Once upon a time most manufacturing was based on stuff that came out of the ground: trees, coal, metals. Inconveniently, those resources don’t tend to be found near settled areas.

Companies looking to extract, refine, and sell these resources needed a workforce in these remote areas. They needed somewhere to put that workforce, and some way to feed, clothe and house them.

In the wilds of British Columbia or Pennsylvania, it was difficult to get people and supplies in and out. Once production was in full swing, you also didn’t want your labour force leaving.

Enter the company town.

Company towns have existed all over the world, from those built around paper mills in Finland to diamond mines in Namibia. Typically, as noted, these places were built up in isolated areas, and needed to be fairly self-sustaining.

Those who live in the towns work for the main industry: mining, smelting, cutting lumber or milling paper, etc. Or they are support workers: town services, retail, etc.

Pretty much everything is hired/paid for/owned by the parent company, from the land and resource industry (e.g. gold mine) to the shops in town, to the local doctor or preacher.

As a result, the workforce didn’t even “need” money. They couldn’t really go anywhere that money was required without leaving their jobs and homes entirely. It was common in company towns for the workforce to be paid in “scrip”.

Scrip was a form of localized currency, which, of course, could only be redeemed in the town’s shops, saloons, and such. Since the company owned all of those, wages paid out flowed right back into corporate coffers.

Workers had few to no other options, or avenues of leaving, since they lacked ready cash. (And many of these employers were hardly above strong-arm tactics.)

Company towns were also based around concepts of paternalism. That middle and upper class corporate overlords knew what was best for the working class, and could shape their lives for the better.

Now, the corporate overlords never had any intention of letting workers actually climb the social or economic ladder — perish the thought. They just wanted to keep them quiet, let them aspire, and polish them up a bit.

That is a very brief and limited overview, but you get the idea. So why do I bring it up?

Because it’s happening again.

Facebook wants to build a village.

Across the street from Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park is 56 acres of prime Silicon Valley real estate, which, over 10 years, the company wants to transform with “housing, retail stores, a hotel and more.” So basically like every urban mixed-use development these days.

For the most part, the housing will be aimed at Facebook employees, but lest you fear this place become some kind of elitist tech bubble land, “the housing will be a mix of market rate and affordable housing units, with 225 units, or 15%, priced below market rate.”

Given what “market rate” means in the Valley, under that definition of “affordable” there are likely Saudi oil magnates who wouldn’t be able to afford those sub-market rate units.

If you watch the accompanying video in the article above, it’s clear they want you to believe that their goal with this development is to integrate the Facebook campus into the community. To connect neighbours and build … connections.

I’m sure lower-income families will love living amongst Facebookers, and taking advantage of that transit build-out to get their kids to daycares that they can actually afford and shop at grocery stores where their weekly budget buys more than a single bunch of organic kale.

There’s a bit of a twist on paternalism, since one presumes the Facebookers won’t be the aspirational ones, but their lower-income neighbours will be. Not to mention being the engine that keeps Facebookville running. At least they’ll never have an excuse for being late for work!

The campuses of these Silicon Valley behemoths have never been designed for movement, exploration, or interconnection. They’re designed to get you to come to work and stay there, working. Forever.

If, for some silly reason, you do want to go home at some point, there are private shuttles with blacked out windows, air conditioning, and wifi to prevent you from having to “connect” with anyone between campus and your front door.

Facebook’s “village” is no different. Now you don’t have to take a shuttle home because you will literally live at work. You will be bamboozled into feeling like you’ve achieved work-life balance because you’re having coffee with a friend or hitting the gym. But work is right there, literally across the street.

Welcome to Panopticonville!

Google has taken over quite a chunk of real estate throughout the Mountain View area, so it wouldn’t surprise me if they followed suit in the future.

Apple already built their new $5 billion space doughnut headquarters in Cupertino. Sounds like it’s real swanky. And also designed to be completely isolating.

Microsoft? Well, they’re old school. I don’t see them trying to keep up with the Joneses. I hear they even sometimes make their employees feed themselves.

They say those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it. Spoiler alert: company towns aren’t really a thing anymore, or at least not like their original incarnations. Times change, industries change, and not surprisingly, over time people don’t actually enjoy having corporate overlords dictating their entire lives.

I am all for an attempt to build a community that promotes walkability, urban density and people getting to know their neighbours. But when it’s designed by people whose jobs are already centered on influencing our lives, actions, and buying patterns, alarm bells sound in my head.

Go watch the video in that article. Then try to tell me you’re not a bit creeped out. If you’re not, well, there should be a really cool neighbourhood for you to move into in a couple of years …

Photo: Calico Ghost Town (Overlook) by Justin Ennis, is licensed under CC BY 2.0

M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached @melle or me@melle.ca.

About The Author

Melanie Baker

M-Theory is a guest column by Melanie Baker, who is a big fan of building communities and working with geeks. She spends her days fixing the internets (in a way), writing, chasing her puppy, and creating fanciful beasts out of socks.