WeWork and Google offices are a lot like exploitative company towns of the past

The New York Times called one of WeWork’s planned offices “the kind of place you never have to leave.”
The New York Times called one of WeWork’s planned offices “the kind of place you never have to leave.”
Image: Wework
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At VideoAmp, a software and data platform, CEO Rory McCray “encourages an environment where his employees practically live at the office,” the BBC reported in February 2017. Personal trainers, yoga instruction, meals, and games are all provided at the Santa Monica office, and employees come in early, get “addicted to productivity” and often stay late.

Meanwhile, WeWork, a startup that leases co-working and office space, is involved in renovating Dock 72, a massive 675,000-square-foot building located in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard. And Dock 72, which boasts amenities that include organic food, conference rooms, and fitness centers—not to mention the promise of serendipitous encounters with other extroverted entrepreneurs—could be, according to the New York Times, “the kind of place you never have to leave.”

While these attempts at packing workspaces with everything a worker might need to live seem novel, they actually have a direct, and rather shadowy, historical parallel. Unbeknownst to them, VideoAmp, WeWork, and many more prominent tech companies such as Google and Facebook are drawing on a model that, up through the early parts of the 20th century, was a social experiment implemented at coal mines, textile mills, steel plants, and even chocolate factories: the company town.

The company town as corporate model

A product largely of industrialization in the 18th and 19th centuries and, in some cases, stretching into the middle part of the 20th century, the company town began as a social experiment. Could a company, centered on a single industry such as mining, textiles, or steel, create and own a town where workers would live and work for many, many years—perhaps from cradle to grave? Could it engulf them? Whereas in The Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels called for “workers of the world” to “unite,” here were places constructed entirely according to owners’ greedy or benevolent imaginations.

Most company towns shared the following characteristics: a relatively large workforce that was required to live in close proximity to the mill, mine, steel plant, factory, or oil camp (this was, in many instances, before highways and automobiles made long-distance travel much easier); company-owned land surrounding the factory, mill, plant, etc.; housing provided as part of worker pay that, in a good number of cases, was owned by the company; a company store whose prices tended to be well above those of the market, had such competition been permitted; and owners and managers who exerted political power to enforce strict policies about moral behavior and proper conduct.

According to the historian Hardy Green in The Company Town: The Industrial Edens and Satanic Mills That Shaped the American Economy, company towns fell somewhere on a spectrum between overt exploitation (what he calls “Exploitationville”) and moonshot ideals (in his words, “Utopias”). Many coal mining company towns soon became Exploitationvilles. For example, the grim reality of coal miners’ lives in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky was poignantly sung in 1955 by Tennessee Ernie Ford in “16 Tons”:

You load sixteen tons, what do you get?

Another day older and deeper in debt

Saint Peter, don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go

I owe my soul to the company store

Tragically does the final line allude to the debt peonage that many coal miners fell into and would never—because there were no Debt Jubilees—be released from as their wages continued to fail to cover their cost of living and as prices for staples at company stores kept proving onerous. In sum, Hardy relates that such Exploitationvilles were designed to “reconcile workers to lives of nearly ceaseless, low-paid toil.”

Yet quite apart from Exploitationvilles, there also existed Utopias based on a combination of Christian teachings and benevolent paternalism. Founded in the early years of the 1900s, Milton Hershey’s town of Hershey, Pennsylvania, is perhaps the most prominent, and still existing, example. There in rural Pennsylvania, the wholesomeness of country life was combined with care for employees through decent accommodations, good wages, and good schools to make for a better life for Hershey’s employees. Still, from the very beginning this was corporate welfare and benevolent paternalism at work as freedoms, political and otherwise, were exchanged for financial security.

Despite appearances, modern companies like WeWork, VideoAmp, and Google are taking pages out of the company town playbook. From a purely formal point of view, amenity-filled modern companies resemble what Green calls the “Satanic mills” and “industrial Edens” of company towns in that they are built on four main pillars that will be erected time and again as we move from the manufacturing age to that of knowledge work:

  • Centrality: Company towns made work central as well as extremely demanding in order to extract as much productive work as possible out of its workers.
  • Enclosure: They effectively closed off the perimeters such that the outside world was not made readily available to workers.
  • Insularity: They sought to keep workers inside the town by ensuring that their material and social needs were met—whether poorly or well.
  • Completeness: They presented themselves as so complete that workers would, in principle, have no reason to feel that something significant was missing in their lives.

To see the otherwise invisible influence of the company town model on the lives of white-collar professionals, we can follow a brief history of the office building, turning first to the birth of skyscraper and then, more recently, to that of the corporate campus.

The skyscraper as miniature work city

Uncanny parallels with the company town can be discerned in the invention and use of the white-collar skyscraper. On this score, journalist Nikil Saval, in Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, writes:

When looking for entertainment, Chicago office workers [of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century] rarely even had to leave their buildings. Roof gardens were available on several buildings, and in the warmer months they hosted theatrical productions, concerts, and vaudeville shows. Barbershops, newsstands, banking services, dry cleaners and tailors, doctors’ and dentists’ offices, libraries, restaurants, recreation rooms—all of these were available in the best of the Chicago office buildings, aspects that assiduous architects and building managers emulated all over the country. Some buildings became miniature cities; it was nearly possible for some office workers to avoid city life altogether.

Even though the oppressive features of Exploitionville were gone, still present were the fundamental features of centrality, enclosure, insularity, and completeness as some buildings became “miniature cities” and epicenters of work. Conceivably, a midcentury typist might have, for all intents and purposes, come to see this little world as the world.

The corporate campus as Pleasantville

Many tech firms today find the office modeled on the college campus more attractive than the skyscraper, a symbol of financial prowess and business as usual. Yet might these campuses too bear the outlines of company towns?

After World War II and especially during the height of the Cold War, the skyscraper became less popular for some corporations involved in industrial research and was thus supplanted by a new model for the corporate office. Around this time, corporations began to flee the urban center for the suburban periphery. What pulled them into the suburbs was, according to landscape architect and scholar Louis Mozingo, “the pastoral ideal,” an ideal evocative of “a familiar, tranquil, and cultivated nature as a counterpart to the city,” with its industrial ugliness and association with crime. The calming effects of the pastoral was thought to be beneficial on the mental states and productive capacities of intellectual workers.

Mozingo argues further that three related corporate office models sprang forth during this time: the corporate estate (buildings, like estates, set back from the road or highway and nestled within a grand, rolling pastoral setting), the corporate campus (which was modeled on the American university campus), and the corporate office park (a cluster of offices framed, say, by manicured lawns and a man-made pond).

Which brings us to the Googleplex, a corporate campus redesigned in 2004 by Clive Wilkinson Architects. Wilkinson argued against cubicles and for an open design, pointing to the “massive impact that an environment can have on productivity and effectiveness.” The Googleplex, which is close to Palo Alto, was explicitly modeled on the university campus:

A primary vision was to merge the idea of workplace with the experiences found in an educational environment into a new way of working and maintenance of an edge. The reasoning for this was the idea that within the loosely structured university system, there are resources available to allow the individual to conceive, investigate, and execute the impossible—and that is how Google was originally conceived.

At the Googleplex, amenities include free food, a fitness center, in some cases free public transportation, and massage therapists on hand. When visiting the corporate campus, Saval, the author of Cubed, suggests that it “is meant to be a self-contained universe” reminiscent not just of the vibrant intellectual world of Stanford but also of the small town, with its Main Street splitting off into various neighborhoods.

Still, very much in evidence in Pleasantville are the features of centrality, enclosure, insularity, and completeness. Just as the Hershey employee saw his whole life orbit around the Hershey factory and just as the midcentury Chicagoan secretary’s days revolved around the downtown skyscraper, so the Googler sees her life passing by in sunny Mountain View as she bikes around the well-manicured Googleplex.

And if we rejected all this?

The company town is not, of course, the high-end skyscraper or the pastorally-shaped corporate campus, yet it does provide us with functional analogies and with ways of considering how history still influences what seems like something utterly new. What has changed is that the painful toil of physical labor has been superseded, at least in the best cases, by the creative power of intellectual work. Moreover, the subhuman working conditions of the coal mine can be contrasted with the incredible amenities afforded employees at top firms. Great aversions, in short, have gone away and in their places have come objects of desire.

And yet, what remains firmly in place is the keystone formal structure: the ways that people’s energies get corralled and channeled so they can be poured single-mindedly and obsessively into work; the lack of experiential awareness that there exists a “blooming, buzzing” life (to borrow some adjectives from William James) outside of the financial or tech industries; the sense of living in a bubble, with its insular rules, stratagems for career advancement, and status games; and the feeling that everything significant is happening right here. In all this, what has remained, therefore, is a very powerful idea: the microtopia of total work, where work makes itself into the be-all and end-all of human existence.

To reject all this, then, means challenging the four features I’ve been discussing throughout—namely, centrality, enclosure, insularity, and completeness. Suppose that work were important inasmuch as it provided us with our livelihoods yet, for all that, remained peripheral to human flourishing; suppose that work were honestly incomplete when set within the generous scope of a well-led life; that where, how, and when we work were less rigid and more flexible and fluid; and that we were encouraged not to become insular in our habits and opinions but to be radically open to more diverse viewpoints. Such a vision would not exhibit the perils of the gig economy but would name the starting points for a genuinely humane future of work.