Downtown Mountain View is covered in them. Walk up the Stevens Creek Trail and you’ll probably notice at least three. Heck, according to the Wall Street Journal, they’ve ended up as far as the Burning Man festival in Nevada.
I’m talking about a Silicon Valley product, but certainly not the one you’d expect. In addition to the 700 million iPhones in circulation, about 1,000 colorful Google Bikes, known as G-bikes, have made their way around Silicon Valley and beyond, according to Fortune.
Google originally produced these bikes and stationed them around Mountain View as a way for their workers to get around, but the approximately 80,000 denizens of the city have taken to using them as well. In the previously cited Wall Street Journal article, one woman spoke about how she and many others use the bikes as a way to commute or simply ride around the city.
On the surface, there’s little reason for Google to do this (in fact, the company is beginning to try and crack down on non-employees who use the bikes). But at the same time, philanthropic actions to host communities by tech companies are increasingly becoming not a boon for the cities or their residents, but for the companies themselves.
In fact, companies have begun to use their mere presence as a way to manipulate hosts in a variety of way. Apple’s humongous new campus in Cupertino, just down Homestead Road, was granted to the company in order to keep it in the city, not necessarily because it would be beneficial to the populace, according to Wired.
This sets a dangerous precedent for the communities in which tech companies reside, especially South Bay cities where the economy is almost exclusively based off the industry. City councils are bending the wills of their communities and giving excessive amounts of power and land to communities, allowing them free reign over entire swaths of municipality.
Such an arrangement isn’t freedom; it’s feudalism, not much different from the kind practiced centuries ago in medieval Europe.
Beyond the G-bikes in Mountain View, Google also has control over an entire district of the city: North Bayshore, wedged between the San Francisco Bay itself and U.S. Highway 101. According to the San Jose Mercury News, Google has plans and permission to build 10,000 homes in the area for its employees.
Short-term, this arrangement seems wonderful, for all three parties involved: the city, the company and its workers. But as time drags on, Google gradually begins to benefit more and more, while the city and employees become less their own parties and instead subjects of the company.
Housing prices will initially drop for Google employees, but nothing will be done to help other struggling families in the area, who don’t work in tech. In fact, simply by giving Google the land to develop, Mountain View has already diverted resources that could otherwise be spent on low-income housing.
And while Google employees no longer have to live in trucks, they’ve become even more dependent on the company than they already have been, between the housing, food and services they receive for free in exchange for their job. They are Google’s serfs by choice, but, as the company continues to expand, will see their wages drop and eventually become corporate slaves.
In that scenario — albeit the unlikely, worst-case one — current Google employees are the lucky ones. As cities begin to relinquish more control over to tech firms, low-income people and public employees will suddenly find their futures in the hands of private companies rather than the government. Google provides welfare benefits, Google pays you very limited wages in exchange for housing and food, public schools become Google schools.
There’s nothing — government regulations-wise — to stop Google from doing this in Mountain View, or Apple in Cupertino, or Amazon in Seattle. And as long as corporations can buy politicians with donations, there’s very little incentive for government officials to stop it.
The end scenario is that the U.S. becomes the U.C.: United Corporations of America. The average person will wake up every morning in corporate housing, eat three corporate-provided meals a day, use corporate transportation to get to their corporate job and, as payment, receive a certain amount of corporate credit that ultimately goes straight back into the system when they buy breakfast the next morning.
People will become serfs. Bosses will become nobles. CEOs will become kings. The only people this future is enviable for are all in latter groups. The majority will be cogs in a machine.
Thankfully, that’s all the worst case scenario, and quite an unlikely one as well. But it would greatly behoove the more vulnerable citizens of the Silicon Valley, and the rest of America by extension, to ensure certain safeguards are in place to prevent this for occuring.
More affordable housing needs to be built and regulated by cities, not private companies with their own interests. Government regulations allowing smaller companies a chance to compete need to be put in place. And most importantly, local politicians must learn ways to balance satisfying the business community and protecting the citizens of the municipality.
WIth these actions, cities and business in the South Bay can thrive in harmony for years to come. Otherwise, we’ll be bowing at the feet of His Majesties Sundar Pichai and Tim Cook. Here’s hoping that they at least let us keep riding the G-bikes.
Follow Thomas Denome on Twitter at @thomas_denome