parking. “We had to bring them into our world. They don’t do urban design. They don’t do planning. We needed to talk to each other,” Shrivastava says…

So what could Apple have built? Something taller, with mixed-use development around it? Cupertino would never have allowed it. But putting form factor aside, the best, smartest designers and architects in the world could have tried something new. Instead it produced a building roughly the shape of a navel, and then gazed into it.

This is an interesting juxtaposition to the steady stream of stories in recent years about how tech companies and other companies hip to the changing times are moving back to cities. Why would Apple construct such a structure and do so in the suburbs? I wonder if it has to do with control and secrecy. That may refer to the technology present – a building like this keeps it away from the public – but could also refer to providing employees with few reasons to go elsewhere. Facebook tried to do something like this by providing a Main Street all sorts of amenities so employees would want to stay (or wouldn’t have to leave). If you have your technology and employees wrapped up in one massive (and impressive) structure, you can exert a level of control few companies could dream of.

I also wonder if only a few companies could get away with this today. Apple is so prestigious and wealthy that it can do lots of things differently than others – such as trying to move back to the city to attract and retain younger workers – without much loss.

Finally, the article includes a quote calling structures like these “white elephants.” Imagine in ten years that Apple decides to move to a newly constructed skyscraper/megatructure in San Francisco. How could a suburban community deal with such a building? Many suburbs have a hard enough time with a vacant grocery store building, let alone a idiosyncratic large structure like this.

Seeing the world from behind the Genius Bar

Here is a fascinating look at the world as viewed from behind the Apple Store’s Genius Bar:

When Apple employees are asked what they love most about their job (and they are asked often) most invariably answer “the people.” They mean their co-workers, not the customers.

Because the daily expectations for customer service go beyond anywhere else in retail, only those with managerial ambitions will invoke their commitment to helping people. Some thrive on that. Others get diagnosed with PTSD. Consider that the flagship store on Fifth Avenue in New York City is open 24 hours and has more annual foot traffic than Yankee Stadium, yet only one door. Every day, in every Apple Store, people flood to customer service, when what many truly need is therapy…

This is the dilemma of working for a technology company that is also perceived as a luxury brand: We attract clients who understand that we provide the latest and shiniest things that they must have, while at the same time they have no idea whatsoever how to use them. I wanted to ask Debris, “Did you ever learn about electricity and water?” but instead just recite the question over and over in my head…

I look up at the dozens of people cradling their aluminum babies. Tapping their feet, chewing their nails, licking their lips, they’re worried bad about something that matters to them. I wish Barbara the best of luck, really meaning it, and excuse myself. I unholster my iPod and call out the next customer’s name.

Is this what the modern world looks like or is this highly idiosyncratic and applicable only to Apple stores? The author oozes a sort of Marxist alienation with hints that the work is hard and dealing with people all day long is difficult (and then contrast this with stories about Apple workers in China). Would this job be considered a “good job” today or are the employees hoping for a better opportunity?

It also strikes me that we have a lack of sociological studies today from inside major corporations. Think about the major corporations of the world today – Apple, Google, Walmart, Shell, McDonalds, Disney, and on – and sociologists are stuck observing from the outside. We have to rely on books like Nickel and Dimed that give us an inside glimpse. I assume many corporations may not like such an insider study as some of the findings might reflect poorly on them, but don’t we need ethnographic and participant observation studies of corporations to understand today’s world?

Turning Apple’s brand and products into a religion

A new book lays out how Steve Jobs transformed Apple into a religion:

Jobs’ Zen master Kobun Chino told him that he “could keep in touch with his spiritual side while running a business.” So in true Zen fashion, Jobs avoided thinking of technology and spirituality in dualistic terms. But what really set him apart was his ability to educate the public about personal computing in both practical and mythic ways.

The iconography of the Apple computer company, the advertisements, and the device screens of the Macintosh, iPod, iPhone, and iPad are visual expressions of Jobs’ imaginative marriage of spiritual science and modern technology…

Technology ads provide parables and proverbs for navigating the complexities of the new technological order. They instruct the consumer on how to live the “good life” in the technological age…

Jobs embraced elliptical thinking as a means of promoting technology objects that pose their own paradoxes. In the Apple narrative, the seemingly oppositional notions of assimilation/isolation and freedom/enslavement are resolved by Apple’s invocation of enlightened paradox.

Others have also made this argument: see this 2011 post as well as this 2012 post.  Claiming a brand is like a religion could be an analysis of a secular age (this piece suggests we traded gods for technological progress and consumerism) or it could be a slam against followers who blindly follow a brand (certain brands may inspire higher levels of devotion yet not all inspiring brands are accused of inspiring religious-like followings).

Yet, beyond Apple, wouldn’t most, if not all brands, aspire to this kind of devotion? Religion implies a devoted set of followers who are willing to participate in rituals, of which the most important is buying the new product. Evangelism, telling others about the products and brand, might also be high on this list. Another key is that brand followers and users think they are participating in a transcendent experience.

Mapping wealth by locating iPhone, Android, and Blackberry owners

Check out the maps of cell phone owners in Washington, D.C., New York, Chicago, and a number of other major American cities:

Among other things, cell phone brands say something about socio-economics – it takes a lot of money to buy a new iPhone 5 (and even more money to keep up with the latest models that come out faster than plan upgrades do). Consider, then, this map of Washington, D.C., which uses geolocated tweets, and the cell phone metadata attached to them, to illustrate who in town is using iPhones (red dots) and who’s using Androids (green dots)…

That picture comes from a new series of navigable maps visualizing some three billion global, geotagged tweets sent since September of 2011, developed by Gnip, MapBox and dataviz guru Eric Fischer. They’ve converted all of that data from the Twitter firehose (this is just a small fraction of all tweets, most of which have no geolocation data) into a series of maps illustrating worldwide patterns in language and device use, as well as between people who appear to be tourists and locals in any given city.

The locals and tourists map scales up a beautiful earlier project from Fischer. You could kill a few hours playing with all of these tools, built on the same dataset. But we particularly liked looking at the geography of smart phone devices. As in Washington, above, iPhones are often more prominent in upper-income parts of cities (and central business districts), while Androids appear to be the dominant device in lower-income areas.

It sounds like there could be some methodological issues here. The data doesn’t cover all Twitter users and then Twitter users are already a small subset of the US population. Nonetheless, these are interesting maps. I saw recently that over 50% of Americans now have smartphones – it jumped from 35% to 56% in several years. But, not all cell phones cost the same or aim for the same markets. iPhones aren’t just expensive. They also have a certain aesthetic and set of features that appeals to a certain set of Americans. Samsung had a set of recent commercials that played off the cool factor of iPhones, raising the idea of the phone as (expired?) status symbol. If you asked smartphone owners why they chose the phone they did, how many would admit that the status of the phone significantly factored into their decision?

More broadly, it would be interesting to think about what other common consumer goods could be mapped in ways that show clear patterns.