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Tech companies are structured like wealthy socialist states

REUTERS/Mark Blinch
The office putting green.
  • Chelsea Johnson
By Chelsea Johnson

Contributor

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Four weeks ago, I relocated from Los Angeles to a gorgeous one-bedroom apartment in Silicon Valley to begin a summer internship as a user experience researcher. When I saw the stainless-steel appliances, private balcony, and in-unit washer and dryer, I immediately called my parents and told them I had “made it.” This apartment, provided by my new employer, is the nicest I have had in my adult life—so nice that I could not help looking up its price tag. During the academic year, I work as a graduate teaching assistant to make my half of the rent on an apartment I split with my partner. The market value of my corporate housing—around $3800 per month—is several hundred dollars more than I’ve ever earned in a month and almost triple the cost of my rent in LA.

The perks at my job seem endless. Typical of most established Silicon Valley corporations, my employer provides multiple forms of free transportation, excellent healthcare options, a full schedule of daily fitness classes, masseuses on site, heated toilet seats, and meditation rooms. Not to mention the food. Oh, the food! I’ve been able to maintain a vegetarian diet for the first time and have never eaten so well in my life. I have also taken to Instagramming my daily delicious gourmet desserts. My appreciation for the vegan coconut almond allspice hibiscus cake I had on Monday was visceral and revelatory. I did not know life could be this sweet. 

Now that my physical and emotional needs are consistently being met, I have more time to spend thinking about ideas rather than survival. My afternoons are spent strategizing how to best use my skills in race, class, and gender research to influence product design, alongside a passionate, productive, and supportive team. Because work-life balance is taken seriously at my job, I relish in the ability to reflect upon my new life after work each day. I sit on my balcony and wonder, am I living in some sort of corporate-sponsored welfare utopia?

Even as I enjoy the free desserts, I can’t help but think that tech companies are structured like extremely wealthy socialist states, where a central governing body of executives determines and delivers services to employee-citizens.

I’m all for socialism, but this corporate version is currently nowhere near equitable.  Women and people of color are often paid less and promoted less, if and when they’re hired and retained as “citizens” at all. Moreover, the social systems at big tech companies tend to eclipse and exclude existing communities in the Bay Area, hence the anti-tech protest earlier this month that repurposed electric scooters to blockade a dozen commuter buses shuttling Google, Facebook, and Apple employees from their homes in San Francisco to their offices in Silicon Valley.

The difference between life inside and outside of big tech is particularly apparent and startling to me as someone who hopes to transition from academia into the corporate world when I graduate with my PhD next spring. I oscillate between gratitude for and guilt over the privileges I’m enjoying this summer.

While I was ramping up at work, my friend, a filmmaker, was kicked out of her home in Berkeley along with five queer housemates of color, also artists, so that their landlord could make room for higher-paying tenants. Established techies are also struggling. Zoning laws from the 1950s constrain development in places like Mountain View, Sunnyvale, and San Jose, preventing housing supply from keeping up with growing demand. I recently overheard a group of people who make six figure salaries deliberating whether they could afford to purchase a mobile home. With Google’s plan to build an expansive village in San Jose, the Bay Area is poised to get denser and more expensive in the coming years. The clear majority of people in Silicon Valley are unable to accumulate wealth and will continue to lose without significant structural changes.

Not only do my coworkers and I deserve security, but so do my friends facing eviction, my colleagues in academia, my entrepreneur boyfriend who’s bootstrapping three social projects, the homeless throughout SF, my family in the South. 

The sociologist in me can’t help but imagine what will happen if the Bay Area remains on this trajectory: Big tech companies will further transform into exclusionary quasi-states, with employees living in municipalities essentially owned and governed by corporations. Techies and their nuclear families will live, work, eat, and play on corporate campuses, guarded by contracted physical security guards tasked to keep away the un-and-differently employed. Life might be pleasant for the privileged few, but rich culture and community will be hard to foster as neighbor-colleagues cycle in and out chasing better perks and prestige.

If we want a to ensure a more equitable, just, and humane future, we must spend time collectively imagining alternative economic, political, and urban planning policies. What if big tech invested in developing great public schools, public transit, and affordable housing—perks that their employees and surrounding communities could benefit from? What if employers valued health, education, manufacturing and service workers equally to executives and those in STEM by extending full privileges to contingent workers throughout the supply chain? What if company policies allowed employees to share benefits beyond the nuclear family so that broader communities have access to adequate healthcare and nutritious food? What if powerful corporations institutionalized support for creatives, and not just (or especially not) those whose work serves the bottom line?

Or, what if we start a revolution? The tech elite has already demonstrated that they understand some values of socialist policies—maybe they’ll join in.

Chelsea Johnson is a User Experience Researcher and a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Southern California.

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